Video Clouds ANWR Debate

The pictures are all over the airwaves and plastered on Internet news sites. Herds of caribou grazing peacefully on the mountainsides of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). 

It's an idyllic scene perfect for illustrating stories about the refuge, one provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Because the debate over whether to open ANWR to oil drilling is prime time news, the video is getting plenty of airtime these days.

But proponents of ANWR drilling say the video is misleading. It does not show the portion of the refuge in which drilling would actually occur — an area equivalent to Washington D.C.'s Dulles International Airport in the space the size of South Carolina — and paints too idyllic a picture of a refuge that's covered with ice nine months of the year and usually has no caribou in sight.

"The media very seldom shows it in its true light, and they don't show the dimension of the area," said Senator Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee and the most vocal supporter of drilling. "I think that the American public are entitled to some of the more rounded realistic exhibits of what it looks like."

Even opponents of the drilling plan, who contend opening ANWR will wreak environmental havoc and harm the polar bear, caribou and other animals in the area, are complaining about the imagery used. They say it's not idyllic enough.

"I would defy anyone to go find other places, perhaps other than the African Serengeti, that can compare with it," said Robert Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "So to show it when the animals don't happen to be there is simply ludicrous and is very misleading to the public."

Some media critics say the same pictures keep showing up because television is an emotional medium and animals appeal to people's sensitivities. They also point out that it's logistically difficult to send a television crew to Alaska to get firsthand shots, so instead the media rely on video taken and released by the Fish and Wildlife Service years ago to illustrate their stories.

"This is a case of the sled driving the dogs, the pictures drive the story, instead of the other way around," said Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Despite his comments about the misleading video, even Murkowski has used video footage of animals grazing on the ANWR coastal plains to help bolster his argument that they could co-exist peacefully with drilling operations.

Murkowski's efforts may be in vain, though. President Bush seems to be backing off his push for legislation to drill where caribou may, or may not, roam.