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Why didn’t the local media cover biodiesel’s exoneration?

In the wake of last month’s Bloomington school shutdown, we fanned the flames of plant-fuel hate — then stopped paying attention as evidence of innocence piled up.
By David Brauer

As mentioned in Wednesday’s Daily Glean, the Strib wrote a very solid editorial noting biodiesel wasn’t to blame for a highly publicized Jan. 16 Bloomington school shutdown. Writer Jill Burcum — noting this was a diesel problem, not biodiesel problem — included this entertaining potshot:

The too-quick-on-the-draw mechanical diagnosis? Biofuel that gelled up in the cold. Fox TV commentator Glenn Beck didn’t call Minnesotans bio-fools, but he came darn close, holding up the state’s first-in-the-nation biodiesel mandate as evidence of how government screws things up.

“Lawmakers put children’s safety at stake because they don’t want their buses to run on a politically incorrect kind of fuel,” opined the bombastic Beck last Friday.

Now, Beck is an acknowledged ass, but I couldn’t help wondering if Burcum’s own paper — and the rest of us who made hay of the biodiesel brouhaha — were also at fault. After all, none of us stuck around the story long enough to cover a Jan. 22 report that seems to clear the plant fuel.

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The Strib ignited the firestorm with a Jan. 16 scoop, but I can’t find much fault with the original piece. It was a bit of breaking news, relying on a single, though knowledgeable source: Bloomington spokesman Rick Kaufman, who specifically blamed biodiesel for the schools shutdown.

The concept of a “biodiesel day” off got the media firing on all cylinders. Referencing Strib piece in that day’s Glean, I snarked, “Cold temps gum up school buses’ alternative fuel. Below minus-10 is a problem, but that never happens in Minnesota.” Politics in Minnesota’s Sarah Janecek issued an biting “I told you so.” The Associated Press picked up on the tale, sending it national.

Journalism is history in a hurry, so it’s unfair to expect all facts to emerge on Day One. By the evening of Jan. 16, WCCO and the Strib posted follow-up stories referencing state Commerce Department skepticism about biodiesel’s blame, though both underplayed the doubts. KSTP did a little better, highlighting Commerce’s dissent in a Jan. 17 piece.

But from there, as they say, the media trial went cold.

At best, the public was left with a he-said, they-said story, even though evidence was piling up on biodiesel’s side. Beck, of course, needs no excuse for summary judgment, but given how we all fanned flames, the local media had a duty to stay on this. Fortunately, Burcum covered our butts three weeks later, even if she parceled blame a bit too narrowly.

The story isn’t necessarily “case closed.” As Burcum notes, the exculpatory report was written under the auspices of a biodiesel consultant hired by the fuel supplier, and I’m told Bloomington’s Kaufman still insists plant matter was the problem so there’s some turf protecting. Still the report and genuinely independent experts make a convincing common-sense case the biodiesel blame was overwrought. Next time, let’s simply call it a “diesel day off.”