April 6, 2001
NBC President Lobbies City to Block G.E. Dredging Bill
By ERIC LIPTON
board vice chairman and NBC president
Robert C. Wright led a five-man lobbying
team that met privately last week with
City Council members.
Mr. Wright, Click
eneral Electric Corporation's battle
against a federally required, half-billion-dollar cleanup of the Hudson
River in upstate New York has extended into City Hall, with the visit of
the president of the company's NBC television network to lobby personally
against the plan.
The president, Robert C. Wright, the top executive at NBC and vice chairman
of the General Electric corporate board, led a five-member lobbying team
that met privately last week with City Council members and their assistants
to argue against a bill that endorses the dredging project.
The Council bill calls the cleanup project "long overdue." Although
the dredging would occur in an area north of Albany, the resolution notes
that the pollution's effect reaches the southern tip of Manhattan.
Mr. Wright and his colleagues contended that removing 2.65 million cubic
yards of river bottom, estimated to hold 100,000 pounds of toxic PCB's,
would be harmful because the process would stir up the contaminants that
otherwise would remain buried. They also challenged suggestions that PCB's
cause cancer in humans, participants in the meetings said. The chemicals,
polychlorinated biphenyls, were legally dumped into the river by General
Electric factories for 30 years.
"It struck me as very unusual," said Councilman A. Gifford Miller, a
Manhattan Democrat and cosponsor of the bill. "As a City Council member,
it is not often the chief executive officer of a major network comes to
The visit was just one aspect of the company's statewide public relations
efforts, estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars, to fight a five-year
cleanup proposed by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. Final
action on the proposal would not occur until after a public comment period
ends April 17.
Last night, General Electric, based in Fairfield, Conn., sponsored a
half-hour commercial on four upstate television stations. Its opposition
to dredging is also advertised on billboards, the radio and the Internet
and in buses and newspapers.
Company officials said yesterday that Mr. Wright participated in the
City Council meetings because of NBC's presence in the city and his senior
status on the General Electric board.
"NBC is based in Manhattan; NBC is a constituent of New York City,"
said Joan Gerhardt, a General Electric spokeswoman. "So it is appropriate
that he represented G.E. at this meeting."
But Representative Maurice D. Hinchey, a dredging project supporter,
said Mr. Wright should not have lobbied the city.
"He is president of NBC, NBC is a major news outlet and very influential
politically," said Mr. Hinchey, a Democrat. "This is a crystal-clear conflict
of interest and an outrageous breach of propriety on behalf of the General
Electric Corporation and NBC."
Mr. Wright's views on the matter have not influenced the coverage of
the story by NBC's news divisions, Ms. Gerhardt said. Since 1997, "NBC
Nightly News," "Today" and CNBC have presented at least eight segments
on the dredging, most of them including both supporters and opponents of
the plan, which has been under consideration for a decade.
Two journalism ethics experts -- Tom Goldstein, the dean of Columbia
University Graduate School of Journalism, and Alex S. Jones, the director
of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
at Harvard University -- said yesterday that Mr. Wright's presence did
not appear to present an ethical conflict for NBC's news divisions.
"It's no different than The New York Times, The New York Post or any
other news organization seeking tax relief from the city," Mr. Goldstein
said. "He comes as a corporate citizen."
The G.E. officials -- Mr. Wright, Stephen D. Ramsey, the corporation's
vice president for environmental programs; and Nancy Ward, the corporation's
regional manager -- held two private meetings last Wednesday, one with
Mr. Miller and Councilman Stanley E. Michels, and a second with John Banks,
the chief of staff for Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone. The corporation's
lobbyist from Albany, James McMahon, also sat in on the meetings, as did
Thomas L. McMahon, his brother.