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April 6, 2001

NBC President Lobbies City to Block G.E. Dredging Bill


GE board vice chairman and NBC president
Robert C. Wright led a five-man lobbying
team that met privately last week with
City Council members.
To contact Mr. Wright,  Click Here!
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 see you." 

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.

To contact Mr. Robert C. Wright, Click Here!

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