Clam Media by C.W. Wolff

Clam Media By C.W. Wolff

 “What’s a nuke?”

 “What’s a nuke?” was a common question in 1976 when “No Nukes!” bumper stickers began appearing in New Hampshire. By 1978 — thanks largely to the Clamshell Alliance and the media focus it generated — most people knew what nukes were, not only in New England, but across the nation.

 The struggle against construction of nuclear power plants, including the one planned for Seabrook, NH, did not begin — or end — with the Clamshell Alliance. But in June of 1976 when the Seabrook project got its construction permit, atomic power had not yet hit the general radar screen of public attention.

 From the beginning, Clamshell organizers knew that how we were perceived — as an organization and as individuals — would affect the way the public perceived nuclear energy. And most of us knew the media would play a role in shaping those perceptions.

 So we took care to provide reliable information, including detailed media packets and professionally written news releases with facts, attribution, names and telephone numbers. We worried about whether we were courting communist-baiting by having the 1977 occupation so close to May Day. We encouraged reporters to interview Clam supporters who were middle-class, middle-aged New Hampshire homeowners.

 A bedrock Clamshell priority was to support Seacoast communities whose town votes against the plant had repeatedly been ignored. The Seabrook nuclear plant was a local issue and the Clamshell presented it as such. We avoided the type of angry rhetoric, secrecy, and suspicion that shaped the later years of the protests against the Vietnam War, something many of us knew firsthand.

 Building trust

 Even so, it isn’t easy to pursue mass civil disobedience without offending someone. It helped to start with a consciously “local” protest — the 18 people arrested in the Clam’s first occupation, Aug. 1, 1976, were all New Hampshire residents. Also easing people’s fears were widely publicized nonviolence training required of all occupiers and behavior guidelines that banned weapons, drugs, alcohol or property damage. Clam’s lack of duplicity also built trust with the public, police and media:  we said publicly what we planned to do and we did it.

The Clam was a good story. Our goal was clear and immediate. Our rallies, marches and, especially site occupations, made good copy. Clam culture, including logos, posters, slogans, buttons, T-shirts, songs, affinity groups and nonviolence, was spirited, colorful and welcoming.

 We also were accessible — by phone, mail or in person. (This was before the days of cell phones, fax machines and personal computers. Our news releases were typed, then mimeographed, folded, put in envelops and mailed.) All Clams were encouraged to talk with the media, especially their hometown media, and workshops at conferences and a section of the occupier’s handbook were dedicated to how to write news releases and other tips on dealing with the press.

Reporters’ confusion about not being able to talk to “the president” of the Clam eventually lessened as they realized they could get reliable and prompt answers to their questions even without a president.

“The socialists were there…”

Meanwhile, The Manchester Union-Leader, the state’s largest, most powerful and most conservative newspaper, launched a relentless “Red Tide” campaign, trying to paint the Clamshell Alliance as a communist and terrorist organization. Rather than fuming about the paper’s hysteria and half-truths, we found creative ways to respond.

For example, Union-Leader coverage of one Clamshell rally included front page cutlines under three photos:  “The sodomites were there … The socialists were there… And so was Dick Gregory.” (Gregory was a popular and liberal comedian). A Manchester, NH, singer-songwriter and Clam member took that phrase and made it into a satirical song we enjoyed singing for years.

Not long before the 1977 occupation, the Union-Leader, citing unnamed state police sources, reported that Clamshell members were prepared “to die on the site.” We requested a meeting with the governor to ask if the state knew who these wanna-be martyrs were. Of course the governor had no answer, but he did agreed to cease any more inflammatory rhetoric until after the occupation. News reports of that meeting probably did more than any Clam denial could have to defuse state-initiated fears of the occupation.

The Public Service Co., like most utilities at the time, was unused to dealing with controversy outside of grumblings about rate hikes. It chose an alarmist approach. “If you want to continue to bathe, cook, keep warm and turn on lights… you need Seabrook!” read one of its ads. It set up a pro-nuclear “grassroots” organization and offered people a day off and a free lunch to attend pro-nuclear rallies. Its approach was outlined in an article written by one of its officers:   “Counter the activists not with facts, but with closed factory gates, empty schools, cold and dark homes and sad children.” (Public Relations Society of America journal, Oct., 1977)

Unfortunately, despite a growing number of anti-nuclear, pro-Clam letters to the editor in newspapers (as well as a growing number of letters on the opposite side), editorial pages failed to offer much opposition to the Seabrook project or nuclear power in general. We lacked sophistication in seeking such support, not that we would have gotten it. But at least we could have requested some sit-down meetings with editorial writers. 

Building the myth

Media attention grew steadily, spiking with the 1977 site occupation which involved at least 2,000 people from more than 30 states. But that attention would have disappeared in a couple of days without the decision by New Hampshire Gov. Meldrim Thomson and Atty. Gen. David Souter (later named to the U.S. Supreme Court) to hold the majority of the 1,414 people arrested for almost two weeks in National Guard armories.

That incarceration kept the story in the news, giving it a chance to “set.” While most of the national media — and a lot of the local media as well — went home, John Kiefner of The New York Times, who recognized the importance of the story, stayed in the New Hampshire Seacoast, filing stories until everyone was released May 13.

The sustained story also created a mythology around the Clamshell, sparking increased interest in anti-nuclear activism, the creation of similar alliances around the nation and a wildfire desire to be arrested at Seabrook in the planned 1978 occupation.

Beginning in early 1978, media calls poured into the Clam’s downtown Portsmouth, NH, office, even though the occupation wasn’t scheduled until June 24. The Associated Press set aside a special budget to cover the occupation. We received calls from European media and TV crews from Germany and the United Kingdom showed up in the office. The attention was overwhelming. Interest in occupying also was overwhelming. We began to talk quietly of the possibility that numbers might top 10,000.

Just weeks before the 1978 occupation, the state replaced its shrill “the-sky-is-falling” reaction to the Clamshell Alliance with what appeared to be a generous, proposal —

inviting the Clamshell to hold a “legal occupation” on the Seabrook site and then go home. Atty. Gen. Tom Rath, who engineered the proposal, its timing and how it was presented to the media (before being presented to the Clam), knew it would throw the Clam into internal chaos. If accepted, it would deflate our momentum; if refused, it would deflate our good public image.

The Clamshell responded initially — and painfully — by saying we would accept the offer under a long list of conditions, including immediate suspension of construction. In other words, as the media saw it, we rejected the proposal. A couple of weeks later, facing the withdrawal of local support for the occupation (specifically a loss of promised land for occupiers to camp on the night before), that decision was reversed and the Rath proposal was accepted.

The media was disappointed. An angry Chicago Tribune reporter, with a gas mask attached to her belt, confronted me at a June 23 news conference:  “You mean I came all this way for a rally? I might as well go to the beach.” I don’t know if she did or not, but other reporters came to the legal occupation on the site, along with 20,000 people and a handful of national musicians and speakers, according to The New York Times.

The Clamshell had a lower media profile after 1978, but continued for another 11 years to support and organize anti-nuclear actions, fight pro-nuclear state legislation, and write and distribute information. Seabrook station went online in 1989, half its original size and xx times its original cost estimate. But the nuclear power industry in the United States basically came to a halt, with no new nukes being licensed after 1979.

Some people attribute the shelving of nuclear plant plans to the near-meltdown and at the Three Mile Island, PA, nuclear plant in 1979. But a case can be made that TMI would have earned far less media attention if the public — and the media — had not been sensitized to the issue by the Clamshell and similar alliances.

 C.W. Wolff, deeply involved in Clamshell Alliance media relations 1976-78, is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant living in Kittery, Maine.

Comments Posted:
1 Comment posted on "Clam Media by C.W. Wolff"
DENISE DECLUE on May 21st, 2012 at 8:22 am #

I’m so proud to know you, C.W.–& I’m looking for you. I have pics of our New Orleans trip I’d like send your way. DD

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