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Behind Unsigned Editorials, a Columnist With Ties to Dominion

The Virginian Pilot and Daily Press on a table
The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press published a series of editorials over the past year related to Dominion Energy. At least some of those pieces were written by a columnist whom the utility company keeps on retainer. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

The Virginian-Pilot and the Daily Press published a handful of unsigned editorials related to Dominion Energy this year written by a columnist who also works as a part-time speechwriter for the company.

The pieces carry the distinctive style of Gordon “G.C.” Morse, a longtime columnist for the Hampton Roads newspapers. Morse started an ongoing, part-time speechwriting contract with Dominion Energy in 2006, according to a spokesperson for that company.

Kris Worrell, the papers’ editor-in-chief, confirmed Morse wrote “some” of at least seven Dominion-focused editorials published from February through October but declined to specify which ones.  The pieces praise the company’s projects, attack its critics, and in three cases, quote company press releases.

Worrell said the board has taken steps to “bolster transparency and impartiality” since she assumed her role in August 2019, including removing reporters from the board. The board stopped assigning Morse pieces related to Dominion after they “recently” learned of his work for the company, according to Worrell.

Kelly McBride, chair of the Poynter Institute's Center for Ethics and Leadership, said Morse’s undisclosed role in the editorials -- together with his ties to Dominion -- risked undermining reader trust in the newspapers. 

“They should come clean with their audience and say, ‘Yes, here are the contractors that we use. Here are the pieces that they wrote. And here are the conflicts of interest that they have,’” said McBride, who also serves as NPR’s public editor. 

In a series of emails, Morse denied the editorials were favorable to Dominion and questioned the motivations of this story. He said his writing drew from a breadth of experience that included work for corporations, politicians, and foundations.

“The foundation of what I do has not changed since the early 1980s,” Morse said. “I simply write what I think and try to explain things based on what I know. The editorials flow from positions taken on different subjects by one or the other papers over the years.”

Protestors hold signs downtown Richmond
A protestor in downtown Richmond rallies against the Union Hill compressor station in 2018. Dominion Energy proposed the controversial facility as part of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion and Duke Energy cancelled the pipeline project in July. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

‘Part of the Woodwork’

The Virginian-Pilot’s circulation is second only to the Washington Post in Virginia. The paper won Pulitzer Prizes for its editorial writing in 1929 and 1960. Layoffs and acquisitions have whittled down the Pilot and Daily Press’ full-time opinions section to one man: Opinions Editor Brian Colligan. The newspapers’ publisher, the Chicago Tribune Media Group, closed the newspapers’ Norfolk and Newport News offices this year. 

Editorial board pieces traditionally represent the collective opinion of a newspaper’s publishers and its senior opinions staff. The Pilot and Daily Press’ combined editorial board consists of Worrell, Colligan and Par Ridder, general manager of the newspapers’ owner, the Chicago Tribune Media Group. Many outlets leave the pieces unsigned, although some, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, have recently moved toward signing them. 

Morse calls himself “part of the woodwork” of the papers. He got his start at the Daily Press’ editorial board in the early 1980s before serving as a speechwriter to former Democratic Gov. Gerald Baliles. He went on to work for corporate clients for three decades. From 2002 to 2008, he was a Daily Press columnist and listed as a member of the paper’s editorial board.

Morse said he was brought on to the Pilot roughly five years ago to help the editorial team in addition to producing a regular, signed column. Worrell stressed that Morse and another editorial freelance writer, whom she would not name, are assigned perspectives that serve as the basis for editorials.

It’s unclear which of the pieces were written by Morse, though many of the editorials that touch on Dominion seem to riff in the staccato and occasionally biting voice found in Morse’s columns. No one interviewed for this story would disclose who wrote the pieces in question. 

Masthead Pilot's Opinion section
A recent headline in the Virginian-Pilot's Opinion section.

The most recent editorial related to Dominion, from October 15, was published after the company conducted reliability testing on two new offshore wind turbines. 

“Some self-appointed critics appear to think that wind turbines can be made to pop up in the middle of the water like oceanic toadstools,” the piece says. 

A piece from June mocks the argument made by environmentalists fighting the Dominion-backed Atlantic Coast Pipeline: “Kill the pipeline. Bad pipeline. Evil pipeline.” After Dominion and Duke Energy cancelled the pipeline in July, a piece with a strikingly different tone called it an “an unexpected boost” for greener energy.

Other pieces from this year praise Dominion’s pandemic response, calling the monopoly “a great Virginia entrepreneurial success story;” urge proponents of regulating the company to “avoid glibness” and “do facts;” and promotes future offshore projects, arguing that “Dominion Energy picked up on these shifting winds, so to speak, and has not been shy about it.”

The tone and perspective of the pieces is noticeably different than some past editorial board pieces. In 2015, for example, the editorial board published pieces with the headlines of “Finally, Dominion's customers prevail” and “Dominion's promises vanish into thin air.” 

In an email, Worrell said the papers' stance has been consistent. 

“We've been critical of the company when warranted and urged a stronger regulatory framework for utilities but have been supportive of green energy initiatives for years,” Worrell wrote. 

Solar panels line field
A Dominion Energy solar array in Louisa County. (Dominion Energy)

Morse’s Role at Dominion

Dominion has traditionally been one the most well-connected political interests in Virginia. 

The company’s executive chair and former CEO, Tom Farrell, was instrumental in driving the failed Navy Hill redevelopment deal in Richmond. VPM previously reported that an op-ed signed by Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao and published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch promoting the development was ghostwritten by a contractor working for the developers. 

Morse said he knew Farrell but it had been at least three years since they last spoke. Gov. Baliles and Farrell served on the board of Altria, and Morse said he “gave Tom a few nice things to say about the former governor” when Baliles stepped off the board in 2018.

Morse has also freelance speech writing for CEOs at Pepsi, IBM, and Choice Hotels over the last three decades. He typically writes between four and six speeches a year for Dominion executives, according to Ryan Frazier, who oversees the executive communications group. 

“He has a mostly narrow role that includes what our company does on a philanthropic basis and acknowledges our employees that do good and do well in the community,” Frazier said. 

Frazier said Morse does not attend staff meetings and said the company had no role in the editorials. 

Morse’s work for Dominion had been “disclosed and accepted” by a past editorial board team, according to Worrell. The board’s current team that shapes the paper’s stances only learned of it “recently.” Once that happened, Worrell said, “we opted to not assign Dominion-related topics to him going forward.” 

A Dominion substation
A Dominion Energy substation in downtown Richmond. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Worrell and Colligan did not respond to questions on which pieces Morse authored and when exactly the paper learned of Morse’s ongoing Dominion work. Morse’s columns include a biography noting that he “spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including...Dominion Energy.”

Morse suggested in an email that his existing disclaimers included in his columns were sufficient for readers of the unsigned editorials as well.

“You seem to be saying that I have disclosed my work, but not enough,” Morse said. “Based on what? Your opinion?” 

‘A Little Surprised’

A few of the pieces have sparked reactions from readers. Joy Oakes, a regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association, was “a little surprised” to see a June editorial backing a controversial Dominion transmission line over the James River. The piece quoted Oakes’ criticism of the project; she argued it harmed nearby historical parks and natural resources. 

The editorial asked whether her group’s criticism amounted to, “‘‘We just don’t like Dominion and we don’t like the line, so here comes the kitchen sink.’” 

Oakes later submitted a response reiterating arguments against the transmission lines. And in an interview with VPM, she argued that if Morse were behind the piece and working for Dominion, it should have been disclosed.

“Having that transparency and having all the facts in the debate is important,” she said. 

In a 2018 column on the company, Morse seemed to agree.

“Let me quickly concede, I have done too much work over the years for energy companies — first for Entergy in Louisiana, then Dominion Energy here — to be seen as an unbiased source of information,” he wrote.