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The Political Climate Gets Legal December 17, 2013

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Law.
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This blog has been quiet for a while, but that does not mean the writing has stopped.  Here’s a link to my first print publication with the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, entitled, The “Lone Grid” State: Texas as the Ideal Location for State-Level Climate Regulation (pdf).  In short, I argue that the interaction between the interstate electrical grid and the Constitution’s limitation on state regulation of interstate commerce may actually make Texas better able to enact a strong climate program than even California.  Enjoy!

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Baby Steps: The Senate Eyes a Renewable Electricity Standard September 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Politics.
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Just finished my second post at Change.org’s environment page:

At this point, we’ll take what we can get. This is the resigned tune being sung by many environmentalists and clean energy advocates as Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sam Brownback (R-Neb.) unveiled a proposal to implement a national renewable electricity standard on Tuesday. And, amazingly enough, it looks like the votes are actually there.

You can read the full post here, but I want to highlight the last paragraph:

Finally, I’d also like to take a moment to highlight the quality of criticism against a renewable energy standard.  You read above that a 15 percent by 2021 standard will have virtually no impact on the energy market.  Yet the energy experts at the conservative Heritage Foundation are sounding the alarm with their analysis that this basically symbolic law would “kill a million jobs and cut a trillion dollars from the national income by the end of the decade.”  Booga booga!

We have to raise the level of political discourse if we are to have sensible governance in this country.  Former President Clinton said yesterday that he thinks we may be entering a “fact free” period in politics.  Such a world might make for nice sound bites, but real problems need real solutions.  And I’m not saying that a weak RES typifies real solutions, but we need to have honest debate about matters of such importance to our country.  Let’s at least not blatantly lie.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Heritage Foundation.

President Obama Killed Bipartisanship September 20, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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President Obama campaigned on bipartisanship.  We wanted a change, so he chose not to investigate the partisan excesses and likely transgressions of the Bush administration; he unhinged the pendulum and just laid it on the ground.  Instead of overcorrecting in the other direction, he tried to start anew as a united nation.  America was ready to move forward.  The Republican Party was not.

Ideally, in our two party system, each governing party has a different plan to move America forward.  When problems arise, Democrats propose to move forward slanting to the left, Republicans propose to move forward slanting to the right, and when they finally come together and compromise on necessary legislation, we as a country end up simply moving forward and addressing the problem (see graphic below).

It’s a little messier in practice.  Because one party controls the White House at a time and Congress is rarely evenly split, final legislation generally skews towards the ruling party rather than perfectly straddling the center.  It must also be mentioned that sometimes there is a right and a wrong answer.  And on a related note, a political compromise that pleases both parties is not ipso facto good policy: for example, the stimulus package contained both Democratic spending projects and tax breaks that Republicans would normally support, but it was not enough to promote a strong recovery.

Bipartisanship is not always the solution, but it is an important concept in a democratic republic like ours.  And President Obama bears some responsibility for its contemporary demise.  Although he acted with good intentions, his transcendent quest to achieve bipartisanship ironically doomed itself with partisan politics.

Had Republicans shared this bipartisan vision, Obama’s plan could well have succeeded.  Alas, insert two-way street aphorism here.

At the most basic level, in a two party political system, one party’s success is the other party’s failure.  The converse is equally true.  Again, ideally, a shared desire to address a crisis creates some middle ground for bipartisan compromise.  Yet a hyperpartisan mindset obliterates that middle ground.  Under current Senate rules that allow what should really be called a 41-member “superminority” to obstruct Congressional action, lawmaking grinds to a halt.  Problems progress, but legislation languishes.

Compromise Graphic

When both parties want to address a problem facing America, there is often (but not always) a middle path. When at least one party chooses to pursue political advantage at the expense of our nation’s well-being, compromise becomes impossible.

With surging unemployment and an anemic recovery, Republicans concluded that the painful status quo benefitted them.  They did not want to move forward.  Indeed, they were rooting against America because both America’s failures would be blamed upon the Democratic majority and administration and pay political dividends.  Sadly, in our toxic political climate, you do not earn points for bipartisan assists; all that matters is the score, Republicans vs. Democrats.

Yet Republicans initiated this confrontational scenario, so that much cannot be blamed on President Obama.  There is another variable that can.

Because Obama campaigned on bipartisanship, that middle compromise space between a Democratic policy and a Republican policy turned blue.  In that binary hyperpartisan world, cooperation became a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans.  So via obstructionism, the GOP could now play legislative defense and political offense simultaneously.

Compromise Graphic2

Because Obama ran on bipartisanship, it had the effect of making bipartisanship a victory for him, and thus Democrats.  Therefore, it dragged the middle ground of what would be a “win” for both parties further to the right.

Of course this tactic held our country hostage and prolonged American suffering in the process.   Unfortunately, overly balanced media coverage combined with admittedly effective GOP spin (having your own network helps) enabled conservatives to pull off this maneuver without being called out for it.

So Republicans holed up.  Elected lawmakers became fulltime law-stoppers, particularly in the Senate.  They voted against a stimulus package that was watered down on their behalf and full of conservative tax breaks.  They opposed an oil spill/clean energy jobs bill that contained entire sections unanimously approved by bipartisan committees and even cosponsored by Republicans.  The conservative caucus is united in lockstep against anything the Democrats attempt to accomplish, no matter how reasonable or nonpartisan the measure may be.

Even though Obama appears to have been sincere in his hope to work together in moderation (as demonstrated by his history of making compromises that please nobody), his plan for bipartisanship backfired because Republicans continued to operate from a hyperpartisan perspective.  Obama said he would end the mud-slinging; conservatives have defeated him simply by continuing to wallow.

In the meantime, the Democratic Party has wasted two years.

Republicans have triumphed at America’s expense.  Unless current electoral indicators are drastically mistaken, they will benefit handsomely from this strategy in November.  I am concerned about that outcome, but far more displeased with the precedent this could set for our country.

The Political Climate is now on Twitter!  Follow @PoliticalClimat for updates as well as daily tweets linking to important and under-reported environmental news.

Environmental News Aggregator September 10, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Politics.
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Everyday, I monitor literally hundreds of posts from dozens of environmental news outlets and commentators.  Instead of just using this wealth of information as fodder for the occasional blog post (which I will continue to do), I would also like to offer my services as an ersatz environmental news aggregator.  Kind of like a Drudge Report for environmental news/politics…but without the conservative slant.

To that end, I have created a Twitter account through which I plan to send out links to stories that people should know about even if I don’t have time to write a full post – just a few of the very best that day.  I will also link my posts when I do write them.

If you’re interested, you can follow this account here. I don’t yet know what sort of daily volume I will push to this account, but if anyone has preferences, I would love some feedback here.  Especially while this is as small as it is right now, I am trying to satisfy a small group of followers, so your voice will carry a lot of weight.

Thanks,

-Jamie

Clean Energy Lobby Outspends Big Oil! September 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Politics.
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No, that didn’t happen.  The mere thought of it is preposterous.  What actually happened is a recent report highlighted increased lobbying expenditures from renewable energy companies, and the conservative reaction has been predictably devoid of perspective.  Pot?  Kettle here.  Let’s get you a mirror.

But if they want to talk about energy subsidies, let’s do it.  The following passage from OpenSecrets.org was quoted in a post on the conservative blog RedState:

“By 2007, the alternative energy industry had begun to drastically increase its lobbying spending, almost doubling its expenditures from the previous year. In 2009, alternative energy organizations shelled out an unprecedented $30 million to protect and promote their interests on Capitol Hill, and this year, it’s on pace to equal that record output.

The alternative energy industry’s lobbying expenditures have grown to 12 times from its 1998 level. In comparison, oil and gas spending and mining spending have grown less than three times their 1998 amount, and electric utility spending has grown to just twice its 1998 amount.” (emphasis added by RedState)

That sounds like a lot of money, and it is.  But of course the concept of context is lost upon RedState.  Let’s try adding some.

Renewable energy companies spent $30 million on lobbying in 2009.  Compare that to 2009 lobbying expenditures for:

  • Misc. Energy: $56,013,293 –  $30 million in renewables = ~$26 million*

Total: more than $373 million in 2009 lobbying.

*The “Misc. Energy” category contains dozens of companies, some from the renewable energy sector but others such as the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, which lobbies for “clean” coal.  OpenSecrets cited $30 million for renewables, so I used that number here.

In 2009 alone, dirty fuel interests outspent clean energy by a factor of 12.4.  The oil and gas industry outspent renewables by a factor of nearly 6.  And Exxon Mobil – alone – spent 90% as much on lobbying as the entire clean energy sector.

Since 1999, oil and gas companies along with electric utilities have spent over $2 billion.  In that period, the renewable energy sector spent $105 million.  So tell me again why we’re whining about the big bad clean energy lobby?

The author of this RedState blog post, writing under the pseudonym Vladimir, identifies himself only as “Operations Manager for a small Gulf of Mexico oil & gas explorer & producer.”  Vlad further explains the crippling burden imposed by tyrannical American energy subsidies upon the tiny, innocent oil industry:

“The wind industry is pocketing subsidies that dwarf those garnered by the oil and gas sector. …Wind subsidies are more than 200 times as great as those given to oil and gas on the basis of per-unit-of-energy produced.”

First of all, The per-unit cost difference is easily explained: oil industry is fully mature whereas renewables are still very much developing.  New industries, especially those with positive instead of negative social benefits, receive subsidies so that they can develop more quickly and their costs can come down.  These fuels are our future, and we’d like to get there as soon as possible.

Side note: That future isn’t just clean and renewable, it’s really cool: check out these self-healing solar cells.

But more importantly, NO wind subsidies absolutely do NOT “dwarf” oil subsidies.  That is patently false.  When one compares size, one generally compares…size.  A > B.  Not A/X > B/Y.

Below is a wonderful graphic produced by the nonpartisan Environmental Law Institute (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I currently work – this was compiled long before my recent arrival).

This chart is slightly dated.  For example, just this Tuesday, the Department of Energy pledged more than $575 million in stimulus funding for 22 different projects related to Carbon Capture and Storage (E&E News, subscription required).  But you get the idea.

You cannot make the serious claim that renewables get unduly preferential government treatment on account of their lobbying.  One look at the benefits these lobbying efforts reap dispels that notion.

The conservative self-delusion is irreconcilably hypocritical when subjected to the facts of real life.  That is why the two worldviews currently exist without much overlap.

Hat tip to Kevin Grandia at DeSmogBlog for his post on this.

Glenn Beck’s Miracle | Three 8/28 Thoughts August 29, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Politics.
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Towards the end of his spectacle this weekend, Glenn Beck offered definitive proof of god’s existence.  He started recounting a personal tale about the most holy type of divine intervention: the fundraising miracle.

Beck said that although having raised $3.1 million for a charity he’d pledged to help, he was still $600,000 short of his target.  But alas, there were no more donors to be found.

On the flight back from his final fundraiser, Beck says he raised his face to the ceiling of the airplane cabin and, for the first time, actually questioned god (he cried as he said this).  But that makes sense, because falling $600,000 short of a fundraising target would test the faith of the most fervent believer.

So Beck called out to god.  Then, he tells us, without saying a word to anyone but god, the final $600,000 were miraculously donated in just two days.  God himself saved Beck’s fundraising effort when all hope was lost.  Ask and you shall receive.

It’s a moving story: god helped Beck meet his fundraising target when there was literally no more money to be found anywhere – except perhaps the $32 million Beck made last year…

“The 2010 Wingnut Superbowl” in the words of John Avlon.  I’ve seen bigger.

Three additional observations:

1) Focus. Wasn’t this event supposed to be about supporting the troops?  It was called “Restoring Honor.”  I came a little late to the theatrics, but what I saw was solely about restoring faith.  Glenn Beck just attempted to evangelize America.  Maybe I missed something, but is that really how this event was advertised?

A friend of mine spoke to some tea partiers as they were leaving the rally, and they seemed to echo this sentiment.  To paraphrase them, “we thought he was going to talk about the troops and the Constitution. We thought he was going to tell us what to do since we came all the way here.  Instead, he just told us to go to church.”  I am curious whether there may actually be some resentment from his base about this.

2) Size. Beck and his conservative gang are using the size of the rally as proof of the strength of their movement.  But how big was it actually?  The U.S. National Park Service no longer makes official tallies since being accused of low-balling the numbers for the Million Man March (and because they get nothing out of making the tallies so that’s a lot of hassle and no benefit to them).  Unfortunately, the absence of an official tally opens up the crowd size to conservative hyperbole.

Instead of just guessing, CBS commissioned an estimate based on aerial photos that came to 87,000 +/- 9k.  NBC Nightly News said tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands.  ABCNews said more than 100,000.  The event had a permit for 300,000.  Beck said between 300,000 and 650,000 were there.  Fox News “reported” at least 500,000.  (Just our of curiosity, anything happen if your event exceeds its permitted size?)

But my favorite crowd estimate was conducted by Rep. Michele Bachmann (TP-MN).  At her own little rally at the Washington Monument, she asked her audience how many people thought that more than one million people were there.  The crowd cheered.  And so it was.  Having compiled that scientific data, she said “We‘re not going to let anyone get away with saying there were less than a million people here today because we were witnesses.”

This is exactly the kind of manufactured conservative reality I have been talking about – it’s a “we believe it, so it’s true” perspective.  Democracy is a good form of government, not a good tool to determine what is objectively factual.

3) Class. Beck told his audience that they needed to accept god “so that we can guide [America/the world] down the stairs and out of the building to safety.”  I was confused for a minute, but then I got the reference.  I don’t find that imagery particularly tasteful.

But then what do you expect from Glenn Beck?  John Avlon has a good critique of the rally at The Daily Beast that highlights the blinding hypocrisy of this event.  Beck’s actions invite media commentators to rightly call him out because external criticism only further endears Beck to his faithful audience, and he doesn’t have to worry about them noticing the hypocrisy because they only trust Fox News.

There is No Common Ground between Different Realities August 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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To call Republicans “the Party of No” is not quite fair – they say a lot of things besides ‘no.’ But that is the full extent of their political output: speech. Currently, Republicans are more accurately the Party of Rhetoric.

Now this is partly because they are in the legislative minority, but I can’t think of any other period in our history during which the minority party decided to so fully abstain from policymaking.  You can count on one hand the number of GOP senators willing to substantively work with the Democratic majority.  It makes you wonder what the rest of them are doing with their time.

In the past, when our country faced a problem, our two political parties fought about which policy was better to address it.  That is how our legislature is supposed to function.

You may have noticed that this occurs less today.  Increasingly, the political debate has devolved into an argument not of HOW to act but rather IF any action is even warranted.  Instead of debating solutions, we find ourselves arguing about whether or not a problem exists at all:

  • This is true of climate change: conservatives don’t have their own solution, they simply deny that the problem exists.
  • This is true of healthcare: how many times during the last year were we told that “America has the best healthcare in the world”?
  • This is true of any policy that involves regulation (finance, pollution, offshore drilling etc.), because a push for deregulation instead of better regulation contains the implicit assertion that no problems exist (or that regulations somehow cause what problems there are).

Republicans deny that these problems exist altogether, and that is problematic because they are quite real.

Historically, even policies supporting inaction were not based on denial.  Consider America’s now defunct isolationism.  Advocates of non-intervention did not dispute the existence of foreign wars, they simply determined that staying out of them was a better course of action.  At least everybody was still operating in the same reality – they debated the merits of different solutions.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert told President Bush that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”  So conservatives simply left.  Today, Republicans occupy their own reality.  They get their own news tailored to that reality, and anything that contradicts this fictitious worldview is simply denounced as biased, even empirical science.  No policy debate can occur because the conservative reality has its own facts and they distrust “ours.”  Experts are just elitists anyways.

But this planet and this country face real challenges, even if conservatives refuse to believe them.  Unfortunately, by the time they become full, immediate crises, it will be too late to act.  Think of America as riding in an SUV speeding towards a cliff: everyone in that car is in trouble – even the kid in the backseat with his eyes shut tight, plugging his ears and singing loudly to himself (presumably Mellencamp’s “[This Is] Our Country”).  But once the wheels leave the pavement, and likely well before then, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.  That kid is only forced to finally acknowledge the outside world upon impact.

So how we can bridge this inter-reality chasm?  It may not even be possible.  But there is one way we can try (and the Daily Show has been attempting this valiantly).

The Party of Rhetoric, especially now that it has started drinking Tea, has begun to make some wild claims.  Conservatives won’t listen to our words, so we must hope that they still believe theirs.

As Republican politicians increasingly resort to fear-mongering, they make ridiculous extrapolations and predict devastating futures that result from liberal policies.  So when these disasters do not occur, we must repeat their words back to them.

It will be a while before we can utilize this strategy for most issues, but we can start small with offshore drilling now.  Conservatives and the oil industry railed against the Obama administration for its perfectly justified temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling.  They insisted that this most minimal safeguard against another massive oil spill would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and more economic devastation than the BP spill itself.

As the New York Times reported this week, that simply has not happened.  Even the administration’s estimates were overly pessimistic (to a much lesser extent).  Instead of hundreds of thousands of laid off oil workers, unemployment claims attributable to the moratorium are currently just in the hundreds.

I’m sure that the conservative reality has an explanation for this development or simply rejects it altogether.  But if we can’t even look over our shoulder and agree about what just happened, how can we possibly look ahead and safely navigate the future?

Is the Underwater Oil Gone? August 25, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Conflicting reports claim that the giant underwater oil plume in the Gulf of Mexico is both still there and gone.  Yet a closer look at the recent research reveals a potential explanation for this apparent contradiction – and an important new species.

On August 4th, the White House released an official report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) detailing where the millions of barrels of BP’s spilled oil ended up.  Its conclusion that virtually none of the oil remains suspended in the water column generated some warranted skepticism and justified criticism, particularly in regard to transparency.  Part of the problem was that NOAA considered dispersed/dissolved oil harmless and “gone,” which is how researchers at the University of Georgia could soon after conclude that at least three quarters of the oil is still underwater.  Additional questions have been raised about the peer-review process with which the administration has attempted to fend off these attacks.

Last week, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute published their results from tests conducted in the Gulf on the underwater plume of dispersed oil.  According to their observations, the microbes dispersing the oil were acting very slowly and would likely take months to degrade the full plume.

So it was surprising when researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced this week that the oil plume has vanished.   Especially because they reported that the oil was gone because that extra oil had in fact drastically increased microbial oil decomposition.  But how could that be true?  Don’t these studies contradict each other?  As it turns out, not entirely.

It is well established that many types of aquatic microbes can digest oil and already inhabit areas near the thousands of natural oil seeps around the world.  In fact, when the spill first began, some experts were concerned that large amounts of spilled oil could result in a population explosion of a certain toxic species of oil-feeding bacteria that could cause a plague in the Gulf region (E&E News, subscription required).

These two studies both measured microbial activity but arrived at opposing conclusions.  So how can they both be correct?  Was there an orgy of oil-eating microbes or not?  That isn’t yet clear, but it is possible that neither study was wrong.

Bacteria near an oil droplet. Image from Science via Wired.com

It comes down to the methodology, how each study chose to measure microbial activity.  When microbes are exposed to a high concentration of the food they need, they go into metabolic overdrive,  eating and reproducing rapidly.  For these microbes, that food is oil, so an oil spill is a feast.  However, when “aerobic” microbes that use oxygen go into a feeding frenzy, their populations explode and rapidly use up the available oxygen in the water.  Eventually, that area can no longer support aerobic life, including those microbes.  (Side note: this lack of oxygen, called “hypoxia,” is what causes aquatic dead zones at the mouths of most major rivers because they are filled with fertilizer runoff from farms.)

As this excellent Wired.com article explains, the first study measured oxygen levels in the water to gauge microbial activity because if there had been a lot of aerobic oil-eating microbes, the water in the oil plume should contain less oxygen.

The second study used a different approach.  Instead of measuring oxygen levels, they extracted microbial DNA from their water samples and sequenced the genes to see what they do.  These researchers found “large proportions” (which I assume means a high concentration) of genes that create oil-degrading enzymes and, more importantly, discovered a new strain of oil-eating microbe.

This previously undiscovered species is important because it is “anaerobic” – it doesn’t consume oxygen.  It can break down oil without deoxygenating the water around it.  So in the context of that first study, you could consider this new microbe a “stealth” oil-eater; the method employed by first researchers could not have detected its presence.  Additionally, because its growth is not limited by the amount of oxygen in an area, this new species should be more effective and degrade oil more quickly than the aerobic microbes we already knew about.

But just because something is possible does not mean it happened.  Most scientists are wisely urging us not to jump to conclusions.  After all, the oil plume could have just drifted to a different location undetected.  Additional studies are necessary to verify that the oil is in fact gone.

The takeaway message here is that we have an imperfect understanding of underwater oil degradation.  That is part of the reason why BP used all those dispersants – not only did they keep oil-soaked beach/wildlife photos to a minimum, they kept most of the oil dispersed and underwater, where we do not know for sure how much is there or what damage it will cause in the decades to come.  It’s hard to sue a company for unknown damages.

So let’s take this study as some welcome good news, but keep our hopes in check until we can confirm these results.  And figure out how dangerous dispersed oil is.

Public Ignorance Polls August 23, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Media, Politics.
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News consumers are subjected to a daily deluge of polling data. Unfortunately, like much of today’s media coverage, this information is not leaving us better informed.

A conventional issue-specific opinion poll offers a choice between two valid responses.  For example, “Do you approve of the death penalty?”  This is an appropriate poll.  There is no right or wrong answer; there are substantive arguments to support both positions, and the poll attempts to gauge public support for a controversial policy that is directly relevant to our nation’s governance.

A regrettable distinction can be made between a prototypical public opinion poll such as that and the frivolous politically-charged polls we see more and more today.  I’m referring to polls such as, “Is Obama a Muslim?”

This question has a wrong answer.  The responses are not equally valid.  Such polls do not measure public opinion, they measure public ignorance.  Worse, they measure the successful pervasion of partisan misinformation.

These polls are everywhere, and the results are always shameful:

What angers me most about these polls is that the phrase “believe in” really means “understand that.”  These aren’t questions of choice.  There is only one right answer.  It’s indisputable.

The respondents in these three polls didn’t express their opinions, they betrayed their ignorance.  And that ignorance is not the innocent absence of education, it’s the sinister product of deliberate misinformation spread by well-funded special interests (for the polls above, evangelicals, big polluters and conservatives respectively…forgive the fuzzy boundaries between them).

Now, I am not saying that ignorance should be prosecuted like some Orwellian thoughtcrime.  To me, all these polls really show is that the media are failing. True, propagandists and politicians breathe life into these stories, but journalists are the ones who perpetuate this nonsense.

In the new era of “fairness and balance,” the media think they have to report every claim a partisan commentator makes without remarking on its truthfulness – because that would be “unbalanced.”  Think of birtherism, Obama’s supposed socialism, death panels…all these manufactured scandals started as baseless comments reported by the media without question merely because a partisan spoke them.  Apparently transcribing a press release or interview is now where a journalist’s obligation ends: We accuse, you decide.

Yet opposition does not confer equivalency.  Just because there are two sides to a story does not mean they’re necessarily equal.  For a journalist to automatically report them as such is misleading.

When a Wisconsin senate candidate says climate science is wrong and gives a scientifically disproven alternative “explanation,” it’s not partisan to say he’s lying – it’s accurate.  In fact, to merely parrot those proven lies isn’t balance, it’s active disinformation.

Real public opinion polls have obvious political value for politicians and advocates etc.  But what do public ignorance polls contribute to society?  Nothing.  They just validate the misconceptions they seek to quantify by presenting them on equal footing with actual facts.  This is another manifestation of the “bias of balance” in modern media coverage.

With one notable exception, today’s major media outlets are not trying to disseminate falsehoods, but they are succeeding nonetheless.  As long as we allow balance to trump accuracy in journalism, this type of ignorance will not only persist but continue to spread.

Another Day on the Campaign Trail: GOP Lies = News August 17, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
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On Monday, a GOP senate candidate in Wisconsin made the following statement:

I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change.  It’s not proven by any stretch of the imagination.” –Ron Johnson, six-figure BP stockholder and oil spill apologist.

This “forgotten Tea Party candidate” went on to expound his misguided opinion in detail. He said some other stupid things, but I think my favorite was that a strong economy would keep the environment clean.  Isn’t that cute?

It always angers me to see such baseless denial, especially when excreted by a man who would seek to become among the most powerful decision-makers in our country.  But what really set me off was how this story was covered.

The national press will do what they always do, so for Congressional races, I prefer to take a look at how these stories are covered locally in order to better gauge what effect they will have on the people who can actually vote.  The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel has more than twice as many readers as the next biggest newspaper in Wisconsin.

This is the article they ran by Steve Schultze.  Suffice it to say that it did not calm me down.

In the ~800 word piece, the word “said” appears 25 times and makes up 3% of all the words used.  This “article” isn’t journalism, it’s stenography.  Worse, in letting Ron Johnson dictate to the newspaper, this reporter just spread blatant misinformation.

Yes, I know this guy was reporting an interview.  I am aware that Mr. Johnson is entitled to his opinion, even if it’s wrong, and that a reporter’s job is, in this case, to present that opinion to the electorate.  But journalists are supposed to pursue the truth, not just balance.

Let me offer a more specific example from the interview.  Johnson is 100% sure that humans aren’t warming the planet.  So how does he explain the rising temperatures?

“It’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity,” he says.

That’s Johnson’s opinion, that’s what Schultze reported.  Why is that poor journalism?  Because it is demonstrably false.

Solar output does vary, and that radiated energy does exert some influence on our climate systems.  So at first blush, sunspots do appear to be a valid hypothesis for global warming.  …That is, until you take even a glance at solar output data and discover that we are in a drastic solar minimum; the sun is currently cooler than it’s been in over a century.

Since 1975 the sun has been cooling while our planet warmed. That’s not how cause and effect work. Click for full size | Image credit: SkepticalScience.com

Fact: the sun is not causing our current climate change.  If anything, decreased solar output is masking what would otherwise be even more extreme warming!

After reading Schultze’s article, Wisconsinites know that Ron Johnson thinks the sun is causing global warming.  Don’t the voters deserve to know that he is unquestionably wrong?  Wouldn’t that help them make a more informed decision?  I think so.

In the hallowed name of fairness and balance, Mr. Schultze did offer a counterpoint to Johnson’s falsities:

[Democratic Sen. Russ] Feingold has taken a completely opposite position on global warming, saying that “most people think man had some role in it.”

And that was that.  A difference of opinion, nothing more.

In political news coverage, media outlets strive to maintain objectivity by offering both candidates equal coverage, without appearing to favor one or the other.  That 50-50 coverage, presenting both sides of the story in a “we report, you decide” paradigm, accomplishes objectivity when covering differences of opinion.

However, when the media provide 50-50 coverage to a situation where one party is clearly lying or wrong, that attempt at objectivity becomes what is called the “bias of balance,” about which I have blogged extensively and wrote my honors thesis.

This problem pollutes the debate about every major issue our country faces today.  Gutless, “balanced” media coverage enables conservative demagogues to successfully manipulate public opinion against effective and desperately needed legislative reforms.  And the situation is not improving.

Everyday, critical policy considerations are buried further and further beneath piles of manufactured yet diligently transcribed political drama.  THAT is why I am among the majority of people who think this country is on the wrong track.

And no, Mainstream Media, that is NOT bad news for Democrats – it’s bad news for America.  And it is in no small part your fault.

Case in point a la Jon Stewart and the NYC mosque ridiculousness (as usual, worth watching in its entirety, but most directly relevant starting at 4:00).