UPDATED: Politico Manufactures Attack On Steven Chu

Blog ››› ››› JOCELYN FONG

(UPDATE 3/2 5:18PM An Editor's Note now appended to the Politico story says it "mischaracterized the testimony of Energy Secreatry Steven Chu." The headline, lede, and body of the story have been corrected.)

A Politico story fueling misguided attacks on Energy Secretary Steven Chu is not borne out by what actually occurred. The article titled, "Chu: DOE working to wean U.S. off oil, not lower prices," claimed:Politico headline

The Energy Department isn't working to lower gasoline prices directly, Secretary Steven Chu said Tuesday after a Republican lawmaker scolded him for his now-infamous 2008 comment that gas prices in the U.S. should be as high as in Europe.

But this report is based on an assumption made by Politico reporter Alex Guillen about how Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS) was going to finish a question. If that wasn't bad enough, Politico doubled down with another article today about Newt Gingrich -- who cited Guillen's story -- calling for Chu to be fired for the remarks. (UPDATE 3/2 6:00PM Politico has also corrected this article.)

Here's what actually happened in the hearing (fuller video and transcript below):

REP. NUNNELEE: But is the overall goal to get our price--

CHU: No, the overall goal is to decrease our dependency on oil to -- to build and strengthen our economy and to decrease our dependency on oil.

But here's Politico's version of what happened:

"But is the overall goal to get our price" of gasoline down, asked Nunnelee.

"No, the overall goal is to decrease our dependency on oil, to build and strengthen our economy," Chu replied.

Guillen built his story on what he assumed Nunnelee was asking and gave no indication that the question was, in fact, ambiguous. There is good reason to believe that Chu thought Nunnelee was actually asking, "Is the overall goal to get our price up to European levels," since this was Nunnelee's previous question:

NUNNELEE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Secretary for being here. Before you were nominated, you were quoted as saying, quote, "Somehow, we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe." I can't look at motivations. I have to look at results. And under this administration, the price of gasoline is doubled. While bumping $4 a gallon in North Mississippi, today the price of gasoline in Europe is about $8 a gallon, and the people of North Mississippi can't be here.

So, I have to be here and be their voice for them. And I have to tell you that $8 a gallon gasoline makes them afraid. It's a cruel tax on the people of North Mississippi as they try to go back and forth to work. It's a cloud hanging over economic development and job creation, and it appears to me this administration continues to drag its feet on oil exploration on fossil fuel development and recovery. How do you respond to that?

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the Heritage Foundation, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), and Nunnelee subsequently cited the Politico article to claim that Chu "admitted his goal isn't to lower gas prices." Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) repeated the claim in a floor speech, as did Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) while promoting his book.

And of course, Fox enjoyed the opportunity provided by Politico's bad reporting:

  • Fox Nation posted the headline: "Obama Energy Chief Bombshell Admission..." and quoted Guillen's report.
  • Fox News White House correspondent Ed Henry asked Jay Carney on February 29 whether the White House agrees with Chu's testimony that "the overall goal of the President's energy policy is not to lower gas prices" in Wednesday's press briefing. (Carney responded: "I'm not aware of that statement or the characterization that you give it.")
  • After airing a clip of the exchange, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said on February 29, "The question was: Is the overall goal to get our price of gasoline down? And the answer was no. That is raising some eyebrows today."
  • Neil Cavuto asked on his February 29 show, "Did the energy secretary just say the administration's goal is not to bring down the gas prices?" and brought on Sen. Ron Johnson to say, "this president has an energy policy and it is not to utilize America's natural energy resources."
  • Fox News' The Five aired the video from the hearing on February 29, with Greg Gutfeld framing the clip by saying: "They asked him about, is your primary goal to lower gasoline prices?" Eric Bolling added: "Is your goal getting gasoline prices down? In the first word, the only relevant word that Chu said is ... his first word was 'No.''
  • Fox News Congressional correspondent Mike Emanuel said on the February 29 edition of Special Report that "the President's energy secretary was on the hot seat when Mississippi Republican congressman, Alan Nunnelee, asked if the Department of Energy is actively trying to lower fuel costs."
  • Bill O'Reilly said on his February 29 show: "The question was do you want to lower the oil prices and he said 'no.'" O'Reilly added, "the bottom line on this is that Chu doesn't want oil prices to come down. He wants them to actually go up."
  • On his February 29 Fox Business show, Lou Dobbs said: "Tonight, a stunning admission from the Obama administration -- the goal of its energy policy is not to lower gasoline prices, even as prices hit new record highs" (via Nexis).
  • UPDATE (3/2) On the March 1 edition of her show, Kelly aired the video from the Carney briefing and said, "Do you really believe the White House didn't know that Secretary Chu testified his goal was not to get gas prices down?"
  • UPDATE (3/2) Cavuto hosted Gingrich on his March 1 show to attack Chu. Cavuto said: "Apparently, we were not the only ones who noticed Energy Secretary Steven Chu didn't seem all that worked up over those skyrocketing gas prices. So did Newt Gingrich. ... Gingrich says enough is enough. It's one thing for the administration to say no to more drilling in the face of these high prices, but to have an energy secretary of the United States all but welcoming these high prices?"
  • UPDATE (3/2) On the March 1 edition of Special Report, Henry said: "Two days after his energy secretary said lowering gasoline prices is not the overall goal of the administration, President Obama vowed he'll announce a series of steps to help consumers." Henry also reported on Gingrich's call for Chu to be fired.
  • UPDATE (3/2) On the March 1 edition of The Fox Report, Henry said: "He's in hot water, Steven Chu, because a couple of days ago on Capitol Hill, he testified that the overall goal of the administration is not to lower gasoline prices. That raised a lot of eyebrows."
  • UPDATE (3/2) Gingrich appeared on the March 1 edition of On The Record to claim, "When [Chu] was asked yesterday, he said that he had no intention of trying to get gasoline to be less expensive. His goal was to get the American people to go to alternatives."
  • UPDATE (3/2) On the March 2 edition of Fox & Friends, Henry said, "The president obviously took some heat earlier this week when the Enegy Secretary Steven Chu suggested in Congressional testimony that the overall goal of the administration is not to lower gasoline prices."
  • UPDATE (3/2) America's Newsroom hosted Nunnelee on March 2 to comment on Chu's remarks. Host Bill Hemmer said, "Republicans on the hill and many Americans furious when they heard that the energy secretary Steven Chu said that lowering gas prices is not the overall goal of this administration."

Setting aside the fact that Politico violated basic reporting practices with its initial article, this kind of manufactured controversy is exactly what I was talking about last week when I begged for better journalism on gas prices.

Politico has acknowledged elsewhere that without massive intervention in the market, the U.S. government cannot significantly or reliably move the global price of oil. So why would it be a story if Chu had said it wasn't his goal to do that which isn't possible? In reality, Chu's response -- "the overall goal is to decrease our dependency on oil" -- is the only thing we can do to reduce our vulnerability to price spikes, and Politico should have said so.

UPDATE (3/2): The exchange between Chu and Nunnelee has also been misrepresented by The Washington Times, The Hill (UPDATE: The Hill story has been changed), The Christian Science Monitor, and ABC News.

From the February 28 Appropriations Committee hearing:

REP. ALAN NUNNELEE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Secretary for being here.

Before you were nominated, you were quoted as saying, quote, "Somehow, we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe." I can't look at motivations. I have to look at results. And under this administration, the price of gasoline is doubled. While bumping $4 a gallon in North Mississippi, today the price of gasoline in Europe is about $8 a gallon, and the people of North Mississippi can't be here. So, I have to be here and be their voice for them. And I have to tell you that $8 a gallon gasoline makes them afraid. It's a cruel tax on the people of North Mississippi as they try to go back and forth to work. It's a cloud hanging over economic development and job creation, and it appears to me this administration continues to drag its feet on oil exploration on fossil fuel development and recovery. How do you respond to that?

CHU: Well, I think absolutely, what we should be judged on what we're trying -- what we are doing, and I should be judged on my track record when I became Secretary of Energy. And when this administration started, we were in a free-fall in a recession and the price had plunged from roughly a $140 a gallon down to or barrel --$140 a barrel down to little under about $40 a barrel.

And we -- and the solution to this, I mean, we will do everything in in our powers to, and we agree that there is great suffering when the price of gasoline increases in the United States, and so we are very concerned about this, and as I have repeatedly said, in the Department of Energy, the -- what we're trying to do is diversify our energy's bio transportation so that we have cost-effective means -- natural gas is great, and so we're pushing on natural gas for transportation.

Electrification is great because then that offloads in electrification --we've just in the battery research that we've funding, we've had some pretty spectacular breakthroughs, one just announced yesterday that looks like it's going to at least decrease the cost of these batteries twofold and maybe more. Biofuels, a very aggressive program, started in the previous administration but continuing, again, to diversity that supply of transportation fuel.

And so, these are things we are doing, and we are very focused on that because we understand the economic impacts that has in all Americans and our economy.

NUNNELEE: But is the overall goal to get our price--

CHU: No, the overall goal is to decrease our dependency on oil to -- to build and strengthen our economy and to decrease our dependency on oil. For the first time, you know, in the last eight years, through a lot of policy put in this administration and previous administrations, you know, our oil production has increased for the first time in its highest level in eight years. It's the import -- the fraction of it is the highest level in 16 years.

We think that if you consider all these policies including energy efficiency, you know ,we think that we can go a lot -- a long way to becoming less dependent on oil and diversifying our supply, and we'll help the American economy and the American consumers.

NUNNELEE: Thank you.

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