This year saw landmark reports on climate change, detailing the ever-increasing scientific certainty that human activities are driving catastrophic climate change and that action needs to be taken to prevent the worst effects. Yet despite the fact that more Americans than ever support action on climate change, conservative media went to ridiculous lengths to cast doubt on the scientific consensus behind global warming, citing everything from free market economics to witchcraft, touting conspiracy theories and predictions of an "ice age," and even fulfilling Godwin's law.
Here are the 11 dumbest things conservative media said about climate change this year:
11. Bill O'Reilly: "It's Easier To Believe In A Benevolent God, The Baby Jesus" Than Manmade Climate Change. On the December 16 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly led a discussion on whether or not it is easier to believe in the birth story of Jesus than in manmade climate change, positing that it is "easier to believe in a benevolent God, the baby Jesus, than it is in some kind of theory about global warming." When his guest pointed out that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activities are driving global warming, O'Reilly baselessly countered, "I wouldn't put it that high. I've read a lot about it." He concluded: "[I]t's a choice -- people choose to believe."
While some mainstream media outlets are starting to get the message about the threat of climate change, they are still far behind emerging media when it comes to climate coverage.
Throughout 2014, new TV and web-based news sources have been continuing the trend of providing excellent climate coverage. Media Matters has identified six positive trends in how new media are covering climate change -- and one trend that may be cause for alarm.
"Single-subject news sites" have been on the rise for the past couple of years. The New York Times reported in 2011 that internet news was starting to veer towards "niche" sites, and more recently, in its "Prediction for Journalism 2014" series, Nieman Lab predicted that single-subject news sites would continue to gain prominence this year.
The Center for American Progress' ClimateProgress is unparalleled in its timely coverage of the latest climate developments. The blog often takes its reporting further than mainstream sources, providing perspective on landmark climate reports and mainstream climate coverage, and amplifying studies that shed light on media bias in global warming reporting.
Another prominent climate news site, InsideClimate News (ICN), won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting last year, with the Pulitzer committee commending their "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines." ICN also teams up with other outlets to amplify and disseminate their work; it partnered with VICE TV for a documentary and e-book on how global warming affects the likelihood of polar bear attacks, produced an exposé with The Weather Channel on the ramifications of the oil-by-rail boom, and partnered with both The Weather Channel and Center for Public Integrity for an in-depth investigation of how Texas' fracking boom has been harming the environment.
This year saw clean energy technologies become cost-competitive with fossil fuels and gain prominence worldwide. The fossil fuel industry, desperate to stymie clean energy's continuing expansion, enlisted conservative media to do their bidding and attack clean technologies in every shape and form. From stoking fears about public transit being a form of "government control," to providing one-sided stories falsely predicting clean energy's downfall, here are the media's six most absurd attacks on clean energy this year.
1. 60 Minutes Produces "Poor Piece Of Journalism" To Attack Clean Energy
In January, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a report titled, "The Cleantech Crash," which attempted to label clean energy a "dirty word." The report was widely criticized by reporters, government officials, and clean energy advocates alike for offering a one-sided look at renewable energy and narrowly focusing on a few failures while ignoring the majority of clean energy's success. Two of the guests interviewed in the report later criticized it for selectively airing their comments to provide an overly negative portrait of the industy and for "fail[ing] to do the most elementary fact checking and source qualification."
Further, the report made no mention of climate change, which as energy reporter Dana Hull pointed out is "the whole point of cleantech, after all: using the promise of technology and innovation to try to wean our economy off of fossil fuels."
Conservative media are praising Pennsylvania's fracking industry in order to criticize New York's recently announced ban on hydraulic fracturing, without mentioning the health impacts that it has had on Pennsylvania's drinking water and communities.
On December 17, New York became the first state in the country to officially ban the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The announcement by Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration came alongside a long-awaited health study on fracking in New York state, which found "significant public health risks" associated with the process. Cuomo officials also stated that allowing fracking would bring "far lower" economic benefits to the state "than originally forecast."
In response, conservative media have been holding up the economy in Pennsylvania -- where fracking has been in practice for decades -- to question the Cuomo administration's decision. Both the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Caller touted statistics from the American Petroleum Institute, which claimed Wednesday that Pennsylvania's fracking industry has generated $2.1 billion in state taxes that have allegedly supported new roads, bridges, and parks. And on the December 17 edition of Fox News' Happening Now, correspondent Eric Shawn reported, "[Fracking] has been allowed in Pennsylvania and helped that state's troubled economy enormously." Co-host Heather Nauert agreed, lamenting, "When you go upstate in New York you see just how badly the jobs are needed up there":
But Pennsylvania may actually be more of a testament to why New York's health concerns surrounding fracking are warranted. Oil and gas operations have damaged Pennsylvania's water supply over 200 times since 2007, according to an investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that the state's drinking water is at risk from poor wastewater disposal practices. One Pennsylvania town, Dimock, has been dubbed "Ground Zero" in the battle over fracking's safety by NPR. The town has seen particularly high rates of water contamination, with a methane leak causing a resident's backyard water well to explode, tossing aside a concrete slab weighing several thousand pounds in one instance.
After blaming President Obama when gas prices were high, the New Hampshire Union Leader is now misleadingly crediting "oil companies and speculators" now that gas prices have dropped. However, analysts credit Obama's policies in part for the price decrease, a fact unmentioned by the Union Leader.
The December 8 editorial went after U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen - who has previously asked the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to "crack down speculation in commodities markets" - claiming the senator should apologize for previously blaming speculators and oil companies for rising gas prices, because speculators have recently played a role in falling prices. The editorial continued:
Bloomberg Businessweek reported that oil speculators played a role in the falling prices. "Since June, then, speculators have dumped the equivalent of 500 million barrels of oil onto the futures market," the magazine reported. That did not cause the price crash, which was mostly the result of increased supply. But speculators added to the downward pressure.
"Mostly they've been blamed for making prices go higher," the Bloomberg Businessweek report noted. "This time, though, the opposite is true."
Shaheen has spent years demonizing oil companies and speculators and trying to get Congress to investigate speculators and regulate them more heavily. But she only brings them up when prices are rising. That tells Granite Staters two things: 1) Shaheen has no idea how markets work; and 2) she is not above falsely accusing others of acting in bad faith if it will help her get elected.
But a previous Bloomberg Businessweek article explained that several of the previous surges in the price of gas during Obama's presidency were in fact due to "speculators - specifically noncommercial users" which is "jargon for investors who are buying up futures contracts not because they intend to use the oil, but because they think it's a good investment ... these are money managers betting that prices will go up."
A Media Matters analysis of major U.S. newspapers reporting on the alleged "war on coal" found that newspapers provided one-sided coverage of the issue and seldom mentioned the coal industry's negative environmental and health impacts or its efforts to fight regulations. Out of 223 articles published in major U.S. newspapers this year mentioning the phrase "war on coal," more than half failed to mention underlying issues that account for the coal industry's decline and the need for regulations. Further, less than 10 percent of articles mentioned harm caused by the coal industry or how the coal industry is fighting against regulations aimed at protecting miners and reducing pollution.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal criticized a long-awaited draft Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule to reduce smog pollution as economically harmful, echoing unfounded industry fears about EPA regulations. The EPA's estimates, however, are based on sound science and show that the smog regulation will have long-term economic benefits.
Newspapers across the country have been publishing misleading op-eds attacking the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind energy without disclosing the authors' oil-industry funding. The op-eds, which attack the wind energy policy as "corporate welfare" and "government handouts," ignore the fact that the oil and gas industry currently receives far greater government subsidies and that the PTC brings great economic benefits.
Boston Globe columnist John E. Sununu's latest piece urges approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and criticizes regulations against oil and gas companies. The Globe did not disclose that Sununu is an advisor for a Washington firm that lobbies for the pipeline's construction on behalf of its would-be builder.
Sununu is a former Republican U.S. Senator from New Hampshire who lost re-election to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in 2008. He joined Akin Gump, the top-earning lobbying firm in Washington, DC, as an adjunct senior policy advisor in 2010. His corporate profile states that he "advises clients on a wide range of public policy, strategic and regulatory issues."
In the latest example, Sununu wrote a November 20 column criticizing Democrats for failing to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He wrote that "Democrats still don't know what the Keystone debate is really all about," adding that Keystone XL "is a debate about infrastructure, regulation, and the power of government to thwart investment on the flimsiest of grounds."
Sununu added that "the public understands that allowing the government to arbitrarily stand in front of private investment and economic development sets a dangerous precedent -- something Democrats in the Senate do not."
Media figures are touting the Keystone XL pipeline as an "environmentally safe" alternative to truck and rail transportation, uncritically citing a State Department report on the environmental impact of building Keystone XL. But experts and subsequent studies have determined that the report is based on faulty conclusions and grossly underestimates greenhouse gas emissions caused by Keystone.
From the November 19 edition of CNBC's Squawk Box:
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Fox News provided American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow Jonah Goldberg a platform to attack climate scientists as profiteers who are "financially incentivized" to advocate climate change action, without disclosing AEI's own financial incentive to undercut action on climate change. AEI has taken over $3 million from ExxonMobil, and once offered money to scientists to write articles criticizing a UN climate change report.
On the November 18 edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto, Goldberg argued that climate scientists have a conflict of interest reporting on climate change because they are "deeply invested in the whole industry of global warming" for their university programs. Goldberg also called climate scientists and advocates "people who are financially incentivized to go one way."
Though host Neil Cavuto did disclose that Goldberg is a fellow at AEI, he did not mention AEI's ties to the oil industry or its history of offering money to climate scientists to write articles undermining a climate change report. In 2013, The Union of Concerned Scientists reported that AEI received $3.04 million from ExxonMobil between 2001 and 2011. According to ExxonMobil's website, in 2012 the company also donated $260,000 to AEI.
In 2007, The Guardian reported that AEI offered scientists and economists $10,000 to write articles that "emphasise the shortcomings" of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which found a 90 percent chance that human activity was causing global temperature increases.
The failure of Fox News and Goldberg to disclose ExxonMobil's contributions to AEI, or its previous attempt to pay scientists to criticize a U.N. climate change report, shows that conservative media will stop at nothing to undercut the settled science on climate change, even in the face of their own hypocrisy.
ABC's World News Tonight pushed the myth that building the Keystone XL pipeline could create up to 40,000 jobs. In fact, the pipeline is expected to create as few as 50 permanent jobs.
During a November 18 report on the failed Senate vote to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, World News Tonight anchor David Muir stated that "many argued it could have created thousands of American jobs." ABC White House correspondent Jonathan Karl added that "the jobs estimates range from 4,000 to 40,000 jobs. Proponents say it not only creates jobs, but it could lead to energy independence."
But PolitiFact has classified similar claims that the construction of the pipeline would create tens of thousands of jobs to be "mostly false," because a vast majority of the jobs would be temporary, and it "does not amount to tens of thousands of full-time jobs in the most common sense of employment." According to PolitiFact, "the State Department estimates the operation of the pipeline will only create 35 permanent, full-time jobs and 15 temporary contractors" once construction is complete.
The pipeline would also do little for "energy independence." Much of the oil that would be carried by the pipeline is slated for export, and U.S. imports of oil would be minimally affected by the supply that would flow through the pipeline.
The U.S Department of Energy's (DOE) renewable energy loan guarantee program is turning a profit after weathering years of media attacks and misinformation that attempted to paint the now defunct solar energy firm Solyndra as representative of the program's failure. Media outlets from The Washington Post to CBS News spent years profiling Solyndra, wrongly suggesting its demise was illustrative of widespread waste, fraud, failure, and political corruption among DOE loan guarantee recipients -- but will the program's latest successes receive a comparable platform?
On November 13, NPR reported that the DOE loan program, designed to "accelerate the domestic commercial deployment of innovative and advanced clean energy technologies," is now turning a profit exceeding $30 million after collecting $810 million in interest payments. NPR noted that the program was never intended to make money, making the development all the more remarkable:
Overall, the agency has loaned $34.2 billion to a variety of businesses, under a program designed to speed up development of clean-energy technology. Companies have defaulted on $780 million of that -- a loss rate of 2.28 percent. The agency also has collected $810 million in interest payments, putting the program $30 million in the black.
When Congress created the loan program under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, it was never designed to be a moneymaker. In fact, Congress imagined there would be losses and set aside $10 billion to cover them.
NPR noted that previous critics of the program have remained silent on the new revelations.
The media's coverage of the DOE's loan program over the past few years has been overwhelmingly negative and often egregiously misinformed. Coverage frequently focused on Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that received a $535 million federal loan guarantee before going bankrupt in 2011, suggesting the company's fate was representative of the program's success as a whole.
The Washington Post gave particularly outsized coverage to the Solyndra bankruptcy, devoting an entire section of its website to the so-called "Solyndra Scandal." The Post's reporting stated that President Obama "infused" politics into the program and suggested that Solyndra made the entire loan guarantee program a political liability:
Since the failure of [Solyndra], Obama's entire $80 billion clean-technology program has begun to look like a political liability for an administration about to enter a bruising reelection campaign.
Meant to create jobs and cut reliance on foreign oil, Obama's green-technology program was infused with politics at every level, The Washington Post found in an analysis of thousands of memos, company records and internal e-mails. Political considerations were raised repeatedly by company investors, Energy Department bureaucrats and White House officials.
At CBS News, then-correspondent Sharyl Attkisson issued a report on Solyndra that was rife with factual errors. The report helped earn Attkisson an award from Accuracy In Media, a conservative organization known for pushing anti-gay misinformation and bizarre conspiracy theories. CBS subsequently pulled Attkisson from a planned appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to accept the award.
Fox News demonized DOE loan programs at every turn, criticizing even companies who received no funds at all from the guarantee program.
More recently, an April Media Matters study found that the mainstream media largely failed to mention the DOE's role in the success of the electric car company Tesla Motors and ignored that the program has a higher success rate than venture capitalists.
The Post's "Wonkblog" acknowledged on November 13 that the energy loans were making money, but after years of breathless negative coverage, it remains to be seen whether these media outlets will provide a more prominent a platform to inform media consumers of evidence that counters their previous narrative.
HBO's John Oliver did what many others in the media have not by shining a spotlight on the shadowy influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). But ALEC's latest initiative, which has its sights set on molding county and municipal governments, has deeper aspirations than even Oliver's show explored -- and has been almost entirely ignored by the media.
ALEC is an organization funded mostly by corporations and conservative organizations, whose purpose, according to Fortune magazine, is to "bring business-friendly state lawmakers together with lobbyists for corporations." ALEC drafts model legislation designed to push conservative corporate agendas at the state level and does not shy away from boasting about its outsized influence on local lawmakers.
The rash of discriminatory voter ID laws popping up across the country in the past couple of election cycles was largely fueled by ALEC. This year, the group has seen success dismantling clean energy standards.
On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver described ALEC succinctly as "a conservative bill mill which has helped develop model legislation from Arizona's notorious SB 1070 immigration bill to bills expanding private prisons, payday loan companies and for-profit colleges":
OLIVER: It's basically a conservative bill mill which has helped develop model legislation from Arizona's notorious SB 1070 immigration bill to bills expanding private prisons, payday loan companies and for-profit colleges, all of which we've talked about on this very show. In fact, I'm going to list ALEC in the credits for our show as associate producer of creating horrifying things for us to talk about. Great work, ALEC! See you at the end-of-season wrap party, you pieces of shit.
The thing is, ALEC is everywhere. Roughly 1 in 4 state legislators are members, and it's not hard to see why. ALEC makes their jobs troublingly easy. Here's their model electricity freedom bill, which at one point says, "be it therefore enacted that the state of, insert state, repeals the renewable energy mandate." So, as long as you can remember and spell the name of your state, you can introduce legislation.
One reason the group has been able to remain relatively free from public scrutiny is that the media has traditionally failed to cover the connections between ALEC members serving in state legislatures and the ALEC model legislation influencing the bills they introduce -- an issue so blatant that, as Oliver points out, occasionally text is lifted word-for-word from ALEC model bills.
The good news is that over the past couple of years, ALEC's operation has been more frequently exposed to the light of day, and the group has seen sponsors scamper away as a result.
The bad news is that ALEC is expanding its influence to a hyper-local level, which even Last Week Tonight overlooked.
In August, ALEC launched an initiative to take its model legislation beyond statehouses and into city councils and county commissions. This new spinoff, the American City County Exchange, "will push policies such as contracting with companies to provide services such as garbage pick-up and eliminating collective bargaining, a municipal echo of the parent group's state strategies." The corporate influence of the initiative is poignantly illustrated by the group's membership fee disparity: Local council members and county commissioners are required to pay a nominal $100 for a two-year membership. Meanwhile, prospective private industry members must choose between a $10,000 and $25,000 membership fee.
According to a search of the Nexis database, only a tiny number of print news outlets have reported on the new initiative. And as local media outlets face extinction or the possibility of being gobbled up by billionaire media moguls, it falls to the larger outlets that remain to lead the way.