Less than one week into Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and it's a blurry image from a fast-food restaurant security video that's emerged as the defining media image. After "news" broke that Clinton, en route to Iowa to meet with voters, stopped in at an Ohio Chipotle for lunch and that the order was captured on film, the press corps basically went bonkers, treating it like a Tupac sighting and going all-in with fevered reporting.
The New York Times first got hold of the security cam video and reported that Clinton's order "included a Blackberry Izze drink, a soda and a chicken salad, and was filled just after 1 p.m." (1:20 p.m., to be exact, according to the New York Daily News.) Who carried the tray after payment? Clinton herself, the Times explained to readers.
Stories like the original Times report are not entirely out of the ordinary for campaign coverage. But the way the rest of the press went completely overboard in its wake suggests we could be in for a long and painful 19 months before the 2016 election.
More tick-tock details followed. "The newly-minted presidential candidate ordered a chicken bowl with guacamole, a chicken salad and fruit juice," according to ABC News, which interviewed the restaurant's manager. (The guacamole and fruit juice information was considered a mini-scoop; Business Insider noted guacamole "costs extra.")
For days, Clinton's Chipotle stop served as a treasure trove of information: Who made Clinton's burrito bowl? Politico sent a reporter to Maumee and determined, "The 25-year-old who cooked the chicken that went into the burrito bowl Hillary Clinton ordered at the Chipotle here on Monday makes $8.20 an hour and splits rent with two roommates." And assistant general manager Jef Chiet got Clinton her drink, Politico confirmed, "first a blackberry Izze, which she decided she didn't want after she read the ingredients, so he replaced it with an iced tea."
But campaign sleuths weren't finished. Bloomberg confirmed that, "The change from the meal totaled less than a dollar, but it was pocketed rather than deposited in the tip jar as many customers at the restaurant do."
Could any political analysis be gleaned from the mundane lunchtime stop? Of course:
"Hillary Clinton Goes Unnoticed at Chipotle In Botched Retail Politicking Bid" (Washington Times)
"Clinton Bypassed Centrist Taco Bell for Liberal Favorite Chipotle" (Wall Street Journal)
"What Hillary Clinton's Chipotle Stop Says About Her Campaign" (Christian Science Monitor)
Is it possible that maybe she was just hungry?
The Chipotle nonsense reached such heights (or depths), that even starstruck E! called out the political press for its ridiculous overreaction to the story, and the fact that "ChipotleGate 2015" triggered "all sorts of in-depth analysis, from what her choice in burrito bowl means for America, to whether her decision to don sunglasses means she's unfit to be president."
During her first week on the campaign trail, Clinton has avoided any defining, self-inflicted gaffes. The same cannot be said of the press.
News organizations have gone on a "staffing binge" in preparation for the 2016 campaign, according to the Washington Post. That means political units have to produce content, no matter how trivial and innocuous. The machine must be fed (clicks must be harvested). And right now, that machine is spitting out some dreadful, breathless, and gossipy campaign dispatches that are divorced from anything remotely connected to a public discourse.
Just think about the Chipotle story. Was Clinton in hiding at the time? Had she dared the press to find her out? Was there any reason to think her highway pit stop for food was newsworthy? No, no and no. Maybe -maybe -- if it were the final weeks of an historically close White House campaign, that kind of myopic attention paid to a lunch order would be warranted. But 70-plus weeks before voters go to the polls? It's unfathomable.
Chipotle Week was so bad it produced a sense of dismay among some media observers and practitioners, as expressed on Twitter.
Daily Beast executive editor Noah Shachtman:
Hillary's campaign is only three days old and it has already been the subject of some of the worst political "journalism" of all time.-- Noah Shachtman (@NoahShachtman) April 15, 2015
New York Times writer Nate Cohn:
A lot of the analysis of the nascent Clinton campaign is unusually vacuous--and that says something-- Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) April 15, 2015
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen:
Detecting a sense of dread coming over watchers of campaign coverage after the first few weeks... Plotting how to write criticism into that.-- Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) April 15, 2015
The irony was that while the campaign press freaked out over the trivia surrounding Clinton's lunch order, some pundits were simultaneously castigating the candidate for not rolling out a sweeping campaign agenda.
Politico assigned no fewer than eight reporters for an article about how, just 72 hours into her likely 18-month campaign, Clinton "has been slow" to articulate detailed positions on issues such as fast-track trade agreements and the need for reform at the National Security Agency.
The team at NBC's First Read agreed: "That lack of a message was on display at her Iowa event yesterday." Well, actually that wasn't true. NBC conceded that Clinton had already detailed four fights she wants to wage: "1) building an economy for tomorrow, 2) strengthening families and communities, 3) fixing America's political system by getting rid of "unaccountable" money, and 4) protecting the country."
Additionally, NBC reported Clinton had struck a "populist tone" and condemned income equality in America. But NBC didn't think any of that counted as much of a "message" from Clinton because she was just saying "what you hear from 90% of Democratic candidates running for downballot office."
Clinton didn't say anything entertaining and newsy! "She didn't say anything unique, which was always going to be the shortcoming of a rollout emphasizing theater over substance/message," according to NBC.
And there's the media's inadvertent punch line: It's Clinton who's guilty of emphasizing "theater over substance."
The staff at the Maumee, Ohio, Chipotle might disagree.
Many news outlets are uncritically touting the State Department's conclusion that building the Keystone XL pipeline would not significantly worsen climate change without noting that this determination was based on an expectation of high oil prices. Some media outlets, however, have reported the significance of the recent plunge in oil prices, such as the Associated Press, which noted that "[l]ow oil prices could make the pipeline more important to the development of new oil sands projects in Canada than anticipated by the State Department ... and therefore is more likely to increase emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming."
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 Daily Beast is dubbing the Environmental Protection Agency's new clean power plan "Obamacare for the Air" in part because it is "intensely polarizing." But the reason that the standards are "polarizing" is that, just like with Obamacare's individual mandate, Republicans have abandoned their previous support for addressing this pressing issue with market-based policies as they move further to the extreme right.
On June 2, the EPA proposed the first standards for carbon pollution from existing power plants, which would allow states flexibility on how to achieve the pollution cuts. States could, for instance, mandate installations of new clean power technology or join regional cap-and-trade programs that take a market-based approach to promoting clean power. The Daily Beast's Jason Mark labeled the standards "Obamacare for the Air" because both plans are "numbingly complex," "based on a market system," "likely to transform a key sector of the economy," and "guaranteed to be intensely polarizing." The Christian Science Monitor's David Unger similarly compared the standards to Obamacare in part because they are "controversial." The editor in chief of the Daily Beast, John Avalon adopted the analogy on CNN's New Day, calling it a "long-time liberal priority."
Both articles left out why the EPA standards are contentious among the political class: it's not because the proposals are "liberal," but rather because the Republican party has shifted so far to the right that it now attacks proposals that it once advocated for. Many prominent Republicans supported a cap-and-trade program before Barack Obama was elected president, just as they once supported the individual mandate in Obamacare. In fact, the greenhouse gas emissions cuts that Sen. John McCain proposed during the 2008 election were far more extensive than the EPA's current proposal. The video below by Media Matters Action Network shows how Republicans used to talk about climate change in ways that they never would today:
As the Republican Party shifted to the right, so too did the conservative media. The Wall Street Journal editorial board previously stated that "the Bush Administration should propose a domestic cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide that could, of course, be easily expanded to Canada and Mexico. And then to Latin America. And then the world." Now the paper's editorials deride this conservative idea as "cap-and-tax." Yet mainstream reporters are often loathe to point out this profound shift, sticking instead to "both-sides-to-blame reporting."
A group named Donors Trust has been funneling far more money than ExxonMobil ever did to climate denial groups, but because the source of the funds remains largely hidden, the public has been unable to pressure the donations to stop as they did with Exxon. A small portion of Donors Trust's funding was recently revealed by the Center for Public Integrity, yet even that small portion has significant ties to the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests.
Between 2008 and 2011, Donors Trust doled out over $300 million in grants to what it describes as "conservative and libertarian causes," serving as "the dark money ATM of the conservative movement." Donors Trust enables donors to give anonymously, noting on its website that if you "wish to keep your charitable giving private, especially gifts funding sensitive or controversial issues," you can use it to direct your money.
One of the "controversial issues" that Donors Trust and its sister organization Donors Capital Fund have bankrolled is the campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change and delay any government action to reduce emissions.* The following chart created by The Guardian based on data from Greenpeace shows that as ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundations have reduced traceable funding for these groups, donations from Donors Trust have surged:
Several of these organizations have sown confusion about the science demonstrating climate change. The Heartland Institute, which The Economist called the "world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change," received over $14 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, making up over a quarter of Heartland's budget. in 2010. In 2012, Heartland launched a billboard campaign comparing those that accept climate science to The Unabomber, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro. Several corporate donors distanced themselves from the organization, but Donors Trust made no comment. Heartland removed the billboard soon afterward but refused to apologize for the "experiment."
Meanwhile, The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) received over $4 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, accounting for over 45 percent of CFACT's budget in 2010. The highest-paid member of CFACT's staff is Marc Morano, who runs a website that pushes misleading attacks on climate science. Morano defended Heartland's billboard and said that climate scientists "deserve to be publicly flogged." Despite Morano's sordid background, CNN twice hosted him to "debate climate change and if it is really real" without disclosing that he has no scientific training and is paid by an industry-funded organization. CFACT lists the Forbes columns of Larry Bell, who calls global warming a "hoax," as "CFACT research and commentary." The organization is advised by several prominent climate misinformers, including Lord Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has revealed the sources of approximately $18.8 million of Donors Trust's funding from 2008 to 2011, culled from Internal Revenue Service filings. That leaves over $281 million in anonymous funds during that period, assuming that the organization gives out approximately as much as it takes in each year.
While the individuals and corporations funding Donors Trust remain largely hidden, we know that at least five separate foundations connected to Koch Industries have given over $3.8 million to Donors Trust in recent years. Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, is the largest privately owned company in the U.S. and controls several oil refineries and pipelines.
Now that the Obama administration and Congress are engaged in a debate over immigration policy, a Media Matters review of major news outlets has found that when it comes to immigration coverage, anti-immigrant commentator Mark Krikorian continues to be the media's preferred conservative voice. Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a group associated with notorious nativist John Tanton and whose research has been called into question -- but these facts are routinely ignored in coverage of his remarks.
An analysis by the Checks & Balances Project finds that 60 major newspapers frequently quote fossil fuel-funded think tanks on energy and environmental issues without disclosing their industry ties. Further research by Media Matters finds that the Wall Street Journal's lack of disclosure has been especially glaring.
The Checks & Balances Project found that between 2007-2011, industry-funded organizations like the Heartland Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation were cited or quoted over 1000 times in 60 publications, often to attack environmental regulations or renewable energy technology. Their ties to fossil fuel interests were disclosed only 6 percent of the time, despite the fact that 17 percent of mentions promoted fossil fuels. The analysis concluded that "a transactional relationship of contributions in exchange for national media traction is playing out" between these groups and their corporate benefactors.
Expanding on these results, Media Matters found that the Wall Street Journal cited, quoted or featured these think tanks on energy issues more than 100 times between 2007-2011 -- more than any of the other other major papers evaluated by Checks & Balances. But the Journal -- which has a history of failing to disclose fossil fuel ties - mentioned the funding sources for these groups just under 4 percent of the time, slightly worse than the average disclosure rate for the other 60 publications.
Reuters is running the headline: "More US coal plants to retire due to green rules-study." But the group that authored the study says the additional expected retirements are "Due To Low Natural Gas Prices," not Environmental Protection Agency rules.
Economists at the Brattle Group project in a new report that "59 GW to 77 GW (for lenient versus strict [regulatory] scenarios, respectively) of coal plant capacity are likely to retire" by 2016 -- more than previously forecast. But as David Roberts at Grist first noted, the report attributed this change primarily to "changing market conditions, not environmental rule revisions, which have trended toward more lenient requirements and schedules."
The Chicago Tribune and Scientific American are running the Reuters report with versions of its inaccurate headline. And Roberts noted that another mainstream media outlet is making this mistake: a Christian Science Monitor guest blog titled "Study: EPA regulations squelch US coal industry." (UPDATE 10/10/12: The Christian Science Monitor has removed this post, redirecting readers to an article from September that noted "some experts" say coal plant closures are "coming less from the Obama administration than from natural gas.")
These inaccurate reports feed into the conservative myth that long overdue clean air and water regulations constitute a "war on coal," even though many experts say that the primary reason for declining coal generation is the low price of natural gas.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the UN and vocal critic of the Obama administration, is often sought after by the media for his opinion on foreign policy issues, but his stake in the presidential election -- as a foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney -- is rarely, if ever, disclosed by the outlets that publish him.
In addition to editorials in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, and appearances on Fox News that left Bolton's ties to Romney undisclosed, a Media Matters review found editorials in five additional publications written or co-written by Bolton that left out that key information.
In total, Bolton wrote seven editorials that were critical of Obama's policies for The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Examiner, The Weekly Standard and the National Review after he became affiliated with the Romney campaign. None of those op-eds identified Bolton as a member of the Romney team. However, three of those outlets -- the Times, Monitor, and the Examiner -- have reported separately on Bolton's position in the campaign.
Ahead of today's release of the annual Social Security trustees' report, Trudy Lieberman of the Columbia Journalism Review reviewed the failures of the mainstream media in its coverage of Social Security. As Lieberman wrote, "[M]uch of the press has reported only one side of this story using 'facts' that are misleading or flat-out wrong while ignoring others."
A great example of the media's unwillingness to accurately report on Social Security came when Texas Gov. Rick Perry described the program as a "Ponzi scheme." Most coverage of the incident focused either on its political fallout or presented the issue in a "he said-she said" style -- ignoring the false nature of the "Ponzi" attack.
Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. People who call it a Ponzi scheme are not "wrong but partially right," they're not "called wrong by critics" -- they're just wrong.
A Ponzi scheme is a criminal endeavor that involves opaque financial dealings that promise investment returns when none or next to none actually exist. Social Security's finances are crystal clear, and the interest generated by its trust fund is quite real.
A Ponzi scheme eventually collapses. According to last year's report, Social Security can continue as it is, paying full benefits for nearly 25 years, and 77 percent of promised benefits thereafter.
During coverage of Perry's claims, the Los Angeles Times wrote that "[s]upporters of Social Security argue that the program is a general benefit," while "[o]pponents, like Perry, see the program as a robbing of one generation to pay for the older one, a type of cheat akin to a Ponzi scheme." At no point did the article acknowledge that the "Ponzi scheme" attack was incorrect.
Meanwhile, a Politico story focused entirely on reactions to Perry's comments from Republican officials and completely ignored whether or not his comments had any basis in reality. And a Christian Science Monitor article reported that Perry "says he is not backing down from what he said, but the point is to get people's attention and push for ways to reform Social Security so it will endure long enough to help today's youngsters."
Both mainstream and conservative media outlets have responded to the recent spike in gasoline prices by circulating talking points rooted in politics rather than facts. As a whole, these claims reflect the misconception, perpetuated by the news media, that changes in U.S. energy policy are a major driver of oil and gasoline prices.
Citing a study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas industry trade group, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry claimed he could create over a million jobs by expanding domestic fossil fuel production. That estimate is based on highly dubious assumptions, but several news outlets have uncritically repeated it.
Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, did what so many news media outlets have proven unable or unwilling to do, and actually scrutinized API's numbers. He concluded that they are "unrealistic":
The numbers that Perry and Romney are offering for job creation in the energy sector are unrealistic. They assume that they will be reversing deeply anti-industry Obama policies that don't actually exist (which is not to say that the Obama policies have no flaws), ignore real constraints at the state level, and don't fully account for market dynamics. Five hundred thousand is a reasonable upper limit for the number of jobs that a new policy might create by 2030, of which 130,000 or so might actually be in oil and gas. Taking into account market dynamics could lower those numbers further.
The Washington Post also recently reported that that "only a third of the 1.4 million positions created would go to people working directly for the petroleum industry." API's job creation estimate includes "a seldom-used category known as 'induced jobs' that API says covers everything from valets to day-care providers, from librarians to rocket scientists," according to the Post. The article added that energy economist Philip Verleger said "The API is the best there is at lying with statistics."
Yet according to a Nexis search, several news outlets simply repeated Rick Perry's claim that his energy plan could produce more than one million jobs.
A study published in the prestigious journal American Economic Review estimates that the costs imposed on society by air pollution from coal-fired power plants are greater than the value added to the economy by the industry. The study concluded that coal may be "underregulated" since the price we pay for coal-fired power doesn't account for its costs.
According to a Nexis search, not a single major newspaper or television network has covered the study. By contrast, an industry-funded report on the cost of EPA regulations of these air pollutants has received considerable media attention.
The authors of the American Economic Review paper -- Nicholas Muller of Middlebury College and Yale's William Nordhaus and Robert Mendelsohn -- are considered centrists. Mendelsohn opposed the Kyoto climate treaty and spoke this year at the right-wing Heartland Institute's conference on climate change.
Economist Paul Krugman wrote that the study should "be a major factor in how we discuss economic ideology," adding "It won't, of course." From Krugman's post:
It's important to be clear about what this means. It does not necessarily say that we should end the use of coal-generated electricity. What it says, instead, is that consumers are paying much too low a price for coal-generated electricity, because the price they pay does not take account of the very large external costs associated with generation. If consumers did have to pay the full cost, they would use much less electricity from coal -- maybe none, but that would depend on the alternatives.
At one level, this is all textbook economics. Externalities like pollution are one of the classic forms of market failure, and Econ 101 says that this failure should be remedied through pollution taxes or tradable emissions permits that get the price right. What Muller et al are doing is putting numbers to this basic proposition -- and the numbers turn out to be big. So if you really believed in the logic of free markets, you'd be all in favor of pollution taxes, right?
The national debate on the future of Social Security is surrounded by falsehoods and misconceptions regarding the program's finances and its relationship to the federal budget -- misconceptions that are repeatedly reinforced by major media outlets. In fact, as it's currently constructed, Social Security cannot add to the deficit in the long run, does not present a major threat to America's fiscal future, and is backed by some of the safest financial assets in the world.
Numerous mainstream media outlets have reported on Republicans' accusations that the Obama administration's drilling policies are to blame for the recent increase in gas prices. These media have failed to alert their audiences to the fact that according to energy experts, the allegation is entirely without merit.