For the press, it was too good to be true -- and it was. The news media was eating up anything it could find about Solyndra when Bloomberg ran a September 28 report headlined "Solyndra Plant Had Whistling Robots, Spa Showers" focused on the amenities of Solyndra's facility including "robots that whistled Disney tunes." Fifteen paragraphs in, Bloomberg eventually explained:
Robots that resembled "a big freezer with wheels" maneuvered around the factory transporting panels from one machine to another, said George Garma, 49, a former Solyndra equipment maintenance technician from Fremont. The Disney tunes alerted workers to the robots' presence.
Or, as Politifact recently reported, the "robots" were "automated guided vehicles" designed to transport materials -- a common technology used since the 1950's -- and the "whistling" was preloaded music played to alert workers that the vehicles were nearby for safety reasons. The automated vehicles were not lavish expenses, but standard technology that reduced labor costs. Music is used instead of beeping, which "can drive workers nuts -- and sometimes they tune it out, presenting a safety hazard," according to Politifact.
But Greenwire and CNN's American Morning didn't see fit to explain any of that. Neither, of course, did Fox News in its coverage of the "singing robots" on Your World, On The Record, and Special Report. Andrew Napolitano declared on his Fox Business show that Solyndra executives "entertain themselves with robots whistling Disney tunes in the hallways." I could be entertained by this for hours:
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?
In a report for the New York Times' website about Al Gore's "24 Hours of Reality" event about climate change, ClimateWire lent a megaphone to Canadian climate contrarian Tom Harris. The reporter summarized Gore's event and then, ostensibly to provide balance, turned the rest of the article over to Harris, who thinks Gore's event spent "time and energy on something that's not true."
ClimateWire quoted Harris' claims that the "amount of climate change impact that humans have is very small," and "This extreme weather thing is not a function of temperature," as well as his allegation that "90 percent of the important facts [in Gore's presentations] are wrong or misrepresented." The article offered no details to support this claim. Nor did mention that the vast majority of scientists agree that humans are changing the climate. And at no point did the article explain who Tom Harris is or why he was quoted evaluating statements about science instead of, say, a climate scientist.
Elsewhere on the Times' website, Andrew Revkin has explained what's wrong with this type of reporting:
The norm of journalistic balance has been exploited by opponents of emissions curbs. Starting in the late 1990s, big companies whose profits were tied to fossil fuels recognized they could use this journalistic practice to amplify the inherent uncertainties in climate projections and thus potentially delay cuts in emissions from burning those fuels. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this strategy was a long memo written by Joe Walker, who worked in public relations at the American Petroleum Industry, that surfaced in 1998. According to this ''Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,'' first revealed by my colleague John Cushman at the New York Times, ''Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom'' for ''average citizens'' and ''the media'' (Cushman 1998). The action plan called for scientists to be recruited, be given media training, highlight the questions about climate, and downplay evidence pointing to dangers. Since then, industry-funded groups have used the media's tradition of quoting people with competing views to convey a state of confusion even as consensus on warming has built.