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  • Utilities try to exploit local media to push bogus claims about rooftop solar

    Michigan and Iowa recently saw fights over net metering play out in newspapers and other local outlets

    Blog ››› ››› TED MACDONALD


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Electric utilities and their fossil fuel-backed allies have been trying to exploit local and state media outlets as they fight net-metering policies that support rooftop solar power -- a trend we saw play out recently in Michigan and Iowa. In some cases their efforts have made use of front groups that purport to represent the interests of people of color or low-income communities. The utilities failed to decisively win their immediate battles in these two states -- in part because local news outlets also aired factually accurate coverage of the issue -- but we can expect to see utilities continue to try to manipulate local media as they push on with their war against rooftop solar.

    Fossil fuel interests have gone on the offensive against net metering for rooftop solar

    Net metering -- a policy that requires utilities to pay people with solar panels the retail rate for electricity they send to the grid -- has been a major driver of the growth of rooftop solar in the U.S. As of November 2017, 38 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico had some type of mandatory net-metering policy. And in 2018, the solar industry employed more than 240,000 people and generated $17 billion of investment in the U.S. economy, while the price of solar panels continued to drop.

    The rapid expansion of rooftop solar has alarmed utilities; the more power that customers generate themselves, the less they pay on their electric bills. So utilities and fossil fuel-backed groups have been waging war on net-metering policies at the state level. In its 2017 report “Blocking the Sun,” the nonprofit group Environment America detailed this coordinated attack by groups including the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Consumer Energy Alliance. That same year, The New York Times reported, “Prodded in part by the utilities’ campaign, nearly every state in the country is engaged in a review of its solar energy policies." And as InsideClimate News reported this month, “States are moving away from 'net metering' policies … in part because of an aggressive push by utilities to reduce what many of them see as a form of competition that could harm their bottom line." Utilities have been successful in lobbying to roll back net metering in states including Indiana and, most recently, Kentucky.

    One of net-metering opponents’ favorite arguments is that the policy leads to “cost-shifting”; they claim that because solar panel owners pay less to the utility, they are paying less for upkeep of the electric grid and shifting those costs onto other customers. Numerous studies, however, have contradicted this claim. At least 16 state-level analyses have concluded that solar panel owners offer more value to the grid and society than they get back through net metering. Net metering “frequently benefits all ratepayers when all costs and benefits are accounted for,” as a 2016 Brookings Institution report explained. A 2017 study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab concluded that cost-shifting would occur only when there are higher rates of solar penetration than are seen in most states, and even then, any effects on retail electricity prices would be “quite small compared to many other issues.”

    Utilities and other fossil fuel backers also often argue that net metering hurts lower-income ratepayers and communities of color the most -- another false claim. The NAACP endorses net metering, explaining that it and other clean-energy policies “will protect the well-being of communities as well as help to prevent climate change.” Experts at the Environmental Defense Fund found that clean energy policies including net metering can “create savings and minimize costs, drive local living-wage jobs, and improve environmental outcomes for low-income communities.” As Brentin Mock wrote in Grist, “When structured correctly, net metering can spread economic benefits across communities, including to those who can’t produce their own solar power.”

    Utilities and their allies regularly try to harness local media outlets to push out these and other anti-solar messages. We saw this in Florida in 2016, when utility surrogates published more than a dozen op-eds in newspapers (without disclosing their utility ties) that argued for a deceptive ballot amendment that would have undercut the rooftop-solar industry. (The amendment lost at the polls.) Earlier this year, utilities made similar pushes via local media outlets in Michigan and Iowa.

    Utility-backed groups promoted the anti-net-metering message in Michigan news outlets

    In 2016, the Michigan legislature passed bills requiring the state's Public Service Commission (PSC) to begin the process of phasing out net metering and figuring out what would replace it. In July 2018, major Michigan utility DTE Energy brought a case before the PSC that proposed to move far away from the net-metering model by both reducing the amount of compensation for electricity that solar panel owners send to the grid and adding a fee for their use of the grid. DTE invoked the cost-shifting argument, claiming that net-metering customers were being subsidized by those who don’t own solar panels. In early May, the PSC rejected DTE’s proposed “system access charge” for solar customers, while allowing the utility to lower the credit it pays solar panel owners for their excess electricity, but not by as much as the utility wanted. (The PSC also allowed the utility to raise electric rates overall.)

    In the period before the case was decided by the PSC, DTE’s allies pushed the utility’s message in local news outlets. At least three opinion pieces promoting DTE’s preferred policy changes appeared in media outlets within a span of eight days in February, all echoing DTE’s talking point that that rooftop solar owners are being unfairly subsidized -- and failing to mention two of the authors’ ties to utility-linked groups.

    Michigan Democratic Black Caucus member W.L. Starghill Jr. argued in Bridge Magazine, a Michigan nonpartisan news outlet, that “solar lobbyists” are “aiming to make money on the backs of low-income Michiganders.” Starghill is a member of Michigan Energy Promise, a new dark-money group that has close ties to DTE, according to reporting by the Energy News Network and research by the Energy and Policy Institute.

    Monica Martinez, a former Michigan PSC commissioner, wrote in the Lansing State Journal that she had supported net metering a decade ago, but came to believe “reforms” are needed because “those with rooftop solar were not contributing to important grid maintenance and upgrade costs that are included in everyone’s monthly energy bill. In other words, non-solar homes were subsidizing the energy grid usage of rooftop solar homes.” Martinez co-founded the group Hispanics in Energy, which lists utilities and oil companies among its “partners.” Her group has also received thousands of dollars from the Edison Electric Institute, the main trade association for investor-owned utilities, which has attacked net metering at the state level throughout the past decade.

    Former Michigan PSC Chairman John Quackenbush echoed these points in a piece in The Detroit News, criticizing net-metering policies that “disproportionately subsidize customers who are able to invest significant money up front while reaping financial benefits in the future.”

    But DTE and its allies failed to dominate the media with their message. The three outlets that ran these op-eds supporting DTE's position went on the next month to publish pieces that criticized DTE's stance -- the Lansing State Journal featured an op-ed by a chair of the Michigan State Conference NAACP, The Detroit News published a letter to the editor from the leader of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, and Bridge Magazine ran a piece by the head of Soulardarity, a nonprofit supporting local-level clean energy.

    Dark money group in Iowa promoted utility-backed anti-net-metering bill via local media and Facebook ads

    This spring in Iowa, the legislature debated the misleadingly acronymed SOLAR Act, which would have imposed new fees on those who generate electricity from solar power, thereby dissuading prospective new buyers of solar panels and severely curtailing the industry in the state. Opponents called it a “sunshine tax.” Major Iowa utility MidAmerican Energy was “heavily involved” in drafting the House and Senate versions of the bills, according to the Energy News Network. Rep. Gary Carlson (R), who introduced the House bill, received $5,000 from MidAmerican for his 2018 campaign. The legislation passed in the Senate but never made it to the House floor, so it died at the end of Iowa’s legislative session in late April. 

    While the legislature was in session, MidAmerican and its allies pushed their anti-rooftop-solar messaging out through newspapers and other media outlets in the state. MidAmerican’s CEO published an op-ed praising the SOLAR Act in The Des Moines Register, the state's biggest newspaper.

    Other media activity supporting the SOLAR Act was less obviously connected to MidAmerican. Much of it stemmed from a dark-money group called the REAL Coalition that surfaced just a few weeks before the bill was introduced, as the Energy News Network reported. The REAL Coalition is a 501(c)(4) organization that does not need to disclose its funders, but many suspect MidAmerican to be a major financial backer of the group.

    The REAL Coalition touted five letters to the editor that praised the SOLAR Act in various newspapers in Iowa, all published over a three-week period in March. The letters featured talking points that were laid out in MidAmerican’s first press release supporting the SOLAR Act -- namely, that cost-shifting is a real problem that needs to be eliminated in the interests of fairness.

    The REAL Coalition also ran ads on Facebook, conducted a telemarketing campaign, and aired a series of television advertisements that accused solar panel owners of not paying their fair share to maintain the grid. REAL Coalition ads were purchased via Del Cielo Media, a Virginia-based media buying agency that has done work for numerous Republican campaigns. Del Cielo and its parent company, Smart Media Group, worked for the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008, a pro-Rick Perry super PAC in 2012, and a pro-Donald Trump super PAC in 2016, among others.

    But solar advocates also got their arguments out in local press. Solar business owners published op-eds in The Des Moines Register and The Sioux City Journal, while a solar panel owner published one in The Des Moines Register. Two state lawmakers wrote op-eds voicing opposition to the bill that were published in the Register as well.

    Perhaps more influentially, some journalists in Iowa were skeptical about the “sunshine tax” and the REAL Coalition. Reporter Josh Scheinblum of ABC affiliate KCRG in Cedar Rapids fact-checked one of the coalition's ads in an on-air segment, which included an interview with a solar company owner who disputed cost-shifting arguments. Scheinblum said he wasn't able to find out who was behind the REAL Coalition, raising “questions on whether it's even legal.” And newspaper editorials opposing the bill ran in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

    Local media outlets have become a battleground for fights over solar policies

    As shown in these examples, utilities and fossil fuel proponents regularly make use of local media outlets to promote policies that will undercut rooftop solar power. Solar advocates also often get their messages out through local media. The result can be a barrage of competing op-eds and letters to the editor.

    Reporters and newspaper editorial boards can help their readers make sense of competing arguments by clearly disclosing op-ed authors’ affiliations and financial connections, and by weighing in themselves with fact checks and explanations that make clear who will win and who will lose if proposed policy changes are enacted.

    Montana is another notable state where a battle over rooftop solar is playing out in local newspapers. Utility NorthWestern Energy is seeking to add a monthly charge of about $50 on new net-metering customers, part of a broader rate increase request. Solar advocates have been placing op-eds and letters to the editor in Montana newspapers, calling out NorthWestern for its cynical attempt to undermine the spread of solar power. One NorthWestern employee wrote a letter to the editor, published in two papers, that backed the utility’s stance, but she’s been an outlier. So far, opponents of NorthWestern’s proposal have far outnumbered its supporters in local media messaging. The Montana Public Service Commission is expected to make a decision on this matter in the summer or early fall, so in the run-up to that, these op-eds and letters to the editor could help sway the opinions of commissioners.

    With Congress gridlocked, many key decisions on clean energy policies, including net metering, are being made at the state level. Local media outlets play a critical role in debates over these decisions, and they're at their best when they combat misinformation, lay out the facts, and give a platform to honest citizen discussion.

  • The Guide To Donald Trump's War On The Press (So Far)

    ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has an extensive history of attacking the media, and his campaign and supporters have joined in the fight throughout the election. The nominee, his surrogates, and his supporters have called media outlets and reporters across the spectrum “dishonest,” “neurotic,” “dumb,” and a “waste of time,” and until recently, the campaign had a media blacklist of outlets that weren’t allowed into campaign events.

  • Des Moines Register Castigates Sen. Chuck Grassley For Refusing To Hold Hearing On Garland

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The Des Moines Register editorial board excoriated Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) for his "simple stubbornness" in refusing to hold hearings on President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. The board slammed Grassley for his willingness to leave the court "weakened' calling his position purely partisan and "un-American."

    On March 16, President Obama nominated Garland, the chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. Conservative media have urged Republican senators to refuse to even consider any Obama nominee, and the GOP lawmakers have said they will not even give a nominee a hearing, an unprecedented obstructionist move. However, Iowa newspaper editorial boards including the Register, have been steadfast in their criticism of Grassley's "obstructionism" since he initially announced opposition to holding hearings for an Obama nominee.

    The Register's April 4 editorial condemned Grassley -- head of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- for refusing to give Garland a hearing, calling the move "pure partisanship -- and simple stubbornness," and noting that while the Supreme Court is functioning, it's "not to its full effectiveness." The editorial lectured Grassley, noting, "Senator, this seat needs to be filled, regardless of whether the presidency and your own seat is up for grabs in November," and concluded by castigating his refusal to give Garland a chance as "unsatisfying" and "un-American":

    Ties are unsatisfying, even un-American. Nothing against sports like soccer and rugby, but most U.S. sports fans prefer contests in which draws rarely if ever happen. We want a winner.

    Americans might need to get used to deadlocks, thanks to Sen. Chuck Grassley. The head of the Senate Judiciary Committee seems just fine with stalemate.

    [...]

    The Supreme Court will continue to function, but not to its full effectiveness as a third branch of government. There are already signs that the pace of rulings has slowed in the last two months.

    How long should the nation's highest court be weakened, and in some situations, effectively neutered? For more than a year, according to Grassley and other Republicans.

    Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has argued that the appointment should be delayed until a new president is sworn in 2017 -- even if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins in November.

    He calls it a waste of time to consider President Barack Obama's nominee for the court, Merrick Garland. Even though few disagree that Garland's resume is superb. Grassley even said so in 1997, when the Senate was considering Garland for an appeals court nomination: "He seems to be well-qualified. He would probably make a good judge in some other court ... where the seat needs to be filled."

    Senator, this seat needs to be filled, regardless of whether the presidency and your own seat is up for grabs in November.

    We have admired Grassley's principled stands on issues in his 35-year tenure as U.S. senator. In most cases, these stands have ensured government works more effectively and efficiently for his constituents and taxpayers.

    But refusing to hold hearings on Garland is pure partisanship -- and simple stubbornness.

    Grassley won't give Garland a chance, to even let him in the game.

    That's unsatisfying. And un-American.

  • Iowa Newspaper Editorial Boards Call Out Sen. Grassley's Supreme Court "Obstructionism"

    ››› ››› SALVATORE COLLELUORI & JARED HOLT

    On February 23, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) joined other GOP leaders in declaring his intention to refuse consideration of any person President Barack Obama nominates to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia's February 13 death. Iowa newspaper editorial boards have criticized Grassley and other Senate Republicans' obstructionism, writing that it's "wrong," it's "shameful," and it "disrespects the Constitution."

  • Newspaper Editorial Boards Overwhelmingly Urge Senate To "Do Your Job" And Vote On Obama's SCOTUS Nominee

    ››› ››› KATE SARNA

    Newspaper editorial boards are overwhelmingly urging GOP Senate leadership to hold hearings and vote on President Obama's Supreme Court nomination to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. A vast number of the boards have called GOP pledges to block a nomination "outrageous," "irresponsible," obstructionism rooted in "partisan self-interest" which "deeply damages the operation of the Judiciary Branch" and "represents an act of disrespect to Justice Scalia."

  • Media Falsely Attribute Clinton Iowa Caucuses Win To Coin Flips

    ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON & BRENNAN SUEN

    Media figures are erroneously attributing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses to her wins in coin tosses held at several precincts to determine the apportionment of unassigned delegates. Media figures claiming that coin tosses could have flipped the outcome misunderstand the caucus process by wrongly conflating county-level delegates -- which the coin tosses assign -- and state delegate equivalents (SDEs). As The Des Moines Register explained, the coin flips "had an extremely small effect on the overall outcome."

  • Des Moines Register Editorial: Benghazi Committee "Nothing But A Political Tool For The GOP"

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The Des Moines Register editorial board criticized the House Select Committee on Benghazi, writing that it's time to "cut bait" on the endeavor because its most recent "exercise" proved that the committee is "nothing but a political tool for the GOP."

    The committee, which Fox News clamored for and helped along by running over one thousand mostly myth-filled segments in the 20 months following the attack, has attempted to maintain its credibility despite admissions by prominent Republicans and Fox News itself that its intentions are "political" and aimed at hurting Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential chances.

    The Register's October 29 editorial discussed the committee, and specifically Clinton's testimony at its October 22 hearing, and explained that while the 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya "was a matter deserving of close congressional scrutiny," answers to questions about the attack "were answered definitively more than a year ago." The editorial also criticized Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) for seeming "more and more like a conspiracy theorist and less and less like a congressman" in light of his many questions at the hearing about the personal relationship between Clinton and Sidney Blumenthal. The editorial continued:

    The exercise seemed to confirm only what House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said recently, praising the committee's work as it relates to Clinton's then-declining poll numbers.

    In defending the committee's work, Gowdy says he has interviewed 41 witnesses that no other committee interviewed, including seven who were eyewitnesses. But this claim simply underscores the fact that Gowdy has strayed far afield of previous investigations, broadening the scope of previous inquiries while still producing nothing of substance.

    In fact, Gowdy says he is now focused on Clinton's emails -- but only, he insists, those that "relate to Libya and Benghazi." It's hard to conceive of any emails that would shed any sort of light on the tragedy in Benghazi. His time would be better spent looking into congressional refusals to provide funding, requested by the State Department, for additional security at foreign installations.

    Now top Senate Democrats are asking the Republican National Committee to reimburse taxpayers for the committee's expenses. The Democratic request is political theater that only serves to heighten the partisan divide in Congress, but the Democrats are justified in their outrage.

    The House Select Committee on Benghazi proved itself to be nothing but a political tool for the GOP -- one that cost the American taxpayers almost $5 million.

  • National Black Chamber Of Commerce Joins Oil Industry's Op-Ed Campaign Against EPA Climate Plan

    Exxon-Funded Outfit Peddles Debunked Studies To Dispute Clean Power Plan's Benefit For Blacks And Hispanics

    ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER & DENISE ROBBINS

    Like Americans for Prosperity, the Beacon Hill Institute, and the State Policy Network before it, the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) is the latest oil industry front group to run a deceptive op-ed campaign against the EPA's climate change plan, with NBCC president Harry C. Alford alleging in newspapers across the country that the Clean Power Plan will impose "economic hardship" on blacks and Hispanics. None of these newspapers disclosed that the NBCC has received $1 million from the ExxonMobil Foundation, and the op-eds themselves rely on climate science denial and thoroughly debunked industry-linked studies in an attempt to dismiss the financial and health benefits the Clean Power Plan will provide to black and Hispanic communities.

  • Iowa Newspapers Speak Out Over Joni Ernst Snubbing Them

    "I Cannot Recall A Time That That Has Happened Before"

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Iowa Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst has canceled or declined to meet with editorial boards at several major Iowa newspapers, including the Des Moines Register, the largest circulation daily in the state. 

    In interviews with Media Matters, staffers at those outlets suggested Ernst's lack of availability is nearly unprecedented.

    Ernst is a state senator and the Republican nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin. She is facing Democratic challenger Bruce Braley, currently a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    In a post to Facebook this morning, Rekha Basu, a Register columnist who participates in the endorsement interviews, announced Ernst had "unilaterally" canceled a planned meeting with her paper's editorial board. Noting she had "also begged off meetings with The Cedar Rapids Gazette and The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald," Basu asked, "Is Joni Ernst afraid of newspaper editorial boards?"

    Basu told Media Matters that such a cancellation by a major party U.S. Senate candidate has never occurred before during her 23 years at the paper.

    "Never, not that I'm aware of," Basu said. "Not in the time I've been here, no refusing."

    Basu, who declined to speculate on Ernst's reason for pulling out of the meeting, pointed out that Ernst did meet with the editorial board in May during the Republican primary and received the paper's endorsement at that time.

    "I think it's a very important forum in which to explain one's positions and stand up for them, to make the case for why they are the best person to be elected," Basu said. "I would hope that if someone is committed to being in the U.S. Senate that they would be able to share directly with reporters and editors their reasons and uphold their policy positions."

    The paper has yet to endorse a U.S. Senate candidate for the general election next month.

    Editors at other Iowa newspapers also spoke out about Ernst declining or avoiding meetings.  

    "We never got anything on the schedule," said Elizabeth Schott, director of editorial relations for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. "We did request, we offered, we would have liked to interview her, but they chose to spend her time elsewhere. I cannot recall a time that that has happened before. We interviewed 27 other candidates this season, from county supervisor all the way up to U.S. Senate."

    Amy Gilligan, managing editor of the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald and a member of the editorial board, said she does not believe another major candidate had declined to meet with the newspaper in her 25 years on staff.

    "I don't think it's ever happened," she said. "I was surprised, we have the senators in Iowa, it's a huge position and we have such long-serving senators that they're nationally known and iconic and Senator [Chuck] Grassley and Harkin have always made time to come here."

  • VIDEO: What The Press Is Missing About Midwest Floods

    Blog ››› ››› JILL FITZSIMMONS

    As Midwestern states assess the damage wrought by record flooding in recent weeks, scientists tell Media Matters that the media has missed an important part of the story: the impact of climate change. A Media Matters analysis finds that less than 3 percent of television and print coverage of the flooding mentioned climate change, which has increased the frequency of large rain storms and exacerbated flood risks.

    Seven out of eight scientists interviewed by Media Matters agreed that climate change is pertinent to coverage of recent flooding in the Midwest. Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer told Media Matters it is "not only appropriate, but advisable" for the press to note that rainstorms in the Midwest are increasing in frequency and that climate models "suggest this trend will continue," which will contribute to more flooding. Aquatic ecologist Don Scavia added that this is the "new normal," and that the media is "missing an important piece of information" by ignoring this trend.

    Indeed, climate change has been almost entirely absent from national and local reporting on the floods. Only one of 74 television segments mentioned climate change, on CBS News. ABC, NBC and CNN never mentioned the connection.

    Meanwhile, USA TODAY was the only national print outlet to report on Midwest floods in the context of climate change. USA TODAY also created a video, featured above, explaining the connection as part of a year-long series on the impacts of climate change.  

  • STUDY: Media Ignore Climate Context Of Midwest Floods

    ››› ››› SHAUNA THEEL & JILL FITZSIMMONS

    The Midwest has experienced near record flooding this spring, resulting in four deaths, extensive property damage, and disruptions of agriculture and transportation. Evidence suggests that manmade climate change has increased the frequency of heavy downpours, and will continue to increase flooding risks. But in their ample coverage of Midwestern flooding, major media outlets rarely mentioned climate change.

  • STUDY: TV Media Covered Biden's Smile Nearly Twice As Much As Climate Change

    ››› ››› SHAUNA THEEL, JILL FITZSIMMONS & MAX GREENBERG

    Climate change was almost entirely absent from the political discourse this election season, receiving less than an hour of TV coverage over three months from the major cable and broadcast networks excluding MSNBC. By contrast, those outlets devoted nearly twice as much coverage to Vice President Joe Biden's demeanor during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan. When climate change was addressed, print and TV media outlets often failed to note the scientific consensus or speak to scientists.

  • Media continue to repeat plagiarism accusation without noting that Biden had previously credited Kinnock

    ››› ››› LILY YAN & DIANNA PARKER

    Media outlets continue to report that Sen. Joe Biden was accused in 1987 of plagiarizing then-British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock without noting that while Biden did paraphrase from a Kinnock speech without attribution on at least two occasions in August 1987, he had reportedly credited Kinnock when previously using the same language.