The New York Times gets trees wrong — and just repeats the right-wing playbook against Build Back Better

The New York Times ran a piece Wednesday titled “From Electric Bikes to ‘Tree Equity,’ Biden’s Social Policy Bill Funds Niche Items,” in which the paper simply rehashed the longtime right-wing strategy of singling out individual items in larger federal bills — while downplaying the genuine benefits that they would provide.

“The Build Back Better Act’s marquee provisions have been the focus,” the sub-headline further added, “but Democrats have swept dozens of obscure measures and special interest breaks into the $1.85 trillion bill.” The Times missed the point here by simply leading with a standard right-wing framing, as well as not pointing out in any prominent way the dishonesty of the attacks from Republicans who have often championed some of their own “special interest breaks.”

For example, planting trees in neighborhoods where they’re scarce helps solve  a genuine problem known as the heat island effect, which disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities. Indeed, as reporter Jonathan Weisman could have learned from reading his own newspaper, decades of racism in housing policy have left minority communities with fewer trees and the environmental benefits they bring.

This legacy of past discrimination has real consequences in the present. Communities without sufficient canopy cover can reach temperatures up to 10 degrees higher than those that do, while the presence of healthy trees near roads would help filter out pollution. And surely, as the country recovers from the pandemic, there ought to be a newfound perspective on the importance of public health as a component of a functioning economy.

But the article explained none of these subtleties — only mentioning the general usage of trees for carbon capture — and shifted the blame to Democrats: “Because Democrats used the buzz phrase ‘tree equity’ to describe it, Senate Republicans singled out the $2.5 billion provision in a memo as one of the questionable ‘earmarks for Democrat interests and allies.’”

Fox News has broadcast those Republican attacks as part of a campaign against the bill’s environmental provisions. For example, on the September 27 edition of Fox’s purported “news”-side program America’s Newsroom, co-anchor Bill Hemmer boasted to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) that the network had “found some doozies in the bill” such as tree planting. (Anchor Harris Faulkner also mocked the clause, saying that “it’s important that the trees feel equal to one another,” ignoring that the bill would help actual people.)

And now, The New York Times has put the attack in its headline, without sufficient explanation of what exactly the clause is or how the right-wing circles are dishonestly attacking it.

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Citation From the September 27, 2021, episode of America's Newsroom

Furthermore, it was down in the 21st paragraph that the article finally explained that “many of the measures have bipartisan origins,” such as a tax break for independent music producers, extending an existing tax break for movies, TV, and live theater. The extension has gained the support of right-wing Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), whose state is the home of the country music industry. Blackburn says the extension “is my baby” — while she has also railed against Build Back Better as “all of these socialist wish list items.”

Just as with the bipartisan infrastructure bill, it may only be a matter of time before Republican members start taking credit for the benefits provided to their communities by Build Back Better — even as they campaigned against it — and the Times will have made that trick easier for them with its framing about Democrats being responsible for “special interest breaks.”