CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell interviewed philanthropist Bill Gates on Tuesday and asked questions about the electricity breakdowns in Texas that simply regurgitated some discredited talking points from right-wing media.
“More than 4 million customers are without power after this Arctic blast froze wind turbines,” O’Donnell claimed. “The Wall Street Journal, today, argues that this is the risk of trying to banish fossil fuels. Is what’s happening in Texas a sign of the limits of clean energy like wind?” She also later claimed: “In Texas, which gets a fair portion of their energy from wind turbines, those wind turbines are frozen, and you hear energy officials in the state saying that is part of the problem.”
In fact, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has acknowledged on Twitter that coal and gas generators in the state have also frozen over. (But this fact hasn’t stopped Abbott from repeating the same false talking points about wind power to right-wing audiences.) And as Bloomberg reported, current wind energy production has been exceeding the grid operator’s forecast — so the closure of some wind turbines is a symptom of the state’s overall infrastructure failures, not the cause.
Additionally, the state’s electricity infrastructure is not sufficiently winterized, with a portfolio manager at a sustainable energy investment firm characterizing it as a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices,” rather than preparation for dangerous contingencies. Texas experienced something similar 10 years ago when the state had to announce rolling blackouts during the winter, highlighting the need for better winter precautions. But the state’s electricity providers still failed to make those needed investments.
It is also frustrating that O’Donnell chose to discuss these complex subjects with the billionaire philanthropist Gates, who is not actually a climate and energy expert, instead of speaking to a real scientist. But to his credit, he actually covered an important point in his responses to O’Donnell: Most of Texas is not connected to any national power grid, which stems from a longstanding policy in the state to remain isolated from federal regulations via its own self-contained system. If the state’s grid had been connected to the rest of the country, Gates pointed out, then it would be able to receive electricity from providers further away.
While O’Donnell cited editorials from The Wall Street Journal that have been pontificating on the supposed follies of green energy and claiming that natural gas and coal generators had been “ramped up” to cover the supposed shortfall from wind, she could have instead referred to the Journal’s news pages, which told a different story.
The Journal’s news side reported that the state’s power grid had “lost about 34,000 megawatts of supply as freezing temperatures forced natural-gas- and coal-fired power plants offline in quick succession” and that wind power only makes up 23% of the state’s overall electricity generation, while natural gas and coal have a combined total of 58%. (In winter, wind power accounts for just 10% of Texas electricity generation.)
The Journal’s editorial board and opinion contributors routinely disregard facts that are reported by the paper’s news pages, justifying these practices under a claim of editorial independence. In fact, when 280 news reporters sent a letter to the newspaper publisher last year registering their grievances about the “lack of fact-checking and … [an] apparent disregard for evidence” in the Journal’s opinion section, the editorial board ridiculed the protest, dismissing it as “cancel-culture pressure.” (It was the news reporters who practically begged in their letter to “not be reprimanded for writing about errors published in Opinion.”)
The problem remains that in right-wing media, the “news” desks exist as a business front to confer credibility on the opinion sections as they continue to spread blatant falsehoods — which can then filter into mainstream media, when journalists like O’Donnell repeat them.