On May 12 several major media sources, including the Associated Press, ABC News, and the New York Times, propagated a misleading story about an internal interagency review memo on EPA’s “endangerment finding” on greenhouse gases. Their misleading headlines and leads, insufficient fact-checking, seeming lack of understanding of bureaucratic process, and seeming credulity in the face of global warming disinformation tactics, gave added fodder to those who are pleased to use any opportunity to demagogue against climate change mitigation.

Post by Rick Piltz

My comments on what the reporters could have done differently are at the end.

The unsigned and undated review memo in question is posted at Regulations.gov.

On May 12 the Associated Press reported (later revised from original version to include some clarification):

White House memo challenges EPA finding on warming

WASHINGTON — An Environmental Protection Agency proposal that could lead to regulating the gases blamed for global warming will prove costly for factories, small businesses and other institutions, according to a White House document….

The New York Times Green Inc. blog reported:

E.P.A.’s Greenhouse Gas Proposal Critiqued

The Environmental Protection Agency ignored major economic and scientific questions in its April proposal to regulate carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases, according to an internal government critique.

The undated and unsigned government memo, prepared by the White House Office of Management and Budget, said that the proposed finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare was not based on a systematic analysis of costs and benefits and fell short of scientific rigor on a number of issues.

It also said that the E.P.A.’s proposal to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act would have “serious economic consequences for regulated entities throughout the U.S. economy, including small businesses and small communities.”

The New York Times Dot Earth blog flagged it thusly:

Did E.P.A. Ignore Critique of CO2 Finding?

Over at Green Inc., John Broder has written about a fascinating White House document that conservative lawmakers are calling “a smoking gun”…

ABC News posted an online story (which since then has been reworked to be made more accurate, without changing the original time stamp from the morning of May 12) headlined:

Obama Administration Memo Warns of Harm to Economy if Greenhouse Gases Regulated through Clean Air Act

And so on, as the story propagated through the mediasphere, with other stories leading with basically the same frame – which suggested up-front that the Obama Administration, the White House, had criticized EPA’s formal “endangerment finding” that triggers a statutory requirement that EPA regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag set the record straight on government procedure, something on which the reporters should have done some due diligence before rushing into print:

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Clearing the Air
Peter R. Orszag, Director

Media reports today are suggesting that OMB has found fault with EPA’s proposed finding that emissions of greenhouse gases from motor vehicles contribute to air pollution that endangers public health and welfare.  Any reports suggesting that OMB was opposed to the finding are unfounded.

The quotations circulating in the press are from a document in which OMB simply collated and collected disparate comments from various agencies during the inter-agency review process of the proposed finding. These collected comments were not necessarily internally consistent, since they came from multiple sources, and they do not necessarily represent the views of either OMB or the Administration.  In other words, we simply receive comments from various agencies and pass them along to EPA for consideration, regardless of the substantive merit of those comments.  In general, passing along these types of comments to an agency proposing a finding often helps to improve the quality of the notice.

Perhaps more importantly, OMB concluded review of the preliminary finding several weeks ago, which then allowed EPA to move forward with the proposed finding. As I wrote on this blog on April 17, the “proposed finding is carefully rooted in both law and science.”  I also noted: “By itself, the EPA’s proposed finding imposes no regulation.  (Indeed, by itself, it requires nothing at all.)  If and when the endangerment finding is made final, the EPA will turn to the question whether and how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new automobiles.”

The bottom line is that OMB would have not concluded review, which allows the finding to move forward, if we had concerns about whether EPA’s finding was consistent with either the law or the underlying science.  The press reports to the contrary are simply false.

Some of the best bloggers who cover climate change called the mainstream media down for how they handled this.  David Roberts at Grist weighed in quickly:

Republicans spin the press; dog bites man
‘Obama White House’ not challenging EPA endangerment finding

Joe Romm at Climate Progress took no prisoners.

And this May 13 post-mortem by David Roberts, which you and the reporters in question should read in its entirety. It leads with:

“How the “OMB memo’ non-story happened”

Now that the “White House memo” hoopla is over—except insofar as it will live on forever as a zombie Republican talking point— it’s worth pausing to review what happened. It’s a remarkable, real-time example of how the polluter/Republican/media nexus works. And it raises some difficult questions about the media environment…

And concludes with:

In short, there’s nothing to it. The story is vapor; there is no story. And yet look what happened: all it took is for one clever operative to inject the story into one legitimate media outlet. Then Republicans amplified it and the rest of the media world dutifully took it up. Voila, it dominated a news cycle and required pushback from OMB Director Peter Orszag and the White House itself. Through the magic of spin, a nothingburger became “a story.” And now it will be repeated, over and over, forever, by pro-dirty-energy legislators and on right-wing blogs, e.g. the OMB “revealed” that EPA regs are dangerous to small business.

It will never die, never go away. And, unfortunately, this kind of thing happens constantly.

My question is: What should have been done differently once the fake story was out there?…

The post manifests a mindset that some mainstream reporters could use more of.

Now, to take a crack at answering his question:

Given that the story about the interagency review memo was originally spun up, as Roberts notes, by “Dow Jones reporter Ian Talley (known in green circles for being a frequent conduit for conservative talking points on energy),” and that it was immediately being hyped and demagogued by right-wing members of Congress who are hard-over opponents of any climate change mitigation legislation or regulation—

Given that the timing of this piece of political theater coincided with a hearing that morning (May 12) at which EPA Adminstrator Lisa Jackson testified about her agency’s budget request before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and was subjected to demagoguery based on misusing the interagency review memo—

Considering that, by now, after all that has been revealed during the past 4 years about the machinations of the global warming disinformation campaign, and presumably being well-aware that this propaganda machine of lobbyists, ideologues, media spin doctors, and politicians is in a very active and combative phase now that a new Administration and a new Congress are moving toward a more substantial response to the global climate disruption problem—

Instead of shooting first and asking questions later, shouldn’t reporters, before rushing into print, have had their skeptical-reporter antennae tuned a bit earlier to how the disinformation machine was spinning them into running stories with an implication that the White House was at odds with EPA for ignoring evidence?  Didn’t it occur to them that here we had a case of conservative media and conservative politicians, perhaps both being fed by an energy industry lobbyist or denialist “free market” anti-regulatory political operative?  And then shouldn’t that have suggested to them that maybe there was really no White House versus EPA story there. And that maybe this latest machination of the disinformation campaign might, itself, have made a good focus for some digging and reporting. 

Also, are reporters not conversant with the bureaucratic procedure of interagency review-and-comment?  Do they realize that, before using an inside document, one should have some idea of what it is, how the material in it was put together, whose thinking it represents, and what that implies for the policy process?  I realize inside-baseball-type institutional process material is pretty dry stuff, but if a reporter is going to cover government in Washington they should be knowledgeable enough about this stuff and interested enough in it to know what questions to get answered BEFORE they publish.
Before being suckered into putting out stories that conveyed a misleading impression, wouldn’t it have been better for them to get a quote from OMB Director Peter Orszag, and then to have used his clarification in framing their original stories? They should have known the essence of what later appeared in his statement before they wrote their stories. It should have been part of the ORIGINAL story, not just incorporated somewhere in a later version of the story, or noted as a lame “update,” which is how it was handled by the AP, ABC, and the Times as they covered their tracks for not doing due diligence on the story to begin with. 

I have great respect for these reporters and the essential and challenging job they’re trying to do. But everyone needs a watchdog, and this case is an example of why. Our leading media sources should be actively exposing and counteracting the disinformation campaign, not abetting it through a news cycle, however inadvertently.