The last time Newsweek published an anti-environment op-ed without disclosing the author's oil industry ties, the esteemed news outlet was forced to acknowledge the error and provide proper disclosure to its readers. Now it's happened again.
On October 1, Newsweek published an op-ed by the Cato Institute's Walter Olson that argued against calls for the government to investigate climate science deniers under the federal racketeering law. But Newsweek identified Olson only as "a senior fellow at the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies," failing to disclose that Cato has received funding from the oil industry, including ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil is currently under fire after an InsideClimate News investigation revealed that although Exxon's own scientists discovered decades ago that fossil fuel emissions could lead to catastrophic climate change, the company subsequently "spent more than 20 years discrediting the research its own scientists had once confirmed." Additionally, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and a group of 20 prominent scientists have called for an investigation of "corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change" under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, the same law that tobacco companies violated by deceiving the public about the health risks of smoking.
In his Newsweek op-ed, Olson pushed back against the idea of investigating climate science deniers under the RICO statute, claiming it threatens the right to free speech. Olson asserted that "controversial speech need not be true to be protected" and defended the right to use "half-truths, selectively marshaled data, [and] scientific studies that spring from agendas," arguing that these tactics are merely "common currency of everyday debate in Washington."
Newsweek failed to disclose the Cato Institute's industry funding, which includes at least $125,000 from ExxonMobil. Cato was co-founded by the oil billionaire Koch brothers and has received millions of dollars from the Koch family.
The Cato Institute is also home to long-time climate science denier Patrick Michaels, and once published a fake "addendum" to a federal climate report, which Climate Science & Policy Watch characterized as "counterfeit."
In April, Newsweek published a deeply-flawed op-ed attacking wind energy by Utah State University professor Randy T. Simmons without disclosing that Simmons' full title at Utah State was the Charles G. Koch professor of political economy, or that he is a senior fellow at the Koch- and ExxonMobil-funded Property and Environment Research Center. After Media Matters and others drew attention to the lack of disclosure and other problems with the op-ed, Newsweek added a correction and an editor's note disclosing Simmons' oil industry ties, and also published an op-ed responding to his misleading claims.
Following the incident, Newsweek Managing Editor Kira Bindrim told Politico: "Admittedly, we did not do an outside vetting of Simmons, and we are not in the habit of fully fact-checking opinion pieces picked up like this from outside sites. These are aspects of our workflow that we're looking at now."
Image at the top from Flickr user Tommaso Galli with a Creative Commons license.
The president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) lashed out at The Washington Post for exposing his organization's oil industry funding, baselessly describing a Post article about the group's anti-environmental agenda as "[l]ies, innuendos and false claims."
The Post recently helped pull back the curtain on the NBCC's fossil fuel-friendly agenda. In a September 28 article, The Post reported that the NBCC has been fighting an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal to reduce ground-level ozone pollution, the primary component of smog, and also noted that the NBCC is heavily funded by ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests. The NBCC has been fighting air pollution standards and climate change action for decades.
NBCC president Harry Alford decried the Washington Post article in a column on his organization's website, titled "Environmental Extremists seem to be going cuckoo." Without identifying any specific errors in the Post article, Alford wrote that that it contained "[l]ies, innuendos and false claims" and "misinformation about the National Black Chamber of Commerce." He also described the Post article as "incomplete reporting, replete with racial innuendos," but failed to elaborate.
From Alford's post on the NBCC website:
Just this week, the super liberals put out misinformation about the National Black Chamber of Commerce via the Washington Post newspaper. Lies, innuendos and false claims. The reporting was less than professional and we attempted to explain the misrepresentations to their Ombudsman. To our surprise, the Post doesn't have an Ombudsman to whom readers can go to correct inaccuracies. They even claim one of the "gotcha" men stalking me with a camera is a "writer". Just a few years ago he was in security at the Detroit Westin Hotel. Give me a break! The others they quoted also have hidden agendas.
The misinformation articles, the lies and stalking us around the country are flattering. But we didn't become the number one Black business association in the world by being timid. There are a lot of "broke face" governors, senators, congresspersons and corporate CEO's who have learned this the hard way. We got a big laugh from the incomplete reporting, replete with racial innuendos. As my late mentor, Arthur A. Fletcher, once told me, "When you get on the front page of the Post you are in Tall Cotton and that ain't bad. The fact is they are fearing your movement and your side is apparently winning."
The truth always wins eventually.
Numerous media outlets have covered GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush's new fossil fuel-friendly energy plan without mentioning his extensive ties to the industry. Both Bush's campaign and his super PAC have received significant donations from oil and gas interests, Bush met secretly with coal industry executives in June, and he recently appointed fossil fuel industry ally Scott Pruitt to oversee his campaign policy agenda.
ExxonMobil has long known that burning fossil fuels causes climate change, yet has continued to fund groups that deny its existence. According to The Guardian's Dana Nuccitelli, Exxon's actions parallel how the tobacco industry deliberately deceived the public about the health risks of smoking.
In a September 29 Guardian article, Dana Nuccitelli reported on a recently concluded eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News that found that Exxon's own scientific research confirmed human-caused global warming as far back as the late 1970s. According to InsideClimate, the obtained documents show that Exxon scientists confirmed that carbon dioxide emissions impact the climate and that these findings were in accordance with expert consensus. The investigation further found that after "a decade of frank internal discussions on global warming and conducting unbiased studies on it, Exxon changed direction in 1989 and spent more than 20 years discrediting the research its own scientists had once confirmed."
In the Guardian article, headlined, "Is the fossil fuel industry, like the tobacco industry, guilty of racketeering?" Nuccitelli reported that a group of climate scientists is calling for an investigation "of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change" under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). He noted that a similar lawsuit was brought against the tobacco industry in 2006, and resulted in a district court judge ruling that tobacco companies worked to "maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public."
The connection between the tobacco industry and climate denial has been made before by those who have noted that many of the people and organizations working against climate action previously worked on behalf of the tobacco industry, and that both industries have used similar deceptive tactics to cast doubt on settled science. The Heartland Institute, for one, has received over $700,000 in funding from ExxonMobil and has previously denied the health dangers of tobacco and secondhand smoke.
From The Guardian:
Is the fossil fuel industry, like the tobacco industry, guilty of racketeering?
ExxonMobil has become infamous for its secretive anti-climate science campaign, having spent $30 million funding groups denying the scientific evidence and consensus on human-caused global warming.
Last week, after an eight-month investigation, InsideClimate News revealed that from the late-1970s to the mid-1980s, scientists at Exxon were in fact at the cutting edge of climate science research.
It's ironic that 33 years ago, the world's largest oil company accepted and concurred with the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming that many people continue to deny to this day.
In another internal company document in November 1982, Exxon scientists illustrated the rapid global warming they expected to occur over the following century due to rising carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels. A year earlier, Exxon scientists were discussing the distinct possibility that the consequences of climate change could become catastrophic in the near future.
Coinciding with the InsideClimate News revelations, a group of climate scientists sent a letter to President Obama, his science advisor John Holdren, and Attorney General Lynch, calling for an investigation "of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America's response to climate change."
In 1999, the Justice Department filed a civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) lawsuit against the major tobacco companies and their associated industry groups. In 2006, US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the tobacco industry's campaign to "maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public" about the health hazards of smoking amounted to a racketeering enterprise.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has noted that the fossil fuel industry's efforts to cast doubt on climate science closely mirror those by the tobacco industry. As Senator Whitehouse said in May 2015, "Imagine what a little discovery into the beast would reveal about the schemes and mischief of the climate denial apparatus--about what they're telling each other in private while they scheme to deceive the public. The truth will eventually come to light. It always does."
Indeed, as the InsideClimate News investigation subsequently revealed, Exxon's own scientists were warning of the dangers of human-caused climate change nearly 40 years ago. The parallels to the tobacco industry's public deception are striking. It appears that many climate scientists have become fed up, and are encouraging the government to embark on a similar RICO investigation into fossil fuel industry efforts to mislead the public.
CNN Money claimed that if the U.S. heeds Pope Francis' call to address climate change it will hurt the economy and cost jobs, but CNN based these claims on a six-year old analysis of failed cap-and-trade legislation rather than recent research showing that the climate plan the Obama administration has put in place will benefit the economy and increase employment. CNN also alleged that the U.S. is hesitant to act on climate change "without other nations around the world doing the same," despite the fact that 78 countries have already submitted climate change plans ahead of international negotiations that will occur in December.
The Associated Press recently updated its Stylebook by instructing AP writers to avoid using the term "denier" to describe those who reject the firmly-held scientific consensus on climate change. The AP's Stylebook change was celebrated by several well-known climate science deniers, but criticized by prominent scientists and journalists who say the new AP-approved term "climate change doubters" grants undeserved legitimacy to those who refuse to acknowledge the consensus.
U.S. Catholic contributor Stephen Schneck denounced a recent Washington Post column by George Will, which attacked Pope Francis' move to act on climate change, as "shocking" and "shameful."
On September 18, Will wrote in The Post that Pope Francis' views on climate change and capitalism are "demonstrably false and deeply reactionary," and "woolly sentiments that have the intellectual tone of fortune cookies."
In response, Schneck -- director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America -- stated in a September 21 blog post for U.S. Catholic that Will's remarks were "profoundly appalling." Schneck wrote that "anti-Catholic bigotry has crept from online comment sections to rear its ugliness prominently in cable TV commentary and newspaper op-eds," and that "[a]ll Catholics should be disturbed" by Will's op-ed for its "ad hominem, sarcastic, and demeaning ridicule of His Holiness, Pope Francis."
Schneck also expressed surprise that Will's attack would be published in The Washington Post, "one of America's most respected newspapers."
From the U.S. Catholic post:
Over the past summer, ahead of Pope Francis' visit to the United States this week, discriminatory, anti-Catholic bigotry has crept from online comment sections to rear its ugliness prominently in cable TV commentary and newspaper op-eds.
It's Will's treatment of things Catholic that is more concerning. What is profoundly appalling is the vitriolic temper of Will's remarks about the pope. His tone and language are shocking, coming as they do not from a scurrilous, fly-by-night website but from the op-ed page of one of America's most respected newspapers. All Catholics should be disturbed. Most shameful is the columnist's ad hominem, sarcastic, and demeaning ridicule of His Holiness, Pope Francis.
The moral teachings that His Holiness reaffirmed in this summer's encyclical, Laudato Si' -- teachings preached as well by Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II -- have been at the heart of Catholic analysis of our responsibilities in modern life since Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. Crudely, Will smears these traditional teachings as "Francis's fact-free flamboyance." Lampooning Pope Francis for "trailing clouds of sanctimony," Will dismisses papal teachings as "demonstrably false and deeply reactionary" and as "woolly sentiments that have the intellectual tone of fortune cookies." He parades around with the hoary banner of Galileo and against Catholic "medieval stasis." He demands that "Americans cannot simultaneously honor" Pope Francis "and celebrate their nation's premises."
The historian Arthur Schlesinger once called anti-Catholicism "the deepest bias in the history of the American people." I've never actually agreed with that argument. Racism, anti-Semitism, and a peculiar American misogyny are equally deep and certainly more virulent. But, on the left and on the right, anti-Catholicism has always had a kind of pass in otherwise polite corners of American public life where other overt discriminatory language is disparaged.
You are certainly free to disagree with Pope Francis, Mr. Will. You are certainly free to disagree with Catholic teachings and to contest them in any forum. But surely you would agree that the American public square should long ago have forsworn the ridicule of others' religious teachings and the person of their religious leaders.
Media coverage of climate change may have a hand in making the public apathetic towards acting on climate, according to two recent studies. But one study also details how the media can improve.
A new study from the policy think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the media can breed cynicism about climate change when reporting emphasizes "the failures of climate politics." The study, titled "News Media and Climate Politics: Civic Engagement and Political Efficacy in a Climate of Reluctant Cynicism," concluded that such news stories can "intensif[y] feelings of political alienation, despair and cynicism."
The study's findings go hand in hand with another study by researchers at Rutgers University, which examined how four major U.S. newspapers frame their reporting on climate change. That study, published in Public Understanding of Science, found that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today often include "negative efficacy" (framing climate change actions as unsuccessful or costly) as opposed to "positive efficacy" (framing climate actions as manageable or effective). The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times in particular framed climate action as ineffective more often than effective:
The Canadian study also found that consuming stories about political activism and individual actions -- "especially news that featured a local focus, a compelling narrative and an accessible 'everyday hero'" -- can have the opposite effect on readers. Study participants who read and discussed such stories reported "much greater enthusiasm and optimism for political engagement."
But according to the Rutgers study, these types of stories are rarely reported, at least at the national level. The study found that for non-opinion climate change articles in four major national newspapers from 2006 to 2011, just 9.7 percent discussed behavior change and just 13.6 percent discussed political advocacy.
Taken in tandem, the two studies paint a bleak picture of how mainstream newspapers' coverage of climate change can breed cynicism among its readership. Indeed, Lauren Feldman -- the lead author of the Rutgers study -- said to Media Matters that while the studies "can't establish a definitive causal relationship between media coverage and public cynicism toward climate," the two combined "are certainly suggestive of the role of mainstream media in breeding pessimism about climate change."
And Shane Gunster -- a co-author of the Canadian study -- agreed with Feldman, telling Media Matters that there is "a strong connection between both studies" and that they show how "decisions which news media make about how to frame climate change have a significant impact upon how or if the public engages with the issue." Gunster, a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Communication, added:
The efficacy emphasis is especially important given how easily one can otherwise be overwhelmed by the magnitude of climate change as a problem. And if one thinks of journalism as playing a crucial role in facilitating public engagement with the critical issues of the day, a much greater focus upon how efficacy can be cultivated and strengthened is in keeping with that mandate.
But Gunster said that one of his study's goals was "to move beyond simply criticizing media for their failures and shortcomings," and identify "constructive suggestions about how journalists could approach this topic differently." These include, among other things: "[s]uccess stories about climate politics"; "stories of entrepreneurial activism and everyday heroism"; "localized information about the causes and consequences of climate change"; and "[i]nformation about how to engage politically."
Gunster summed up his study's findings to Media Matters as follows: "There is a strong desire for a different kind of news about climate change, which provides people with inspiring and compelling stories about how others just like them are becoming active and engaged in climate politics."
He also pointed to a previous paper he published in 2011, illustrating that such reporting exists, though it may not be not the norm. That paper, which examined media coverage of the United Nations' climate change conference in Copenhagen, found that alternative and independent media often frame climate change in ways that can promote political agency and efficacy, offering "a much more diverse and optimistic vision of climate politics as a place in which broad civic engagement on climate change can challenge and overcome institutional inertia as well as model democratic and participatory approaches to the development of climate policy." Gunster wrote that such stories "can affirm our sense of how effective news media could be in motivating broader civic engagement with climate change." From the report:
[I]t is equally important to explore existing media institutions and practices which are communicating about climate change in a more effective and engaged manner. Just as success stories about (some) governments getting climate politics right can invigorate our sense of political efficacy, success stories about (some) media getting climate politics right can affirm our sense of how effective news media could be in motivating broader civic engagement with climate change. Identifying best media practices can also sharpen the critique of mainstream media insofar as it provides concrete evidence that a more radical approach to environmental journalism is not simply idealistic speculation, but, rather, already being actively practiced.
CNN will host the second GOP presidential primary debate tonight, September 16. The network has an inconsistent track record on how it has covered GOP candidates' stances on climate change -- debate host Jake Tapper has fact-checked candidates' climate denial, but the network's coverage of the issue has been problematic at times. Here are the good, the bad, and the ugly ways CNN has covered the GOP presidential candidates' positions on climate change so far this year.
Across the country, state and local lawmakers are battling over a solar energy policy called net metering. But while the reasons for disagreement vary from place to place, several share a common and oft-unreported thread: Many attacks on the solar policy are supported by fossil fuel interests.
Net metering allows customers who have installed rooftop solar panels to generate their own electricity and send what they don't use into the electric grid for others to use -- like during the day, when the sun is shining but a family is at work or school. In exchange for the electricity provided to the grid, the customer gets a credit applied to their utility bill. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council has explained that solar panels "predictably produce energy during peak hours of the day, supporting the grid when most needed," and that net metering makes solar energy a "viable financial investment for many consumers." The policy has widespread support from liberals and conservatives alike, and has even spurred an offshoot of the Tea Party, called the "Green Tea Coalition," which connects environmentalists with Tea Partiers in support of net metering.
The amount of credit solar energy users receive, however, is the subject of fierce debate in states across the country. Utilities have been pushing for legislation to roll back net metering credits by adding a cap or charging a flat fee for solar users. Net metering poses a distinct challenge for utilities because it disrupts their long-standing monopoly in the electricity market.
Moreover, net-metered solar energy cuts into utilities' profits; with more distributed solar energy in the electric grid, utilities have no reason to invest in and build new power plants. As the Energy & Policy Institute's Matthew Kasper told The Washington Post, distributed solar energy prevents "the need to build new, expensive power plants or transmission lines." He added, "Utilities make their money by building big, new infrastructure projects and then sending ratepayers the bill, which is exactly why utilities want to eliminate solar."
In coverage of net metering battles, the media has largely focused on opposition from utilities. But there are larger forces at play: Outside interests are influencing the battle through front groups and legislation. Here are just a few of the groups inserting themselves into net metering battles:
Americans for Prosperity, which was created by the Koch brothers and acts as their political arm, has fought against net metering in Georgia and Florida, and pushed misleading claims that net metering policies "have resulted in rate hikes and did not result in solar becoming more economically viable." In March, PolitiFact rated this claim "Pants on Fire" and called it "completely wrong."
Consumer Energy Alliance, which has received over $400,000 from the American Petroleum Institute and been affiliated with fossil fuel giants including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and others, produced a phony petition in 2014 that attacked Wisconsin's net metering policy.
The Institute for Energy Research, which has received funding from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Koch brothers' political network, released a report earlier this year claiming that net metering only benefits higher-income households.
The National Black Chamber of Commerce, which has received $1 million in funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation, recently claimed (falsely) that Louisiana's net metering policies shift costs onto low-income families.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate front group that connects fossil fuel industry executives with legislators to push model bills serving industry interests, has released a resolution on net metering, calling it "antithetical to free markets."
Several other fossil fuel front groups have been fighting against net metering, as detailed in a report by the Energy & Policy Institute:
The involvement of these groups, who don't appear to have direct ties with local utilities, may seem strange. But not when you consider that net metering policies are causing an unprecedented increase in solar energy use and thereby helping wean Americans off fossil fuels.
From 2010 to 2014, the amount of annual solar photovoltaic (PV) installations roughly increased by a factor of seven, and the U.S. had a record quarter for solar photovoltaics installations in the second quarter of 2015, reaching a total installed capacity high enough to power over four million homes. Meanwhile, prices have dropped rapidly over the past 10 years: the cost of installing solar is now 73 percent lower than it was in 2006.
Nine of the 10 states with the most solar electricity installed per capita also have strong net metering policies. But policies to roll back net metering are already impacting solar companies. One company, Vivint, scrapped its plans to expand to Nevada after the state changed its policy to cap net metering at what solar advocates call an unreasonably low limit. Massachusetts' net metering cap poses a similar threat to the solar industry there.
Attack campaigns against net metering could halt the expansion of a clean energy industry that threatens the fossil fuel interests usually behind those attacks. Media coverage of net metering debates should make that fact loud and clear, so the public knows the real identity of who's against net metering, and why.
Photo at top from Flickr user Wayne National Forest with a Creative Commons license.