Each year, Republican Senator Tom Coburn releases a "Wastebook" reviewing government projects that he views as wasteful, and each year, the media eagerly promote his report. Yet television news ignored a report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) finding that U.S. taxpayers are being stiffed by coal companies buying federal land for less than its worth, which a previous report estimated has cost taxpayers nearly $30 billion over the last 30 years.
On Tuesday, the GAO found that the Bureau of Land Management was not adequately documenting reasons for accepting bids below the determined market value. Furthermore, as many states are not considering exports in their market value analyses, they may be underestimating the value in the first place. Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), who requested the study, stated that "Given the lack of market competition in coal leases" -- the GAO found the vast majority did not have a single competitor, as seen in the chart below -- "if the fair market value set by Interior is low, it can lead to significant losses for taxpayers. For instance, for every cent per ton that coal companies decrease their bids for the largest coal leases, it could mean the loss of nearly $7 million for the American people."
Based on the report, Sen. Markey's office estimated that recent leases could have yielded an additional $200 million in revenue and "possibly hundreds of millions more." A previous report from the Institute for Energy Economics estimated that selling federally-owned coal for less than fair market value has cost taxpayers $28.9 billion in lost revenue over the last 30 years. That finding adds to the economic damages that coal pollution and disasters exact on the economy. A 2011 study, for instance, found that air pollution from coal-fired power plants imposes more costs on society than the value added to the economy by the industry -- and that study did not include climate change damages. Recently, the spill of a chemical used to clean coal in West Virginia cost the local economy $61 million, according to a preliminary study that did not include the cost of clean-up or emergency expenditures.
Yet none of the major television networks covered the GAO report confirming that coal companies are underpaying the federal government*.
The "Wastebook" received considerably more attention when it was released in December 2013, drawing uncritical coverage from all the major television networks except MSNBC (ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox News uncritically touted the report at least once, and NBC hosted Sen. Coburn where he raised the report without pushback). LiveScience reported that nearly a quarter of the projects Sen. Coburn's office listed in 2013 were science-related and that the "Wastebook" often distorts the studies. Last year, for instance, Fox News promoted the Wastebook's attack on a "government study" on Tea Party intelligence that was actually a non-government funded blog post. CNN's S.E. Cupp and others also attacked a study of duck penises included in the "Wastebook," contributing to the pattern of basic research being cut in the face of what MSNBC's Chris Hayes called "ignorant mockery."
The Wall Street Journal has repeatedly blamed environmental regulations for California's current water crisis while touting a House GOP plan that would upend restoration efforts along the San Joaquin River without solving the state's crisis.
2013 was California's driest year since 1849, and now the state is experiencing a record-breaking drought. ThinkProgress reports the drought is so dire that "17 communities across the state are in danger of running out of water within 60 to 120 days." In an attempt to preserve what little water the state has left, the California Department of Water Resources has had to cut water allocations entirely to 29 local agencies, forcing them to look elsewhere for water. Farming and fishing industries are among the most impacted by this water crisis.
In response, House Republicans are expected to pass emergency legislation on February 5 which seeks to redirect water to California's Central Valley while reducing the amount of water currently dedicated to fish, wildlife, and habitat restoration under Endangered Species Act protections. According to the GOP, the bill will alleviate the "man-made California drought."
The Wall Street Journal echoed the House Republicans' accusation in a pair of editorials, writing that with the water shortage "Californians are getting another first-hand lesson in the high costs of green regulation" that "puts green indulgences above human welfare." The editors praised the Republican proposal, writing, "What the House legislation really does is prioritize the interest of farmers over fish."
USA TODAY has chosen to propagate the noxious Heartland Institute's climate misinformation once again, pointing to a larger failing in their "Our View"/"Their View" editorial format: whenever the board writes an editorial acknowledging global warming as fact, it attempts to "balance" the facts with denial.
On January 31, USA TODAY published an editorial titled "Baby, it's cold outside, but globe is warming." The board correctly pointed out that the recent cold weather snap and rare southern snowstorm do not contradict long-term data showing the climate is warming, driven by human activities. But the paper also ran an opposing op-ed from the Heartland Institute's James Taylor, who claimed that "[t]his winter shows that global warming is not changing our climate severely."
The Heartland Institute is possibly the worst of the worst climate "skeptic" think tanks, yet USA TODAY chose it once again to "balance" its editorial. The fossil fuel-funded organization is infamous for its attacks on climate science, previously comparing those who accept climate change to a domestic terrorist in a billboard campaign. James Taylor, a lawyer with no scientific background, is one of the Institute's most prominent media figures and a primary instigator of spreading misinformation as a regular contributor to Forbes.com.
Taylor claimed that global warming will "benefit, rather than harm, human health and welfare." But economic studies show that the impacts of global warming driven by carbon emissions will result in net negatives -- even one from Bjorn Lomborg, an economist who opposes large-scale climate action. Lomborg's study estimating the economic damage caused by climate change found that "after year 2070, global warming will become a net cost to the world, justifying cost-effective climate action." Other studies have found that the costs of climate change will be much higher.
USA TODAY's editorial format, requiring two sides to every issue, is concerning -- particularly when one "side" is truth and the other is misinformation. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), which is composed of hundreds of scientists, stated in its most recent report that scientists are 95 percent certain that the majority of recent warming is manmade, or about as certain as they are that cigarettes kill. Interestingly, the Heartland Institute also denied that cigarettes kill, stating that "smoking in moderation has few, if any, adverse health effects." USA TODAY likely wouldn't run an op-ed from the Heartland Institute espousing this "view" -- so why did they do so with climate denial?
UPDATE (2/3/14): James Taylor bragged about his USA TODAY op-ed on the Heartland Institute's website in an article titled "USA Today Gets it Right, Nature Gets it Wrong," elated that "a mainstream media organ acknowledge[d] the existence of scientific debate on the climate change issue."
From the January 29 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Sean Hannity Show:
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Right-wing media are laughing about President Barack Obama mentioning climate change in his fifth State of the Union address because it is cold in D.C. But the wobbly polar vortex bringing cold air to much of the contiguous United States is simultaneously causing record warmth in Alaska, a state often seen as the nation's "ground zero" for climate change.
On January 28, Alaska's largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, ran this remarkable headline: "Record warmth, confused plants: An Alaska January to remember." The article noted that it was 62 degrees Fahrenheit in one town, tying the January state record, but did not allude to the long-term warming trend. In November, the newspaper did briefly invoke the possibility of climate change while expressing disbelief that strawberries were growing "In Anchorage. In November."
Yet just a year ago, right-wing media claimed the state was headed toward "an ice age." The Alaska Dispatch, a prominent online news site, ran the misleading headline, "Forget global warming, Alaska is headed for an ice age." The report was promoted by the conservative British tabloid, the Daily Mail, and the climate denial site, WattsUpWithThat, which highlighted the state's relatively lower average temperature in 2012.
As the chart above also shows though, cherry-picking a short-time period is misleading -- natural variation can mask the long-term trend. Contrary to claims of an "ice age," studies project that average annual temperatures in Alaska will increase "an additional 3.5 to 7°F by the middle of this century," according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Warming in Alaska already has caused highways to buckle and homes in areas such as Shismaref, pictured above, to sink, as the EPA explained:
Many of Alaska's highways are built on permafrost. When permafrost thaws, roads buckle. Vehicles are only allowed to drive across certain roads in the tundra when the ground is frozen solid. In the past 30 years, the number of days when travel is allowed on the tundra has decreased from 200 days to 100 days per year.
Along Alaska's northwestern coast, increased coastal erosion is causing some shorelines to retreat at rates averaging tens of feet per year. Here, melting sea ice has reduced natural coastal protection. In Shishmaref, Kivalina, and other Alaska Native Villages, erosion has caused homes to collapse into the sea. Severe erosion has forced some Alaska Native Villages' populations to relocate in order to protect lives and property.
Image at top via Alaska's Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development
On January 28, President Obama gave his fifth State of the Union speech during which he addressed the urgent need to act on climate change. Conservative media pundits latched on to the cold winter weather in the area during his speech to laugh off global warming, despite the clear long-term warming trend.
Fox News host Sean Hannity has asserted 192 times that he and other Republicans do not want "dirty water." Yet he has not once covered the recent coal-washing chemical spill that left 300,000 West Virginia residents with no tap water to drink or bathe in -- an incident made more likely by the anti-regulation policies he supports.
On January 9, a storage tank at a Freedom Industries facility in West Virginia holding chemicals used to "clean" coal leaked into a river located near a water-treatment center. Residents noticed a strong odor soon after and were told to stop using their water.
The incident outraged many, but Hannity has instead focused his ire at those warning that Republican-backed deregulation would put people at risk of dirtier air and water. He has decried those saying these policies would lead to "dirtier air, dirtier water" 192 times*, calling the warnings "absurd and irresponsible scare tactics" and a vicious "lie." In fact, Hannity has wholeheartedly supported allowing more coal and enforcing fewer regulations -- a plan that could lead to more disasters like the one in West Virginia that he has ignored**.
Here are the five most infuriating things about the West Virginia spill that a self-declared "clean water" defender could have covered:
1. The company behind the spill is avoiding liability by filing for bankruptcy. MSNBC host Chris Hayes described how Cliff Forrest, the owner of the Freedom Industries who previously handed out "stop the war on coal" signs attacking President Barack Obama, filed for bankruptcy while opening another company that could take over "a big chunk of Freedom Industries' assets":
2. The company initially failed to disclose a second chemical in the water. The public only learned about the second chemical 12 days after the leak, as the company had originally told state regulators that the chemical was "proprietary" information. The Centers for Disease Control said that information about the chemical is "limited" but that they didn't anticipate any new health concerns.
3. West Virginia residents still aren't sure if their water is safe. After five days of not being able to use their water, residents were told by West Virginia American Water that the water was safe to drink. However, two days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that pregnant women should not drink the water. Hospital admissions have doubled since the ban was lifted, and many health experts have said that not enough is known about the chemical to state definitively that the water is safe to drink or bathe in. West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said of the water supply, "it's your decision ... I'm not a scientist."
4. There's a bill that might've stopped all of this. There are more than 62,000 chemicals that have not been publicly tested, including the chemical that spilled in West Virginia, which hampered authorities' attempts to assess and address the health risks it poses. The Safe Chemicals Act, opposed by the chemical industry, would address this by requiring companies to prove a chemical's safety before selling it.
5. But water pollution laws on the books aren't even being enforced. A 2009 New York Times investigation found that "In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times. The violations range from failing to report emissions to dumping toxins at concentrations regulators say might contribute to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses. However, the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment."
Fox News thinks it's "heartbreaking" that a "one-sided" pro-fracking film was rejected from a film festival in Minnesota, questioning the right to "freedom of speech." But the screening was canceled simply because it did not live up to the festival's standards.
On January 23, Fox and Friends hosted Phelim McAleer, director of the pro-fracking film called FrackNation, to complain about the film's cancellation from the Frozen River Film Festival. Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck lamented that the cancellation "has to just be heartbreaking," that Ireland-native McAleer came to America "to express [his] freedom of thought [and] expression." In McAleer's eyes, the festival organizers "don't want the people of Minnesota to be exposed to an alternative point of view." Co-host Steve Doocy ended the segment by asking, "Freedom of speech? You be the judge."
Doocy has previously answered his own question, acknowledging that "a private company can do anything they want" and it's "not [a] free speech [issue]."
A chyron during the segment stated that "MCALEER REJECTED INDUSTRY FINANCING FOR FILM." However, a review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that "scores of energy industry associates" donated to the film's Kickstarter campaign, which was promoted by several pro-industry lobbying groups. What's more, McAleer and his co-director Ann McElhinney previously produced two anti-environment films openly funded by the fossil fuel industry. They are both listed as "experts" on the Heartland Institute's website, an organization infamous for climate change denial. It's no wonder that the San Francisco Chronicle previously dubbed McAleer "climate denial's Michael Moore" for his misleading film portraying global warming as "junk science."
The festival organizers cited the film's industry ties as one reason that they decided to cancel it, following in the footsteps of the Sundance Film Festival and Telluride's Mountian Film Festival (Frozen River's partner festival).
While Fox News noted that the film was called "methodically researched" by the New York Times, other movie reviewers have panned it. A Los Angeles Times review called it a "one-sided attack piece" that "doesn't add much to the conversation." The New York Daily News gave it a whopping one-star review, and wrote, "the accuracy of this crowd-sourced documentary -- funded by small donations on Kickstarter -- seems as reliable as a Wikipedia entry."
From the January 22 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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ESPN announcers recently used a cold spell to mock global warming in their live commentary, mainstreaming the conservative myth that cold weather disproves global warming. But during coverage of the Australian Open, which saw dangerous, record-breaking heat, commentators remained silent on the issue -- a trend more akin to Fox News.
During an Arctic chill on January 7, ESPN commentators Jimmy Dykes and Brad Nessler interjected their sports coverage with climate denial. Dykes mentioned that he had watched a national television debate over "whether or not global warming was still taking place," saying he "listened to about 30 seconds of it, but the guy saying no it has not, I think he won the debate." Nessler laughed in agreement, adding, "It's about 50 below wind chill [in Minnesota] so there's no global warming in that part of the country." In response to criticism, Dykes tweeted, "God is in control of our climate. He does not make mistakes. Plus it's 3 degrees where I stand right now : )"
However, as Melbourne experiences record-breaking heat during the Australian Open -- including the worst heat wave Melbourne has suffered since 1908 -- ESPN commentators have been mum on climate change one way or the other. Instead, they have opted to make light of the dangerous temperatures; after one tennis player hallucinated that he saw Snoopy before fainting, a commentator joked, "I wonder if Snoopy had a racket."
From the January 18 edition of Fox News' Cashin' In:
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A Media Matters analysis found that network nightly news coverage of climate change was tepid in 2013, despite growing scientific evidence that global warming is getting worse. By contrast, PBS aired nearly three times as much climate coverage as ABC World News, the worst offender.
PBS NewsHour aired more news coverage about climate change and interviewed more scientists on the issue than any other evening network news program in 2013. The scale and scope of coverage demonstrated the program's commitment to reporting on global warming, a pattern Media Matters first identified in 2012. The program broadcast 35 stories that at least mentioned climate change, far more than what ABC World News, NBC Nightly News or CBS Evening News chose to give its audiences. By comparison, the three other network nightly news programs aired a combined total of 49 stories that at least mentioned global warming.
A group of senators is asking for more broadcast coverage on climate change, following a Media Matters analysis which found that Sunday shows aired only scant coverage on the issue last year.
On Thursday, January 16, a letter spearheaded by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was sent to the top executives of four major television networks, expressing "deep concern" about the lack of coverage on global warming, deeming it a "serious environmental crisis" which "poses a huge threat to our nation and the global community." The letter cited findings from a recent Media Matters study, which revealed that Sunday news shows dedicated merely 27 minutes of coverage to the issue of climate change throughout all of 2013. They wrote that "this is an absurdly short amount of time for a subject of such importance."
The senators concluded with a call to action: "We urge you to take action in the near term to correct this oversight and provide your viewers, the American public, with greater discussion of this important issue that impacts everyone on the planet."
The other senators that signed the letter were Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
The letter in full:
Dear Mr. Ailes, Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Sherwood, and Ms. Turness:
We are writing to express our deep concern about the lack of attention to climate change on such Sunday news shows as ABC's "This Week," NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS's "Face the Nation," and "Fox News Sunday."
According to the scientific community, climate change is the most serious environmental crisis facing our planet. The scientists who have studied this issue are virtually unanimous in the view that climate change is occurring, that it poses a huge threat to our nation and the global community, and that it is caused by human activity. In fact, 97% of researchers actively publishing in this field agree with these conclusions.
The scientific community and governmental leaders around the world rightly worry about the horrific dangers we face if we do not address climate change. Sea level rise will take its toll on coastal states. Communities will be increasingly at risk of billions of dollars in damages from more extreme weather. And farmers may see crops and livestock destroyed as worsening drought sets in. Yet, despite these warnings, there has been shockingly little discussion on the Sunday morning news shows about this critically important issue. This is disturbing not only because the millions of viewers who watch these shows deserve to hear that discussion, but because the Sunday shows often have an impact on news coverage in other media throughout the week.
A study published today by Media Matters for America reported that Sunday news shows devoted 27 minutes of air time in 2013 to climate change coverage.
Although it is a modest improvement over the eight minutes of coverage in 2012, given the widely recognized challenge that climate change poses to the nation and the world, this is an absurdly short amount of time for a subject of such importance.
We are more than aware that major fossil fuel companies spend significant amounts of money advertising on your networks. We hope that this is not influencing your decision about the subjects discussed or the guests who appear on your network programming.
Thank you very much for your interest in this matter. We urge you to take action in the near term to correct this oversight and provide your viewers, the American public, with greater discussion of this important issue that impacts everyone on the planet. We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT)
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD)
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)
Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT)
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI)
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
A Media Matters analysis reveals that news coverage of climate change on ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX picked up in 2013 over the previous year, but remained lower than a 2009 high. Furthermore, while one Sunday show interviewed scientists about climate change, distinguishing itself as the first such program to do so in five years, these shows continued to rely largely on media figures and Republicans to dictate the conversation around global warming.
The Baltimore Sun recently signed a deal with Maryland conservative blog Red Maryland to provide content for its website. But one of the site's editors, Mark Newgent, has worked for organizations that receive funding from fossil fuel companies to attack climate science.