24 September 2009

Case Study in How to Use Your Position as a Reporter to Advocate

Over at Greenwire, Anne C. Mulkern has written a superb article demonstrating how a reporter can can use a "news" story to editorialize, advocate and attack a position that s/he personally disagrees with. It should be required reading for anyone wanting to learn how to editorialize through news stories.

The subject of Mulkern's attack is The Breakthrough Institute (disclaimer: where I am a Senior Fellow) and the reason for the attack appears to be to generally discredit a recent analysis that shows that emissions allowances in the Waxman-Markey Bill are overallocated, a substantive point that is unimpeachable, even in the article. Maybe Mulkern has other issues with The Breakthrough Institute beyond this.

Mulkern shows the touch of a pro. The first thing she does is to suggest unsupported innuendo from unnamed sources:
But there were immediate questions about the study's credibility and the motivations behind it.
The questions apparently were all hers, as the expert that she cited on this point said that:
. . . he had not looked at the Breakthrough Institute's analysis and said he did not immediately have time to study it.
Obviously he hadn't considered the report until called by Mulkern. Next is to raise the innuendo point again:
Some Democrats and environmentalists distrust the Oakland, Calif.-based institute because of its contrarian positions.
Who might distrust the Breakthrough Institute? Well, she cites one person -- Joe Romm (of course). However, it turns out that Joe Romm accepts the substance of the analysis being reported on:

"The Breakthrough Institute keeps coming out with these pointless reports attacking Waxman-Markey," said Joe Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank headed by John Podesta, who was chief of staff to former President Clinton. "Waxman-Markey is kinda old news. The Senate is constructing a bill now."

"I'm confident that the smart senators and people who write this bill will fix it," . . .

"One assumes the people who write the final bill will use the new [emissions] numbers, and then the problem goes away,"
In other words, the BTI analysis is pointless because the House legislation is old news and its problems will be fixed. So, according to Romm the analysis is in fact right, its just that the Senate will tighten everything up by presumably reducing allowances and eliminating the vast overallocation of offsets. So why talk about problems in legislation since everyone knows that they will be fixed? Right, that makes sense.

Mulkern next uses the tried and true tactic of the ad hom. She paraphrases Jesse Jenkins of The Breakthrough Institute who explains that Romm basically agrees, then she lets Jenkins have it with her own editorial comment on Jenkins credentials, which is strange because the analysis is not about economics. Jenkins also is not a heart surgeon, but so what?:

Jenkins said Romm has criticized Breakthrough Institute studies in the past but has not statistically discredited them, even though the institute provides the data, calculations and assumptions it uses.

Jenkins did the analysis for the institute. He does not have a background in economics.

"It's not an economic analysis," Jenkins said. "It's based on the economic forecasts of the EIA and CBO. Beyond that, it's relatively simple arithmetic that any old competent policy analyst such as myself is capable of."

Mulkern does not happen to mention Romm's economics credentials. She does however quote Romm as taking credit for the new analysis:
"Everything claims to be a new analysis," Romm said. "It's a new analysis that they glommed from me."
So aspiring reporters seeking to settle scores through your stories, note the masterful technique here:

Use innuendo to impeach the credibility . . . attack the man . . . and then if there is any lingering doubt show that the analysis, even if correct, is not new anyway . . . and allow someone to claim that it was in fact stolen from their own work.

By the way, beyond the drama, The Breakthrough analysis is excellent, if I were Joe Romm I'd be taking credit for it as well. You can read it here.

The bottom line is that even reporters with an agenda cannot hide the fact that climate policy is in disarray. Taking it out on people who are proving to have been systematically correct now for quite a while won't change that fact. But it will tell us something about certain folks in the media, and the challenges facing those trying to navigate a third way on climate policy.