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Village Truthiness on the Death Gusher’s impact on public opinion … need to look behind the curtain

July 19th, 2010 · No Comments

Progressive bloggers have been, as per David Waldman (Kagro X) at Daily Kos, quoting from a Washington Post article about how the oil in the Gulf isn’t shifting public opinion on energy issues like environmentalists desire.

Not surprisingly, The Post article is rather mediocre in a balanced journalism sort-of way: legitimate and interesting material is balanced with mediocrity and truthiness.

To be clear, David’s key point is one that I agree with:

File this for use the next time somebody tells you that the key to getting people fired up in this country is letting things go to hell so they can see for themselves how bad things have gotten.

E.g., simply saying ‘let things go to hell’ and people will wake up and magically become progressives as about as reality based as planning on the Washington Nationals making it to the World Series this year …

Uncritically accepting The Post article as truthful reinforces a Village talking point and misses the reality that the situation is not necessarily as represented in that article.

This week-old Washington Post article, Historic oil spill fails to produce gains for U.S. environmentalists, has been quoted — essentially uncritically — by many progressive bloggers over the past week. The focus, as with Kagro X’s quote, goes with the title and the opening paragraphs:

For environmentalists, the BP oil spill may be disproving the maxim that great tragedies produce great change.

Traditionally, American environmentalism wins its biggest victories after some important piece of American environment is poisoned, exterminated or set on fire. An oil spill and a burning river in 1969 led to new anti-pollution laws in the 1970s. The Exxon Valdez disaster helped create an Earth Day revival in 1990 and sparked a landmark clean-air law.

But this year, the worst oil spill in U.S. history — and, before that, the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years — haven’t put the same kind of drive into the debate over climate change and fossil-fuel energy.

The article merits closer scrutiny as it has some truth within it even as there are many misleading elements and, well, conservative talking points. Let us just look a few examples of these problems.

First off, there is a misrepresentation of the history of environmental action and movements. We are almost three months after Deepwater Horizon’s explosion and it does seem like an eternity. However, in the history of social change and legislative achievements, three months is often a blink of an eye. Last week, Jonathan Hiskes, Grist, did an interview with Penn State environmental historian Adam Rome and the title provides a reasonable summary: Historian: It’s too soon to expect large-scale responses to the Gulf.

The Santa Barbara oil spill happened in January 1969. Right away, people were appalled. In Santa Barbara itself, the spill brought together people who had never been allied before — countercultural students and very wealthy Republicans alike were shocked. But still, it took a long time for it to lead to something more than just “we might need more regulation on offshore oil,” and more than just preventing that one specific thing from occurring again.

As highlighted by Mike Casey at Scaling Green, Looking for the public outrage, the Post article utterly fails to address cause and effect issues.

Reporters David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin missed an important reason why the BP Gulf Disaster hasn’t move public opinion: because the oil industry, the most powerful in human history, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on propaganda and influence peddling to smother public opinion and policy.

From BP’s illegal and unconstitutional co-opting of local police resources to corrupt local federal judges to tens of millions of dollars spent lying about BP’s commitment to “make this right,” it’s an all-out assault on reality that, so far, is succeeding.

Evidence of how effective BP’s PR efforts have been can be seen in a new poll showing 73 percent of Americans now think a ban on offshore drilling is unnecessary, calling that the worst oil spill in U.S. history is a “freak accident.”

Last week, in a separate article, a Post reporter suggested that we can look to capping the oil well as “putting an end” to the disaster. My response was, well, WTF?

Mike also highlighted another issue in the article, the reinforcing of false climate denial talking points:

The piece is marred by its gratuitous repetition of the word “scandal” to describe the manufactured controversy around the content of emails that were illegally stolen by who-knows-which fossil fuel interest. The emails aren’t scandalous, and three separate commissions have said so. As other bloggers have noted, there was no scandal but a theft of intellectual property. The outrage is that the media pays so little attention to getting to the bottom of who stole the emails in the first place.

Investigation after investigation has looked at ClimateGate and, well, investigation after investigation has stated that the basic science is untarred by anything in the material. The scandal is that The Washington Post and a myriad of other news outlets proved witting or unwitting dupes to the climate denial machine in making “ClimateGate” a known item and abetting the false impression that these stolen emails undermined the science.

IMPORTANT: On this see Media Matters on 7 July 2010: Clean Energy, Progressive Groups Urge Media to Revisit Bogus “Climategate” Reports.

With the dust finally settling now six months later, it’s painfully clear that news outlets across the globe hastily published hundreds of stories — based on rumors, unsubstantiated claims, and the shoddy reporting of their competitors — questioning the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities are causing climate change. One by one, the pillars of evidence supporting the alleged “scandals” have shattered, causing the entire storyline to come crashing down.

Back to the Post’s deception … One of the best take-downs comes from Josh Nelson at Enviroknow. His WaPo Uses Misleading Arguments to Push Flawed Oil Spill Narrative bigins

The Washington Post published an article on Monday entitled, ‘Historic oil spill fails to produce gains for U.S. environmentalists.’ It was immediately picked up by several liberal bloggers whose opinion I respect, each of whom seemed to take the article’s conclusion at face value. But while the article gets some things right, it also includes several misleading lines of argument in order to bolster its attention-grabbing headline.

Josh calls the reporters to account for

  • Getting the history wrong (not acknowledging that Earth Day occurred amid many environmental challenges and over a year after the Santa Barbara spill),
  • Failing to acknowledge that public opinion has already seen significant shifts on questions like support for offshore drilling: “have numbers on clean energy legislation budged since the spill? According to Pew’s polling, they have. In February, 50% of respondents favored ‘setting limits on carbon dioxide emissions.’ By June this number had jumped to 66%”, and
  • Simply getting the facts wrong in asserting that US oil use increased from 2009 to 2010 when US government Energy Information Administration (EIA) numbers show a 800,000 barrels/day drop.

Back to Waldman

The argument ‘let things go to hell’ has never appealed to me, especially when it comes to issues like catastrophic climate change where that laissez faire path might allow the situation to go past the point of no return before ‘people wake up’. Celebrating George W Bush’s assumption of power because it ‘will teach them’ left too many dead in unnecessary conflicts, too much wasted money, too much wasted time on dealing with issues like climate change, too much … On this, Kagro and I are in full agreement — the ‘let it get bad enough and they’ll come around’ argument is not the path toward political or societal success.

On the other hand, uncritically quoting from such a flawed article helps foster the truthiness that is circulating in the chattering classes (in The Village) that Americans don’t care about the Death Gusher in the Gulf, that reining in BP is enough to satisfy public opinion, and that Americans are too dense to see a linkage between our oil addiction, the oil on Gulf of Mexico beaches, and the warming climate.

For a better read on this article, I recommend Brad Johnson at the Wonkroom with Obama’s Path To A Green Economy Is Covered In BP’s Oil. Brad makes a coherent argument that a missing factor, one created by Republicans seeking to drown good government and enabled by the Obama Administration’s faltering efforts to clean up the mess, is that Americans have to have their confidence in the Federal government’s ability to solve problems

To get from the BP disaster to comprehensive climate legislation requires not just an understanding of the catastrophic risks of fossil fuels, but also a belief in the need for a strong, decisive government that protects its citizens. Without public desire for government to regulate the failures of the free market, there can never be an effective campaign to move Congress to action. In April, on the eve of the oil disaster, tea-party anti-government ideology had reached a fever pitch, with nearly a third of the American public who believed that “government is a major threat to their personal freedoms and want federal power reined in.” … Obama needs to prove to the American public that government can work in times of crisis — starting with the BP disaster.

President Obama can’t pass comprehensive green economy legislation on his own — the U.S. Senate must break from the shackles of industry inaction. However, he can restore confidence in the government of the United States by taking on the sins of toxic polluters, starting with BP and the Gulf Coast. If his administration can prove itself in this crisis, the American people will trust his leadership on the path to a cleaner future.

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Tags: Energy · Washington Post