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Journalism entails more than stenography: PBS Newshour malfeasance re Clean Power Plan

October 11th, 2017 · 1 Comment

The Trump Administration’s decision to undermine America’s economy and future prospects by its announced intent to reverse the Clean Power Plan and expand its denial of that Chinese Hoax, climate change made headlines and created an imperative for serious news coverage.  Last evening, the PBS News Hour — often the gold standard when it comes to broadcast news coverage — had a segment examining this. The News Hour team decided to adhere to classic ‘he says, she says’ reporting: first having a serious discussion with the former EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, and then turning to coal mining executive Robert Murray. Simply put, as will be shown below, the ‘interview’ with Murray was essentially stenography — asking questions to which Murray responded with specious talking points and deception with the journalist then asking the next question without ever questioning or challenging Murray’s skewed (or, more accurately, baseless) #AlternativeFacts.

Here are a few examples which will follow The Debunking Handbook guidelines. First, factual statement. Then, Murray’s statement.  And, following, material to show how Murray’s statement is misleading or false.
Electricity Costs
TRUTH: Renewable electricity is increasingly directly cost competitive with other options and is often less expensive (even without subsidies) than fossil fuels.
TRUTH: Fossil fuels benefit more from government policy assistance than renewables.
Murray on News Hour deceit:
“We paid out $15 billion, the American taxpayer did, last year for windmills and solar panels in subsidies. It costs 26 cents a kilowatt hour. Coal-fired generation costs 4 cents a kilowatt hour.”
In FACT, solar and wind prices are FAR lower than Murray’s numbers.  While there are many ‘it depends’, solar prices are less than half that figure. About 18 months ago, the reported figure was 12.2 cents on average across the United States and new installations are getting cheaper every day (thus helping lower that average into the future). (For 2022, the Energy Information Administration, which has been incredibly pessimistic about solar and wind, predicts that new solar electricity will be under 8 cents per kilowatt hour without incentives.)
Wind (at least onshore wind) is perhaps 1/4th Murray’s asserted price.  Lazard, a top analytical firm, assessed 2016 wind installations at a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of 3-6 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh).  (For 2022, EIA assesses wind will be 5.5 cents per kWh — before counting any incentives.)
By the way, Lazard assessed coal as anywhere from 6 to 14 cents per kilowatt hour — e.g., higher than solar and double wind prices. And, of course, easily double the price of natural gas electricity systems — which is the main reason that natural gas has been eating coal’s lunch over the past five years or so.
Let’s take Murray’s “we paid out $15B” figure as accurate and put it against the roughly 300 billion kilowatt hours that came from solar and wind in 2016.  That would mean about 0.5 cents per kilowatt hour or perhaps 1/50th of Murray’s 25 cents per kilowatt hour figure.
NOTE: Murray calls that $16B a ‘subsidy’ and wishes us to ignore all of the benefit streams that analysis shows for wind and solar power: from reduced pollution to improved reliability and … Minnesota’s Value of Solar work is, for those interested in learning more, an excellent case study of thoughtful analysis trying to understand renewable energy value streams.
As to subsidies,
Energy analysts have made the point again and again that fossil fuels, not renewable energy, most benefit from supportive public policy. Yet this fact, so inconvenient to the conservative worldview, never seems to sink in to the energy debate in a serious way. The supports offered to fossil fuels are so old and familiar, they fade into the background. It is support offered to challengers — typically temporary, fragmentary, and politically uncertain support — that is forever in the spotlight.
Simply put, it is essentially impossible to figure out where Murray’s absurd claims derive from and allowing them to be broadcast without challenge is enabling propaganda, promoting an #AlternativeFacts discussion.
Electricity Grid Stability and Prices
TRUTH: The US electricity grid has been been stable or increasingly reliable over the past decade across industrial metrics and standards.
Murray #AlternativeFacts assertion:
“Gina McCarthy and Barack Obama destroyed reliable, low-cost electricity in America”

In FACT,  the US grid, while sadly lower quality than that of countries with far more renewable power (like Germany), saw real improvement while McCarthy was at EPA.

 the latest annual analysis of grid reliability conducted by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which found that most metrics of grid reliability are either improving or staying the same. For example, 2015 saw a drop in the number of incidents causing a temporary loss of supply. Frequency and voltage has remained stable as the amount of power from renewable energy sources has grown, it said, and the industry has been getting better at modeling changes to the grid to assess risks.

“The retirement of aging or uneconomic resources has not led, in any region, to an observed reduction in BPS (bulk power system) reliability from either resource adequacy or system security perspectives”

What is amusing is that Murray’s words might better describe the George W. Bush Administration, as the IEEE article warned in 2010 that the US electrical grid gets less reliable. Amid deregulation, from 1995 to 2010, “outages have steadily increased as R&D steadily declined”.  The Obama Administration allocated resources (in part stimulus package money) to the electricity sector and, in fact, help shift the situation toward an improved, more reliable grid.

And, US electricity prices were essentially stable in kilowatt terms through the Obama Administration even as the system was improving (including reduced pollution) and the average user is reducing electricity use (due to adoption of energy efficient options, like LED lights).  There was a slight increasing of electricity prices — in no small part because of investments (such as in grid) to improve reliability.

Scientists and Carbon Dioxide as a Pollutant

TRUTH: Scientists have determined that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that is having an impact on the climate and the oceans (acidification) and creating risks for humanity.

Murray #AltFacts perspective

“My stand is that the endangerment finding needs to be repealed, that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. I have 4,000 scientists that tell me that it is not a pollutant.”

In FACT, carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are a pollutant.  To be clear, just like arsenic, carbon dioxide is natural and found in nature. However, just like dumping arsenic into drinking waters is pollution that creates risk, dumping (massive) amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is pollution that creates risks.

Now, the world’s scientific bodies have (the scientific community has) a consensus about climate science that include understanding of carbon dioxide as a pollutant primary driver of climate change.  Just who are Murray’s “4,000 scientists” and what validity do these theoretical 4000 people (supposed scientists) in asserting otherwise?

Financial Motivations for Climate Policy Engagement

TRUTH: The vast majority of those concerned about damage to the climate and seeking to address these damages are not motivated in their actions by financial rewards. And, there are (literally) multi-trillion dollar industries (which Murray, as a coal CEO, is a poster child of) facing disruption from serious actions to mitigate climate risks and investing significant resources to distort science and public discussion to prevent action.

Murray-ite sleight-of-hand #AltFacts world 

“A lot of people, John, have made money off of promoting the politics of climate change”

TRUTH: This is a sleight-of-hand distortion of the discussion. Putting aside all of the ‘it needs definition (define “a lot of people” and what is “made money” and, in any event, what is “the politics of climate change”), this is better seen of as projection. Far greater amounts of money are being thrown at seeking to delay if not stop movement toward climate mitigation.  It is Murray and his ‘friends’ who are actively undermining understanding of climate science, who are investing resources to confuse the public, whose politics donations are centered on politicians who will enable greater profitability from fossil fuel exploitation and pollution.

Concluding Thought

While outrageous that PBS gave Murray such a soap box for his propaganda, it is even  worse (outright malpractice if not malfeasance) that they showed zero preparation for such deceptive statements and indicated no ability nor willingness to deal with his lies/deceit.

Read the PBS News Hour discussion … the News Hour team allowed him state falsehoods (or, at best, incredibly partial truths, #AlternativeFacts), don’t engage nor challenge those statements, and move on to the next questions which allows repeating and/or introducing new falsehoods and deception.  The News Hour team owes their viewers, American democracy, and, well, basic journalistic ethics better than they did in this interview.



UPDATE: See Marianne Lavelle’s excellent Inside Climate News examination “Coal Boss Takes Climate Change Denial to the Extreme“.  Lavelle lays out many of Murray’s falsehoods and deceptions, including some not covered above.

But Murray, who is head of the nation’s largest privately held coal company, adamantly propounded some of the most common, and thoroughly debunked, talking points of the denialist camp.

“The Earth has cooled for the last 19 years,” he said—an utter falsehood.

As to the cooling canard, Skeptical Science’s escalator makes the denialist game explicit:


The Science Denialist Escalator


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Tags: climate change · climate delayers · climate zombies · Energy · environmental · Global Warming · global warming deniers · journalism · SciComm · science · Science Communication · science denial

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Edward Averill // Oct 12, 2017 at 4:29 am

    Great article and criticism.

    Thank you. Compliments always taken. Sometimes even graciously.

    An OPB membership recruiter came to my door and asked why I dropped out. I told her that PBS and NPR failed on climate. Pushed fracked gas as a part of the news. Nova, is entertaining, but fails to address the issue of our age.

    I see current PBS as facade of what they were.

    Truly a serious challenge — where, in the broadcast environment, is that not the case? Painful to be overseas and see the quality of (at least some of) what goes across the air in terms of news/reporting. A challenge is: by walking away, do we accelerate the decline or do challenges lead to change for the better. Honestly, don’t know the answer.

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