NY Times spins the greatest nonstory ever told, suckering UK Guardian into printing utter BS

Memo to status quo media:  We get it, already.  You have already written your “Copenhagen has failed” stories, and are just waiting for the flimsiest excuse to “scoop” everyone else.  Your desperation to file this as-yet-unwritten story is unbecoming and also perverse, since, as I’ve argued, prospects for a global deal have never been better. Worse, it is leading to the most dreadful herd-journalism and misreporting imaginable.  The following should be a cautionary tale.

Andy Revkin took the biggest “dog bites man” nonstory of the year — that Obama will not get a climate bill on his desk this year — and spun it into a major piece in the one-time paper of record, “Obama Aide Concedes Climate Law Must Wait” (online Friday, print Saturday).

How old is this supposed news?  Well, my very first piece explaining that the torturous process — getting through all of the House committees, then the House floor, then all of the Senate committees, and then Senate floor, and then out of conference to merge the two chambers’ bills into one, and then through the House and Senate again — would not put a bill on Obama’s desk until 2010 was on Febuary 3, eight months ago (!) — “Breaking: Sen. Boxer makes clear U.S. won’t pass a climate bill this year.”

For the record, though, Obama’s aide didn’t “concede” anything, with the implication that she was forced to make some sort of damning newsworthy admission.  In fact, Browner made this incredibly obvious statement almost as an aside at a confab put on by The Atlantic magazine.  The Atlantic thought so little of the supposedly newsworthiness of Browner’s statement that they buried it in the middle of their article on her remarks, “Carol Browner: Now is the Time to Move on Climate.”

In the entire story, Revkin never bothers to explain that for many, many months now the only issue for those who follow DC climate politics has been whether the Senate would pass a climate bill before Copenhagen, not whether a final bill would get onto Obama’s desk before Copenhagen.  I would note that his colleagues, John Broder and John Kanter, have written stories that are far clearer — and pointed out a while back that the issue was the timing of the Senate vote (see, for instance, this September 20th story).

The paper’s own editorial desk was so confused that in the print edition’s news summary table of contents on page A2, “Inside the Times,” the headline was, “Climate Bill Called Unlikely,” which would lead any reader just skimming, as most do, utterly misinformed.

But the true result of this bad reporting can be seen in the worst climate story of the week, by Suzanne Goldenberg today (Sunday), “US environment correspondent” for the UK Guardian, which apparently was even more desperate to file the first story that Copenhagen has failed and it’s all America’s fault:

US climate bill not likely this year, says Obama adviser

Carol Browner’s bleak view deepens concerns negotiations will fail to produce meaningful agreement in Copenhagen

The White House has said for the first time that it does not expect to see a climate change bill this year, removing one of the key elements for reaching an international agreement to avoid catastrophic global warming.

In a seminar in Washington, Barack Obama’s main energy adviser, Carol Browner, gave the clearest indication to date that the administration did not expect the Senate to vote on a climate change bill before an international meeting in Copenhagen in December.

Browner spoke barely 48 hours after Senate Democrats staged a campaign-style rally in support of a climate change bill that seeks to cut US emissions by 20% on 2005 levels by 2020.

“Obviously, we’d like to be through the process, but that’s not going to happen,” Browner told a conference hosted by the Atlantic magazine on Friday. “I think we would all agree the likelihood that you’d have a bill signed by the president on comprehensive energy by the time we go in December is not likely.”

Yes, the quote in fourth paragraph does not support the conclusion in second paragraph.  Revkin’s failure to explain the distinction between a signed bill on Obama’s desk (which is what Browner was talking about) and Senate passage morphed in this piece into utter misinformation.

We may well not get a Senate vote before the end of the Copenhagen meeting, it’s certainly no better than 50-50 today, but her remarks do not justify what the Guardian wrote, and they certainly don’t justify their “Copenhagen has failed” spin:

Browner’s bleak assessment deepens concerns that negotiations, already deadlocked, will fail to produce a meaningful agreement in Copenhagen.

The Guardian has just set the record for the use of the word “bleak” in a climate article that isn’t about the science.

In fact, Carol Browner said we’ve had “very positive” recent international meetings and even the AP, which felt compelled to join the herd with their version of the non-story, “Obama adviser says no climate change law this year,” concluded its piece accurately:

Browner said the U.S. could still take a leading role at the Copenhagen talks, even without a new climate law.

“We will go to Copenhagen and manage with whatever we have,” she said.

Doesn’t sound like of very bleak assessment to me.  Apparently the Guardian, in its version of the children’s game Telephone, never bothered to actually listen to what Browner actually said.

I’ve blogged many times I don’t think that the White House needs to have a signed climate bill — or even Senate passage — for Copenhagen to be successful in the sense of moving international negotiations forward.

Remember, for eight years Cheney-Bush not only muzzled climate scientists and blocked domestic action, they actively worked behind the sciences to kill any international deal.  It takes a lot of effort to unpoison a well.  And we’ve only had the possibility of serious international negotiations since January.  Anyone who thought there would be a final deal, signed and sealed in December, a mere 11 months later, wasn’t paying attention to recent history and doesn’t appreciate the nature of international negotiations.

The fact is, the news from China, India, Japan, and this country is far more positive toward the possibility of agreement than it has been for a decade or longer.

But instead we get this unmitigated bullsh!t from the Guardian:

Browner’s bleak assessment deepens concerns that negotiations, already deadlocked, will fail to produce a meaningful agreement in Copenhagen. It also threatens to further dampen the prospects for a bill that was struggling for support among conservative and rustbelt Democrats.

The UN has cast the Copenhagen meeting as a last chance for countries to reach an agreement to avoid the most disastrous effects of warming. Negotiators – including the state department’s climate change envoy – admit it will be far harder to reach such a deal unless America, historically the world’s biggest polluter, shows it is willing to cut its own greenhouse gas emissions.

Browner’s comments undercut a campaign by Democratic leaders in the Senate, corporations and environmental organisations to try to build momentum behind the bill. The day before Browner’s comments, John Kerry, the former presidential candidate who is one of the sponsors of the cap-and-trade bill, told a conference he remained confident the bill would squeak through the Senate.

Her remarks also raise further doubts about how forcefully the Obama administration is willing to press the Senate for a climate bill in the midst of its struggles over healthcare.

Embarrassingly bad analysis.

Browner’s remarks, if you actually listen to them, make clear President Obama is committed to achieving domestic action and an international deal.

Finally, for the record, back in early February, Greenwire reported:

“Copenhagen is December,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) told reporters. “That’s why I said we’ll have a bill out of this committee by then.”

Now that was news!

And while many different statements were uttered by many different people in the subsequent days and weeks, it has been pretty friggin’ obvious from the start that Obama would not see a climate bill on his desk this year.  And once Senate Environment and Public Works chair Boxer said she wouldn’t introduce her draft bill before the August break, that outcome was 100% guaranteed (see my July post “Looks like no Senate vote on climate and clean energy bill until at least November “” thank goodness!“).

Maybe now that the media has filed their “Copenhagen is dead and America killed it story,” they’ll actually be able to start covering the real story, which is certainly less tidy, but ultimately both far more accurate and far less bleak.

12 Responses to NY Times spins the greatest nonstory ever told, suckering UK Guardian into printing utter BS

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    Two Points

    Given the stakes involved, the lack of clarity in the NY Times and Guardian stories (and the “take” or “hook” or whatever it might be called) is sloppy and irresponsible.

    If they continue this through coming weeks, I’m going to shift papers.

    Also, what is the “rush” to do anything OTHER THAN actually address the matter, i.e., climate change? In other words, our urgency should be to ADDRESS the matter. There shouldn’t be any urgency to report “failure”, inaccurately, two months before a conference even begins!

    The Times seems to be as aimless (and confused about the genuine public good) as that guy you wrote about in your other recent post, Joe, the one who sees it as a problem that they can’t win intellectual arguments over the very nature of “progress”.

    It has been a few weeks now since retailers here have started featuring Halloween items and themes. In other words, they’ve been featuring Halloween decor and themes since mid September or even a week or two earlier, in some cases. That’s six or seven weeks in advance. Meanwhile, rather than inform the public on the factual and weighty matters of climate change itself, and the proposed legislation, so people have more of a chance to understand and provide input to their government reps (and stop buying the products of certain companies!), the Times and Guardian choose to ambiguously and inaccurately (if I understand your point right, Joe) focus on failure, two months before the conference.

    While we’re at it, shall we declare Christmas a failure? How about my birthday (it’s in January) a failure? Now that Fall has just started, let’s declare both Fall and Winter failures?!

    What is failing is journalism. That much is quite clear. Where is CJR on this stuff?



  2. Greg Robie says:

    All this talk about reporting is sounding more and more like the election coverage. Where is the reporting on the science—since it sure isn’t in the legislation?

    At a town hall meeting In the Fall of 2007 I asked my congressperson what the plan was for Copenhagen and how was it going to be paid for. According to him the Democratic Party leadership was planning to pay for it through a windfall profit tax on the oil companies but he did not know the plan. And this is the guy who wrote the song “Power” the Doobie Brother recored in 1979. Expediency seems to have been trumping the science in shaping any “plan,” even back in 2007.

    This party, including its president, who, two years ago was part of Congress, is now both late and is letting industry craft a scientifically meaningless piece of legislation as its “plan.” This—and what to do about it—is the failure that is not being talked about as we get distracted by arguments over how this failure really isn’t, technically, a failure. Sorry, I am too embarrassed by this inside-the-beltway hubris to be much other than disgusted.

    And outside-the-beltway (beyond the climate science ignorant US population and the MSM that keeps them this way) is the rest of the world who has been watching this hubris play out. The job I would not want to have right now is crafting the President’s speeches about our folly such that it sounds like we are acting in good faith. Though “the real story…is certainly less tidy, but ultimately both far more accurate and far less bleak” is a good framework for that work to start with!

    Darn you are good with words, Joe. ;)

  3. mike roddy says:

    You made an important point, Joe. If somebody is going to write about politics, he should have an idea about how the process actually works in the US, including timelines.

    Obama won’t have a climate bill by Copenhagen, but there is a silver lining. Instead, he can ignore Congress for a while and focus on the specifics of what we could actually accomplish administratively. This includes the new confirmation of EPA’s ability to regulate CO2. Taken to its logical conclusion, this could enable the president to make dirty power uncompetitive.

    This can be done in several ways: announce cancellation of itemized tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuels, instead of talking about it vaguely as a future international step. Then, see that CO2 spouting coal plants pay a financial penalty for the GHG’s they send into the atmosphere. I can think of a few ways that this could be accomplished, and others no doubt have additional ideas. President Obama still has enough tools at his disposal to do this if he so chose.

  4. Danny Bloom says:

    One word for you, Joe: “Copenhaagen-dazs”

  5. pete best says:

    Yes I am sire that even the mighty USA can cut their emissions by 17.5% of 2005 levels ( a mere 2.5% of 1990 levels) and I doubt that even needs a climate bill anywhre in the world!

    Left or right, right of wrong – column inches have to be filled and its not always truthful but it makes sense politically.

  6. Tim R says:

    What you have written Mr. Romm is correct and needed pointing out. But there is a reason why the otherwise good-on-climate Guardian made this mistake. The U.S. is killing a deal in Copenhagen.

    Becasue we can not step up domestically to do what is needed, we are dragging the world down to our level. First, the U.S. is working hard in Bangkok right now to kill off the Kyoto Protocol and assure that there is no second commitment period. Next, the U.S. is working to change the terms of the international climate regime from legally binding commitments, to non-binding objectives. There is no U.S. leadership on mitigation or financing for developing countries, but plenty of U.S. leadership on rolling back the current international structure.

    I’m sure I am supposed to pipe down and accept this as Obama’s wisdom about real politics in the Senate. But to me it simply looks like a failure of leadership from someone who has not really absorbed what climate scientists are telling us.

  7. Greg Robie says:

    Tim R (#6),

    You must be under 30.

    Scientifically, what a refreshingly straight-forward piece of writing your comment is to read here on CP the first thing in the morning. Us liberal oldsters that are camped out “here,” who have a moral need to not see ourselves as a BIG part of the problem, are continuing to do so by wasting time talking about the problem the “other” is. Your comment helps pulls back the curtain on that inane behavior.

    I had not heard of the US effort to kill off the Kyoto Protocol. Even so, it makes perfect political sense. Given what I read in Hu’s speech at the UN Climate Summit in NY (see pages 6-8 ) I see China’s position being: one, we are a developing nation (and acting responsibly as such); two, the Kyoto framework (that exempted China) is the right framework to move forward with (i.e. the developed would must lead—which, if the US charged ourselves with the parts of “their” CO2e footprint that is, in fact/as an accrued “benefit,” ours, would demonstrate that we are standing beside—not above—them and trying to responsibly redressing the mess we both created and have set the unsustainable example about.

    The failure of leadership you reference includes scientifically inadequate ACES/CEJAP—an interesting jobs bill, but a defective piece of climate change legislation. Taken together, as a strategy, completing the demise of the Kyoto Protocol, while missing a minimum scientific target for GHG reductions domestically in the proposed legislation, and as Pete Best (#5) references (whether it is 2.5% or somewhere between 4-5%), is a truth about this nation and its behavior that only those indoctrinated by the domestic MSM seemed to be challenged to see.

    Using a metaphor of a puppet show being held in a open venue with seating in front of the stage for an invited few and a fence to keep the riffraff out, the curtain screens the puppeteers from the seating we were born into. Much of the rest of the wold, systemically fenced out by the dynamics of a fiat currency-based, fractional reserve banking enabled global capitalism, can see what we lack even a language for (due to having never seen anything but the stage from in front of the curtain—TV): what is going on, as visible, from the other side of the fence. This puppet show metaphor is little more than an update of Plato’s cave. Like in that older metaphor, few have the morays of a developed maturity—being an adult—to leave the comfort of the theater of privileged shadows . . . or, abandoning, as Pete labels it, political sensibilities—NOT.

    What you reference as a surety about piping down is little more than peer pressure applied to silence those who feel it incumbent upon themselves to help their society mature. Such social dynamics are an abuse of peer pressure as a means of persuasion. The abuse is a major factor in the collapse of every “advanced” civilization eventually brings upon itself. Keep trust your emotional need to pursue and speak the truth, and thanks for the comment.

  8. Then again, it could be that The Guardian was just doing what they’re supposed to do… Reporting on all sides of the issue, and unlike the science of climate change, there are other opinions worth mining.

    [JR: A wrong story is a wrong story.]

    And it seems likely that their take was inspired by a number of pessimistic stories quoting key stakeholders in the EU and the developing world who haven’t been impressed by the progress of talks or by the US position that Kyoto has to go.

    “The reason why we are not making progress is the lack of political will by Annex 1 [industrialised] countries. There is a concerted effort to fundamentally sabotage the Kyoto protocol,” said ambassador Yu Qingtai China’s special representative on climate talks. “We now hear statements that would lead to the termination of the protocol. They are introducing new rules, new formats. That’s not the way to conduct negotiations,” said Yu.

    Yu’s was echoed by Lumumba Di-Aping, Sudanese chair of the G77, the UN’s largest intergovernmental organisation of developing states which represents 130 countries at the talks. “Feelings are running high in the G77. It is clear now that the rich countries want a deal outside the Kyoto agreement. It would be based on a total rejection of their historical responsibilities. This is an alarming development. The intention of developed countries is clearly to kill the protocol,” he said.

    I’ve read a few dozen stories in the last few weeks just like the one quoted above.

    I get it, really. Joe thinks the glass is half full. Now maybe it will all work out, and if we can get a better international agreement in 2010, then I’d be all for that. But given the secrecy that is surrounding the current UN talks in Thailand, it’s not clear to me that we’re heading in that direction, or that the US is on the right track.

  9. john says:

    The MSM has been one of the primary — if not the primary — impediments to getting a rational climate policy from the late 80’s when the issue first emerged on the political scene.

    Still, it’s sad to see the usually responsible Guardian sinking to the level of Revkin. Deep fall.

    I think we should start rating reporters and outlets as to accuracy. Say, 0-10, where 0 equals Fox, and 10 equals Realclimate and Climateprogress.

  10. “the worst climate story of the week, by Suzanne Goldenberg today (Sunday)”

    There are six more days to the week. It will be difficult, but someone might do even worse.

  11. Lane says:

    John, “The usually responsible Guardian”? Are we talking about the same paper? There’s a lot to be said for the British newspapers, including liveliness and readability and a certain fun in watching them joust with each other. They can offer fresh perspectives on the US. But nobody should read them for reliable news; to take a totally different example, two “scoops” by the Telegraph have fallen apart in this week alone: 1) that Obama and Stan McChrystal have had a huge falling out, and 2) that Ahmadinejad comes from Jewish roots. (The latter “scoop” was knocked down before the ink on the paper had fully dried.)

    The American papers are plodding reads, prone to herdism, and cautious, for the same reason that they are fairly reliable on the facts themselves: U.S. journalists value the long and slow process of building up sources close to the actual news, which makes them risk-averse and often to close to the trees to see the forest. But rarely do you get the doesn’t-pass-the-sniff-test “scoop” that is so common in the UK. I’m not picking on the Guardian per se – all the broadsheets (except the FT) share the same culture and market. It’s just a different thing.

    Shorter comment: don’t read the UK papers for news. Read them to be provoked.

  12. Lane:

    The Guardian is one of the world’s best newspapers.