NYT Runs Out of Energy

Phones in an “issue” story

It looked promising, at first: a story on the front page of the The New York Times business section that appears to use soaring oil prices as the news peg for a roundup of our presidential candidates’ various energy policies. The story begins as follows:

As oil prices flirt with record highs, hovering around $95 a barrel on Tuesday, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are offering few quick fixes but profoundly different long-term approaches to energy policy.

Unfortunately, after this auspicious lede heralding much-needed insights on a pressing matter, Times reporter Edmund L. Andrews dials in the rest of the article. Do reporters really dislike “issue” stories that much? Andrews provides no new quotes from any of the candidates apart from one (written) comment from Mitt Romney sticking up for oil companies. Indeed, the information the piece offers is of the most unoriginal and superficial variety, heavy on generalizations. Dems link energy inextricably to climate, and most of them want to improve efficiency through a cap-and-trade system on carbon that will fund R&D for renewable fuels. They also want to strip oil companies’ lucrative tax breaks. Republicans don’t like this at all. They want more ethanol and biofuels production, but they would also continue to seek out and tap new (especially domestic) sources of fossil fuels. There is some “muddling” of candidate positions, as Andews puts it: McCain won’t support drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Obama believes in the future of coal-to-liquids technology. That’s about as deep as the article goes.

Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal’s John Fialka wrote a much better version of this story, which capitalized more completely on the winter heating/gas guzzler angle. In it, readers learned that fuel prices in New Hampshire (in addition to Iowa and South Carolina - all early voting states) are particularly high and that the state has 25 percent less federal heating aid. Readers then learn that the Department of Energy recently decided to continue buying (rather than drilling for) oil for the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve, and the Obama campaign gives its opinion about that. Fialka, like Andrews, had to rely on quotes from the candidates’ representatives, but the questions and subsequent replies are more to the point on how candidates are addressing energy issues in places like New Hampshire.

In addition to winter fuel prices, Andrews could have staked an entire, and much better, article on this keen, but underemphasized sentence in today’s piece:

Indeed, most of the Democratic rivals are proposing plans that are more aggressive than the bills that Democratic leaders in Congress are hoping to pass before year-end. The disparity raises questions about whether the candidates’ plans are politically realistic.

Uh, yeah! Now what about some answers? A story on the inside of the Times business section, just below Andrews’ jump space, reports on the Congressional effort to compromise on a new fuel economy bill. Reporters should be cornering candidates and demanding that they weigh-in on such legislation. There is also the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act to be vetted, and Hillary Clinton sits on the committee that will decide whether or not the bill makes it to the Senate floor. More than asking candidates to take a position, however, reporters could investigate Andrews’ astute, but unexplored observation: all the Democratic candidates have bolder energy plans than the legislature. Is this problematic or conducive to success in the election? And if a Democrat wins, will there be any legal/legislative hurdles to getting America back in the lead on energy and climate? If reporters are really having that much trouble conceiving of such questions, they might take a cue from their colleagues Down Under.

In a federal election last Saturday, Australians elected the Labor Party’s Kevin Rudd to replace the incumbent prime minister, John Howard, who has been in power since 1996. Aussie news outlets are calling it a landmark, landslide victory that will set the nation on a new course. Howard has parroted the Bush administration’s positions on global warming and the Iraq war for the last eight years, and Rudd’s new course calls for hanging a u-turn and peeling off in exactly the opposite direction. Moreover, Rudd already has his foot on the pedal. Amazingly enough, climate was a bigger concern among Aussie voters than war, and Rudd promised that signing the Kyoto Protocol (an international emissions reductions scheme scorned by Bush and Howard) will be one of his first acts in office. Reacting appropriately, the Australian press immediately rounded up a group of experts to comment on the legal barriers to making such an abrupt about-face.

Now why can’t more American journalists put such energy into their energy coverage?

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.