Missing the Bottom Line

Celebrity status and race distract from campaign ads' real message: energy and the economy

This week, campaign trail chatter has been all about ads—John McCain’s ads, and their accuracy, to be specific. On Monday, we criticized the media for not thoroughly dissecting a McCain ad implying that Barack Obama had snubbed U.S. troops at a hospital in Germany. By Wednesday, however, we credited the press for remedying that oversight.

Later this week, the pattern continued after another McCain ad compared Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Predictably, the media focused on the implication that Illinois senator is a vacuous celebrity unfit to lead. The conversation then quickly turned to race, both in the context of the “celeb” ad and remarks Obama made at a campaign stop in Missouri. Granted, race is a more meaningful topic than stardom. But, most media failed to note that the real issue being debated in the ad, and certainly the one that most concerns the public, was energy.

A tip of the hat to The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, however, who led a post on the paper’s The Trail blog with an astute observation and some much needed fact checking:

The few campaign watchers who aren’t transfixed by the images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) new attack ad aimed at Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), might be asking themselves right now, “What’s this about an Obama electricity tax?”

Short answer: there isn’t one.

Long answer: both McCain and Obama would make electricity derived from fossil fuels more expensive, since they’re both committed to setting mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions through a cap and trade system. In fact, they would raise energy costs by the same amount over the next 12 years, since they have identical short-term emissions goals.

Apparently, the McCain camp based its “electricity tax” charge on comments that Obama had made to the San Antonio Express-News in February. Asked whether he would tax clean energy sources like wind, the senator replied, ” What we ought to tax is dirty energy, like coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas.” Obama’s campaign says that he was talking about his cap-and-trade program, which he has long supported in preference to a carbon tax.

A smart journalist might point out that Obama’s plan, unlike McCain’s, would auction 100 percent of the pollution credits, which experts say is akin to taxation. McCain’s ad is still misleading (and previously, he seemed to misunderstand his own cap-and-trade plan) because Obama certainly does not support directly taxing carbon, but the point is that few journalists have critically examined the candidates’ argument in such detail.

The Associated Press’s AdWatch project had a good analysis of the “celeb” ad, which observed that “The McCain campaign is betting the television audience will look past the images and sounds of Obama’s prominence and concentrate on the underlying criticism.” On that point, however, the AP might be slightly mistaken; there’s been plenty of coverage the candidates’ positions gas prices and offshore oil drilling, but not really in the context of the ad itself. One exception is The New York Times’s Paul Krugman, who criticized McCain in his Friday column:

A McCain campaign ad says that gas prices are high right now because “some in Washington are still saying no to drilling in America.” That’s just plain dishonest: the U.S. government’s own Energy Information Administration says that removing restrictions on offshore drilling wouldn’t lead to any additional domestic oil production until 2017, and that even at its peak the extra production would have an “insignificant” impact on oil prices.

The EIA report isn’t news; journalists have been quoting it since McCain first announced his support for offshore oil drilling last month. Given that a CNN poll this week found that most Americans are open to such drilling, however, the report’s conclusions bear repeating as much as possible. Indeed, an article from Wednesday’s Washington Post found that, in oil, Republicans “think they have found their best political issue of the 2008 campaign.”

In addition to boosting supply and lowering gas prices, the article mentions another point on which journalists might challenge McCain more often: the environmental impact and safety of offshore drilling. It notes that McCain’s visit to an offshore platform “was scuttled in the face of Hurricane Dolly and a massive fuel oil spill in the Mississippi River near New Orleans.” The piece, by Michael Shear and Paul Kane, goes on to mention that “the oil slick in the Mississippi River was caused by a collision between a tanker and a barge, not a leak at an oil rig.” But oddly enough, the article doesn’t mention earlier work by Shear, which found that the platforms might not be as sturdy as McCain would have everybody believe. In a post on WaPo’s The Trail blog, Shear wrote that, despite the senator’s claims:

In fact, Katrina and Hurricane Rita caused damage to oil rigs and storage facilities in the Gulf, according to press reports and government studies.

The hurricanes totally destroyed 113 oil rigs, according to the government’s Minerals Management Service, and damaged 457 pipelines. The resulting oil spills were large enough to be seen from space, according to several reports.

Much like the EIA report on offshore drilling’s inability to boost oil supply and assuage short-term gas prices, such details should be mentioned in all news articles where the safety of drilling comes up. On the matter of supply and prices, however, there has been much reporting. The Wall Street Journal just wrapped up an intriguing five-part, online debate between two McCain and Obama campaign representatives about each side’s plan for balancing environmental conservation with consumer demand for relief from high electricity and gas prices. Notably, however, the most important and relevant questions came not from the moderator, Neil King, Jr., but from the campaigns themselves. In part five of the debate, the Journal asked each side to pose its own question to the other:

The Obama Campaign’s Question: How would McCain’s cap and trade proposal affect energy prices and what would you do about it?

The McCain Campaign’s Question: … [D]oes Senator Obama guarantee that all proceeds from these [100 percent cap-and-trade permit] auctions exceeding $15 billion will be returned to the American people (as Congress often spends money it has in its coffers)?

The answers to the questions, of course, were somewhat evasive. But journalists should be aiming for questions that are similarly specific and hard-hitting. It might also be noted that reporters who have trouble getting access to the candidates can turn to other sources. A good example of a solid interview recently popped up at Grist, where two of the online magazine’s reporters sat down with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. One of the best queries asked how the Democratic Congress would proceed with climate legislation if Obama loses the election. During the primaries, conventional wisdom within the media was that the next president would undoubtedly support strong measures to thwart global warming.

Whether or not that assumption is now invalid remains a topic for debate. One thing is sure, however—it will never be resolved until journalists stop harping false leads such as celebrity and race, and focus on what the candidates are really debating in their ads: energy and economics.

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