Last week, energy issues made their way back to the forefront of presidential campaign coverage with a pair of “dueling energy ads” from Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.
Obama’s ad was a direct response to one the Republican National Committee had released a few days before, which accused Obama of offering “no new solutions” to global warming and escalating fuel and energy prices. The media was all over the attendant squabbling.
Obama’s ad called McCain “part of the problem,” and the GOP responded by saying that it was the first negative ad of the general election campaign on either side. PolitiFact.com (a collaboration of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly) and FactCheck.org, meanwhile, both issued reports criticizing the initial GOP ad as partly inaccurate—while it was correct to state that Obama opposes offshore oil drilling and suspending the federal gas tax, Obama does not dismiss nuclear power and does offer “new solutions” to mitigate global warming. As the Politics blog of The San Francisco Chronicle observed, however:
The O’s ad also includes a misdirect of its own. He said that McCain wants to give big tax breaks to oil companies. Yeah, kinda. Mac’s tax plan would generally cut corporate taxes. But it was The O who voted FOR the 2005 energy bill — which included tax breaks for oil companies and was kissed into law by a certain oil-lovin’ VP and Prez — while McCain and one Hillary R. Clinton voted against it. Johnny Mac voted against it because he said it included billions worth of unnecessary tax breaks for the oil industry.
Kudos to the press for fact-checking the ads, but journalists should step back and ask themselves, “Is this the way we cover the presidential energy issues — by covering campaign advertisements? Isn’t it possible to dig deeper? To report something new?” The ad-watch beat is certainly worthwhile, but, after all, anybody who has been reading the news regularly or following the candidates’ energy positions would have been able to identify last week’s inaccuracies and spin.
To say that energy-related issues have gained more media prominence since the end of the primaries is an understatement. Reporters, nonetheless, are still struggling to move beyond information the candidates have made readily available. They’ve been relegated to picking clean the same, proffered bone without digging for new ones.
The problem seems to be that few reporters are actually positioned to ask the candidates novel questions about environmental issues. That’s unfortunate, because during long, tiresome campaigns, asking the presumptive nominees about current events is a great way to breathe new life—not to mention significance—into stale coverage.
The big energy story last week was the Group of 8 meeting Japan where George W. Bush made copious headlines by joining other members in calling for a 50-percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The group’s statement was widely criticized for its vagueness, and most of the coverage noted the futility of G-8 leaders’ attempts to negotiate with a lame duck president whose successor is likely to be much more enthusiastic about emissions reductions. Unfortunately, the two candidates were almost nowhere to be found in press accounts of the group’s summit. The Washington Post had this brief but significant detail halfway through its article:
Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have both indicated an interest in steeper emissions reductions than Bush wants, but [Michael A.] Levi, [director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations], said U.S. allies, particularly Japan, have been reluctant to box in the next president by negotiating a deal without Bush and presenting it to his successor as a fait accompli.
“This sets a frame for negotiations that the next president, regardless of who it is, will be happy to work within,” Levi said.
Did anybody try, or even think, to ask Obama or McCain for a response? Do they think the summit set a frame for negotiations that they’ll be “happy” to work within? That’s a great question, especially considering how the frame changed last week. In return for Bush’s novel agreement to halve global emissions of heat-trapping gases by mid-century, the rest of the G-8 agreed to a statement saying that developing nations like China and India must be part of a new international accord. The New York Times Sheryl Gay Stolberg aptly described the deal as a bit of “environmental quid pro quo.” And an otherwise typically recalcitrant Wall Street Journal editorial wisely noted that the press focused on Bush’s concession, when the G-8’s was equally important.
So where does that leave Obama and McCain?