The Shallow Coverage of Candidates’ Energy Policies

Reporters must use events, not ads, to leverage information

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. (a collaboration of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly) and, 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?

China and India, of course, rebuffed the group’s call to reduce emissions by 2050, but the meeting was “unprecedented” insofar as it brought the eight industrialized countries together with eight “major emitters” from the developing world. Ironically enough, this inclusive approach is an area where Bush and Obama share some common ground. According to an incisive op-ed published in both Japan’s Daily Yomiuri and India’s Hindu newspapers:

One of the few points of agreement between Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama (even if their recipes for addressing the problem diverge sharply) is on the cast of countries that should be around the table negotiating solutions for climate change. If Mr. Bush has his MEM-16 [Major Economies/Emitters Meeting], Mr. Obama has his proposal for a Global Energy Forum based on the combination of the G-8 and O5 [Outreach 5].

If you’re wondering what Obama’s Global Energy Forum is, it’s not your fault - the American press hasn’t covered it at all. That’s a shame. His platform statement on energy states:

Obama will build on our domestic commitments by creating a negotiating process that involves a smaller number of countries than the nearly 200 countries in the current Kyoto system. Obama will create a Global Energy Forum - based on the G8+5, which included all G-8 members plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa - of the world’s largest emitters to focus exclusively on global energy and environmental issues…

This Global Energy Forum will complement - and ultimately merge with - the much larger negotiation process underway at the UN to develop a post-Kyoto framework.

The statement also says that the forum will allow the U.S. to “exert maximum pressure on China and India to do their part and make real commitments of their own.” This is monumentally important. Yet last week, instead of getting Obama to elaborate on the forum in the context of the G-8 meeting, the press focused on his advertisement. It’s disgraceful.

John McCain is an equally ripe target for questioning on this subject. His Web site and energy plan don’t have anything as detailed as Obama’s forum, but his point of view needs no less explication. When McCain made his let’s-take-the-lead-on-climate-change speech in Portland, Oregon in May, he criticized the Bush administration’s intransigence, but “prodded” China and India to do their part in reducing carbon output. He added, however, that if efforts to secure an international agreement that includes those two countries don’t succeed, the U.S. still has “an obligation to act.” As National Public Radio reported at the time:

A prepared text of McCain’s speech supplied to reporters suggested that western countries might use trade sanctions to push China and India into cutting their carbon output. But in delivering the speech, McCain substituted softer language, saying diplomacy and technical support should be enough to move the two countries.

Clearly, both Obama and McCain have a lot to explain about their views of the U.S.’s role in leading, or at least participating in, global climate negotiations. The press should force them to do that and move beyond sound bites taken from campaign advertisements and stump speeches. Unfortunately, journalists missed a golden opportunity to do that during the G-8 meeting last week. But such questions still need answers, and there will be other chances to dig into candidates’ opinions about environmental policy.

Over the weekend, Felicity Barringer had an excellent article in The New York Times about two critical decisions — a court verdict striking down a “cornerstone” of the air-pollution control and the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act — that “shut the door” on Bush’s clean air policy. “Taken together,” she writes, “the developments make it clear that any significant new effort to fight air pollution will fall to the next president.” Um, yeah, so let’s ask the candidates about that. The Journal got brief, EPA-related quotes from both them — Obama is disappointed in the agency and McCain isn’t — but that’s not enough. Reporters must use current events to leverage more information about what the candidates will do in office.

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