Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Future of America's Major Media Outlets - Fixing the Fourth Estate After Failures On Drilling and Iraq

Why do the American People -- needing the right information to choose a president whose policies will prevent Peak Oil and Climate Change from becoming society-destabilizing catastrophes -- believe the fantasy that domestic oil drilling is the right energy solution to bring down gas prices? How can this be, when even our Department of Energy's own Energy Information Administration makes clear that this idea has no more basis in reality than believing that the Superfriends are going to save us by swooping down and leaving solar-powered hovercrafts in our driveways?

As this disturbing report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) points out:

"there is no empirical basis for believing that drilling in environmentally sensitive offshore zones would significantly affect gas prices. The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that such drilling would add some 200,000 barrels of oil per day at peak production in about 20 years. This is about 0.2 percent of world production, and the EIA describes this as too small to have any significant effect on oil prices."

Even if the EIA's projections end up being short by a factor of five, and these areas produce 1 million barrels per day, it will still take well over a decade for this oil to reach gas stations, and will still be only about 1% of global output -- far too little to significantly bring down gas prices. So if this is what the best available data tells us, the critical question becomes the one that the CEPR report examined:

"How did 51 percent of Americans come to believe the opposite, that this drilling would significantly lower gasoline prices?"

The report's authors found that:

"By repeatedly reporting the false claims of drilling proponents, while giving little or no attention to the available facts, the most important news media helped to convince the public of something that is not true, and thereby influenced the entire political climate around this issue."

The Study - Methods and Results

The authors examined 267 news programs between June 16th and August 9th, 2008 that covered the drilling issue, including ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, CBC Evening News, The Today show, Good Morning America, Meet the Press, CNN, and Fox News. They found, shockingly, that of those 267 news programs:

"there was only one, or less than one half of one percent, that cited the EIA's estimate that the increased oil production would not significantly affect gasoline prices."

Just as disturbingly, when examining coverage of politically-charged calls for increased domestic drilling as a solution to high gas prices:

"in 91 percent of the news programs in this sample, the opposing 'opinion' (that domestic drilling will not, according to our best data, come close to solving our woes at the pump) was not even presented...despite the fact that this dissenting 'opinion' is actually true."

It's not just the major media outlets who the public can't trust to present the drilling issue credibly, the report notes. It's also Republican Presidential Candidate, Senator John McCain, who has repeatedly said that increased domestic drilling will bring gas prices down. Not surprisingly, the authors point out that talk radio is also enforcing this view:

"Rush Limbaugh's radio show, for example, reaches an estimated audience of 14.25 million people per week. Limbaugh, like other conservative talk show hosts, repeatedly reinforced the view that the proposed drilling was necessary to lower gasoline prices."

The report's conclusion packs a punch:

"Major media outlets provided daily repetition of the false claim that expanded drilling in environmentally sensitive zones would lower gasoline prices. At the same time, these outlets failed to report the official data from the Department of Energy's Energy Information Agency, which showed that these claims were false. There can be little doubt that this reporting had a significant impact on public opinion, and contributed to the widespread misunderstanding reflected in polling data. In doing so, the major media exerted a very significant influence on an important matter of national policy. The media have most likely changed the debate and political climate in a way that would not have been possible if they had simply reported the most important official data, thereby showing that the central claim in this debate was false."

The Traditional Mass Media - A Broken Fourth Estate

The traditional mass media programs covered by this study should be embarrassed. Jefferson, who called for the media to act as a Fourth Estate that educates the people so that our democracy can function properly, hangs his head in heaven. Somebody should probably go to jail for the decisions that have so grossly misinformed the American people about the right energy policy prescriptions for solving the intertwined problems of high gas prices, Peak Oil, and climate change. Especially when the solutions -- sustainable clean energy and energy conservation -- hold so much promise as not only climate change solutions, but solutions that will grow our 21st century economy, create jobs and fight poverty, and improve our public health, national security, and quality of life.

Fixing the Fourth Estate - A Key Energy Independence and Climate Change Solution

If we are to prevent Peak Oil and Climate Change from becoming disasters that shake the foundations of life as we know it, America needs to focus on real solutions -- solutions that the best available information from our best experts tell us have the best prospects for success. While there is no one silver bullet that will replace the oil that powers our vehicles -- while also helping us avoid, or at least minimize climate change -- the media needs to be held accountable if they are presenting the public with information that is influencing America's most important policy decisions, and that information is wrong. Just look at what this type of negligence cost American taxpayers (not to mention the lives of our brave soldiers and their families) when major media outlets failed to vet the drive to war in Iraq! Our major media outlets' failure to properly educate the American people in critical issues like this reminds me of a key recommendation for solving climate change that David Orr made in his legendary essay, "One Hundred Days of Climate Action":

"To ensure that the public is adequately informed, not mislead and deliberately confused, the president should direct the Federal Communications Commission, among other things, to reinstate the "fair and balanced" standard necessary to hold a license to broadcast over the public airwaves."

Clearly, it is time.

In my next piece, I'll discuss another reason I think the American people take to drilling right now more readily than to renewables. I'll also discuss how, from the standpoint of behavior change science, by becoming a part of the clean energy revolution, YOU can help shift public opinion away from the fossil fuels of the 20th century and build public confidence in the emerging Clean Energy-powered economy of the 21st century.

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