Note from Peter Dykstra: Last Monday was my final Media Mayhem column. I start this week in Washington as Deputy Director at the Pew Charitable Trust’s Environment Group. It’s a full time job and then some, and a great opportunity. My friend Ken Edelstein is now taking over this Media Mayhem column. Ken is the former editor of Atlanta’s weekly, Creative Loafing. If you’re from these parts, you already know his talent, and if not, you soon will.
OK. Take a few deep breaths. Don't get as worked up about these things as I do: This is how cable news coverage of the climate change bill that's working its way through Congress will go for the next two months -- at least in some media quarters.
It will not be about facts. It will not be about what's good for the Earth. And it often won't even be about the legislation's most significant issues.
It will be about whatever spin, half-truth, or fiction works its way from politicians and interest groups onto a medium mainly interested in the emotion it can wring from a story. It will activate a plaintive voice inside you that cries, "Hey, guys. Wait a second. I thought you were journalists. You weren't supposed to just make things up, were you?"
Here's how this system works: An interest group -- say, the National Association of Realtors -- doesn't like an obscure part of the bill -- say, an incentive plan that would encourage states to establish programs to rate and label buildings for their energy efficiency.
Never mind that it's an innocuous idea, in practice in many states with no reported problems. The interest group's Washington staff needs to explain to members how unjust this particular portion of the bill is -- and how the staff is on task, watching out for its members' interests.
The group might send its members -- as the Realtors Association did -- an article that explains how a dire injustice is about to be perpetrated: "Clearly this could have a severe dampening effect on sales involving existing homes, particularly older existing homes. And such a requirement couldn't come at a worse time."
Members of Congress might get into the act, booming in committee hearings and in interviews that the provision is an affront to a very powerful campaign contributor, er, I mean, to freedom loving homeowners everywhere.
U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Kentucky, is outraged. He declares that something really, really bad is in the bill -- despite that fact that it actually isn't in the bill. "If you sell [a house] and it does not meet those rules," Whitfield declares, "then under this legislation, you could be penalized."
And now the red herring smells like red meat to the media's guardian of free enterprise. Fox Business Channel to the rescue.
A hyperventilating host named Stuart Varney boasts that he "broke the story." He flashes a scary graphic onto the screen, with alarming red-and-black labels plastered on houses and titled: "The Scarlet Letter of Environmentalism."
In Varney's hands, truth need not be stranger than fiction. He declares unilaterally that the bill will mandate a federal requirement that either the homebuyer or the seller must renovate a house before it’s sold. He invites an environmentalist -- Public Citizen's Tyson Slocum -- to be his guest, but he won't interview the poor guy; he simply hectors him.
The story has risen above the need to connect to reality. It is now about something higher. It is about "principle."
"I can't believe that you would walk away from the individual liberty and freedom which we have in America and stick the government on the back of our houses," Varney tells his guest. The funny thing is that he expounds on the American character with a British accent. "Sorry. You're breaking a principle which is fundamentally American. You're breaking it!"
Lance Burt is an engineer who's been pushing the idea of energy labeling for buildings as a staff member for the Natural Resources Defense Council. When I tell him how Varney described the provision, Burt expresses bemusement and a bit of frustration. His explanation: "Trade associations tend to make things seem bigger than they are," Burt says. "What the bill actually does is much more benign."
The climate legislation made it though the House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 23 -- with the building labeling provision intact. The overall bill is likely to be approved in the House this month. And, if all goes well, a Senate version will make it to the floor of that chamber in July.
Along the way, however, its 600-plus pages surely will be combed over for angles on more cable-ready stories. All it takes is an influential interest group, an ambitious politician, and a powerful media platform with its own agenda. Facts are irrelevant. The more obscure the provision, the more likely it can be spun into another grand morality tale about "principle."
The building-label story was pieced together in the tall-tale shop at Fox. But other media organizations typically get roped into the myth-making merriment. When the pattern holds, talk radio hosts embellish the story further and stoke up the emotion. Then, mainstream outfits, like CNN, amplify the misinformation in their own way by presenting it as a "balance" to the factual perspective (suggested promo: "Truth vs. Fiction: Which is truthful?").
Each story that follows the pattern produces one certain result: Thousands, perhaps millions, of people get angry, thinking that a fiction that a supposed news anchor just yelled at them about was a fact worthy of their outrage. Angry, angry, angry.
And each story that follows the pattern produces another possible result: The climate bill will be hemmed and chipped along its way until it becomes little more than a symbol.