Mainstream Press’s Initial Coverage of Climate Bill Was a Lazy Distortion

Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson once compared the behavior of much of the national press corps to a wheeling flock of birds. Each bird follows the other birds in search of The Story, until they all move generally in the same direction. Though it tends to have a deleteriously narrowing effect on how people understand the world, the phenomenon is rarely nefarious. It’s just lazy, and more than a little chickenshit (speaking of birds): No one wants to get too far out front, no one wants to fall too far back, so everyone reports essentially the same thing, and everyone gets to keep their job.

Take the strangely named Inflation Reduction Act, so labeled to appease a coal baron senator from West Virginia while signaling to a grumpy public that the I-word is being dealt with… even though the bill itself will do little to combat inflation, which is already retreating on its own anyway, as most everyone predicted it would sooner or later.

The Story on the Act that was settled on by the press birds tells the tale of an ambitious Build Back Better Act that ran into the wheat thresher of conservative Democratic resistance in a narrowly divided Congress. A surprise 11th-hour deal revived Build Back Better in the guise of a much-reduced Inflation Reduction Act, and the press for the most part made it sound like the second coming of the New Deal.

“Massive” and “sweeping” were among the most commonly used press descriptors, even as the bill itself was anything but; it delivers a pretty nifty bag of treats for the fossil fuel industry, and the policies meant to address environmental degradation are better suited to the climate crisis as it stood 40 years ago. The mainstream press spun the fact that something had gotten done — after months of watching Joe Manchin drop No-bombs all over the process — into a narrative that indicated nearly everything had gotten done. They made lemonade while the sun was shining.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, scrambled between the venn diagram lines deployed to simplify the reporting, was some legislative language that actually made significant history. The New York Times reports:

When the Supreme Court restricted the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to fight climate change this year, the reason it gave was that Congress had never granted the agency the broad authority to shift America away from burning fossil fuels. Now it has.

Throughout the landmark climate law, passed this month, is language written specifically to address the Supreme Court’s justification for reining in the E.P.A., a ruling that was one of the court’s most consequential of the term. The new law amends the Clean Air Act, the country’s bedrock air-quality legislation, to define the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels as an “air pollutant.” That language, according to legal experts as well as the Democrats who worked it into the legislation, explicitly gives the E.P.A. the authority to regulate greenhouse gases and to use its power to push the adoption of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

The legislation specifically defines carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride as “pollution” and “greenhouse gases” under the Clean Air Act, significantly muscling up the E.P.A.’s ability to address and restrict them. As Environmental Defense Fund general counsel Vickie Patton told Bloomberg Law, “There’s a tapestry that is woven throughout the fabric of the Clean Air Act under this legislation that makes it abundantly clear it is EPA’s responsibility to address climate pollution, meaning greenhouse gases or air pollutants.”

Thwarting that badly wrongheaded anti-E.P.A. ruling by the far right Supreme Court is only part of the story. The addition of language specifically meant to strengthen the agency stands in direct contravention to the newest Trump-born attack on government as a whole, a woefully underreported assault traveling under the guise of something called “Schedule F.”

“Schedule F involves nothing less than the obliteration of vast swaths of the federal workforce,” I wrote back in July, “who would reportedly be replaced by employees loyal to Trump and his madding MAGA horde. It is the realization of Steve Bannon’s war on the administrative state, combined with Trump’s apparently bottomless need to inflict chaotic pain in the name of revenge, and would damage the function of the federal government for generations.”

These oversights happen, I guess. All the time, as it turns out. How many months have we been hearing about the looming doom awaiting the Democrats in the November midterms? Maybe not so much with that, actually. Trump appears to have his base convinced he is locked in final combat with the forces of evil, while his actual defense more accurately resembles two torpid cats fighting under a rug. Meanwhile, our always-available narrow view of the planet is focusing on the drought here in the U.S., and has barely deigned to notice the terrifying water calamity looming over China and the rest of the world.

Pro tip: If a news story catches your eye, read about it again a couple of weeks later. Like as not, the details will have changed substantially, and far less prominently than when the story first broke. The binding concrete of “conventional wisdom” does not have to rule the day; birds are gonna do what birds do, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow them.

The nice thing — sometimes — about our atomized media landscape is the fact that we have a vast array of choices regarding where to feed when we are hungry for news. Determining the reliability of a source is of paramount interest these days, of course, but the impact of the wheeling birds phenomenon is leavened by the fact that there are more than four news networks out there now, along with this thing called the Internet.

Let’s say you’ve decided Truthout is a worthy source; congratulations, you’re correct! If you’ve followed our coverage of the Inflation Reduction Act, like as not you’ve seen this piece weighing the pros and cons of the bill in detail; this piece on the Manchin Effect; and this piece on Bernie Sanders’s tireless fight to improve the bill even as it lumbered toward a final vote.

In other words, it’s not all about the barmy birds if you know where to look. Some of us fancy ourselves owls, and a gathering of owls is called a “parliament.” I just think that’s so cool.