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The lead, front-page story in today's (July 16) New York Times reports that "In California, where record electricity prices and local blackouts captured national attention for months, wholesale power prices have fallen to the lowest levels in more than a year. Analysts credit new power supplies, a state-led conservation effort and federal price controls for averting what many had feared would be a catastrophic summer of scarcity."

Wow. How about that. Federal price controls have averted "what many had feared would be a catastrophic summer of scarcity." Given how this defies the standard rules of economics, it sure seems worthy of front-page play -- if it's true.

But that's a big "if." Especially if you remember a July 4, 2001, article that ran in the New York Times national section under the headline, "U.S. Price Controls Are Said To Worsen Power Shortage." That article reported: "state and utility officials said the federal price restraints, put in place on June 19 after months of vigorous debate, seemed to have had the perverse effect of reducing supplies when they were most needed."

The two articles contradict each other. Today's says the price controls averted scarcity; the July 4 one said the price controls reduced supplies. If the Times news department is going to do such a full reversal on the matter of price controls, it would be nice if it offered readers an explanation. If the reversal is not merely a matter of the beliefs of the Times news department but in fact reflects some independent reality in the world outside the Times newsroom, it would be nice to have an explanation of that, too. How can the same policy that on July 4 was reducing supplies have the effect on July 16 of averting scarcity?


Unclean on Energy

The front page of today's (15 July 2001) New York Times carries an article under the headline "U.S. Set to Oppose International Plan for Cleaner Energy." The article contains quotes from three persons: an unnamed Bush administration official, a Clinton administration official named Dan Reicher, and a woman identified only as "Daphne Wysham, a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington."

Never mind the ridiculous headline: The Bush administration isn't opposed to cleaner energy, it is just opposed to the government ramming it down the throats of consumers regardless of the cost. If you want to consume cleaner energy, the Bush administration isn't going to stop you.

And never mind the odd definition of "clean" and "nonpolluting" energy -- "wind, water and the sun." Generating energy from these sources can require building dams and covering virgin hillsides with windmills and solar panels -- not exactly "clean" by the definition of many environmentalists.

The really fascinating question is how a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies came to be the only expert quoted in this Times article. There's no quote from the energy industry, no quote from a conservative or free-market think tank that might support the Bush administration's position. A reader not steeped in the details of the issue might think the Institute for Policy Studies was some centrist research institute with no particular ideological tilt.

In fact, a May 15 article in the Washington Post identified the Institute for Policy Studies as "left-leaning." The Institute for Policy Studies Web site is littered with slogans like "Six Months Since the Coup, and Bush is Still Illegitimate" and references to "the illegality of NATO's attack on Yugoslavia." Ms. Wysham turns out to be the former editor in chief of Greenpeace magazine, the publication of the radical environmental group.

The closest the Times comes to a reason for including the Institute for Policy Studies's perspective in this article is a reference to a study the group did that found, the Times said, that "the export promotion agencies of rich nations, like the Export-Import Bank of the United States, are the world's largest public backers of fossil fuels, the main causes of global warming." Never mind that the notion that fossil fuels are "the main causes of global warming" is still hotly debated in scientific and policy circles and is hardly the sort of thing that one would want to state as
fact without attribution in a news article. This "study" that the Times makes so much of in today's front-page article appears to be one that was issued April 28, 1999. It's available in PDF format at In other words, it's more than two years old. Funny how a study like that becomes front-page news all of a sudden once a Republican administration with ties to the oil
industry gets into office. isn't saying that the New York Times shouldn't report on the Institute for Policy Studies and what its staff has to say. But why not label the group as "left-leaning" the way the Times constantly labels conservative groups as "conservative"? And there's no good reason -- in a story this complex, where industry and consumers have interests -- that the only expert quoted should be a Greenpeace type. Why not give Times readers the benefit of some other perspectives in addition to those of the hard-left environmentalists?



The national section of today's (13 Feb 2001) New York Times carries an article under the headline "Panel Calls for Higher Mileage Standards." The article reports that a House of Representatives subcommittee has approved a bill "to force automobile companies to improve the mileage of sport-utility vehicles" and minivans.

The article includes one quote from a congressman who favors the bill, another quote from a congressman who says it doesn't go far enough, and one quote from a representative of the Sierra Club. No representative of the automobile industry is named or quoted, nor is any economist or auto-safety expert who could speak to the likely effect of the new fuel economy standards on safety. The closest the article comes is a reference, in a single paragraph, to unnamed "critics."

The Brookings Institution's Robert Crandall and Harvard's John Graham have estimated that the current fuel economy standards on cars could be responsible for a 14 to 27 percent increase in highway fatalities. The smaller cars that are manufactured to meet the standard tend to be less safe in collisions. A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health on "Causal Influence of Car Mass and Size on Driver Fatality Risk," supports the idea that heavier cars are safer, and that the net safety benefits for drivers of heavier cars outweighs the risks to those who are hit by them. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has projected out the Crandall-Graham work to show that the current fuel economy standards can be blamed for thousands of auto deaths each year.

Of course, there are safety risks associated with pollution, too, and if safety were the only issue, we'd all be walking or driving around in tanks. But in a story with so many sides to it, it's just weird that the Sierra Club is the only interest group with a voice in the Times article.

Weather or Not

The front-page weather forecast in the right ear of yesterday's New York Times predicted that the high temperature for the day would be 76. The front-page weather information in today's New York Times says that the high for the day was 72. In other words, the New York Times was off by a full four degrees in predicting the next day's temperature in its own hometown.

Not much of a surprise there: anyone who lives in the Northeast is used to the fact that weather predictions are not entirely reliable. Yet check out the lead story in the Science Times section of today's paper.

"Supercomputers," the article informs readers, have assured that "weeklong weather forecasts are generally reliable." The article goes on to discuss models that predict, on a global basis, "roughly an average rise of 3 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit if greenhouse gases double from the concentrations measured before coal and oil burning and forest cutting significantly altered the atmosphere." The article is about the difficulty of modeling global climate change, but it seems like it may even be understating the difficulty. If the Times, supercomputers and all, is off by four degrees on the next day's temperature in its home town, what are readers supposed to make of a 3 to 8 degree prediction over a period of decades for the entire planet?  This is not intended as an argument for doing nothing to
restrict greenhouse-gas emissions, and, in some cases, it's easier to make a prediction for the long term than for the short term. But even with the cautionary "generally," the Times's own weather forecasting experience is a sign that the Science Times is overstating the reliability of weeklong weather forecasts.

iGreen comment

A Smartertimes slip this week.  He's confused weather prediction, which is literally impossible more than a few days in the future, with climate prediction, which is probably too difficult for today's forecasters, but not in principle impossible.  Still, we get the point. 

Wishful Thinking:

An editorial in 23 June 2001 New York Times discusses a series of votes in the House of Representatives about environmental issues. The editorial declares that "In a series of votes on Thursday, an impressive bipartisan majority blocked administration plans for oil and gas exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and in national monument lands, upheld important mining law reforms that Mr. Bush had opposed and restored millions of dollars for land protection and energy conservation programs that he had tried to cut."

"Impressive bipartisan majority?" Well, the Times editorialists must not be paying much attention to the reporting of their own newspaper's Washington bureau, which reports on the front page of today's Times, "The votes on Thursday showed that there was no solid environmental coalition."

The editorial declares that the House votes "send two unmistakable messages. The House is clearly eager to restore balance to Mr. Bush's energy strategy, which is weighted toward exploration for fossil fuels. It also wants Mr. Bush to know that his administration's dismissive approach to the nation's natural resources reflects a grievous misreading of the public temper."

Not so, according to the front-page news article in today's New York Times. The news article quotes Rep. Peter Hoekstra, who voted against drilling for oil off Florida, as saying, "This was not a bellwether vote. I wouldn't read all that much into it." The news article also reports that Jeff Deist, a spokesman for Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, said Mr. Paul voted against the offshore drilling bill as a protest of federal involvement in what he sees as local decisions." The messages these congressmen are sending, according to the Times news article, are different from the "unmistakable" message that the Times editorialists are hearing.


Kyoto Kookiness

Thomas Friedman's column in today's (1 June 2001) New York Times bashes President Bush for his "decision to pull the U.S. out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which called for industrialized nations to steadily reduce their carbon dioxide emissions." Mr. Friedman reports that Mr. Bush "bowed to the oil companies and pulled the U.S. out of Kyoto." The column refers to "what Mr. Bush did in trashing Kyoto."

The Kyoto Protocol was trashed as far as the U.S. was concerned long before Mr. Bush got to the White House. On July 25, 1997, the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 in favor of the Byrd-Hagel resolution instructing U.S. negotiators that any greenhouse gas reduction agreement must apply to developing countries as well as to industrialized nations such as America. The actual Kyoto agreement violated these instructions. On January 30, 1998, the executive committee of the AFL-CIO passed a resolution calling on President Clinton "to refrain from signing the proposed Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change." On July 18, 2000, the Senate passed, 97-2, an Interior Appropriations bill that included a ban on the use of any of the money to implement the Kyoto Protocol. The Clinton-Gore administration never even submitted the Kyoto Protocol for ratification by the Senate, even while it went through the motions of continuing the Kyoto "process" and trying to modify the treaty.


What's a Subsidy?

The lead, front-page news article in today's 17 May 2001 New York Times, about Mr. Bush's energy policy, reports "There are no credits or other tax breaks for oil or gas producers, or electric utilities -- a reflection of the sensitivity of the White House to criticism that Mr. Cheney and other top officials spent their private-sector years in the energy industry. But the tone of deregulation, reassessment of the merits of the Clean Air Act and the emphasis on opening of federal land to more energy production -- everything from wind power to oil and gas drilling -- provides those industries with effective subsidies totaling in the billions of dollars." It's not quite clear how deregulation amounts to a "subsidy." The complaint against subsidies is that they distort the efficiencies of free markets. So do regulations. In that sense, deregulation is more like removing a subsidy than providing one. A better word than subsidies might be "advantages." It's also unclear how a mere "tone" can be worth billions of dollars. Doesn't there have to be actual deregulation, and not just the tone of it, before there's any change in the earnings of the energy companies?

Property Rights

An article in the national section of today's (12 May 2001) New York Times runs under the headline, "Bush Is Choosing Industry Insiders to Fill Several Environmental Positions." The article reports, "Many of these candidates share a pro-property rights philosophy as well as a libertarian leaning." The December 31, 2000, issue of asked, "Have the Times and its liberal allies really come to the point where they believe that merely advocating property rights is enough to make a person's fitness for government service a matter of contention?"

And the Times's own weekly internal critique picked up the point, citing the newspaper's December 31 usage in addition to one on January 3, 2001, and writing, "To say that someone is an 'advocate of property rights' probably has some special insider meaning in Washington. But to the general reader, it doesn't make much sense without explanation. We are ALL advocates of property rights, presumably."

What's amazing is that the Times continues to use this "pro-property rights" phrase to assail Bush nominees, even after that memo from the Times news desk. Why bother sending these memos around if the reporters and editors are going to disregard them and adhere to their previous practices? Maybe the presumption that "We are ALL advocates of property rights" turns out to be mistaken.

Death by Conservation

The lead, front-page news article in the 1st May 2001 New York Times reports on America's energy policy. The article describes a report "to be released later this week" by "the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy." The report, the Times says, "estimates that raising the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks by what it calls a modest amount could do far more to reduce reliance on imported oil than drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

The Times goes on about this report for four paragraphs, including one that is a subtle dig at the vice president: "Mr. Cheney did not discuss the merits of raising government-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards in his address today. But he strongly defended the administration's proposal to allow drilling for oil and gas in the Alaskan refuge." 

Nowhere does the Times disclose to its readers that this American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy is funded partly by utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Boston Edison and Southern California Edison. The council is also partly funded by companies with an interest in promoting solar energy. And the Council's board of directors includes representatives of those companies. Raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars probably would reduce reliance on imported oil, but it would also probably increase reliance on electricity produced by those utilities and used to charge electric cars. The Times also doesn't mention that increased fuel efficiency standards probably mean lighter, smaller cars -- and more highway deaths in car crashes as a result.

It's no more responsible of the Times to report on this study by the "American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy" without mentioning the financial interests of the study's funders than it would be for the Times to report on medical research funded by drug companies without mentioning that the drug companies are funding the research. Far be it from to suggest that studies partly funded by private industry are any less credible than those funded solely by tax dollars or by universities. But disclosing the source of the funding would at least allow readers to weigh such issues for themselves. As it is, the typical New York Times reader, without the benefit of, would have no idea that this study by the "American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy" was partly funded by utilities.



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