Widespread Misunderstanding: Round Two

March 20th, 2012 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

As he did with his Senate clarifications on rising gas prices, U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman last week found he needed to set the record straight on another energy misunderstanding, this time related to a $50 light bulb.

Bingaman’s latest clarification took the form of a guest column that appeared in the Albuquerque Journal Saturday (March 17). In it, Bingaman employed his usual “senatorial politeness” and matter-of-fact style, even though he was responding to an editorial (“Affordable Light Bulb?”) that took swipes at both Bingaman and fellow senator Tom Udall.

In “$50 Light Bulb Is in Reality Bright Idea”, Bingaman wrote:

The editorial is based on an incorrect Washington Post story that focused on an award-winning $50 light bulb introduced to the market with commercial and institutional building customers in mind. The original story said the new bulb achieved no savings, even after considering its reduced energy consumption. It was later corrected to reflect the truth: Its owners will save $165 in electricity costs over the 10-year life span of the bulb.

Bingaman also took issue with the editorial’s contention that the federal government has started banning incandescent bulbs.  Again, the editorial lifted that directly from the Washington Post story, which said:

Energy legislation signed by President George W. Bush in 2007 introduced a ban on inefficient incandescent light bulbs, covering traditional 100-watt bulbs this year. Sales of traditional 75-watt incandescents will be prohibited next year, and 60-watt incandescents will go after that.

Bingaman wrote:

A glaring error is the assertion that Congress banned incandescent light bulbs. Not true. The 2007 law merely requires incandescent bulbs to use 28 percent less energy. According to Lowe’s website, its central Albuquerque store is currently selling a four-pack of the high-efficiency incandescent light bulbs that meet the new standard for just $6.98.

The Washington Post story on which the Journal editorial was based had run in the Journal, and one can’t blame the Journal for trusting the Post, a long-time source and respected institution.

However, several online sites, including Media Matters, Think Progress and The Huffington Post, have posted articles calling out the venerated Washington daily for running a corrected graphic without telling readers the original story had been in error.

The Post did correct its graphic online, but instead of an editor’s note or update line in a normal font size, it buried its correction in a tiny-font footnote:

Sources: Department of Energy, Philips Corp., Pepco, HowStuffWorks.com. This is a corrected version of a graphic that appeared in the paper on March 9. Graphic: Bonnie Berkowitz and Patterson Clark/The Washington Post. . . .

To give the Journal the benefit of the doubt, it’s likely the Post didn’t send the Journal a correction advisory, and the Journal, as is its custom, produced an editorial based on a story that ran in its pages, unaware of the errors. But it should have been researched, based on the absurdity of a $50 bulb winning an affordability contest.

As Bingaman noted:

Factual errors aside, the editorial reads like every naysayer of new technology in history. It could just as easily have been written about laptops and cellphones 20 years ago. Both arrived with prices perceived to be way out of the range of consumers. Yet, both have come to dominate the market, to the point that tens of millions are sold every year.

People aren’t used to thinking of light bulbs as investments that pay them back in savings, but technology is changing the way we live — and the way we save.

The tone of the Washington Post article relied on the assumption the award was based on affordability. The sarcastic headline in the print edition of the Post article read:  “’Affordable’ energy efficiency at $50 a bulb.”

But as Media Matters pointed out:

. . . the L-Prize is not an “affordability award,” it is an award for innovation in energy efficiency that was created by George W. Bush’s Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. In fact, Philips had already produced an 12.5 watt LED that you can buy for half the price of the L-Prize winner. Nevertheless, ABC News Radio and Investor’s Business Daily copied the Post, calling it an “affordability prize.” And again, if you’re not considering operating costs (which the Post failed to do in its reportage), you’re not really evaluating “affordability.”

In addition, Media Matters called out the Post for helping to encourage partisanship with the story:

The Post never made clear that the L-Prize was a part of the Bush law. Fox Nation and Newsmax called it “Obama’s ‘Green’ Light Bulb” and Rush Limbaugh declared “Nobody was unhappy with” inefficient incandescent light bulbs “except Obama and his buddies on the left.” (Curiously, many of these same conservative outlets were previously claiming that consumers would be forced to buy only CFLs).

Media Matters says its research has uncovered a pattern of “low-quality clean energy reporting” at the Washington Post:

In September, the Post ran another front page story that featured fuzzy math, which was subsequently adopted by conservative media. That story assigned a high cost-per-job assessment of the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program that relied on the completely unrealistic assumption that every loan guarantee would default.

The Post also ran several editorials arguing against clean energy investments that left out important facts. Overall, the Post‘s reporting focuses on politics rather than energy policy, leaving their readers knowing more about what politicians are saying than what experts are saying.

While relying on the Post for some of its national news, the Journal took a different tack when it actually argued in favor of clean energy investments this month in an editorial urging adoption of. Bingaman’s Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012. In the March 6 editorial, “Senator’s Clean Energy Bill Should Be Adopted,” the Journal seemed almost wistful in supporting Bingaman, who has represented New Mexico in Washington for 30 years, as he is about to step down:

As New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman works through his last year in the U.S. Senate, he continues to push initiatives that are near to his heart.

Last week, he unveiled his Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012. As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he is putting in his last effort to get big utilities to generate more power from clean and renewable energy sources.

Explaining how and when the act would be implemented, using information published in a March 2 story by Journal Washington reporter, Michael Coleman, the editorial noted:

The bill sets up an incentive system where all technologies compete on the basis of their carbon emissions. No particular company or technology would be favored. No special deals like Solyndra, the bankrupt solar startup that got a $528 million government loan.

This particular paragraph is interesting, considering how the Journal has consistently advocated special favors in the form of fewer rules and continuing subsidies for the oil and gas industry. And as we and Media Matters have noted, Solyndra coverage by the Journal and other media outlets, including the Washington Post, was out of proportion to its importance and failed to mention important background, basing coverage on a political event — the Republican-led investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee — rather than as a part of energy policy.

The Journal’s pro-Clean Energy Standard editorial also noted that:

Although Bingaman’s bill doesn’t have a Republican co-sponsor — and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate energy committee, doesn’t support it — moderate Republicans like Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici have supported or introduced similar proposals in the past. Lugar’s bill in the last Congress had Murkowski signed on as a co-sponsor.

Bingaman’s bill faces an uphill battle, but the U.S. must move toward generating more energy with clean and renewable sources. This plan helps put the U.S. on a slow glide path to energy self reliance.

In writing in support of the bill – as it has written in support of other bills and proposals in the past — the Journal gives the appearance of being in favor of clean and renewable sources of energy.

But because the Journal consistently editorializes against clean-up of dirty, non-renewable energy sources – allowing them to keep costs artificially low – the newspaper helps guarantee the path to energy self reliance will be a slow one indeed.

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  • Arthur Alpert

    D.T.: This and your previous post on the $50 light bulb are excellent. Better than excellent.
    However, I must dissent from this:
    “In it, Bingaman employed his usual “senatorial politeness” and matter-of-fact style….”
    For Jeff Bingaman, the energy whisperer, I think this column was as close as he can get to a shout!
    Arthur Alpert

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