11/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Treasury Memo Hysteria Shows Media Incapable of Screening Out Junk

Is any piece of nonsense from right-wing opponents of clean energy policy too silly, too outrageous, to get its day in the national press spotlight? It would seem not.

Last week, CBS conservo-blogger Declan McCullagh breathlessly reported: "Obama Admin: Cap And Trade Could Cost Families $1,761 A Year." That figure spread like wildfire through right-wing blogs, then jumped to Glenn Beck, and eventually reached the Washington Post. Now Republican lawmakers are repeating it.

The number is completely and utterly misleading. At least in reference to current policy options, it's a lie. But now it's out there, forever part of conservative mythology and forever a "controversy" in the eyes of the establishment media. Is there anyway it could have been stopped? Is there any way the next lie can be stopped?

A quick look behind the story:

Last week, the Competitive Enterprise Institute released (with great fanfare) a document procured from the Treasury Dept via FOIA request. In it, Treasury estimated the total revenue that could be raised by auctioning 100% of the pollution allowances under a cap-and-trade system. The department did no original analysis, it simply reviewed other studies and came up with a range, with $200 billion/year at the high end. (An earlier CBO analysis [PDF] put the high end at $300 billion.) This was done in preparation for the release of Obama's 2009 budget, which incorporated auction revenue. The budget included a conservative estimate of that revenue -- $79 billion a year in 2012.

You may be wondering, so what? Why is this a news story? Obama's proposal would have auctioned 100% of the allowances, yes, but Obama's proposal isn't on the table. ACES begins with just 15% auctions (ramping up to 70% by 2030). Anyway, Obama's program would have returned 85% of auction revenue directly to consumers via payroll taxes, and the 15% remaining wouldn't have been flushed down the toilet; it would have been spent to kickstart clean energy industries. CBO analysis showed that families in the bottom and middle of the income spectrum would come out ahead under the proposal. Similarly, the Waxman-Markey bill passed out of the House also returns most of the allowance value to consumers -- a brand new CBO analysis (PDF) shows that it would cost the average family $160, not $1,761, a year.

The Treasury Department's Alan Krueger said, "Treasury's analysis is consistent with public analyses by the EIA, EPA, and CBO, and the reporting and blogging on this issue ignores the fact that the revenue raised from emission permits would be returned to consumers under both administration and legislative proposals."

In summary, the Treasury analysis looked at revenue raised entirely in isolation from revenue invested or returned to consumers. CEI's spin was transparently, grotesquely misleading. The Treasury document reveals nothing new and casts absolutely no light on current legislative proposals.

This all has been ably chronicled and debunked by others. See: Wonk Room, Media Matters, Pete Altman, and PolitiFact.

What struck me about it is how much it reveals about the way the press works. CEI hack Chris Horner, who filed the FOIA request, pushed it to McCullagh, from whence it spread to other conservative outlets, notably Glenn Beck's show. At that point, "people are talking about it," so it goes to Politico, and eventually the Washington Post. Now, as it happens, Steven Mufson's Post piece on the issue is fairly good, in the usual he-said she-said sort of way. If you read with your MSM decoder goggles on, you can tell Mufson knows it's a pile of sh*t.

But that hardly makes up for dozens of articles and politicians trumpeting a $1,761 yearly tax; repetition of a fact, even in the context of debunking it, reinforces it. As Politico's Lisa Lerer put it, in a sentence that exquisitely summarizes the attitude of the political press and the state of public discourse, "those types of numbers -- even if they are inaccurate -- could increase doubts already being raised by moderate Democrats about the climate bill."

In other words, the accuracy of what's being fed into the media bloodstream by Horner and his ilk is irrelevant. Lerer not only can't be bothered to get to the bottom of it; she states explicitly that the effect on public discussion will be the same regardless. She knows the media will never decisively call bullsh*t on something like this. She knows the charge will spread, even if only as a "controversy." The poison's been injected, now it will do its damage.

It's hard to know at what point in the media chain one should ascribe responsibility for this state of affairs. Worse, it's difficult to see what could be different next time. No amount of refutation, however fast and decisive (and response from enviros was pretty good on this one), stops the spread; the media just reports what "critics say." The incentives are all wrong. What's stopping Horner et al from feeding an endless stream of lies, exaggerations, misleading numbers, and general hysteria into the discussion? Nothing. There's no firewall. Our public immune system is broken.