Of the many faults of modern mainstream journalism, there are two that most grate on the nerves: false balance and its complement, “both sides do it.” False balance presents both sides of a debate– always assuming there are only two– and gives them equal opportunity to convey their positions– always assuming they have equal merit. “Both sides do it” requires that if one party commits a bad act, an example of the opposition’s committing a similar act must be presented, even though one might be exponentially more blameworthy than the other.
These tired tropes are the hallmark of lazy journalism. Rather than do the legwork of testing the opposing claims against available evidence or provide context that demonstrates greater culpability, the reporter fills in the blanks, checks off the boxes, and calls it a day. This is particularly true in the halls of power, where reporters fear nothing quite so much as being called biased. To stave off that calumny, they give us thin gruel and call it a bounty.
And so it is with the Washington Post, the Beltway-est of the Beltway media. On Sunday, January 10, the papers’ Editorial Board published a pox-on-both-their-houses spiel about Keystone XL, reducing the debate over the pipeline to a screaming match between hair-afire zealots, with the Post playing the role of the put-upon adult in the room, tsk-tsking the unreasonableness and furor. And this is a perfect example of why “both sides do it” and false balance produce such poor journalism.
It starts off on a bad foot with its headline, “Return the Keystone XL issue to reality.” This raises questions that the Post’s Ed Board doesn’t answer: How did it leave reality? Aren’t the Post’s own reporters supposed to be the watchdogs of Washington’s political debates, holding the parties accountable for what they say? If KXL escaped reality, clearly the Post had a role in turning it loose.
It then offers world-weary snark for the extremists: “Despite what you might have heard, the pipeline wouldn’t kill the planet, nor would it supercharge the economy.”
This is almost an accurate depiction of the debate, if you ignore everything else. The GOP has made KXL a matter of money and jobs and economic spur, but they’ve also made it about improving energy security and national security, and lowering gas prices at home. All of which are false as well, with ample evidence to prove it, but artificially limiting their position to one grossly inflated claim is a cheap ploy.
And some environmental groups have made dire predictions about the climate catastrophe awaiting after KXL’s construction, but that is only one piece of a very large and multifaceted argument. Reducing the KXL opposition to one extreme position is the classic straw-man fallacy. I.e., the Post takes a valid argument- the tar sands will contribute significant carbon emissions and exacerbate climate change– and pushes it to an absurd conclusion– it’ll kill the planet!– and attributes the absurdity to an opponent in order to destroy it forthwith. Another cheap move.
Here are some of the arguments made by KXL opponents that the Post neither presented nor addressed:
The proposed pipeline route threatens the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest freshwater water table in the continental US, relied upon by millions of Americans for drinking water. It also irrigates much of the nation’s grain crops, and waters much of the nation’s livestock. A leak in that body of water could effectively contaminate and kill much of US agribusiness, destroying also millions of jobs that rely on it.
The threat of a catastrophic leak is very high. TransCanada has an extremely poor record of pipeline safety on both sides of the border. It promised the first leg of the Keystone pipeline might leak once in seven years; in fact, it sprung more than a dozen leaks in its first year of operation. And the state-of-the-art leak detection system TransCanada is touting as its panacea for pipeline problems is incapable of detecting leaks below 1.5 percent of capacity. That means at 830,000 barrels per day, KXL could leak 500,000 gallons every day, and the leak detection system would never notice.
On top of that, the cost of cleaning up a mess would be borne largely by taxpayers. The diluted bitumen, or “dilbit,” derived from tar sands is considered an unconventional oil, and is therefore exempt from the federal pipeline cleanup fund. So any cleanup that the company can’t or won’t pay for becomes the taxpayers’ burden.
Another powerful complaint against Keystone XL is that it is a long-term investment in infrastructure for a technology recognized for driving climate change. TransCanada is not interested in building a pipeline so that society can shift to renewable fuels a few years down the road; they intend to milk every last penny out of the pipeline by fully exploiting the tar sands for as long as they can. This, perversely, makes the development of alternative energy sources less urgent because of the bounty of carbon fuel in the tar sands. So building KXL not only hastens climate change by making more carbon more easily burned, it forestalls commitment to greener technologies by keeping us clamped to Big Oil’s toxic teat longer.
Oh, and the claim that Keystone XL will kill the planet? That was made by former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who famously said extracting all of the tar sands would mean “game over for the climate.” This is not some wild-eyed, crunchy-granola hippie making the claim; it is one of the government’s top scientists on the issue. The alarm he raised is echoed in a new study in the science journal, Nature. Conservative hardliners may dismiss science as an article of faith, but the Post should hold itself to a higher standard.
In preemptive self-defense, the Post cites as evidence of the falseness of the KXL opposition’s claim the State Department environmental impact statement, which it uncritically endorses. There are many problems with State’s EIS, not least of which being the contractor that conducted the research has a long-standing business relationship with TransCanada. But more to the point here, the report asserts that Keystone XL will not add to carbon emissions because the tar sands will be exploited anyway. This is the grand assumption behind State’s reasoning, and it is highly dubious.
The Canadian government and oil industry have said repeatedly that they need KXL or another pipeline with access to global markets to make the tar sands more profitable. They say they’re losing billions because of limited transport options. It’s possible that without Keystone XL, they might develop a pipeline to Canada’s Pacific or Atlantic coast, but they’ve had little luck so far. It seems Canadians are not terribly enthusiastic about running a toxic spillway through their land.
But State’s (and by adoption, the Post’s) conclusory assertion that the tar sands will be fully exploited with or without KXL is a textbook case of “begging the question“: asserting the inevitability of the tar sands’ full exploitation to rationalize building the pipeline that’s a prerequisite for fully exploiting the tar sands.
The Post also attacks proposed Democratic amendments to the Keystone XL bill calling for use of US steel to build the pipeline and keeping the oil in the US, which would put paid to the lofty promises of thousands of jobs and energy security. “Attaching these conditions would only compound the shabby treatment that the U.S. government has given Canada, a close ally,” it says, as if discussing misspelling a guest’s name on a dining table place card.
KXL is a decades-long commitment to run a highly volatile substance through a leak-prone conduit in the middle of the Breadbasket of America, seizing private property to do so, and putting millions of American jobs at risk, in exchange for maybe 35-50 long-term jobs. Canada will just have to forgive us if we want to secure some additional reward, considering we take all the risk for their profit.
The Post ultimately asserts, “If Republicans nevertheless proceed, Mr. Obama would be wise to sign the bill and get Keystone off of the national agenda or strike a deal with Republicans in exchange for a concession of environmental significance.” That is, he should capitulate to Big Oil, and/or try to wrest some booby prize to shut up the environmental lobby.
That’s a flippant stance for one of the most important newspapers in the country. But when you reduce one side of the issue to hysterical extremists and focus on just one narrow aspect of their argument, which you conveniently trivialize, it makes them much easier to marginalize and their concerns easier to dismiss.