An in depth look at how reporters mislead citizens to promote a political agenda
by Robert Roper
For representative government to work it requires a well-informed public. Here the press – the fourth estate – plays a critical role. In the good old days reporters challenged government officials to get at the truths behind the political talking points, providing citizens with a clearer understanding of how policies work and how they might affect people.
Nowadays, it seems more and more that reporters see themselves as the Praetorian Guards protecting their personal political agendas and the politicians who support said agendas regardless of the facts. A prime example of this here in Vermont was the coverage of S.5, the Clean Heat bill, or, as absurdly named by its proponents, the Affordable Heat Act – this claim being the first point left unchallenged by our press.
What follows here is a case study of how media bias is perpetrated.
A good metaphor comes from the movie Eight Men Out that tells the story of how the 1919 Chicago White Sox threw the World Series. The players in on the scheme never make any overt errors; they just let fly balls drop that should have been caught, don’t swing hard in key situations, and the pitchers throw “Nothing but fastballs. Slow ones.”
To start this analysis, here for the reader’s consideration is a talking point lifted directly from what the Democrats gave their lawmakers to deflect the fact that the Clean Heat Standard would and will raise the cost of home heating fuels for the overwhelming majority of Vermonters (emphasis added):
“S.5 is designed, explicitly and clearly, to help Vermonters save money on fuel bills by switching to clean heat. It does this NOT through taxes or mandates, but by requiring fossil-fuel dealers to earn credits. They earn these credits by helping Vermonters to weatherize, to install clean heat systems, to switch to cleaner fuels, at a more affordable price.”
What the talking point wants to accomplish is to distract the audience away from the fact that the “credits” mentioned will ultimately be paid for by consumers of fossil-based heating fuels when the fossil-fuel dealers, also mentioned, necessarily pass on those costs in the form of higher prices. “This doesn’t affect you! It only affects these businesses.” There is no mention of money. “It’s not a tax!” It’s all about helping Vermonters switch to cleaner fuels at an affordable price.
This raises so many questions one would think a crack reporter would be ready to ask!
The first article leading into the 2023 legislative session by VT Digger on this topic was December 16th’s, Lawmakers plan to resurrect the clean heat standard as the ‘Affordable Heating Act’. The key language describing how the bill works reads…
“A person who installed a heat pump, sealed and insulated a home to make it weather-proof or installed efficient appliances could earn credits as long as their project measurably reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
“In turn, the measure would have established “obligated parties” — fuel dealers bringing fossil fuels for heating into Vermont for sale — that would be required to buy or generate an increasing number of credits per year.”
… essentially echoing the Democratic Party’s talking point.
After that VT Digger ignored the issue entirely until January 27th when they ran Natural Resources secretary presents a ‘really rough’ estimate of the clean heat standard’s cost, and followed that up with a second article on Feb 3, Lawmakers dismiss Natural Resources secretary’s ‘back-of-the-envelope’ math on the Affordable Heat Act. Both articles were basically an attack on those who were trying to ask and find answers to questions about the costs of the program and bring attention to the fact that consumers of fossil-based heating fuels – about 80% of Vermont households – would have to bear this rather high expense.
And again, in both articles we see the reporter echo the Democratic Party’s talking point about the credit system…
“Through a credit system, the bill would incentivize Vermonters to heat and cool their homes and businesses more efficiently by, for example, weatherproofing buildings and installing electric heat pumps. In turn, entities that import fossil fuels for heat into the state would need to obtain credits over time.”
There is no attempt to explain that “credits” have a monetary value that will have to be paid for with real money. The reader is manipulated into thinking “fuel dealers, not me.” And “credits, not money.” So why pay attention to those men behind the curtain?
On February 7, VT Digger ran, The centerpiece of Vermont’s new climate plan is a ‘clean heat standard.’ How would it work? This article focuses primarily on the role of “obligated parties” – the fuel dealers – and makes no mention of the fact that the ultimate obligated parties will be hundreds of thousands of people who heat their homes with oil, propane, and kerosene.
The February 17th article, Senate committee votes unanimously to advance clean heat standard, again echoes the Democratic Party’s talking point:
“Using a credit system, the clean heat standard would incentivize Vermonters to transition to heating and cooling systems that reduce carbon emissions. Weatherization projects, heat pumps, pellet stoves and some biofuels would be eligible for credits.
“Meanwhile, entities that sell fossil fuel heat into the state would need to obtain credits over time, and those credits would be funneled into the clean heat marketplace.”
Clean heat standard moves forward on 19-10 Senate vote published on March 2 makes this very mild reference in the sixth paragraph, “Still, noise about the complicated piece of legislation has grown louder and louder in recent weeks as opponents have raised concerns about potential increases in cost that the program could cause Vermonters with low and moderate incomes.” But, notice the dismissive language used. It’s “noise.” Opponents have “raised concerns” about “potential” increases in costs….”
It is also worth noting that in each of these stories, supporters of the bill are interviewed and quoted directly by the reporter and given the opportunity to articulate their arguments in their own words. Opponents of the bill are rarely given that opportunity, having their positions paraphrased and qualified by the reporter.
Similarly, House supports bill that would set up and study a clean heat standard on April 20 restates:
“Meanwhile, businesses that import heating fuel into the state — including oil, propane, natural gas, coal and kerosene — would be considered “obligated parties.”
“Each obligated party would need to acquire clean heat credits to offset the amount of lifecycle carbon emissions it was responsible for bringing into the state during the prior year. It could do that by helping to install clean heat measures itself, or by purchasing credits — a cost some stakeholders worry would be passed on to the consumer.”
The throwaway line regarding “some stakeholders” concern about cost comes in paragraph nineteen.
In this same article the reporter writes, “Rhetoric around the clean heat standard has reached a fever pitch in recent months. Several lawmakers on the floor said constituents had reached out to them in droves asking them to vote against S.5,” the implication being that the remarkable outcry by citizens opposing this bill is either rhetoric or the product of rhetoric – not a major story that deserves coverage in and of itself.
As clean heat standard nears the finish line, officials debate the bill’s most basic facts on April 27 puts front and center the Democrats’ talking point:
“The most basic goal of S.5 is, through a clean heat standard, to require businesses that bring heating-related fossil fuels into the state to help fund the transition to new heating systems that pollute less.”
As does the May 6 article, Phil Scott pledges to veto clean heat standard as lawmakers plan an override.
“The bill, which lawmakers have titled the Affordable Heat Act, aims to reduce fossil fuel emissions that come from heating and cooling Vermont’s homes. It’s designed to accomplish that goal through a clean heat standard, which would require businesses that bring heating-related fossil fuels into the state to help fund the transition to new heating systems that pollute less.”
The first veto article on S.5, Senate votes to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the clean heat bill, opens with a recitation of Democrat talking points.
And the final story in S.5 coverage, Clean heat bill clears final hurdle as House overrides Phil Scott’s veto from May 11, twelve paragraphs in reveals,
“Detractors of the bill, meanwhile, warn that there’s little the state can do to stop fuel dealers from passing on the cost burden to Vermonters themselves, who are already feeling the pinch of sky-high home heating fuel prices. And fuel dealers themselves have admitted that they would likely do so.”
And there it is. In the most mild terms possible the reality of the situation is finally reported by the reporter. After the bill had become law.
Just a few of the stories surrounding this issue that went uncovered include: Why isn’t the cost of the Clean Heat Standard being investigated before the program becomes law? What are the costs of a Clean Heat Standard? Who will be impacted by this policy and how? The labor force necessary to do the work required by this law does not exist. What are the implications? And, the public outcry opposing this bill is overwhelming, why aren’t legislators listening?
Vermonters deserved to have those questions asked and answered through not just the months, but two years surrounding this debate.
And just to end on a lesson about how a few tough, pointed questions could get to the bottom of some of these issues, separating talking points from facts quickly and efficiently, I will share this exchange between a concerned citizen and her Representative, Larry Satcowitz (D-Randolph), who sits on the House Energy & Environment Committee that vetted S.5, edited slightly for space (I know this is already a long read!)
Satcowitz: This bill will not force anyone to do anything and everyone’s situation is different. The bill will provide money to folks with low and moderate incomes to insulate their homes and install new heating systems (and not just heat pumps).
Citizen: You say, “This bill will not force anyone to do anything….” So you are saying this bill does not force fuel dealers to purchase “carbon credits” from a default delivery agent? And the dealers’ customers are not forced to pay for the cost of those credits through higher heating bills?
Satcowitz: Yes, it does make demands of the fuel dealers. I was thinking of everyone else. And yes, one of its goals is to reduce our ghg emissions as per the GMSA. It is possible that despite our best efforts we won’t be able to meet those targets in a reasonable manner…. The funds will come from the purchase of energy credits and it will likely mostly come from the consumers of fossil fuels.
See! Easy peasy!
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com