Reading Bias - Energy Tax Prevention Act

Congressman Shimkus questioning EPA director Lisa Jackson.
Congressman Shimkus questioning EPA director Lisa Jackson. | Source

Exercise 3

This is the 3rd example of a series of articles examining bias in online content. The first example on an article about upcoming EPA boiler regulations was largely concerned with provocative wording. The second example on an article about antarctic sea ice looked mainly at the importance of accuracy when writing about science.

This example is looking at bias in a political editorial, written by Investor's Business Daily1 about pending legislation which is intended to prevent the EPA from regulating Carbon Dioxide. Political messages are a little tough inherently, because to some extent they are supposed to be biased. Additionally, many politicians are exceptionally good at what they do. There bias can be very subtle. One of the things to really look out for in political messages, isn't what is said, but rather what is left out.

The other thing which should be pointed out is that the author of this article is at some points simply describing what others said. But, the author does not describe everything which was said, so that the selective words chosen can be thought of as essentially being their own voice. Despite being published on a trade magazine, this article was posted on the website of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and so in my consideration is a political message.

Paragraph 1

1 Right away we are given a perfect example of not telling the whole story. The legislation in question does much more than prevent regulation of CO2 as a pollutant; it prohibits the EPA "from promulgating any regulation concerning, taking action relating to, or taking into consideration the emission of a greenhouse gas due to concerns regarding possible climate change".2 Greenhouse gases, according to the legislation includes Water Vapor, Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, Sulfur hexafluoride, Hydrofluorocarbons, Perfluorocarbons, and "Any other substance subject to, or proposed to be subject to, regulation, action, or consideration under this Act due to concerns regarding possible climate change".3 This legislation would prevent the EPA from doing anything having to do with climate change. It is essentially a gag order.

2. Saying, "the Republicans have called..." is a statement of fact; "The Republicans rightly called..." is a statement of opinion and so is biased, though, not the worst example of bias, since that sort of thing is to be expected in political communications.

3. I really didn't expect statements like "power-grabbing hoax" to appear on a congressional committee website.

4. Even the most cynical person can't actually believe there would be no gain. This is nothing more than dramatic posturing.

5. The author of this article is merely quoting the name of the bill so this isn't necessarily bias on their part. However, the name of the bill is grossly inaccurate. The EPA isn't taxing anything and if they were it would be taxing pollution. "Energy Tax" is meant to provoke public opinion. If they wanted to accurately name the bill they would call it the "EPA Gag Order Act" or the "Let Industry do Whatever the Hell They Want Act" or the "God Told Me That Climate Change Was Codswallop Act". (Hopefully you notice the bias in those alternative titles).

6. The EPA isn't trying to "levy taxes". This is just an attempt to turn public opinion against the EPA. In fact, the only time "tax" is mentioned in the entire bill is in the title.

7. The EPA is a government institution with power to carry out its designated role. It is supposed to take part in shaping public policy. I haven't seen any evidence, and they haven't provided any to show that the EPA has overstepped its mission.

8. EPA has stormed Congress with assault rifles and is holding them hostage.

9. "Unelected bureaucrats" is pejorative.

Paragraph 2

10. Provacateurs.

11. "ObamaCare" is used as a pejorative.

12. The phrase "claimed unto itself" has a connotation of being above the law or of doing something without consideration for anyone else.

13. Carbon dioxide is not only a byproduct of respiration. This statement is made in order to portray atmospheric CO2 as being entirely natural.

14. Lots of things are important for life - water and sun for instance - this is another statement to portray CO2 as being completely harmless.

15. A substance introduced into the environment through human activity, which degrades the environment or threatens human health IS a pollutant. It doesn't matter whether the substance is naturally occurring or necessary for life in certain quantities. Many substances considered to be pollutants are naturally occurring components of our environments. They become pollutants when human activities change naturally occcuring levels to harmful concentrations.

16. The point of saying this is essentially to say, "we represent you, and they do not." Elected or not does not guarantee someone represents people well or not. The author just wants to imply that the EPA does not represent the people.

Paragraph 3

17. The EPA has the authority and justification to act; they do not need to "claim". Claim can be a sneaky little word; one definition of it being, " to assert in the face of possible contradiction," which is why I speculate it was used in this case.

18. Their authority to act in this case comes from Congress and the Clean Air Act.

19. Loaded word.

20. "Governing" is a bit dramatic. I need to buy a fishing licence to go fishing, I wouldn't make the statement that my Department of Natural Resources governs my life. Of course the EPA regulation are far more reaching, there is still a relationship implied by "govern" that seems a bit dishonest.

21. Exaggeration. Yes, after taking over Congress, the EPA will now stand watch in your front yards to make sure you are mowing properly.

Paragraph 4 & 5

22. Of course he is right.

23. Since CO2 was not previously considered an air pollutant, there is no reason Congress would have regulated it with the CAA.

24. Pejorative.

25. I would argue that the CAA was designed partly to deal with air pollutants - not just air quality. Neither acid rain or ozone depletion are really air quality issues, yet both were addressed by the CAA.

Paragraph 6

26. I have seen a lot of people say that Mrs. Jackson has said this, I have yet to see a reference that tells when she said it or what the context was. That bothers me a little bit. The bigger problem though, is that this article makes it sound like it was something she said at this particular hearing, when in actuality it was something she said in the past.

27. Since it was something she said in the past, than she was correct. When she said it, Carbon Dioxide was not an air pollutant and so would not have fallen within the CAA's design. But, now that it is a pollutant, her past statement is no longer relevant. Dealing with air pollution is exactly what the CAA was designed for.

28. My grammar is not perfect but I think this is a mistake. The verb being matched is "designed" not "address". You would not say, "did designed" - it should be "was designed". The proper sentence than would be, "Waxman-Markey was, but it died..." On a lesser site I would not take note of such an error, but here I expect perfect grammar.

29. No individual politician or political group speaks for the entire "American people". That is kind of the point.

30. Voting in new congress members does not automatically mean people rejected everything the defeated congressperson voted for. It is entirely possible voters liked Waxman-Markey, but disliked health care reform even more.

Paragraph 7 and 8

31. Congress regulating greenhouse gases has nothing to do with the EPA regulating air pollutants.

32. We aren't talking about large numbers here, why can't he give the exact number? If he's an expert shouldn't he know and if he isn't should he make this statement at all?

33. An up or down vote on what? Whether the EPA should perform their duties to protect the health and welfare of Americans? I hope they would object to that.

Paragraph 9

34. This is a lie. There is no other way to look at it. The text of the decision says that the EPA can "avoid promulgating regulations only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do" (underlining by me).4

35. "Decide" is a pretty casual and informal term to use giving the connotative importance of picking out ones clothes for the next day.

36. No it didn't authorize, nor did it need to. the authority was already there.

37. Provocateurs.

38. Prove it.

39. It doesn't matter how many times it is said. A regulation is not necessarily a tax. "Hidden tax" is an inflammatory term that implies something insidious.

40. Impact can not be assessed in the absence of accounting for benefits.

Paragraph 10

41. If you say, "I'm here to do one thing, not this other thing," and then proceed to do the other thing, why even say that at all?

42. Whatever regulations he might be talking about have not been in place to do anything about global warming why would there be any expectation that they would.

43. So, how big should the individual measures of individual nations be? If you can't answer that, then you can not argue that one in particular is too small.

44. What number would matter? Would a 0.012 do it for you?

Just because measures are small incremental steps does not mean they shouldn't be done. The Supreme Court even said so when they noted that we "do not generally resolve massive problems in one fell regulatory swoop...," but rather, "whittle away at them over time".5

Paragraph 11

This seems like a fairly important point, but that makes it all the more important to have a reference for it. Is this simply his opinion? that he wrote in a blog? Or is it something that was published in a peer-reviewed journal? Does it have anything to do with the National Center for Atmospheric Research?

What is really strange about this point is that Tom Wigley doesn't disbelieve in global warming nor have I seen anything to suggest he thinks we shouldn't regulate greenhouse gases - he simply believes that those regulations will not be enough. He wants to do even more, so how does Inhofe use him as evidence that we should do nothing. More importantly, how exactly does Inhofe decide to use part of the scientific opinion of a person as proof for his position while simultaneously considering the other half of the same person to be junk science?

Paragraph 12

45. Is "not long ago" a few days or a few years? Does it matter? Who knows - that's the problem with being completely vague.

46. A Youtube video isn't the worst evidence I suppose, but still, without a reference or context it is pretty weak.

47. She is the EPA administrator. The Obama modifier is pejorative.

48. He says that as if admitting to considering the IPCC's findings was some sort of insider secret. Of course she did. That is sort of like admitting to consulting the IRS about taxes or the Pentagon about defense. They are the experts.

49. Again, they are the experts - that is who you are supposed to base decisions on.

50. There are several problems with this statement. It isn't clear if these were her words or his. There is no way to tell what she said, what exactly the question was, or what else she may have said. The science and the scientific process may  not be as transparent as some wold want, it isn't like the IPCC is five guys in a bunker completely shut off from the world. The scientific process is designed to be in a constant state of "independent analysis". Most of the science is right there in the open for anyone who wants to have a go at it.

51. There is no absolute truth; there is only the best we have.

Paragraph 13

52. Provocateurs.

53. Pejorative.

54. Yes it does contradict Congress, in the sense that Congress has DONE NOTHING.

55. "Breathe free" what? Obviously not clean air. So is it to breathe free from regulation?

Conclusion

19 out of 22 sentences crossed out. 86% bias.
55 explanations in 22 sentences. 2.5 explanations/sentence.

Politics is very often about narratives. It is important to try and understand the story that they are trying to tell. This article examined provides a perfect example. The first sentence mentions a "contentious" hearing which immediately establishes a drama between the bad EPA guys who are doing some dastardly deed and the good Republicans who are "rightly" trying to stop them. This narrative is consistently reasserted by comments about the EPA usurping power and contradicting the will of Congress (which in this story at least is also the will of the people). The nature of the CO2 regulations being dastardly is characterized through a series of provocative words and statements, such as them wanting to govern your entire lives (even your lawn mowers).

Notice how easy it is from the same basic facts to create an equally convincing alternative story. One where, the Republicans are the bad guys, more interested in continuing to have corporations shove money down their pockets than protect the environment, while the EPA valiantly fights against them with the mantle of science to try and protect the environment as well as the health and welfare of the American people.

While both are fine stories, both are still stories and it is important to recognize stories from fact.


Notes

1. "Stop EPA's Energy Tax." Investor's Business Daily, 10 Feb 2011. Web. 17 Feb 2011. <http://www.investors.com/NewsAndAnalysis/Article.aspx?id=562838&p=1>.

2. Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, discussion draft. , Web. 17 Feb 2011. <http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Files.View&FileStore_id=45d63c2c-2f0b-4e4d-9024-094927bee994>. Page 1.

3. ibid., p. 2.

4. Massachusetts et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et al. 549 U.S.___(2007). Web 17 Feb 2011. <http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/06pdf/05-1120.pdf>. Page 30.

5. ibid., p. 21.

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