How Obama’s Landmark Environmental Achievement Was Eclipsed by the Scandal du Jour

Influential policy shouldn’t be trumped by the political brouhaha surrounding a single soldier. Now try telling that to the media.

President Barack Obama walks with the parents of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Jani Bergdahl (L) and Bob Bergdahl (R) back to the Oval Office after making a statement regarding the release of Sgt. Bergdahl from captivity.
National Journal
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Lucia Graves
June 9, 2014, 12:01 p.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced he’d be us­ing his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity to cut car­bon emis­sions from the na­tion’s coal-fired power plants last week, it was hailed as the strongest ac­tion ever taken by an Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent to tackle cli­mate change. And, while the new reg­u­la­tions are a far cry from everything Obama would like to ac­com­plish en­vir­on­ment­ally, the stakes are tre­mend­ous. Every Amer­ic­an will be af­fected — wheth­er through jobs or en­ergy costs or clean­er air —  and hun­dreds of coal-fired power plants are ex­pec­ted to close.

You’d think that that story, with such broad im­pacts on pos­sible job growth and en­ergy costs (to say noth­ing of im­plic­a­tions for up­com­ing polit­ic­al elec­tions) might dom­in­ate the news cycles, at least for the week. You’d be wrong.

A few days earli­er, something else happened: The pres­id­ent an­nounced he’d cut a deal to free Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl, who was held for about five years by the Taliban. Obama held a rare Sat­urday press con­fer­ence with Ber­g­dahl’s fam­ily in the Rose Garden. And then … the In­ter­net ex­ploded.

Every­one had an opin­ion and ex­clam­a­tion points aboun­ded. Was Ber­g­dahl a desert­er? Some said yes! Oth­ers no! Still oth­ers said it shouldn’t mat­ter! Did the pres­id­ent give Con­gress ad­equate no­tice be­fore re­leas­ing five Guantanamo Bay ter­ror­ists in ex­change for Ber­g­dahl? Did he break the law? And if the pres­id­ent did break the law in re­leas­ing those men from Guantanamo without first be­ing cleared by Con­gress, was the law even con­sti­tu­tion­al? Also, what was up with Ber­g­dahl’s dad’s beard? Ron Fourni­er man­aged to stand out in the crowd simply by not hav­ing a strong opin­ion on the mat­ter, not­ing we knew next to noth­ing at the time.

Some of the Ber­g­dahl hype may be spe­cif­ic to the blo­go­sphere. A search of ma­jor news­pa­pers on Lex­is­Nex­is found 558 dif­fer­ent stor­ies men­tion­ing “Bowe Ber­g­dahl” in the past week, com­pared with 734 for “power plants” and 477 for “EPA.” But a search of news on Google, to my mind a bet­ter in­dic­a­tion of what Amer­ica is ac­tu­ally read­ing, re­veals that on Wed­nes­day of last week, Bowe Ber­g­dahl was men­tioned 10 times for every ref­er­ence to power plants.

screenshot National Journal

A search of so­cial-me­dia mar­ket­ing firm Topsy found sim­il­ar trends on Twit­ter.

photo National Journal

TVEyes Me­dia Mon­it­or­ing Suite, a data­base of tele­vi­sion mar­kets, yiel­ded sim­il­arly Ber­g­dahl-heavy res­ults. The term “Bowe Ber­g­dahl,” searched for in the New York tele­vi­sion mar­ket, the biggest in the coun­try, turned up a total of 439 times in the past week. By con­trast, “power plants” showed up just 145 times in the same time peri­od, and “EPA” just 93 times.

What’s more, while it is al­most cer­tain any­thing that turns up with “Bowe Ber­g­dahl” is about the much-dis­cussed sol­dier, the same can­not be said for any story men­tion­ing “power plants” or “EPA.” Those searches are turn­ing up all sorts of stor­ies that have noth­ing to do with Obama’s new coal-fired power-plant reg­u­la­tions; the cov­er­age is even more skewed than we’re see­ing here.

So why did Obama make the Ber­g­dahl an­nounce­ment just ahead of the big power-plant news? Is there a chance that the White House wanted to bury the story? That they ac­tu­ally thought their reg­u­la­tions would be un­pop­u­lar and wanted to dis­tract the pub­lic with a pro­ver­bi­al shiny ball? Un­likely, es­pe­cially as the reg­u­la­tions poll ex­tremely well.

What’s more likely: The White House simply failed to com­pre­hend the ex­tent of the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Ber­g­dahl, and, in try­ing to cap­it­al­ize on it polit­ic­ally with a Rose Garden press con­fer­ence, bungled both the un­veil­ing of the Ber­g­dahl op­er­a­tion and the rol­lout of what’s ex­pec­ted to be one of Obama’s leg­acy achieve­ments.

The only trouble with that in­ter­pret­a­tion is it as­sumes that had the Ber­g­dahl scan­dal not broken, there would have been more cov­er­age of Obama’s land­mark en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions. As someone who’s covered en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues for years and seen just how an­em­ic the res­ult­ing traffic is, I’d wager that’s not the case. More likely, the press corps would have been dis­trac­ted by something else.

The week be­fore, for in­stance, al­leg­a­tions sur­faced that the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment’s shoddy schedul­ing prac­tices were put­ting the lives of vet­er­ans and the fate of med­ic­al fa­cil­it­ies around the coun­try in danger. Now that’s the kind of scan­dal the me­dia can get be­hind.


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