Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

Mitt Romney’s energy evolution: Did The Post mislead readers?

I received a 2,000-word e-mail last week from Andrea Saul, press secretary for the Mitt Romney campaign. It slammed a June 8 Post storyby Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin on Romney’s energy policy, from his time as governor of Massachusetts to his presidential campaign promises today.

At the conclusion of her detailed critique, Saul said the story amounted to a series of “outright falsehoods, misleading innuendo, and failures to provide even the minimal appropriate context.”

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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Those are serious charges.

So I dug in. I read the e-mail exchanges that occurred between the reporters and the Romney campaign while the story was being reported, and I read most of the source documents that the reporters used and those that the Romney campaign used to rebut the Post story. I also did my own research.

My shorthand conclusion is that, in three places — on cap and trade, support for renewable energy and regulations on industrial boilers — adding more context would have been more fair to Romney. I didn’t find any outright falsehoods, and as for innuendo, I thought the reporters were direct in their assertions.

Now, when delving into point-by-point rebuttals, whether from readers or presidential campaigns, it’s important to ask what’s the larger truth at stake in the story. Yes, the facts should be correct, and fairness dictates that proper context should be given. But are the reporters getting at something important and truthful?

I think the overall theme of the story — that Romney has moved in a more conservative direction on energy since his years as governor — is true and is substantiated not only by this story but also by Romney’s record.

The other major point the reporters make is that in Romney campaign documents — on his Web site and in his more detailed “Believe in America” plan — statements about how President Obama is destroying energy jobs and how Romney policies would create energy jobs seem, well, exaggerated.

I have learned over the years in covering economic development stories to be deeply skeptical of the panoply of statistics surrounding job creation and job destruction. If I had a dollar for every claim of a future job created by a politician (Democrat or Republican), a corporate executive or a mall developer, I’d be as rich as Warren Buffett.

Of course, increased investment and a growing economy create jobs, but job projections are unreliable. The multiplier effects of every dollar invested differ significantly from one economic sector to another, and almost no one, including the media, ever follows up to see if the jobs promised were in fact created and sustained, or if jobs were lost. These forecasts often are more about salesmanship than reality.

Here’s what a study by the Cornell University Global Labor Institute said, for example, about the job projections cited by Romney campaign materials for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (KXL), which would bring Canadian tar sands oil to U.S. ports in Texas:

“What is being offered by the proponents is advocacy to build support for KXL, rather than serious research aimed to inform public debate and responsible decision making. By repeating inflated numbers, the supporters of KXL approval are doing an injustice to the American public in that expectations are raised for jobs that simply cannot be met. These numbers — hundreds of thousands of jobs! — then get packaged as if KXL were a major jobs program capable of registering some kind of significant impact on unemployment levels and the overall economy. This is plainly untrue.”

And this tendency to inflate numbers comes through plainly in Romney’s “Believe in America” plan. Every Obama policy is a job killer, job threat or job destroyer. Every policy of Mitt Romney is a job-creating miracle.

In Romney’s energy chapter of the plan, I added all the jobs that Obama has supposedly destroyed, killed or threatened with his “incoherent” energy policies. It totals almost 11 million jobs. That exceeds the 8.8 million jobs that the Labor Department says were lost in the Great Recession. That, I’m afraid, stretches credulity.

That’s why Mufson and Eilperin led their story the way they did, questioning the energy job claims in “Believe in America.”

Now, it’s hardly surprising that a campaign document is full of hyperbole. Obama’s campaign Web site has this claim, which I hope Mufson and Eilperin will also test: “As of November 2010, the Obama administration’s policies have helped create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the clean energy industry.”

That’s the media’s job, to cut through the hyperbole, examine the record and report to readers.

If you want to read the point-by-point Romney campaign critique and my response, go to the omblog.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at www.washingtonpost.com/omblog.

 
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