Here’s the letter of complaint from Andrea Saul, press secretary to the Mitt Romney campaign, complaining about a June 8 story in The Post written by Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin.
I publish the letter in full, with my reaction following each section in italics. It’s long, so you had better go get a beer.
Dear Mr. Pexton,
I am writing in regards to an article published in your newspaper on June 8 by Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin, titled “Romney energy plan shows candidate’s changing views, draws questions on job claims.” This article was riddled with errors and sloppy reporting and, even more concerning, your reporters showed no interest in revisiting or correcting their mistakes. I hope you will take a moment to review the issues outlined below, as well as the inadequate and nonresponsive defenses offered in reply, and take the necessary action to fix or retract the story. I apologize for the length of this letter — there is much to address.
Conflation Of Different Regulations. In September 2011, Romney for President published a book reporting that a proposed Boiler MACT regulation could destroy 800,000 jobs. Several months later, the EPA issued a different Boiler MACT regulation. An industry group estimated that this different regulation could destroy more than 200,000 jobs. These facts are not in dispute — they are reported by Steven and Juliet in the article. Yet they nonetheless write: “Even industry’s job numbers are far more modest than the Romney document.” This comparison is nonsensical, and unfairly implies that our estimate was more aggressive than industry’s (and therefore unreasonable), even though the estimates are for different regulations.
When this error was pointed out, your reporters responded: “we set out that chronology clearly in our story” and defend the comparison on the ground that they wanted to show that “the energy landscape is constantly shifting.” Use of the comparison does no such thing.
Ombudsman’s response: The story does say high up that both Romney’s and President Obama’s positions on energy are shifting as the campaign progresses. On the 800,000-job destruction statistic, according to Eilperin and other media reports on this subject, that was the worst-case scenario put out by industry sources who were assuming that the Obama administration would set the “ground ozone” emission limit for industrial boilers at 60 parts per billion. It was clear before the Romney Believe in America document was published, that the 60 parts per billion standard had so much opposition in Congress and from industry that it would never be approved. And in fact, it never was; the EPA backed away considerably from that standard just days after the Romney campaign plan was published.
Still, I think the reporters should have made clearer that the Romney 800,000 figure was embraced by the campaign before the EPA revised its proposed rules. The chronology is in the story, but it’s a little hard to follow. But the Romney campaign has made no effort to make revisions to the Believe in America chapter. The 800,00 figure is still in there.
Mischaracterization Of Romney Statement. Your reporters provide the following account of remarks made by Governor Romney in 2005: “he said that ‘clean energy’ was ‘an economic engine very much like biotech’ that could spur ‘explosive growth’ in Massachusetts. Romney said he would make Massachusetts a more appealing place for such companies.” They assert that this position is in conflict with his opposition to President Obama’s green energy programs. In fact, those comments do not apply to President Obama’s policies — noting that clean energy has economic potential does not imply support for subsidies or taxpayer investments.
When this error was pointed out, your reporters responded: “The only way to make Massachusetts an attractive place for renewable energy firms is to give those firms economic benefits.” This statement is incorrect, and belies an embarrassing bias on their part. While President Obama may believe that the only way to make a business environment attractive is to give firms specific benefits, Governor Romney disagrees. His entire economic platform is based on policies like tax reform, regulatory reform, and education reform that will make America a more attractive place to do business, without picking winners or handing out government checks.
Ombudsman’s response: The Romney campaign is correct in saying that there are ways to make a jurisdiction attractive to investment that are not government subsidies and handouts. But generally those kinds of subsidies and tax breaks are what governments do, whether state or federal. And the facts here are that Mitt Romney, as Massachusetts governor in 2003, as reported by Politico and others, heartily handed out checks from the Massachusetts's Renewable Energy Trust Fund to alternative energy startups. Moreover, he proposed reallocating some money from that fund for a new fund that would, according to Politico, “back green-minded state businesses with equity, loans, and management advice.” That sounds to me like handing out government checks.
And here’s a press release from 2003 from a company touting Romney’s efforts.
Keystone Job Estimate. Steven and Juliet wrote: “The Romney ‘Believe in America’ booklet uses estimates of jobs linked to the Keystone XL pipeline that far outstrip those put forward by TransCanada, the would-be builder of the pipeline.” This is incorrect. The figures used in the book are taken directly from a study also used by TransCanada. One might hope the reporters would know this, because they asked us for our source and we referred them to it.
When this error was pointed out, the reporters challenged the analysis in the study. That may or may not be fair, but is unrelated to what they actually printed. Their refusal to even acknowledge this straightforward error was surprising.
Ombudsman’s response: The reporters are correct; the Romney campaign is wrong. Yes, TransCanada used the study referred to by the Romney campaign, called the Perryman Group study, in helping to sell its Keystone pipeline. But the reporters are correct in saying that the actual job forecast figures TransCanada submitted to the State Department as part of its environmental impact statement are much lower. As I point out in my column, the Romney campaign always goes for the worst-case or best-case scenario that portrays Obama in the worst light and them in the best light.
The Definition Of “Praised.” Steven and Juliet wrote that Governor Romney, in his book, No Apology, “praised a proposal … to institute a ‘tax swap.’” This is incorrect. In the book he discusses the pros and cons of the proposal and ultimately finds that it is not “viable.” Under their rationale, the statement, “while Obamacare does expand access to insurance, it will also destroy the American health care system and should therefore be repealed,” could be described as “praise” for Obamacare.
I should acknowledge that we miscommunicated our objection to them on this point, referring to a different proposal instead of the tax swap. Nonetheless, your reporters doubled down on their own phrasing and insisted that their reporting was accurate because “Romney does praise the idea, but we do not say that he endorsed it.”
Ombudsman’s response: I disagree with the Romney campaign on this. Romney in the book does praise aspects of the tax swap, although he ultimately comes down against it.
Unacceptable Bias And Incomplete Information
Mistakes happen, and we would have been pleased if the Post had simply made the corrections required above. But in addition, there were several places where Steven and Juliet failed to report basic facts that would be crucial to an understanding of the topic they were reporting, for seemingly no other reason than their desire to establish a particular (inaccurate) narrative.
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Steven and Juliet wrote:
In November 2005, Romney supported an agreement by Northeastern states to form a regional group to reduce greenhouse gases through a cap-and-trade system that would slightly raise utility rates. “This is a great thing for the Commonwealth,” Romney said, according to a Boston Globe article at the time. “We can effectively create incentives to help stimulate a sector of the economy and at the same time not kill jobs.”
His presidential campaign’s energy plan rejects a similar cap-and-trade approach to greenhouse gases backed by Obama as a “complex scheme” that would have dealt “a crippling blow to the U.S. economy.” In his 2010 book, Romney also tried to distance himself from the regional cap-and-trade plan.
As written, this certainly sounds like a significant change of position. But what is missing from this account? The fact that Governor Romney refused to join the regional group, instead rejecting it because it would be too costly for the economy. To omit this fact is completely inexplicable. To go even further and actually assert that Romney “supported” an agreement that he never signed and actively rejected, represents a willful effort to mislead readers.
When this error was pointed out, Steven and Juliet refused to even address it. Instead they pointed us to another action taken by Governor Romney (not even discussed in the article) as if this would somehow negate their failure.
Ombudsman’s response: I think the reporters should have made clear that Romney ultimately rejected the regional cap-and-trade plan. But the larger truth, which the reporters pointed out to Saul, is that he embraced policies that were very similar to the cap-and-trade plan, but for Massachusetts only. Here’s what the reporters replied, and they are on target:
“In the end, the governor did not sign RGGI — a decision that surprised other northeast governors given what they understood his sentiments to be. That’s because Romney earlier clearly supported a carbon trading system in Massachusetts and supported limited CO2 emissions from coal plants – exactly what he now criticizes the president for doing. On Dec. 7, 2005, he issued a press release saying: ‘Governor Mitt Romney today announced that Massachusetts will take another major step in meeting its commitment to protecting air quality when strict state limitations on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants take effect on January 1, 2006.’ The press release went on to describe how companies could meet their targets ‘through a greenhouse gas offset and credits program.’ This is similar to the policies the Governor now criticizes.”
Green Energy Fund. Steven and Juliet wrote: “On Jan. 22, 2003, after becoming Massachusetts governor, Romney stood in front of Konarka, a developer of thin-film solar panels, and handed out $9 million from a ‘green energy fund’ to renewable energy firms.” They use this as evidence that Governor Romney’s opposition to President Obama’s green energy boondoggles represents a “reversal.” But they failed to note that (a) the loan had been approved prior to Governor Romney taking office (making “handed out” an inappropriate description), (b) he actually diverted funding away from green energy projects, (c) he vetoed an attempt by the legislature to establish new funding, and (d) he explained these actions by saying “Somehow, the idea of state employees deciding which businesses to invest in is not a model which I would subscribe to. I'd rather see us invest in our infrastructure, education, technology, rather than becoming a venture capitalist.” To assert a “reversal” while providing none of this context manages to completely miss the Governor’s actual, consistent position.
When this error was pointed out, Steven and Juliet responded: “if he did not approve of it he wouldn’t have held a press conference at Konarka saying that it was a good thing for the company and the state.” First, I would note that this assertion in no way explains their failure to provide the full context of the Governor’s actions and position. Second, it is ludicrous to suggest that showing up at a ceremony and making positive remarks is a better marker of one’s views than his funding decisions, vetoes, and explicit statements of position.
Ombudsman’s response: This criticism by the Romney campaign is more obfuscating than it is clarifying. “Showing up at a ceremony” isn’t what Romney did in handing over the check that day. He handed out several checks to alternative energy startups that day in a big publicity event that also announced he was “diverting” some of the energy fund money to another green energy fund of his own creation, one that would use state money in more of a venture capital kind of way for loans, equity stakes, and management advice for other startups. This was absolutely using state funds to favor certain green-energy companies. Yes, later on he did veto an attempt to establish additional funding, but that’s not the whole picture.
Lazy Reporting That Misleads Readers
Finally, I would call your attention to several badly reported sections of the article that, while perhaps not independently egregious, combine with the mistakes above to undermine the credibility of the entire piece and underscore the sloppiness of the reporting.
Regulatory Policy. Steven and Juliet wrote: “‘The rhetoric of Romney is worrisome, that all regulation is bad,’ Ebinger said, ‘which isn’t to say there isn’t some stupid regulation out there.’” Of course, it is completely untrue that Governor Romney’s rhetoric implies that all regulation is bad. To the contrary, he always emphasizes that regulation is an important part of the free market. For instance, in his speech on economic freedom at the University of Chicago he said: “Regulations are necessary. But burdensome regulations serve only to restrict freedom and imperil enterprise.” Indeed, the cover page of the book chapter on Regulation in “Believe in America” quotes his own words from No Apology, where he wrote: “At the same time, in order to provide the structure and predictability that business needs and to protect against abuses, we need dynamic regulations, which are up-to-date, forward-looking, consistently applied, and free of unnecessary burden.”
When this error was pointed out, Steven and Juliet responded (in full): “Charles Ebinger is entitled to his opinion on the campaign’s rhetoric.” Of course, we would not disagree with that. But we do wonder whether it is standard practice at the Post to quote someone making an assertion that the reporter knows to be false, but fail to provide any counterpoint for the sake of readers attempting to actually become educated (rather than indoctrinated) by your newspaper.
Ombudsman’s response: Ebinger is entitled to his opinion and the reporters are entitled to quote him. Yes, in the “Believe in America” book and in some of his speeches, Romney does say clearly that some regulation is needed, but the dominant thrust of his speeches and policy proposals is that much less regulation is needed. Still, I think it would have been fair to have a bit of context in the story that Romney does in fact say that some regulation is needed.
Research & Development. Mr. Ebinger apparently being a favorite foil for Steven and Juliet, they wrote: “While Romney has sharply attacked Obama for investing federal dollars in wind and solar projects, Ebinger said that it is unlikely that Romney would cut off all federal research and development funds for renewable energy.” This is terribly confusing. As Governor Romney makes clear in his book, on his website, and in his remarks — and as the article acknowledges earlier on — Governor Romney has explicitly supported federal research and development funds for renewable energy. It is not clear why this sentence is there. Regardless, it confuses readers and implies a flip-flop that does not exist.
When this error was pointed out, Steven and Juliet responded that Mr. Ebinger was agreeing with the Governor’s position so: “We’re not sure we see what your problem is here.” Just to be clear, our problem is that they were so desperate to assert that Governor Romney has shifted his position on energy policy that they went to the lengths of presenting his consistently presented policy position as something that only in-the-know experts could divine he actually believed.
Ombudsman’s response: I find this criticism confusing and the story clear. Here’s the relevant sentence from the story: “Like Obama, Romney does favor aid for basic research into cleaner energy technology.”
EPA Authority. Steven and Juliet wrote that Governor Romney’s agenda includes “stripping the EPA of much of its authority, especially when it comes to regulating greenhouse gases.” It is true that Governor Romney would strip the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. It is untrue that he would strip “much of” the rest of its authority. In fact, he has proposed no other reductions in its authority, instead focusing on fundamental regulatory reform that would change the way the government as a whole regulates.
When this error was pointed out, Steven and Juliet responded that: “There is no other way to interpret that sort of fundamental change in federal governance,” except as stripping an agency of its authority. This is the equivalent of suggesting that “there is no other way to interpret” President Obama’s energy policy except as “wasting taxpayer dollars on handouts to wealthy donors.” While it is true that one effect of the Governor’s proposals would be to alter the balance of power between the EPA and the Congress, an appropriate way to report that would have been “stripping the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases, while requiring Congress to approve the major new regulations of all agencies.” The article as written tells readers that Governor Romney has somehow lessened his strong commitment to environmental protection by “stripping” EPA of its authority, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.
Ombudsman’s response: I think the reporters are on target here. Romney calls for, in “Believe in America,” a complete overhaul of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. These are the foundational building blocks of EPA's authority. If overhauling them in a more laissez-faire manner wouldn't significantly cut the authority of EPA, I don't know what would.
If you review the original article, you will find that the problems identified here cover every single point that Steven and Juliet put forward to advance the thesis that “Romney energy plan shows candidate’s changing views.” This is not a case of nitpicking around the sides of an otherwise interesting piece. The entire foundation of the article is a series of outright falsehoods, misleading innuendo, and failures to provide even the minimal appropriate context. We tried to work with Steven and Juliet on this story, providing detailed sourcing for every claim the campaign has made and responding with a statement when asked specifically about the Governor’s plans for offshore drilling. Unfortunately, it is evident that they had already decided on their narrative before they began researching or writing, and were uninterested in providing readers with a balanced view of how Governor Romney actually governed in Massachusetts and how he is running his campaign today. I would expect better from the Post.
Press Secretary, Romney for President
Ombudsman’s response: As I said in my column, the main points of the story are sound: Romney has become more conservative since he was Massachusetts governor and did as governor support policies that he now denounces and that Obama has supported as president. And two, the claims in Romney campaign documents tend toward exaggeration and the worst-case scenarios in describing Obama policies and the best case for their own proposals.