The AP has what looks like a blockbuster story today: “White House memo challenges EPA finding on warming.” The Obama White House bashing the EPA process for regulating greenhouse gases! That’s huge!

Only the AP got the story completely wrong.

Here’s the backstory: Today, Republican senators released a memo that had been submitted to the EPA’s docket by the Office of Management and Budget (the EPA is accepting comments on its “endangerment finding“). The memo is blisteringly critical of the EPA’s process, its science, and its proposed use of the Clean Air Act.

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Republicans trumpeted this as official OMB — i.e., “Obama White House” — feedback.

But it’s not. When the EPA released its draft finding, the OMB undertook a standard process called Interagency Review. It sent the finding to every government department and agency (dozens), asking for feedback. It then collected all the comments it received and submitted them to the EPA, as required by law.

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So the comments in the memo (and the other memos submitted today) could have come from anywhere within the federal bureaucracy.

And there’s more: typically during this process, the comments of various people within a dept. or agency are filtered up through the political appointee running the dept./agency. That appointee filters them, reconciles them, and sends them back to the reviewing agency. But this review process happened within Obama’s first 100 days. In many cases there is no political appointee running things yet; in other cases there’s an appointee frantically trying to get his or her sea legs, not paying much attention to things like interagency reviews.

Which means these comments could have come from just about any careerist in any of these agencies. In some cases — and having reviewed some of the crazy, old-school denier stuff in these memos, I strongly suspect this is true — career bureaucrats at the agency/dept. could have just dug up comments from the Bush administration era and forwarded them along.

In short: the “Obama White House” is not challenging the EPA. The OMB is not challenging the EPA. All these memos show is that there are people somewhere in the vast federal bureaucracy, either now or from the Bush era, who don’t like the idea of the EPA regulating greenhouse gases.

Big whoop.

I assume the AP and Jake Tapper are getting an earful from the Obama people and will be correcting their stories soon.


UPDATE: A couple of things in this post are worth clarifying, and at least one thing worth correcting. The correction: it was not AP who first ran with this story, it was Dow Jones (subscription required). That’s where the Republicans got it. Buried in the story, it says:

“It’s a conglomeration of counsel we’ve received from various agencies…and it’s not indicative of an OMB or administration-wide position,” an OMB official said.

But of course the entire story — and the Republican PR release — frames it as a “White House memo” that blasts the EPA. (Check out the Google News search results.) This is one of those cases where it’s entirely possible to be semantically correct and leave a misleading impression. The story in the bloodstream now is that the White House thinks EPA greenhouse gas regulations will kill the economy. If the headline had been, “random, un-named source somewhere in the federal bureaucracy believes EPA regulations unwise,” it would have been more accurate but less linkworthy.

It’s too hard on the AP to say it got the story “completely wrong” — the story does say that it’s an interagency review, and the latest update (from a half-hour ago) does a great deal to clarify. It also contains this interesting tidbit:

A White House aide and Office of Management and Budget spokesman said the cost critique came from a single federal agency, and the document did not reflect the administration’s view. They declined to identify which agency challenged the EPA proposal.

When the Bush administration unveiled its proposal to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases, it released full comments from each individual agency — many of which were critical.

Wonder why the White House is being cagey about the source. Probably just to keep the story from getting more legs.

So, what do you think, Gristers? If a story is technically accurate (the memo was submitted, as required by law, by the OMB, which is a White House agency) but leaves a false impression (the comments in the memo do not reflect OMB or White House positions), is it legit? Is it worth criticizing? Do reporters have an obligation to contextualize and interpret or only to make non-false statements? Is this update way too long?

UPDATE TWO: Here’s White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs trying to bat down the story (note that the reporter frames the memo as a critique of cap-and-trade — which it is most certainly not, as Gibbs clarifies):

And OMB director Peter Orszag has put a post on the White House site debunking the story:

The bottom line is that OMB would have not concluded review, which allows the finding to move forward, if we had concerns about whether EPA’s finding was consistent with either the law or the underlying science. The press reports to the contrary are simply false.

UPDATE THREE: An Obama administration official has revealed (to, ahem, Jake Tapper) that the paragraph in question, about the cost of EPA regs to small business, was written by “a Bush holdover in the Office of Advocacy in the Small Business Administration.” So this one cranky conservative in the SBA writes one paragraph and the Republican media massaging machine manages to make it into a major story for a full news cycle. Remarkable.

UPDATE FOUR AND I PROMISE FINAL!: OK, seems it may have been AP’s Dina Cappiello, not Tapper, who broke the identity of the author — see here. (AP sure doesn’t make it easy to find updates on their stories.)