witches cauldronHow to cook a non-story…Courtesy Arbron via Flickr

Now that the “White House memo” hoopla is over — except insofar as it will live on forever as a zombie Republican talking point — it’s worth pausing to review what happened. It’s a remarkable, real-time example of how the polluter/Republican/media nexus works. And it raises some difficult questions about the media environment to which I, at least, don’t have easy answers.

Let’s go back over the timeline:

On March 24, the EPA did what more-or-less everyone expected and told the White House that CO2 is a danger to the public. On April 17, after the endangerment finding had cleared White House review, it was formally announced.

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The announcement set in motion of a couple of processes required by law. One is a 60-day public comment period, after which rule-making will begin in earnest. The other is an interagency review: a government agency — in this case OMB — is charged with gathering comments and feedback from all the other federal agencies and departments and submitting them to EPA.

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On April 22, OMB submitted the results to the EPA. The comments ranged widely, from fairly technical suggestions on areas where EPA could expand or strengthen its analysis to borderline wacky stuff about people moving from Arizona to Minnesota to worries about the expansion of the EPA’s regulatory purview. At the bottom of the second page was this comment:

Making the decision to regulate CO2 under the CAA [Clean Air Act] for the first time is likely to have serious economic consequences for regulated entities throughout the U.S. economy, including small businesses and small communities. Should EPA later extend this finding to stationary sources, small businesses and institutions would be subject to costly regulatory programs such as New Source Review.

This is a standard-issue conservative talking point on EPA regs, and sure enough, a source at OMB revealed yesterday that it came from a Bush administration holdover at the Small Business Administration’s “Office of Advocacy,” which is “an independent entity” the views of which “do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA or the Administration.”

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So, that’s where things stood: a single comment, from a Bush holdover in an independent office, buried in a large collection of comments collected in a memo submitted to EPA’s online docket after a bureaucratic review process. Hardly a stop-the-presses development.

Some three weeks later … lo! Dow Jones reporter Ian Talley (known in green circles for being a frequent conduit for conservative talking points on energy) discovers the memo and writes a story on it (sub. rqd., or read a different version Talley collaborated on for a Wall Street Journal blog).

Perhaps Talley just happened to be perusing the EPA’s horribly designed and nigh-unusable online docket and stumbled across the memo, on the very day of the first congressional hearing to consider the nomination of Cass Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB. Perhaps it was coincidence that the story appeared just as OMB was in the news and Sunstein was facing questions.

Then again, perhaps pigs fly out of my butt. Far more likely, a dirty energy lobbying firm — I’m looking at you, Bracewell-Giuliani — tipped Talley off to the memo. [UPDATE: OK, that was a cheap shot followed up by wild speculation, as it appears progressive watchdog group OMB Watch was where many journalists first saw the memo.]

Republicans on the Senate Environment Committee immediately began to send Talley’s article (headline: “OMB Memo: Serious Economic Impact Likely From EPA CO2 Rules”) to the press along with a hysterical press release calling the memo a “smoking gun.” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) waved the memo in EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s face at a hearing on the EPA’s budget, claiming that the agency had suppressed it (by, um, posting it online) and that it showed the endangerment finding was purely political (unlike Barrasso’s grandstanding).

Now here’s the crucial part: at this point, the memo had been written about. Republicans are making a big deal of it. So mainstream journalists have to cover it. It’s “out there.” So the Associated Press does a story on it, as does ABC’s Jake Tapper, along with NPR, the New York Times, any number of blogs, etc. Suddenly, it’s everywhere: the “OMB memo” reveals that EPA regs will destroy the economy (and eat babies)! [UPDATE: Jake Tapper writes to protest that he never used the phrase “OMB memo,” and he’s right — his story correctly calls it an “interagency memo.”]

Now, if you read the stories closely, you’ll see that it’s just not true that there is such a thing as an “OMB memo” that “says” these things, much less a “White House memo.” There are no “rifts” inside the Obama administration. There is only one comment (published in a document that gathers numerous disparate comments from numerous disparate agencies) making this (unsupported) claim about the endangerment ruling. That’s all. It doesn’t “reveal” anything other than what that one random Bush holdover happens to think.

In short, there’s nothing to it. The story is vapor; there is no story. And yet look what happened: all it took is for one clever operative to inject the story into one legitimate media outlet. Then Republicans amplified it and the rest of the media world dutifully took it up. Voila, it dominated a news cycle and required pushback from OMB Director Peter Orszag and the White House itself. Through the magic of spin, a nothingburger became “a story.” And now it will be repeated, over and over, forever, by pro-dirty-energy legislators and on right-wing blogs, e.g. the OMB “revealed” that EPA regs are dangerous to small business.

It will never die, never go away. And, unfortunately, this kind of thing happens constantly.

My question is: What should have been done differently once the fake story was out there? Whoever fed the story to Talley was doing their job. Talley was certainly right that the story would be considered newsworthy. (What does it matter, honestly, whether it really is newsworthy?) Republicans were right that it would throw a wrench in the works. Mainstream journalists were right that it had become a story and they needed to cover it.

Everyone was basically doing their jobs. And yet the net effect was to confuse the public and decrease aggregate understanding of an extremely important issue. I would suggest that when the result of everyone doing their jobs is to produce a net reduction in public understanding, the system is broken. Something’s gone wrong.

But I honestly don’t have a clue how it could be fixed. Grist readers, perhaps you do?