JACK SPENCER: When the news media takes the bait

News media bias takes many forms and comes about for as many reasons. At times it occurs when reporters en masse are conscientiously or unconscientiously willing to be “taken in” by a prevalent brand of aggressive political spin. This type of “group buy-in” results in the press developing a sort of herd mentality about the specific issue involved.

Such a situation not only leads to one-sided and inaccurate coverage but also leads to incorrect analysis and predictions about what’s likely to take place. In addition it causes what might be called a shared blindness to evidence that would tend to contradict the news media’s consensus viewpoint.

While under the herd mentality spell, the news media seems to collectively say: “If it doesn’t fit our narrative, we’re not interested in it.” This appears to be what has happened at the state level regarding Michigan’s 10 percent in-state renewable energy mandate and more specifically wind energy.

In 2008, Michigan passed the 10 percent renewable energy mandate and also returned the state’s two largest electric utilities — Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison to quasi-monopoly status by limiting competition in the electricity market to 10 percent. Under the legislation these 2008 measures are subject to be reviewed by the legislature in 2015.

As stated in a previous column, unless something dramatically changes in 2015 the utilities will lobby for keeping the status quo and chances are overwhelming that they will prevail. Presuming Gov. Rick Snyder is still in power, one would expect him to recommend some lofty-sounding renewable energy goals, but not an expansion of the mandate. He’ll likely explain this position by emphasizing the need to give the utilities flexibility to react to market fluctuations.

Based on its coverage of this issue thus far, many elements of the so-called “regular” news media wrongly expect Snyder to favor expanding the mandate. It will be interesting to see precisely when these elements of the news media begin to see that they have been misled. When that finally happens they will probably adjust by suggesting something or the other must have changed Snyder’s plans.

How did the news media get off base on this issue? First, many reporters undoubtedly believe in renewable energy dogma. This pre-existing condition made them susceptible to being lured down the yellow-brick road to misreading what’s actually happening – and what is likely to happen.

Next, the Snyder administration released its energy report and the proponents of wind energy grabbed it, shaped it into interpretations they liked and dished their versions of it out to the news media. In other words, the news media generally swallowed what wind energy proponents had cherry-picked from the report as representing the whole report.

At that point reporters, many of whom favored expanding renewable energy to begin with, had what appeared to be tangible evidence that the administration was leaning in a direction they sort of hoped it would lean. From that moment on they had no interest in any other interpretation of the report.

For instance, the news media played up the fact that the report said expanding the mandate to 30 percent was technically possible, while generally ignoring that it in no way said it would be practical to do so. What is more, the news media either ignored or failed to understand the significance of the part of the report that said safety is potentially a real problem with wind energy.

What followed were headlines across the state declaring that the report seemed to point the way to expanding the renewable energy mandate. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no incentive in election-year 2014 for anyone in the Snyder administration to correct the misconceptions the news media first swallowed, then spewed out about the report. Snyder might well benefit from those misconceptions in November.

More recently, much of the so-called regular news media has gotten a bit carried away regarding Michigan’s other major energy issue, deregulation of the state’s electricity market. This would mean taking away the quasi monopoly status the big utilities gained in 2008.

On this issue the news media has not allowed itself to be misled to the extent that it did regarding the renewable energy mandate. However – as it so often does – the press has to an extent succumbed to a short-lived artificially created sense that there could be momentum for passage of an electric deregulation measure this year in the legislature. Such ginned up “this is really ready to go” campaigns are not unusual in Lansing - and the news media getting temporarily swept up in them isn’t unusual either.

Here’s the truth – the electric deregulation legislation is really already dead and might not even get out of committee. It won’t happen this year or in 2015.