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29 April 1999

Our current howler (part III): Engine trouble

Synopsis: At the very least, the press corps could muffle the hoo-hah on internal combustion.

Gore Offers a More ‘Livable World’ With Some Tinkering
Katharine Q. Seelye, The New York Times, 3/16/99

Auto Industry Reaches Surprising Consensus: It Needs New Engines
Rebecca Blumenstein, The Wall Street Journal, 1/5/98

Rapping up the votes
Gloria Borger, U.S. News & World Report, 11/16/98

It’s a sobering thought, the thought of the press corps conducting a critique of Earth in the Balance. Think of it--the folks who couldn’t get farm chores right will help us figure out global warming! Shazam! But the discussion is coming, as sure as sin, and without some effort, it will be a real gong show. The strange critiques we’ve looked at this week may soon come to feel like Clear Thought.

But there’s one critique for which the corps should prepare, and that’s the critique on internal combustion. Since the GOP first set its goal of creating a gong show around Gore’s book, no single part of Earth in the Balance has been subject to more silly comments. Katharine Seelye, in the New York Times, on one of Jim Nicholson’s faxed rants:

SEELYE: Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been particularly scathing, accusing Mr. Gore of trying to “do away with the internal combustion engine, the automobile,” and calling him “an apologist for the President; he’s a wasteful dreamer.”
But there’s nothing more wasteful than the paper (and time) burned up by Jim Nicholson’s faxes. Earth’s discussion of internal combustion plainly does not call for “doing away with the automobile.” Gore does say, in the course of this passage, that “it ought to be accomplish the strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five year period.” But this proposal is clearly premised on the development of more efficient engines. Immediately before his remark, Gore says this:
GORE: Much larger energy savings, of course, and CO2 reductions as well, can be accomplished when the industrial world develops more efficient internal combustion engines. And here the automobile deserves special attention.
Gore goes on to discuss the possibility of eliminating IC engines, but he never says we should get rid of cars:
GORE: [T]he United States spends tens of billions of dollars on frenzied programs to upgrade and improve the technology of bombers and fighter planes...but we are content to see hundreds of millions of automobiles using an old technological approach not radically different from the one first used decades ago in the Model A Ford.
He talks about achieving “a more rapid transition to more efficient vehicles” (page 325); he laments the way the Japanese are moving ahead of GM in the race to market commercially viable electric vehicles and “in the race for very high-mileage gasoline cars” (page 335); when he lists his specific proposals for American action, he says “the government must establish higher mileage requirements for all cars and trucks,” and he talks about the need to “accelerate the transition to more efficient vehicles” (page 350). The Nicholson fax which Seelye quotes is another in his long list of groaners and howlers--routinely, lovingly typed up and passed on, without comment, by the obedient press.

But most conservative spinners don’t go as far as Nicholson did in his comment. They tend to spin Earth’s suggestion for eliminating internal combustion as if it shows some sort of weird extremism by Gore. The notion never made any sense, but it’s especially hard to credit now--now that the CEOs of Detroit’s Big 3 have widely acknowledged the coming end of internal combustion.

Yep. There was Rebecca Blumenstein, page one of the Wall Street Journal, with this opening sentence:

BLUMENSTEIN: Time is starting to run out for the internal combustion engine.
During press previews for the Detroit auto show, the Big 3 CEOs made big talk. Blumenstein reported further:
BLUMENSTEIN: [A]uto makers from Tokyo to Stuttgart to Detroit have reached a surprising consensus on an idea deemed heretical not long ago. A fundamental shift in engine technology is needed. “We need to press very hard to increase fuel economy and lower emissions” of carbon dioxide, says John F. Smith Jr., chairman of General Motors Corp. He predicts a “slow phase-off” of the internal-combustion engine in 20 to 30 years and adds, “It is prudent for us to be working very hard on alternative technology.”
The New York Times also reported Smith’s comments in a page one story on 1/5/98. Stories on similar themes appeared in March 1999 in both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (page one).

One might think that such stories would produce a reduction in silly remarks about Earth in the Balance. One might even imagine that someone might note that Gore’s projection had turned out to be right. But that would entail saying something verboten in our gloomy, Goth-like mainstream press culture. It would entail saying that a public official had been right. The comments have yet to be typed.

Indeed, it was just one day after the Post’s recent March 15 story that Seelye reprinted Nicholson’s latest silly fax, with no comment whatever on its vacuous contents--no effort to put them in context. Indeed, the mainstream press loves nothing better than lazily typing up silly spin, and vacuous references to GOP folklore have remained a common part of the argot. Here, for example, is Gloria Borger, in her column for U.S. News:

BORGER: No doubt the GOP will caricature [Gore] as a goo-goo who once wanted to get rid of the internal combustion engine, because he did.
“Because he did.” Past tense! This column appeared ten months after John Smith said he wanted to unload IC too. It had been ten months since two major papers reported the coming end to internal combustion (on page one). And yes, Jim Nicholson and friends will keep faxing those caricatures, as long as reporters like Borger type them up--as long as they broadcast the dimmest spin, with no effort to put it in context.

We freely admit it’s a daunting task, to ask the press corps to read its own papers. But if scribes would read up on internal combustion, maybe we could muffle one source of misinfo in the debate about Earth that will come.

Tomorrow: Smile-a-while! Tucker Carlson couldn’t find a quote that was silly enough. So he made one a little bit better.

Under the hood: Four major articles on engine development:

Auto Industry Reaches Surprising Consensus: It Needs New Engines Rebecca Blumenstein, The Wall Street Journal, 1/5/98 (page one)

U.S. Auto Makers Showing Interest in Fuel Efficicency Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, 1/5/98 (page one)

Auto Makers Are Racing To Market ‘Green’ Cars Powered by Fuel Cells Jeffrey Ball, The Wall Street Journal, 3/15/99 (page one)

Automakers Plan Fuel-Cell Cars Warren Brown, The Washington Post, 3/17/99