The extraordinary thing about editorials in American news media isn’t that they are inherently cunning or engaging. It’s that they treat mundane and complex issues alike with an unusual degree of disparity while presenting detailed arguments.

This is the case with a recent announcement by President Barack Obama as he maneuvered a sharp U-Turn from Bush Administration environmental policies in a closely watched case involving California and fuel economy standards.

Less than a week after taking the oath of office, Obama issued a far-reaching series of directives that established higher automotive fuel efficiency requirements and toughened tailpipe emissions standards.

President Obama’s move follows ground-breaking legislation that California adopted to aggressively regulate greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes. At least 13 other states are poised to do the same. In 2007, Congress passed the law mandating that cars by 2020 improve efficiency by 40 percent and average 35 miles per gallon. Greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by a third. The Bush administration opposed the program and did not approve the rulings. Now, under Obama’s directive, the Environmental Protection Agency will reconsider that decision, potentially allowing California and other states to set stricter standards on tailpipe emissions, including carbon dioxide. And, the U.S. Transportation Department will accelerate new fuel efficiency mandates for model year 2011.

Analyzing the News Analysis

The nation’s media immediately responded to the immense implications of Obama’s jolt. Editorials appeared in the opinion pages of leading newspapers, firmly staking out the sides of the issue. As it often has, The Detroit News sided with automakers and took a jab, “Obama has set the wrong priority,” the editorial stated. Job creation and the financial needs of automakers should supersede the new rules, which they say could cost $100 billion. The editorial added that giving states authority to set their own standards will “place automakers at the mercy of the most environmentally goofy states – such as California and Vermont …”

Links to Papers’
Editorials Assessed
in this Piece
… and Then Some

Arizona Republic

Burlington Vermont Free Press

Dallas Morning News

Detroit Free Press

Detroit News

Fort Worth Star Telegram

Fresno Bee

Los Angeles Times

New York Times

Orange County Register
(this one appeared before he made the EPA directive)


Philadelphia Inquirer

Sacramento Bee

Washington Post

Further, The Detroit News criticized new regulations allowing states to implement stricter emissions standards than federal levels, and commented that it will “make a joke of interstate commerce.” Rather than regulations, the editorial advises a higher gasoline tax, “which would accomplish Obama’s goals faster and more efficiently than the moves he made Monday.”

The Detroit Free Press response was mixed. It didn’t frown on how Obama’s directive would impact automakers. Rather, the editorial disapproved of Obama’s overall strategy. In “Steer a clearer, preferably nationwide, course on mileage standards,” the newspaper questioned whether a cohesive national policy would succeed “out of the hodgepodge of memos he issued on Monday” so that “automakers – and car buyers – have clear directions to the same destination.”

An editorial in The Washington Post was perhaps the most pointed. In “Agent of (climate) change,” the newspaper endorsed Obama’s efforts (“It is a relief that talk of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is giving way to action”) but denounced his regulatory measures. Its main grievance was that the new environmental policy “risks creating conflicting standards across the country and further stressing the domestic auto industry while accomplishing less than could be achieved with a simple tax increase on gasoline.”

More than a month before Obama even took office, in December 2008, the Santa Ana, Calif.-based Orange County Register was especially prescient. Its editorial, “Will Obama unleash EPA’s Wrath?” let loose the argument of financial fear, stating that Obama’s “new environmental team may bode ill – trillions of dollars of ill – if they are true to their green colors.” The editorial also called the President’s impending directive “Draconian,” and disapproved limits to greenhouse gas emissions “because of widespread and deep economic damage it would cause.”

Though supportive overall, the Fort Worth, Texas, Star-Telegram‘s editorial, “Caution urged on expanded fuel standards,” presented a different kind of opposition. Using a Question and Answer approach that is evocative of a fireside chat, the editorial format provided context:

What’s the position of the Star-Telegram Editorial Board on this issue?

We strongly favored adoption of the high fuel-economy standards in the 2007 law, which were long overdue and can be achieved through existing technology … But we would urge caution. It will take time and billions of dollars for the beleaguered auto industry … to develop more-advanced engine technologies and modify plants to build more fuel-efficient, less polluting vehicles.

Then, quite unexpectedly, the Star-Telegram diverts from its argument on automobile fuel standards. The editorial poses the question, “In terms of energy and environmental issues, what’s needed on a broader scale?” The sweeping, five-paragraph reaction covers varied issues, including, among many others, the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation through green building, the need for “clean coal,” and a means to slow “population growth through measures such as expanded family planning programs.”

The Sacramento Bee showed restraint and elegance in its editorial response in support of Obama. “Better late than never for mileage” lays out the facts logically and furnishes a historical summary. Rather than poke the Bush Administration in the eye, the editorial points to the hindrance invoked by car companies that claimed “they can’t afford to retool” and make energy-efficient autos. “In reality, they [automobile manufacturers] can’t afford to do otherwise. If there is going to be an auto industry in this country, it must adapt to a much more energy-efficient future.”

The New York Times was far from restrained in “A New Day on Climate Change.” The editorial applauds Obama’s “clear signal that he will not hesitate to use the regulatory levels provided by the Clean Air Act and other federal statues to fight global warming.” The newspaper also washes its hands of George W. Bush’s passive approach, and states that “after eight years of inaction, this is a wonderful start.”

Among the editorials backing Obama’s aggressive move toward climate change issues is one in the Arizona Republic. In “Obama Paves Way for Arizonans to Breathe Easier,” the newspaper states that Obama’s solution “was sensible, not radical,” and points to local health implications. Rather than focus on climate change or automobile manufacturers, the Arizona Republic‘s target is cleaner air and breathing hazards caused by pollution from cars. “[T]here’s a stronger motivation. A new study shows that cleaner air means longer lives.” Arizona is one of the 13 states ready to adopt the stricter California emissions standards, and, according to the editorial, the state has “benefited by following our neighbor’s lead.”

Finally, the Dallas Morning News in its January 28 editorial wrote strongly in favor of the new administration’s signal to “proactively address climate change.” The newspaper even pleaded for a statewide call to action among Texas lawmakers “to take a more aggressive approach to limiting emissions.” It added, “After all, Obama has left little doubt that polluting with impunity no longer will be permitted.”

Editorials have a long history of shaping public opinion and offering contrasting points of view. But if there is disparity in the world of news media, and particularly among editorials, there is a measure of hopefulness too. The conversation is now about action toward climate change – not indifference.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...