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Richard Branson's phony plans to fight global warming, his Virgin startup at SFO, and the Fox host who missed a dig

Wednesday, Oct 11 2006
In the trickle-up theory of journalism, bloggers enliven the news business by pushing ignored stories mainstream.

So it was a few weeks ago that Fox News' Chris Wallace drew out of Bill Clinton a riveting exchange about an issue of dear interest to blog writers on the right and the left. Wallace had lured Clinton to a sit-down putatively to discuss the ex-president's Global Initiative confab, which raised $7 billion in Earth-bettering contributions from tycoons, including $3 billion from Virgin honcho Sir Richard Branson. Once the cameras rolled, however, Wallace announced that Fox viewers actually wanted him to compare Clinton's ghoul-killing score card to George W. Bush's.

Regarding Osama bin Laden, Clinton said, "I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody's done since." Clinton then scolded Wallace for veering from the agreed-upon story line.

Seemingly cowed, Wallace got back on subject: "When you look at the $3 billion from Branson, plus billions that Gates is giving, and Warren Buffett, what do you make of this age of philanthropy?"

The exchange churned a round of TV and blogosphere hoopla, which was then recycled into newspaper hoopla, more blog commentary, and TV.

Wallace called a bigwig on his shit. The bigwig lunged back. Fans, detractors, and the press box went wild. Bully, right?

Hardly. By kowtowing to blog-world obsessions — that is to say, easily left-right bifurcated subjects, preferably ones that have already been rehashed a million times, so that anyone can identify his team's side — Wallace missed a chance to go after Clinton for his real shit. By shutting his door on the score card checkers for a few hours in advance of his interview and thoroughly researching Clinton and Branson's bogus claim to bettering the world, Wallace could have assembled charges against Clinton for hypocrisy, phony grandstanding, and misrepresenting the truth — and made the charges stick. Wallace would have begun his interview in the catbird seat, armed with a dossier showing Clinton and Branson colluding in a lucrative enviro-hoax.

Clinton's Global Initiative clambake represented a longtime specialty of the ex-president: the grandiose yet misleading PR announcement. Branson's $3 billion wasn't philanthropy by any definition: The Virgin conglomerate chieftain promised to invest profits from his transport operations for the next decade in different types of nonpetroleum fuel — especially ethanol, most often made from corn — in the process scooping up hundreds of millions in federal corn-ethanol subsidies, profits, and political advantage. The supposed anti-global warming benefit of Branson's commitment, meanwhile, is false: Distilling ethanol from corn consumes more fossil energy than what's contained in the final bio-fuel product.

The billionaire's bio-fuel initiative doesn't benefit the cause of philanthropy or the cause of preserving the planet. The benefits to these titans of spin, however, are plain.

Clinton is in campaign mode for his wife's presidential bid, and Hillary's legitimacy borrows from his. The New Yorker just ran a profile characterizing Clinton's efforts to address global ailments as pompous and thin. Seemingly attracting billions of tycoon dollars in commitments to better the planet seemed to erase that PR cloud within a week or so, spawning a news cycle that repeatedly placed Clinton in the same sentences as truly significant philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Branson, meanwhile, gained on multiple fronts — financial and, more critical for his bottom line, political. Branson's conglomerate faces a January decision by the Department of Transportation over whether he'll be allowed to launch an SFO-based Virgin America airline. By creating a domestic version of his international airline, Branson could rip U.S. legacy carriers to bits and further fatten his global empire.

But there's a federal roadblock to Branson's world-domination scenario: He's been accused of gaming the federal regulations that keep foreigners from owning more than a quarter of a U.S.-based airline. Among the questions regulators are scheduled to consider is whether Branson's ample loans to his American enterprise count alongside his equity and other investments.

It's this kind of deliberative process that political grease was invented to ease.

And for all the things it's not — environmentally friendly, economically efficient, socially beneficial — ethanol does have a fabulous upside for someone in a position like Branson's: Ethanol is pork.

On the federal level, subsidies for the corn-based gasoline additive are a Bush-supported vote-ensuring program targeting farm states. In this spirit, Democratic and Republican politicians have thrown mountains of money at the ethanol business. The fuel has benefited from a 52-cent-per-gallon tax credit at the pump, additional tax credits to its producers, and price supports to corn farmers whose end product goes into ethanol. Last year Bush successfully urged Congress to pass an energy bill that called for doubling the amount of ethanol America uses to 7.5 billion barrels yearly. Last week Bush floated the idea of even more ethanol subsidies at a fundraising breakfast. Also last week, Dick Lugar, a Republican Senator from Indiana, announced legislation to throw even more federal subsidies at ethanol and, additionally, to require the Secretary of Energy to study crisscrossing the continent with special ethanol pipelines to increase the "environmental security of the United States," as Lugar put it.

While pork-loving politicians tout the environmental possibilities of ethanol, scientists debunk them.

Tad Patzek, a professor in UC Berkeley's geoengineering program, has published studies showing that when one accounts for the petroleum used to produce fertilizers, corn seed, transportation, waste-water disposal, and other farming, refining, and delivery tasks, it takes six times as much energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than that gallon creates when it burns in your pistons. And all that excess energy consumption exacerbates, rather than reduces, global warming and U.S. energy dependence.

Branson's plan would only make matters worse.

Already, his U.K. company, Virgin Fuels, has invested $400 million in a corn distillery just south of Fresno, the stated first step in a strategy of dropping ethanol plants throughout California, close to the pumps where the fuel is used, rather than the common approach of building distilleries near cornfields, then shipping the finished fuel product cross-country. In other words, instead of driving fuel tankers around America's freeways, Branson's plan will direct convoys of grain trucks, whose cargo will weigh much more than the refined end product, causing the vehicles to consume much more fuel. All in the name of saving Mother Earth.

This wouldn't be the first time Bill Clinton has exaggerated about financial commitments backing a favored cause. Eleven years ago, when President Clinton was keen to defend his administration's sole successful major policy objective, the North American Free Trade Agreement, his office issued a press release announcing billions of dollars of supposed foreign investment in Mexico, heralding a seeming end to that country's 1995 post-NAFTA financial collapse. A quick series of phone calls by a colleague of mine at Dow Jones revealed a list of mere suggestions and ideas for possible investment, rather than true commitments to spend money.

Unlike Wallace's questioning on Fox, those phone calls weren't placed in order to serve the ideological disposition of the publication's readership. Dow Jones' customers included plenty of pro-NAFTA partisans.

Most reporters at reputable newspapers likewise don't filter their story choices through the lens of their most ideologically hacked-off readers. They know intuitively that the trickle-up blog revolution isn't poised to transform the news business, and they continue to pursue stories based on their merits.

But Fox News is built on a self-conscious effort to appeal to the most hopped-up among news consumers — meaning the sort who love to read and post tidbits confirming, reconfirming, or objectionably disavowing the truths they've known all along. Trapped in this box, Chris Wallace failed to unearth a trove of Bill Clinton disingenuousness about Branson's anti-global warming ruse.

Fox News missed a chance to throw viewers a delicious chunk of partisan red meat.

How's that for interesting news?

About The Author

Matt Smith


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