Trump Wants to Make Energy Production Great Again — Even As It Sets New Records

Donald Trump lays out his energy agenda at conference in Bismarck, N.D.

Donald Trump lays out his energy agenda at conference in Bismarck, N.D. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP hide caption

toggle caption Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Donald Trump marched through the Republican presidential primary field this year on the strength of a focused message: America used to be great; it isn’t anymore; and that’s mostly the fault of the Obama Administration.

On Thursday, Trump applied that same thesis to American energy production. “America’s incredible energy potential remains untapped,” he told a North Dakota audience in what was billed as a major policy address. “It’s totally self-inflicted. It’s a wound, and it’s a wound we have to heal.”

The problem with Trump’s analysis: it comes at a point when, judged solely on production numbers alone, American energy production is, well, pretty great.

Every year since 2012, the United States has produced more oil and natural gas than any other country. And it’s not just fossil fuels that are on a roll: the amount of electricity generated by wind and solar energy has also soared in the past decade.

The domestic oil and gas boom has been powered by hydraulic fracturing, a controversial drilling technique that uses water, chemicals, and sand to blast oil and natural gas out of shale rock deep below the ground.

While the oil and gas industry has seen a steep decline lately — which has led to industry-wide layoffs and retrenchment — it’s largely a victim of its own success. A glut of domestic oil and gas has caused prices to drop, leading to a slow-down in production.

Still, Trump said American energy production can do much better. He promised to scale back federal regulations, lease more federal land for drilling, and revive the struggling coal industry. “We are going to turn everything around,” he told the Bismarck crowd. “We are going to make it right.”

Here’s what Trump had to say about four key portions of the energy landscape.

Frack, baby, frack

Fracking is largely regulated on the state level, but the Obama Administration has attempted to tighten rules for the procedure when it occurs on federal lands.

Trump promised to scale back energy regulation on all fronts. “Any future regulation will go through a simple test,” he said. “Is this regulation good for the American worker? If it doesn’t pass this test, the rule will not be approved.”

He warned that Hillary Clinton, by contrast, would “escalate the war against the American worker like never before, and against American energy. And she’ll unleash the EPA to control every aspect of our lives, and every aspect of energy.”

In a press conference before the speech, Trump said Clinton would “ban fracking.” That’s not true – in fact, her Democratic opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has run ads against Clinton blasting her for supporting the drilling technique.

Like Obama, Clinton has embraced natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that, while flawed compared to wind and solar energy, is cleaner to burn than sources like coal. During Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, the State Department tried to drum up support for American drilling technology overseas.

As a presidential candidate, she’s taken a much more cautious approach, calling for increased regulation of fracking. During a debate this spring, Clinton said she would only support the technique when local governments approve; when the drilling isn’t leaking methane; and when companies disclose the chemicals they are using to frack.

“So, by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place,” said Clinton.

Politifact has the full details on Clinton’s history with fracking.

Trump blamed the Obama Administration for a drop in drilling rates. It’s true that drilling has fallen off lately and there have been widespread layoffs in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation, and other regions where fracking had taken off over the past decade.

But again, that recent downturn is due largely to supply and demand, not regulation. As the price of oil and natural gas has plummeted, energy companies have slowed production.

Reviving the coal industry

Donald Trump is vowing to save the coal industry. He donned a miner's hat during a recent West Virginia rally.

Donald Trump is vowing to save the coal industry. He donned a miner’s hat during a recent West Virginia rally. Steve Helber/AP hide caption

toggle caption Steve Helber/AP

Trump bills himself as a savior of the coal industry. “We’re going to save the coal industry, believe me, we’re going to save it,” he said.

Coal production has dropped precipitously in recent years. Major coal companies are declaring bankruptcy.

For years, Republicans have blamed the industry’s problems on what they call the Obama Administration’s “war on coal.” There’s no question the White House has been tough on coal. A central part of the country’s plan for the Paris Climate Accords – more on those later – involves shifting energy production away from coal-fired power plants, and toward natural gas plants and renewable energy. The EPA has made it harder and harder to build new coal-fired plants.

But coal’s main enemy, from an economic standpoint, has been natural gas. It’s cheaper for energy companies to get out of the ground, it’s cheaper to transport, and it makes it much easier to run a power plant. As NPR’s Jeff Brady reported earlier this year:

While a coal plant pretty much has to run all the time, a gas plant can be shut down and fired back up more easily to meet regional electricity demands, according to Dave Meehan, head of Sunbury Generation, which owns the site where the new plant is being built.

It’s easier on the environment, too. There’s no coal ash to deal with, it uses less than five percent of the water for cooling than the coal plant used, and it emits less pollution. Here’s the real kicker: The new gas plant will produce more than twice as much electricity as the old coal plant — enough to power about a million homes.

“Gas is taking more and more market share from coal, and that’s a reality that is here to stay,” Meehan says.

So it would be very hard for Trump to simultaneously increase oil and gas drilling and revive the coal industry.

‘Cancel’ Paris climate accords

Trump only made tangential reference to climate change during his speech, calling Obama’s climate regulations “draconian,” and vowing to “cancel” the major climate change agreement that the United States and other countries signed onto in Paris last year.

Like many other Republican presidential candidates this year, Trump has previously dismissed human-induced climate change as a hoax. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” he tweeted in 2012.

Trump blasted the United Nations Paris agreement, where the U.S. and other countries vowed to gradually lower carbon dioxide emissions to try and limit the global warming that’s already underway. The U.S. would try to accomplish this by shifting power generation away from coal, and toward renewable energy like wind and solar power, as well as natural gas.

“This agreement gives foreign bureaucrats control over …our energy, and how much we use, right here in America,” Trump said Thursday. “So, foreign bureaucrats are going to be controlling what we’re using and what we’re doing on our land and in our country. No way.”

Not exactly. It’s up to American bureaucrats to enforce the agreement within the United States, though that’s likely not going to make Trump and other opponents feel much better. The main thrust of the U.S. Paris plan is an EPA rule called the Clean Power Plan, which would lower the power sector’s carbon footprint by more than 30 percent.

That plan is currently in limbo, though – the United States Supreme Court has blocked its implementation until judges have a chance to rule on whether or not the EPA has the power to impose such a major change. That means a President Trump could have a chance to scuttle the rule before states begin to implement it.

Lukewarm on wind and solar

At a press conference before his speech, Trump said he supports “all sorts of energy,” including wind and solar panel. But he wasn’t exactly heaping praise on the two alternative energy sources.

“The problem with solar is it’s very expensive, wind is very expensive,” he said.

“There are some places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles. You shoot an eagle, you kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles…so wind is — it’s a problem.”

“But despite that,” Trump added, “I am into all types of energy.”

There’s no question turbines can be dangerous for birds, including eagles. So have industrial-scale solar farms. But the American Wind Energy Association calls turbine-linked eagle deaths “exceedingly rare.”

Wind power has been growing at a rapid rate in recent years, as NPR has reported.

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Hillary Clinton Supporters May Be Hiding In Plain View

A roller derby scrimmage in Albuquerque, N.M. Three of the women participating — Lauren Winkler, Leigh Featherstone and Holly Chamberlin — have kept their support of Hillary Clinton quiet.

A roller derby scrimmage in Albuquerque, N.M. Three of the women participating — Lauren Winkler, Leigh Featherstone and Holly Chamberlin — have kept their support of Hillary Clinton quiet. Tamara Keith/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Tamara Keith/NPR

If you’ve been following the Democratic presidential contest, you might be wondering how it is possible that Bernie Sanders seems to have all the energy and enthusiasm and, yet, Hillary Clinton is way ahead in the race to the nomination.

A listener named Gerard Allen wrote into the NPR Politics Podcast with an observation:

“Everyday, I drive about half the distance of the NJ Turnpike: an 80 minute commute. On any given day, I see at least two dozen ‘Bernie 2016’ bumper stickers on cars. However, I almost never see a ‘Ready for Hillary’ sticker,” he wrote.

Then a question: “Does the bumper sticker disparity have something to do with fundraising, the kinds of people that support Bernie (i.e. that crowd is more inclined to bumper stickers to begin with), or is it that it’s unfashionable to proclaim your love of Hillary Clinton? If so, why?”

Lauren Winkler emailed us to offer an answer.

“I get this feeling that many Hillary supporters (at least the younger ones, like me) are just biding their time to publicly display their support once she has the party’s nomination,” wrote Winkler.

“It’s so visceral. The reaction against her,” she said when we met up with her in Albuquerque, N.M., where she lives.

Publicly showing support for Hillary Clinton just isn’t worth the aggravation for Winkler and her friends Leigh Featherstone and Holly Chamberlin.

Lauren Winkler, Leigh Featherstone and Holly Chamberlin, left to right, all supporters of Hillary Clinton, at a roller derby scrimmage in Albuquerque, N.M.

Lauren Winkler, Leigh Featherstone and Holly Chamberlin, left to right, all supporters of Hillary Clinton, at a roller derby scrimmage in Albuquerque, N.M. Tamara Keith/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Tamara Keith/NPR

They do roller derby together and were among about dozen women blocking, skating and slamming into each other — and the pavement — during a recent scrimmage in Albuquerque.

Winkler, Featherstone and Chamberlin are in their late 20s and early 30s — a lawyer, a non-profit data manager and an engineer. They all want Hillary Clinton to be president, but you won’t see it on their car bumpers or dominating their Facebook feeds.

“I don’t have the time and energy and mental toughness to have the whole conversation,” Chamberlin said.

Featherstone supported Clinton in 2008, too, and has had many conversations that start out as a debate over issues. “And then it would turn into, ‘Be honest. It’s just because she’s a woman, isn’t it.’ Ummm. You could have led with that,” she said.

“It just feels like I am going to have to hear every reason why I am wrong,” says Featherstone. “Over and over and over. And I kind of just want to skip past this part.”

For Winkler, it’s like all those times she’s felt second-guessed because of her gender.

“It feels like it’s because I’m a woman who can’t properly formulate her own political views, she said.

It took these friends a while to admit to each other that they support Clinton. When they finally did, there was sort of a bond in sharing an unpopular opinion.

“And I’ve had many conversations with these ladies about how we feel about Hillary and how frustrating it can be feeling that way and not being able to express it, because of the reaction you get from Bernie supporters and just anyone who doesn’t like her,” Winkler said.

With all the visible support for Clinton’s primary opponent — the rallies, the bumper stickers, all the social media — you could easily get the impression that Clinton is losing badly. But she’s not. She’s gotten nearly 13 million votes, won more states and has a nearly insurmountable lead in both pledged delegates and superdelegates.

Chamberlin said she sometimes feels like a bad Clinton supporter for not speaking up:

“So many people, when Hillary is winning voting contests, are like ‘it must be rigged. I don’t know anyone who supports Hillary, not one single person. So there must be something going on. It must be wrong. They must be cheating.’ Something like that. And sometimes I’m like, hey, I support Hillary Clinton, so you know one person. But mostly, I just don’t say anything.”

They each have their reasons for supporting Clinton, whether it’s her pragmatism, her commitment to the Affordable Care Act or her experience and understanding of America’s role in the world. Winkler and Featherstone have even given her campaign a little money. But until this interview, they hadn’t been vocal about it.

“We talked about, like are we really ready to go public,” Featherstone said.

Chamberlin was even reluctant to give her full name.

“Is my voice shaking? It will be fine,” she said psyching herself up. “Yes. I’m ready. I’m ready. I’ll do it Hillary Clinton.”

The irony isn’t lost on any of them.

“We were totally fine with running around and hitting each other for 4 hours in the sun on a Saturday,” Featherstone said. “But when it comes to — Are we going to share an article on Facebook? — we have a lot more hesitation about that.”

It’s not even clear they’ll share this piece.

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Why Are The Trees Green?

Investigating why trees are green led to profound discoveries about healthy ecosystems.

Hero Images/Getty Images

Consider the logical beauty of the blood test.

Its underlying theory is simple: The cocktail of molecules which is your blood is actually the mirror of active processes throughout the body in which chemicals — fats, proteins, sugars, enzymes, hormones, etc. — push and pull against each other.

Disease is what happens when, perhaps as a result of the admission of a germ from the outside or as a result of some unfortunate growth process, the amount of one molecule or another, or the ratio of different substances to each other, gets out of whack.

The healthy person, so the theory goes, is the person whose blood chemistry exhibits just the right distribution of values; a healthy person, in fact, is one whose body chemistry actively maintains those values in the face of the constant changes going on both inside the body and in the environment around us.

Sean B. Carroll’s new book The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters is a passionate telling of the story of the precarious and hard-fought balance that is the very precondition of health — both at the level of individual organisms and at the level of the ecosystem, that is, the environmentally located community of organisms. The book is informative, well-written and persuasive.

Why are trees green? It was this simple question, posed by Harvard ecologist Fred Smith in the late ’50s, that led Smith and his student Robert Paine, and others, to startling and profound discoveries about the kinds of delicate balance and styles of regulation characteristic of healthy ecosystems.

What Smith was asking, really, was this: Why haven’t herbivores eaten all the leaves leaving the trees barren? After all, there’s so much good food, why don’t they eat it up?

The answer turns out to be astonishingly simple: The number of herbivores, and so the amount that they can eat, is governed (negatively regulated) by the number of their predators.

What made this simple thought hard to arrive at was the tendency to think of food chains as linear. Plants convert light to energy. Insects eat the plants. Birds eat the insects, and so on. But in fact, it is the existence of what Paine came to call “keystone predators” at the top of the food chain that allow for the flourishing of diversity and rich vitality lower down. Food chains exhibit feedback. The disappearance of sea otters led to barren ocean floors. Why? Because without the sea otters there was nothing to stop the sea urchins from eating all the kelp.

Similarly, if you remove starfish from the tidal pool areas, you can end up greatly diminishing the diversity of species flourishing in these intertidal regions. Why? Because with no starfish to keep their numbers in check, the mussels will eat up all the barnacles, algae, limpets and chiton. Who would have thought it? Want more kelp? Introduce sea otters. Want greater biodiversity in your tide pool? Be kind to starfish. This is the phenomenon that Paine named trophic cascade.

Serengeti Rules is an optimistic book. It parades the achievements of molecular biology such as, for example, the eradication of smallpox. Stopping smallpox, which as recently as 50 years ago was killing 2 million people a year, wasn’t just a matter of developing a vaccine (although that was a big deal). It required finding a way to get the vaccine to everyone, everywhere. Or, as it turned out, it required coming to understand that you don’t need to get it to everyone everywhere; you need, rather, to use the vaccine to isolate existing flare ups so that, in effect, you starve the disease to death. This public health victory was a victory not only of science, but also of politics and, more humbly, of good management. The case of smallpox shows that we can respond to existential threats at the level of our ecology.

But the book’s more fundamental point is to issue a warning. The earth’s ecosystems are terribly out of whack in a way that spells, as with imbalance and disproportion in a blood panel, disease and destruction. The lab analysis is back, as it were, and the levels are way outside the normal range. Intervention is required — and right away.

Carroll quotes these words approvingly from a recent encyclical of Pope Francis:

“Frequently, when certain species are exploited commercially, little attention is paid to studying their reproductive patterns in order to prevent their depletion and the subsequent imbalance of the ecosystem…Caring for ecosystems requires far-sightedness…Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration…”

In a way, though, Carroll’s point is that the consequences, the values, of destroyed or seriously harmed species, are calculable. For example, when rinderpest levels dropped in the Serengeti in the early 1960s, it led to an explosion of wildebeest and buffalo populations that were vulnerable to the virus. This, in turn, led not only to a rise in predator populations (lions, hyenas) but also to less grass and, so, to fewer fires and thus to more trees and, so, also, to more giraffes. The microscopic rinderpest virus, a pathogen, functions as a keystone species producing an entirely calculable cascade of effects across the system (as we know, according to Carroll, thanks to the research of Oxford trained Tony Sinclair).

Pope Francis (quoted by Carroll) writes:

“[W]e need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair…[W]e can see signs that things are now reaching the breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation.”

What is needed, then, is action. Because we can understand the rules and regulations at work producing degradation, we can figure out, case by case, how to intervene to fix the problem. The question, as was the case with smallpox back in the 1960s and 1970s, is: Do we have the will to do so?

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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President Obama Arrives In Hiroshima, The First Sitting Commander-In-Chief To Visit

President Barack Obama greets members of the U.S. and Japanese military as he arrives to speak at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Iwakuni, Japan.

President Barack Obama greets members of the U.S. and Japanese military as he arrives to speak at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Iwakuni, Japan. Carolyn Kaster/AP hide caption

toggle caption Carolyn Kaster/AP

President Obama became the first sitting commander-in-chief to visit Hiroshima, Japan, the city where the United States in 1945 dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare, killing an estimated 140,000. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Within weeks, Japan surrendered, ending the war in the Pacific Theater.

“This is an opportunity to honor all who were lost during World War II,” Obama said, in brief comments at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, before he made the short drive to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

In a visit heavy on symbolism, the street in front of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was lined with Japanese and American flags, flying side by side. Thousands of Japanese crowded in front of the entrance to the memorial, awaiting the president and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s arrival.

The decision to visit Hiroshima, announced weeks ago, reopened debates on the decision to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II. President Obama has said he will not offer an apology on this visit, and Japan has said it does not seek one. Instead, leaders of both nations have said they intend to use the visit as a chance to heal the wounds of the past and reaffirm a commitment to nuclear disarmament.

“Any more nuclear weapons is an inherently more dangerous world, more dangerous region,” says Alexis Dudden, a history professor and Japan specialist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s Obama’s ‘reality tour.’ It’s an acknowledgement at the highest level that the United States bombed a city, something that never happened before. The way to move all history forward is to acknowledge the truth of what has happened.”

Neighbors Korea and China, where many feel Japan hasn’t properly atoned for its wartime atrocities, have been critical of the president’s trip. China criticized Obama’s decision, calling it another opportunity for Japan to play victim rather than aggressor. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were killed in the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria; Korea was occupied by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945, and many of its women forced into sexual slavery, servicing the Japanese army at “comfort stations” near battlefields.

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Pittsburgh Stops Tampa Bay In Game 7, Will Face San Jose For Stanley Cup

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray makes a kick save Thursday against Brian Boyle of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray makes a kick save Thursday against Brian Boyle of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Pittsburgh. Matt Kincaid/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

Sharks vs. penguins is not typically an even matchup in the wild. Then again, the feathery penguins don’t have Sidney Crosby.

The Pittsburgh Penguins star says his team used “desperation level” effort in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, claiming a 2-1 win and a matchup against the San Jose Sharks for the championship.

Bryan Rust scored a pair of second-period goals and Matt Murray stopped 16 shots to lift the Penguins over the Lightning and send the franchise to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009.

Pittsburgh will host Western Conference champion San Jose in Game 1 of the final at 8 p.m. ET Monday night, with the game broadcast on NBC.

Jonathan Drouin scored his fifth goal of the playoffs for the Lightning and Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves, but it wasn’t enough to send Tampa Bay back to the Cup Final for a second straight year. Captain Steven Stamkos had two shots in his return from a two-month layoff while dealing with a blood clot.

Pittsburgh had dropped five straight Game 7s at home, including a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in 2011 in a series in which both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed due to injury. That loss had become symbolic of the franchise’s postseason shortcomings following that gritty run to the Cup in 2009 that culminated with a Game 7 win in Detroit that was supposed to be the launching pad of a dynasty.

Seven long years later, with an entirely new cast around mainstays Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins are finally heading back.

Joel Ward of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring his second goal Wednesday in San Jose against Brian Elliott and the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Finals.

Joel Ward of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring his second goal Wednesday in San Jose against Brian Elliott and the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Finals. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

They’ll face a San Jose team that wrapped up the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday with 5-2 win over St. Louis. It’s the 25-year-old franchise’s first Stanley Cup Finals, and comes a year after the team missed the playoffs entirely.

Captain Joe Pavelski scored an early goal, Joel Ward added two of his own, Logan Couture had an empty-netter and Joonas Donskoi also scored for the Sharks, while Martin Jones made 24 saves.

With the loss, the Blues’ postseason woes continue as the franchise still seeks its first championship and first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1970. Coach Ken Hitchcock’s second goalie change of the series did not work as Brian Elliott allowed four goals on 26 shots in his return to the net.

Vladimir Tarasenko, a 40-goal scorer in the regular season, got his first points of the series when he scored twice in the third period but it was too late for the Blues.

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New England, Back Away From The Seal Pups

A young harbor seal lounges on top of seaweed near Cundy's Harbor, Maine, in 2000. As pupping season and Memorial Day weekend collide, New Englanders are being asked to stay away from seals.

A young harbor seal lounges on top of seaweed near Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, in 2000. As pupping season and Memorial Day weekend collide, New Englanders are being asked to stay away from seals. Pat Wellenbach/AP hide caption

toggle caption Pat Wellenbach/AP

Attention, New Englanders: You may see a seal pup on the beach this weekend, and you may be tempted to take a selfie with it. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is asking that you please resist that urge.

There will be more babies about because it’s pupping season in the region, but it’s not good for you or the seal to get too close, says the Greater Atlantic Region of the NOAA Fisheries. You might get bitten, a statement from the group said on Thursday, and if the mom sees you cozying up to her pup, she might not come back for it.

“It might only take a few seconds for you to snap the photo, but the mother may abandon her pup if she feels threatened,” the group said. “For the seal pup, the consequences can be devastating.”

NOAA rescued seven endangered Hawaiian monk seal pups that had been abandoned or malnourished last year, as The Associated Press reported. The pups have been rehabilitated and were released back to the wild this spring.

The agency recommends staying at least 150 feet away from seals — that’s farther than a selfie stick, people.

We’ll note that selfies taken by seals themselves are allowed under certain circumstances. For example, Milo here is a pro:

Aquarium of the Pacific YouTube

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Manipulative Editing Reflects Poorly On Couric And Her Gun Documentary

Katie Couric (right) and White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, speaking, participate in a panel discussion following a May 16 screening of Couric's documentary Under the Gun at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington.

Katie Couric (right) and White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, speaking, participate in a panel discussion following a May 16 screening of Couric’s documentary Under the Gun at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for EPIX hide caption

toggle caption Paul Morigi/Getty Images for EPIX

Katie Couric and the creator of a documentary on guns are apologizing — to a point — for switching around footage to make it falsely appear that members of a Virginia gun rights organization could not summon an answer to a key question on background checks.

An audiotaped recording taken by one of the participants shows otherwise — they spoke extemporaneously for several minutes.

“That was not a tough question,” Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens’ Defense League, told NPR. He said he observed the interview in person as it occurred. “That was not a question that our members would not know the answer to. It’s kind of like sins of omission.”

The documentary, Under the Gun, focuses on issues of gun violence and safety. In April 2015, Couric interviewed members of the league in Washington, D.C., for the film. One of her questions: “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?”

In the film, nine seconds of silence ensue as members of the gun rights group are shown looking away or at the floor.


In audio posted on the website Ammoland and shared with the Washington Free Beacon, Couric asks a slightly longer version of the question, even saying she knew what their answer would be. She is immediately met with responses.

“One, if you’re not in jail,” one man says, “you should still have your basic rights, and you should go buy a gun.”

“So if you’re a terrorist or a felon?” Couric prods.

“If you’re a felon, and you’ve done your time, you should have your rights.”

A second participant weighs in, as does a third.

No stunned silence. No nine seconds’ abeyance.

After Van Cleave attacked Couric and the documentary, its director and producer, Stephanie Soechtig, issued a statement citing the wide range of views presented in the documentary and apologizing. Sort of.

“My intention was to provide a pause for the viewer to have a moment to consider this important question before presenting the facts on Americans’ opinions on background checks. I never intended to make anyone look bad and I apologize if anyone felt that way.”

Couric simultaneously released this statement: “I support Stephanie’s statement and am very proud of this film.”

Asked how Couric reacted when she saw that portion of the film before its release, a spokesman for the project said, “Katie questioned the pause, but the director made the decision to use it to lead into the discussion of the hole in background checks.”

This manipulation — and that’s what it was — would not pass muster at NPR under its principles for fairness in handling interviews.

It should be noted that documentaries operate with a different ethos than straight news. Under the Gun has a take, strongly suggesting there is a quiet consensus in favor of background checks among gun owners, aside from gun rights advocacy groups. This is not deception on a grand scale, but this handling of the interviews with the Virginia gun owners group is clearly unfair and unwarranted. People deserve to recognize themselves in how they appear in interviews.

This wound was both self-inflicted and rhetorically unnecessary — the director simply could have cut away after Couric asked the question and returned to it later. (Which the movie does in fact do, posing much the same question to Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who supports gun ownership rights.)

To show the gun owners blank-faced for an extended time didn’t provide a pause for the viewer — it wiped away the notion these people had an answer to hear.

The deception reflects poorly on Couric, too. She conducted the interviews, serves as the movie’s executive producer and has promoted it extensively. She saw a polished cut of the documentary before its release. She apparently expressed doubt about the insertion of the pause but failed to get it removed from the film.

Regardless, those nine seconds — fleeting moments for the film — amount to a team loss on an unforced error.

Van Cleave, the head of the Virginia gun owners group, said he came away from the interview with a largely favorable impression of Couric. He said that her questions were tough but fair, and that she played the devil’s advocate but never attacked.

“Nothing in the interview made me think she would do what she did,” Van Cleave told NPR. “We’ve got to be able to trust the press.”

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