NBC's Meet the Press is introducing segments called "Meeting America," billed as an attempt to get out of the Beltway bubble by "taking to the streets of hometowns across the country to uncover the real consequences of political decision-making in Washington." It's a fine idea in theory, and a welcome change from what the Sunday chat show is usually offering. But their first installment (4/6/14), a look at the Keystone XL pipeline, was a flop.
The segment by Kevin Tibbles took viewers to Steele City, Nebraska, a small town that apparently could win big if Keystone is approved:
Four pipelines already converge on the outskirts and a fifth, the proposed Keystone XL, would bring Canadian crude south en route to the US refineries.
Tibbles finds locals who support the pipeline for much-need economic boost, then notes that "there is considerable opposition on the other side," but zeroes in on a lawyer trying to get a better compensation deal on behalf of Nebraska farmers. The impression viewers are left with is pretty clear: A small, struggling town might get a boost.
The real problem, though, was that Meet the Press decided to swing back to one of its very typical roundtables discussions to bounce around the Keystone question. The conversation started with conservative columnist Kathleen Parker:
Well, clearly people want the economy to grow, they want jobs to come through. I think if I were President Obama, I would adopt Steele City as the new American city. I would say, let's get that pipeline going, let's make sure we have everything in place to protect the environment as much as we possibly can and watch that little city blossom like a desert flower, wouldn't that be fun.
Host David Gregory gave that take a boost too–"There in Steele City where there's not a lot of people, but they certainly depend on this. There's an economic upside." Another guest, CEO/investor Steve Case, declared that "my sense is the president probably will approve it," adding that he hoped the country would also develop more renewable energy.
The other panelist, center-right Democrat Harold Ford, was enthusiastic:
GREGORY: I just think, Harold, you go outside of this fight in Washington, you do learn something from people who are saying you know, we may be concerned about the environment, but we've got a real potential upside here with the economy.
FORD: To put the environment in perspective, as you know, the State Department has conducted study after study after study, including one after the president claimed that if approving the Keystone Pipeline would exacerbate carbon pollution and he would be against it.
The most recent report from the president's own State Department suggests that this would not exacerbate the carbon footprint, No. 1. Two, the economics of this are clear. In that piece there, the only tension you really had was between farmers who thought they should be paid more, and they probably should be.
No one challenged the idea that Keystone would be an economic boon, to the country at large or the particular community that was profiled in the show. Most estimates, including from the State Department, see a small number of jobs being created due to Keystone in the short term; in the long-term, as few as a couple dozen full-time jobs could be created. So Ford is right that the "economics of this are clear"– but they don't really support his case.
Gregory did have an environmentalists' perspective represented; he read a brief statement from the National Resources Defense Council.
There's the environmental piece as well…and the National Resources Defense Council sent us this statement to make sure it was part of the debate. I'll put it on the screen.
"Keystone XL would significantly add to carbon pollution that's driving climate change, undermine the nation's climate leadership, and imperil the health and drinking water of millions of Americans."
So to discuss a critically important story about the environment and climate change, NBC balanced a conservative newspaper columnist, a business executive and a right-leaning Democrat who works for Morgan Stanley–with a statement from an environmental group read by the host.
Meet the Press is right that their format needs to be shaken up a bit. They should try a lot harder.