How Obama's Landmark Environmental Achievement Was Eclipsed by the Scandal du Jour

Influential policy shouldn't be trumped by the political brouhaha surrounding a single soldier. Now try telling that to the media.

President Barack Obama walks with the parents of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Jani Bergdahl (L) and Bob Bergdahl (R) back to the Oval Office after making a statement regarding the release of Sgt. Bergdahl from captivity. (National Journal)

When President Obama announced he'd be using his executive authority to cut carbon emissions from the nation's coal-fired power plants last week, it was hailed as the strongest action ever taken by an American president to tackle climate change. And, while the new regulations are a far cry from everything Obama would like to accomplish environmentally, the stakes are tremendous. Every American will be affected — whether through jobs or energy costs or cleaner air —  and hundreds of coal-fired power plants are expected to close.

You'd think that that story, with such broad impacts on possible job growth and energy costs (to say nothing of implications for upcoming political elections) might dominate the news cycles, at least for the week. You'd be wrong.

A few days earlier, something else happened: The president announced he'd cut a deal to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held for about five years by the Taliban. Obama held a rare Saturday press conference with Bergdahl's family in the Rose Garden. And then ... the Internet exploded.

Everyone had an opinion and exclamation points abounded. Was Bergdahl a deserter? Some said yes! Others no! Still others said it shouldn't matter! Did the president give Congress adequate notice before releasing five Guantanamo Bay terrorists in exchange for Bergdahl? Did he break the law? And if the president did break the law in releasing those men from Guantanamo without first being cleared by Congress, was the law even constitutional? Also, what was up with Bergdahl's dad's beard? Ron Fournier managed to stand out in the crowd simply by not having a strong opinion on the matter, noting we knew next to nothing at the time.

Some of the Bergdahl hype may be specific to the blogosphere. A search of major newspapers on LexisNexis found 558 different stories mentioning "Bowe Bergdahl" in the past week, compared with 734 for "power plants" and 477 for "EPA." But a search of news on Google, to my mind a better indication of what America is actually reading, reveals that on Wednesday of last week, Bowe Bergdahl was mentioned 10 times for every reference to power plants.

A search of social-media marketing firm Topsy found similar trends on Twitter.

TVEyes Media Monitoring Suite, a database of television markets, yielded similarly Bergdahl-heavy results. The term "Bowe Bergdahl," searched for in the New York television market, the biggest in the country, turned up a total of 439 times in the past week. By contrast, "power plants" showed up just 145 times in the same time period, and "EPA" just 93 times.

What's more, while it is almost certain anything that turns up with "Bowe Bergdahl" is about the much-discussed soldier, the same cannot be said for any story mentioning "power plants" or "EPA." Those searches are turning up all sorts of stories that have nothing to do with Obama's new coal-fired power-plant regulations; the coverage is even more skewed than we're seeing here.

So why did Obama make the Bergdahl announcement just ahead of the big power-plant news? Is there a chance that the White House wanted to bury the story? That they actually thought their regulations would be unpopular and wanted to distract the public with a proverbial shiny ball? Unlikely, especially as the regulations poll extremely well.

What's more likely: The White House simply failed to comprehend the extent of the controversy surrounding Bergdahl, and, in trying to capitalize on it politically with a Rose Garden press conference, bungled both the unveiling of the Bergdahl operation and the rollout of what's expected to be one of Obama's legacy achievements.

The only trouble with that interpretation is it assumes that had the Bergdahl scandal not broken, there would have been more coverage of Obama's landmark environmental regulations. As someone who's covered environmental issues for years and seen just how anemic the resulting traffic is, I'd wager that's not the case. More likely, the press corps would have been distracted by something else.

The week before, for instance, allegations surfaced that the Veterans Affairs Department's shoddy scheduling practices were putting the lives of veterans and the fate of medical facilities around the country in danger. Now that's the kind of scandal the media can get behind.