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Hack WatchNewsletter | February 23, 2024

On Larry And Ledes

Climate and EnvironmentLarry SummersMedia Accountability
On Larry And Ledes

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.

Larry Summers’ latest departure raises questions new and old. And we wish Politico had buried this lede, preferably at least six feet deep.

Third Time’s The Charm?

By: Dylan Gyauch-Lewis

As we pointed out earlier this week, our good pal Larry Summers suddenly jumped ship earlier this month from Block (formerly Square), Jack Dorsey’s payment processing company. The move came as a surprise, with Summers abandoning a board seat he’s held since 2011 well before the term was up. 

Funnily enough, just a week later news broke that CashApp, the crown jewel of Block’s portfolio, was under investigation by the Feds for being a haven for criminal activity. What a weird coincidence, right? 

Even weirder is that Summers really can’t claim ignorance or insist he was at odds over Block’s sketchy behavior. A report from Hindenburg Research, a firm invested in shorting Block, included serious allegations (with evidence) that Block was up to no good. The allegations ranged from fraudulent fake accounts to sex-trafficking. But Summers stayed on the board for another eleven months. Plus Block insisted that the departure did not represent any disagreement on the firm’s conduct or policies. So Summers was fine with working at a business accused of terrible things, but just vanishes mere days before it faced a true investigation.

It’s especially odd given it follows two other eerily similar situations in the past few years. First, back in 2018, Summers abruptly departed fintech company LendingClub just a month before the Federal Trade Commission charged the firm with scamming customers via hidden fees. And, at some point in the fall of 2022, Summers quietly slinked away from his role at Digital Coin Group. When contacted by Protos about this, Summers scrubbed any mention of his time at DCG. DCG, coincidentally, has since then been wracked by scandal, facing investigations from the New York Attorney General, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Justice. Those four (FOUR!) probes, plus the (expect to get off scott) free space, might be bingo. Hopefully the prize is worth it.

These stories should be big news. This is a guy whose zeitgeist is ever present in economic discourse. He’s a prominent figure at Harvard who advises political leaders. This isn’t the first time we’ve called on the media to actually engage with Summers’ myriad conflicts of interest. I don’t anticipate it being the last. 

Look, maybe all three of these departures are coincidence. Maybe Summers’ spidey sense is just really good at getting him out right before it hits the fan. But what’s the over-under on suspiciously leaving a business right before the feds swoop in? Like one? Maybe two. The point is, Summers is definitely hitting the over at this point. Given just how many connections he has to a ton of smaller, less known companies, it’s entirely plausible that these three are just the ones we know about. With Larry’s selective self-disclosure, it’s tough to tell. 

But it doesn’t even matter whether the sly skedaddling is coincidence or not. As I’ve laid out before, Summers enables these companies’ behavior simply by virtue of his presence. Even if he was totally innocent of any active involvement in any impropriety, he gave these companies the legitimacy they needed to (allegedly) swindle their customers. Plus, those connections only make his departures more suspicious. Who’s more likely than someone who knows people all over the federal government to get a tip and make a timely getaway? Maybe there’s nothing there, but it certainly warrants news outlets doing some real digging.

I get that the media loves him as a quote-generator, but how many more cinder blocks will it take to break the camel’s back?

How To Flub The “Costs of Climate Change For Californians” Story

By: Hannah Story Brown

Is there a term for the destructive irresistibility of a punchy lede? As a writer, I understand the lure, but not when it comes at the cost of clarity. Especially when we’re not talking about literature but journalism, and climate journalism at that—the most important beat around. 

I’m thinking about a recent Politico piece on rising utility rates in California, though it’s far from the only article to fall headlong into the pool of its own reflection. First we get the headline, blatantly causal: “Democrats pushed climate action. Then utility bills skyrocketed”; then the lede, devastatingly tidy: “California Democrats proudly authored nation-leading clean energy goals that forced the automobile industry to go electric and shaped global climate policy. Then the bill came due.” Whoops! Time to throw in the towel on the existential challenge of our time, I guess. 

We need to talk about how this kind of framing is uniquely irresponsible in the context of climate change. We’ve got a vacuum of political leadership invested in steering the public discourse towards an understanding of the inevitable volatility of future decades, what we have to start adjusting to, and the changes we can make to avoid the worst of that volatility. A media with any sense of civic responsibility would aim to help fill that void. Alas, too many find a smug “gotcha!” style of journalism to be more comfortable. We desperately need the mainstream media to learn how to confront the complex challenges of decarbonization without trivializing the urgency of fighting climate change, even when the policy landscape reveals its fault lines and fractures. 

A full 18 paragraphs deep into the article, you’ll find the admission that “The biggest driver of California utility bills stems from adapting to climate change, not preventing it. Wildfires are becoming more common as weather patterns become more extreme, and aging utility equipment has sparked some of the worst blazes in the state. Utilities now are charging their customers billions to bury and upgrade lines to reduce the risk of sparking more fires.” 

And then, a couple paragraphs later, another equally telling admission: “Renewable power itself, which utilities are required to procure under state law, is already costing less than fossil fuel-based alternatives for many customers of California’s investor-owned utilities, according to a 2022 CPUC analysis.”

In other words, it isn’t the “nation-leading clean energy goals” that “California Democrats proudly authored” causing the bulk of California utility bill hikes after all. Much of the rise in prices comes from adapting to climatic changes that are already here. Don’t you think Californians (and, well, the rest of us) deserve to know this, even if they’re busy and only read 17 paragraphs of the story?

According to California state Senator Steven Bradford, who’s quoted later on in the article, “the average Californians lawmakers are hearing from don’t know all that, and they’re frustrated.” And they should be! I understand that frustration. The straw which breaks the camel’s back for me is that this kind of journalism only compounds the frustration. It doesn’t help Californians understand the reality of how their home state is changing around them, and it doesn’t catalyze any sort of dialogue about adapting to climate change, mitigating climate change, or the all-important questions of what we should ask of each other. 

One of the greatest obstacles to responding to the climate crisis is the false assumption that environmentalism is an expensive interest of the rich paid for by the rest of us. This article’s framing played into that dangerously false stereotype. When it comes to climate change, there is simply no room for open-and-shut headlines that fuel disengagement precisely by provoking knee-jerk reactions and assumptions in readers. 

Maybe, if the stakes were a billion times lower, if we didn’t have this ticking clock, it would be enough to just write a pithy lede. 

For folks looking for some top-notch reporting on climate change and utility rate hikes, look no further than this story from Grist out the same day: “8 states move to ban utilities from using customer money for lobbying.” (Yes, there are lots of ways that utilities use our money that we should be mad about! Like lobbying against state-level climate policy, and paying dues to climate-denialist trade associations, and a whole slate of costly greenwashing schemes like certified gas, “renewable” natural gas, and hydrogen blending!)
As Grist reports, “in California, the state’s Public Advocates Office found last year that the gas utility SoCalGas had charged ratepayers a total of $29.1 million between 2019 and 2023 to fund lobbying efforts against building electrification policies, which reduce the use of oil- and gas-powered appliances in buildings.” Now that’s a scandalous use of taxpayer dollars.

Climate and EnvironmentLarry SummersMedia Accountability

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