Balance is an important conceit of American journalism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, previously partisan newspapers edged toward respectability and larger profits by telling “both sides of the story” and that convention carried over into broadcast journalism. It’s a constraint that still chafes at working journalists with Something To Say.
“And Now a Word from Our Critics…” is the title of the final panel of the night at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Burlington. It’s in the third Emerald Ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center. I get in early on a hunch that the place is going to fill up.
Just after 5:30 moderator Christy George, a producer for an Oregon Public Broadcasting Station, calls us to order. She announces the time constraints and ground rules: “No personal attacks. No outbursts. No speechifying when it is your turn to ask a question.” I’m surprised that she doesn’t add “no spitting, biting, or scratching.”
George introduces the first speaker Marc Morano. He’s director of communications for the Senate’s Environment and Public Woks Committee and a former correspondent for Rush Limbaugh’s television program “and other advocacy news outlets on the right.” She says that Morano’s boss, Chairman James Inhofe, “has famously called climate change ‘a hoax.'” And, with that, “take it away Marc.”
Morano begins by reminding the audience of what Senator Inhofe actually said. He called “fears of catastrophic manmade global warming ‘a hoax’ and the alarmism, referring to the media. He did not call climate change ‘a hoax’… [T]he senator has also acknowledged global warming.” So there.
Then he works to frame the issue in a way that is certain to infuriate this audience. “I’m not here to try to convince anyone about the science… We’re here to talk about the media and the way they’ve treated us, the media labeling, the media’s objectivity, balance,” he says.
He was invited to speak to the SEJ because in July Senator Inhofe alleged in a long floor speech that something has gone wrong with how journalists have covered the issue of global warming. Morano gives some highlights from the last year’s worth of coverage:
* A correspondent for 60 Minutes called global warming skeptics the equivalent of Holocaust deniers.
* The environmental journal Grist called for Nuremburg style trials for climate skeptics.
* CNN’s Miles O’Brien said all the skeptics are in the payroll of oil interests.
* Tom Brokaw hosted a global warming two-hour special on the Discovery Channel so one-sided that the Bloomberg television writer called it “akin to a North Korean political rally.”
* On the Brokaw program, Michael Oppenheimer said that there are no skeptics that deserve to be listened to because, again, “they’re all bought and paid for by oil and gas interests.”
* Morano made much of the fact that Oppenheimer gets about $200,000 a year from the Environmental Defense Fund, “an environmental special interest.”
* When fellow panelist ABC reporter Bill Blakemore did a story about NASA scientist James Hansen’s allegations of Bush administration censorship, “he failed to tell ABC World News Tonight viewers that Hansen had endorsed John Kerry and received money from Kerry’s wife’s foundation.”
Morano then flips the bias card over. He asked us to imagine that skeptical climatologist Pat Michaels was the NASA scientist who alleged censorship (wait for it) by the Clinton administration. If Michaels “claimed that Bill Clinton had censored him but he had endorsed Bob Dole and got money from Bob Dole’s wife, do you think that [Blakemore] would have left out that ‘inconvenient fact?'” Morano asks.
He says that he isn’t trying to impugn the integrity of decent scientists. Rather, “I’m saying if you want to label, label fairly.”
DAN FAGIN — I’M SORRY, “THE ESTEEMED DAN FAGIN” — is introduced as a “former SEJ president, former Newsday reporter and currently a professor of journalism at NYU and associate director of the science health and reporting program.”
Fagin claims to speak for science. He insists the science on catastrophic global warming is firmly established and affects annoyance that anyone would question this. He insists, “These are facts. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but they are not entitled to their own facts.”
The distance of academia, Fagin says, allows him to speak more freely than he could as a reporter. He charges that Senator Inhofe lied over a fairly technical point of climate history. And he says that if reporters allow the wrong voices in the climate debate to be heard, “that is telling a different kind of lie.” And besides, the climate non-doomsdayers “represent an overwhelming minority.”
“Consensus [in science] is hard won. It’s hard won. It means something when it occurs,” Fagin insists. Journalists are obliged to bow down and worship that consensus.
As to the charges of bias, he says, “I agree that there is a bias but it is a fundamentally different bias than one that Senator Inhofe thinks exists.” It is a bias in favor of “fairness” and “conflict” (i.e., balance). Both journalists and academics, in Fagin’s view, advance their careers by “going against the grain” and basically making stuff up.
So why aren’t there ten times the number of climate skeptics and young journalists hyping their findings to the heavens, I wonder.
He has an answer for that too. The problem is that “we” journalists and academics “are reality constrained. We are constrained by the facts.” And making a case against climate alarmism on its merits is just “not possible in this case.”
Fagin compares Senator Inhofe to Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, and the leaders of the People’s Republic of China. They all embrace the “Big Lie” strategy of public relations, you see, and they’ll all fall down in the end.
The audience hoots and claps.
ANDREW REVKIN IS AN ENVIRONMENT REPORTER for the New York Times and so his words are surprising for their utter lack of condescension. He tells his colleagues “frankly, we’ve handed a lot of red meat to Senator Inhofe.”
Revkin says that one of the problems is the basic disagreement over what people mean when they speak of “global warming.” It can mean anything from the greenhouse effect to imminent climatological disaster. He tells the reporters that they should be very careful in their use of language, so that they don’t accidentally make absurdly far reaching claims.
To explain, he draws a bell curve on a large notepad and uses that curve to represent scientific debate. Every idea starts out as a big, sloppy curve, with people arguing violently on both sides. The curve narrows, or “spikes,” over time as more evidence comes in most people migrate in from the margins to the center.
Revkin says that in the global warming debate, there isn’t just one curve. Some things are far less contested than others, but there’s still an awful lot of debate. Rightly so. There’s much that we still don’t know about how the climate works.
Likewise, many so-called global warming skeptics agree on those issues where scientific opinion has spiked. Revkin points out that MIT’s Richard Lindzen agrees that manmade global warming is a real issue. And “even Pat Michaels” predicts that we’ll have about three degrees of warming over the next hundred years, which Revkin reminds us, “is well within the IPCC estimates.”
When new findings are offered, he says, the tendency of journalists has been to seize on “every one of those little punctuation marks and make it into God’s truth.” However, the plural of anecdote is not data.
“[T]he mousetrap is all ready for us to screw up,” Revkin warns the audience. It is “very important” for good environmental journalists to also be global warming skeptics of a sort. If they want readers to take them seriously, they should report on the clashes and conflicts that make science so entertaining.