Accuracy in Media

When holier-than-thou New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin decided not to publish e-mails that expose climate scientists as frauds because they were obtained illegally, Times watchers (including this one) rightly cried “Hypocrisy!

One recent and one distant case of the newspaper rejecting Revkin’s new standard of journalistic ethics leapt to mind. In December 2005, the Times ran a front-page expose on the Bush administration’s covert wiretapping program against presumed terrorists even after being warned that it could jeopardize national security. And in 1971, the Times made history by publishing the Pentagon Papers about U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

But a far better example of the paper’s hypocrisy has escaped notice — until now. In May 1994, the Times published a series of stories about the tobacco industry that were based on the pre-Internet equivalent of leaked e-mails. The paper’s coverage later led to a book by reporter Philip J. Hilts titled Smokescreen: The Truth Behind The Tobacco Industry Cover-up.

The circumstances surrounding the tobacco industry then and the climate science community now are remarkably similar, yet the Times reached exact opposite conclusions about how to cover the news. This time Revkin and the paper, as well as much of the mainstream media, have created a smokescreen to protect fraudulent scientists whose agenda they support.

Tobacco under fire

Democrats began targeting the tobacco industry after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., led the charge as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment.

Waxman’s probe led to a dramatic April 14, 1994, hearing where top executives from tobacco companies swore under oath that nicotine is not addictive. At about the same time, a whistleblower contacted Hilts and handed over internal memorandums that proved the Brown & Williamson tobacco company had known the health dangers of tobacco for decades.

Like “hide the decline” from the hacked global warming e-mails, the Brown & Williamson documents had a memorable money quote: “Moreover, nicotine is addictive. … We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug.”

Hilts described the revelations in an interview with PBS for its “Smoke In The Eye” special:

Once we got these papers in hand, it became very clear that they knew a lot very early on, that they were deliberately hiding things, and that they were deliberately trying to keep them out of court and so on — at the same time saying these things were not true, saying cigarettes are not addictive, and yet they have their own studies which show how addictive it is and exactly how the addiction works and so on. … They did all kinds of studies on the hazards of cigarettes and inhalation of tobacco and so on and found a lot of problems. Well, we never heard about this, but they knew it all early on.

Brown & Williamson, along with the rest of the tobacco industry, understandably wanted to quash publicity of the documents. The company convinced a judge in tobacco-friendly Kentucky to impose an injunction against their release because Merrill Williams, a temporary paralegal assigned to Brown & Williamson, allegedly stole them.

The company felt compelled to fight release of the documents. “They’ve been hiding this for years,” Hilts told PBS. “It would make them lose case after case in court.”

But the Times, motivated by a commitment to journalistic integrity and the First Amendment, defied the injunction and published its stories. “Oddly enough there were virtually no legal concerns at the Times,” Hilts said, adding that “all the way along, the lawyers … were very supportive. They really wanted to see the stories in the paper.”

Hilts criticized ABC for not reporting on the documents even though the network had them before he did. “Lawyers for the entertainment business are more skittish, are more difficult,” he told PBS, “and in fact they get involved in the news more, probably more than they should. … I don’t think, in newspapers, reporters would put up with that.”

Hot global warming e-mails

Print reporters without links to the entertainment industry may well be more committed to battling media lawyers in order to break major news, but they clearly are not immune to self-censorship. Unlike Hilts, Revkin chose not to post the global warming e-mails.

His defense: “The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye.” If Hilts and other journalists had neglected their duty like Revkin and company are in covering “ClimateGate,” the tobacco industry never would have been forced to settle with state prosecutors in 1998 and might not have been subjected to federal regulation this year.

Michael Moore, the former Mississippi attorney general who led the legal fight against the tobacco industry in the 1990s, called the Brown & Williamson papers “probably still the most damming documents ever produced against the industry.” Hilts said they “probably are the single-most important pieces of paper in the history of tobacco versus public health.”

The global warming e-mails revealed last week are just as significant. “This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,” climate expert Patrick Michaels said. Even British writer and environmental activist George Monbiot acknowledged that the e-mails are a “major blow” and urged Phil Jones, the head of the climate research unit that was hacked, to resign.

The timing of the climate e-mail hacking also is reminiscent of the tobacco timeline in 1994 — and thus equally newsworthy. Just as whistleblowers started pushing documents into the media while the Food and Drug Administration and Congress weighed tobacco regulation, the global warming e-mails were posted online days before world leaders gather in Copenhagen next month to ponder draconian rules to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

And as with the tobacco documents, the global warming e-mails focus on scientific research. “These behind-the-scenes discussions among leading global-warming exponents are remarkable both in their candor and in their sheer contempt for scientific objectivity,” Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ivan Kenneally wrote in The New Atlantis.

“There can be little doubt after even a casual perusal that the scientific case for global warming and the policy that springs from it are based upon a volatile combination of political ideology, unapologetic mendacity and simmering contempt for even the best-intentioned disagreement.”

It’s the news judgment, stupid

The hacking angle to ClimateGate is a legitimate one to pursue, but it is not the most important angle. The appropriate response is for journalists at The New York Times and elsewhere to behave as they did after Hilts exposed the stolen tobacco documents in 1994.

“We had more papers after that,” Hilts said. “We went around and found more stuff. More people started coming out of the woodwork and so on. So it was a pivotal moment.”

Fourteen years ago, the Times scolded CBS for self-censorship when it decided to spike an interview with tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, who later became the central character in the 1999 movie “The Insider.” The network later reversed course and aired the interview.

Hopefully Andrew Revkin and the Times will redeem themselves and do likewise by giving the global warming e-mails the scrutiny they deserve.

(Author’s note: I covered the 1994 tobacco debate for Congressional Quarterly and attended the game-changing hearings with Hilts. Thanks to blogger James Joyner for jogging my memory.)

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