Accuracy in Media

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The Washington Post Fact Checker thinks that Secretary of State John Kerry may have a Brian Williams problem when it comes to the facts about his role in the first climate hearings when he was a senator.

Last week, Kerry gave a speech to the Atlantic Council about climate change in which he said the following:

Climate change is an issue that is personal to me, and it has been since the 1980s, when we were organizing the very first climate hearings in the Senate…. Al Gore, Tim Wirth, and a group of us organized the first hearings in the Senate on this, 1988. We heard Jim Hansen sit in front of us and tell us it’s happening now, 1988.

According to the Fact Checker, this wasn’t the first time Kerry had made this claim:

In 2007, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, he asserted, ‘I was privileged to be part of the first hearings that we held in the United States Congress on this subject, with Al Gore, on the Commerce Committee, where we sat together in 1987, 20 years ago.

In 2009, speaking at a Senate hearing at which Gore testified, Kerry said: ‘It’s well known that Al and I have a certain political experience in common. What is less well-known is that we also teamed up on the first-ever Senate hearing on climate change for the Commerce Committee back in 1988.’ (He also said something in yet another Council on Foreign Relations speech in 2009.)

In a 2010 article for The Huffington Post, Kerry wrote: ‘My bottom line: Al Gore and I held the Senate’s first climate change hearings in the Commerce Committee way back in 1988. Since then, precious little progress has been made and ground has been lost internationally, all while the science has grown more compelling.’

And, in a 2014 profile of Kerry in The Boston Globe, Andrew Holland of the American Security Project was quoted as saying Kerry ‘has had a personal interest in climate change going back to when he worked with Al Gore in 1988 on the first climate hearing on Capitol Hill.’ Holland told The Fact Checker that the source of this factoid was Kerry himself.

While Kerry is trying to claim credit for working with Gore on the “very first” Senate or Capitol Hill hearings on climate change, the facts are less clear according to Glenn Kessler, who writes the Fact Checker column.

Kessler tries to pinpoint when the first hearing actually did take place, by going back to the 1970s. He talked with some climate change experts and determined that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on June 23, 1988, that Kerry has repeatedly referred to, was what brought climate change to the attention of the public.

There’s just one problem with Kerry’s statement. Neither he nor Gore were at that hearing because they weren’t on Wirth’s committee.

When questioned about this, Kerry spokesman Alec Gerlach issued the following statement:

Secretary Kerry rightly referred to the work he contributed to in the Senate along with Senators Gore and Wirth beginning in 1988 and 1989 on the issue of climate change, a cause he’s been committed to for his entire career. As the Secretary made clear, these hearings were a turning point: the first to point to new research that made clear the human impact on increasing greenhouse gasses was connected to climate change and a warming planet. No prior congressional discussions had made that critical connection. Without that link to a human impact, the case for this generation to act to curb emissions is dampened, but as Secretary Kerry made clear in his remarks, since those hearings: ‘the science has been screaming at us, warning us, trying to compel us to act.’

That’s all well and good, except that Kerry’s statements repeatedly refer to one, not multiple hearings.

The Pinocchio Test

To be fair to Kerry, he has been involved in the debate about climate change for many years, as a member of the Senate. He can certainly claim to have been passionate about the issue for a long time. While he may have been a junior member of the Senate in the late 1980s, his role on the issue certainly grew as he gained seniority.

But his pattern of exaggeration about the congressional hearings is disturbing. On repeated occasions, he has said or suggested that he and Gore were responsible for the first congressional hearing on climate change–and that he was one of the Senators who participated in the pivotal 1988 Hansen hearing organized by Wirth.

Gore might have bragging rights about organizing one of the first hearings, but not Kerry. Kerry was not even a participant in the most important hearing of that time; he simply spoke at a hearing that took place the following year. And yet, like Brian Williams claiming to have come under fire in Iraq, Kerry has repeatedly placed himself at the center of the action—and the narrative.

He earns Four Pinocchios.





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