Accuracy in Media

The campaign to convince us all of the coming disasters caused by global warming continues at hurricane force. There have been gloom-and-doom cover stories in Time magazine and Vanity Fair, and one-sided stories on ABC News and CBS’s 60 Minutes.

The problem is that the stories start with the premise that global warming is here, primarily caused by human activity, and that this is the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community. As a result, rarely do any of the reports give any sort of a fair representation of the views by the thousands of scientists who disagree, as I demonstrated in a recent commentary.

The 60 Minutes piece was the most hypocritical. The premise was that James Hansen, a top NASA scientist, claimed that the Bush administration had been trying to censor his work, and editing his and others scientific reports that indicated just how serious, and how serious a threat, is global warming. “There’s no doubt,” says Hansen, that “the speed of the natural changes is now dwarfed by the changes that humans are making to the atmosphere and to the surface.”

When asked by 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley if the Bush administration was “censoring what he can say to the public,” Hansen replied, “Or they’re censoring whether or not I can say it. I mean, I say what I believe if I’m allowed to say it.”

How’s that for censorship? Going on 60 Minutes to complain you’re being muzzled. What a joke.

Jay Ambrose, formerly editorial director of Scripps Howard in Washington, wrote a recent column pointing out that Hansen was never kept from saying anything publicly. But he cited examples of others, such as William Happer, the scientist fired as director of energy research at the U.S. Department of Energy during the Clinton administration, for disagreeing publicly with Al Gore.

The irony is that in making the case that the Bush administration has, in essence, been altering the information they disseminate to fit with their views, this is exactly what CBS did, by leaving out critical information that might have affected how the viewers would have felt about Hansen’s credibility, and the truth or ambiguity of the scientific claims.

For example, according to an article by Marc Morano of CNS News, Hansen “publicly endorsed Democrat John Kerry for president and received a $250,000 grant from the charitable foundation headed by Kerry’s wife.” Furthermore, Hansen acknowledged that he contributed money to two Democratic presidential campaigns, and served as a consultant just this past February to former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore, for his slide show presentations on global warming that he made around the country in recent months. Of course none of this was mentioned by Pelley.

Morano also pointed out that Hansen had written, in the March 2004 issue of Scientific American, that “Emphasis on extreme scenarios may have been appropriate at one time, when the public and decision-makers were relatively unaware of the global warming issue.” This may explain why Hansen was so far off in his 1988 prediction before Congress of “a 0.35 degree Celsius rise in temperatures over the next decade [that] turned out to overshoot the actual gain—0.11 degree—by 219%.” With this sort of record behind him, you might think he would be more careful than to say that there’s “no doubt.”

When Brian Montopoli, formerly of the Columbia Journalism Review and now with the CBS PublicEye blog, asked Pelley “why he did not pause to acknowledge global warming skeptics, instead treating the existence of global warming as an established fact,” Pelley replied that “If I do an interview with Elie Wiesel, am I required as a journalist to find a Holocaust denier?”  He told Montopoli that “his team tried hard to find a respected scientist who contradicted the prevailing opinion in the scientific community, but there was no one out there who fit that description?This isn’t about politics or pseudo-science or conspiracy theory blogs…This is about sound science.”

We could suggest he talk to Dr. Richard Lindzen of MIT, who is skeptical of the Hansen view of global warming. It’s an outrage to compare skeptics like Lindzen to holocaust deniers.

Just to remind us how fluid conventional scientific wisdom on this issue can be, the Washington Times recently carried an old column from Newsweek. The author of the piece, which was written in 1975, worried that “There are ominous signs that the Earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production.” But the author, Peter Gwynne, wasn’t worried about global warming. His concern was the declining temperatures. “…the present decline has taken the planet about a sixth of the way toward Ice Age average.”

Instead of starting with the notion that all scientists who don’t agree with the catastrophic global warming scenario are somehow corrupted by special interests or politics, and the doomsayers are right on target, let’s bring the best and brightest together with varying views and hash it out for all the world to see.

That means that journalists should present both sides—not just the side they favor. Pardon me, but isn’t this what journalism is supposed to be about? Coverage of global warming demonstrates how unprofessional some journalists have become.

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