After promoting anecdotes from a firefighter to claim that polar bears are "doing just fine," Fox News has ignored new research that confirms they are still existentially threatened by climate change. This divide in coverage is illustrative of what University of Alberta scientist Dr. Ian Stirling called a "new element" of media -- "the deliberately misleading, and sometimes downright dishonest, treatment of the science around polar bears when it relates to climate warming." In conversations with Media Matters, Stirling and other leading polar bear scientists outlined eight tips for media outlets seeking to accurately cover the plight of the polar bears.
In February, Fox News repeatedly promoted a book by firefighter Zac Unger on his time in Churchill, Manitoba to claim that "the polar bears are doing just fine." Even though bears in that region are actually among the subpopulations in decline, Fox News suggested that the book undermined climate science. Dr. Andrew Derocher, a scientific advisor to Polar Bears International, called that premise "flawed" and told Media Matters that "scientific literature shows very clearly the loss of sea ice in the satellite record and the projections (many many scientific papers) show that the future will be particularly challenging for polar bears as the sea ice disappears." He added, "I've worked on polar bears for 30 years and the changes are incredibly easy to see but as scientists, we don't just look at bears, we measure them and analyze the data."
Stirling criticized Unger for "a very sad piece of deliberately misleading and dishonest writing" that "tells only parts of the story that suit him." Similarly, Derocher said it was "unfortunate" when "someone who clearly doesn't understand a subject well botches up the science." Furthermore, media should not rely on anecdotal information when there is "a lot of data" on sea ice and polar bear body condition. He added:
The book you mentioned was written by someone who spent a few months in 1 place with his family talking to people. What I did on my last trip to Kentucky doesn't qualify me to rewrite the history [of] the eastern US. I've worked on polar bears for 30 years. Many of my colleagues for even longer. You don't go to a plumber for heart surgery but when it comes to polar bears "everybody is an expert". In science, an expert has to demonstrate expertise. Hanging around in Churchill for a few months talking to the locals doesn't qualify as an expert. Our last paper on polar bears in Conservation Letters had something like 200 years of cumulative polar bear expertise. How it can be that media put the scientific perspective on par with a casual observer is beyond me.
In fact, some reports that rely on polar bear sightings to conclude they are doing "fine" may be unwittingly underscoring the urgency of sea ice melt. As lost habitat drives bears from their hunting grounds, they sometimes wander into towns and garbage dumps. This may lead to more contact with humans, and an overall impression that polar bears are abundant, even to the point of being a nuisance. In fact, as Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, a former polar bear project leader at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), told Media Matters, a bear sighting in a new place "probably means the bears are having a hard time making a living where they used to make a living."
Unger promoted the popular media claim that polar bear populations have increased -- or are even "exploding" -- since the 1960s or 1970s, but those reports omit necessary context. Many of the starting-point estimates are based on a Russian calculation from the 1950s -- 5,000-8,000 bears -- that has never been broadly accepted by scientists. Amstrup told Media Matters that "we really don't know how many polar bears there were in the 60s [or 70s]" and it is "important to set the record straight." In 2008, Stirling told then-CNN Executive Producer for Science Peter Dykstra that the estimate was "almost certainly much too low."
In some places, thanks to conservation efforts like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and a subsequent international agreement, it does appear that polar bear populations have increased. According to Amstrup, Alaskan populations are a good example of such managed recovery. But in other areas, such as western Hudson Bay and the southern Beaufort Sea, populations are thought to be declining. And as Derocher pointed out, conservation biology is concerned with the future, normally examining issues three generations down the road. By this measure, polar bears are indeed in trouble, and looking back to the 1960s or 70s makes no sense:
What climate deniers like to pull out is that there are more polar bears now than in the 1960s. That doesn't matter and just because we've corrected excessive harvest rates (commercial hunting for example) in the 1960s doesn't make this argument any more relevant to the conservation of the species today moving forward in time.
Amstrup echoed this point, saying "the population on the Titanic was doing just fine until just before it slipped beneath the waves." Overall, the USGS has projected that changes in Arctic ice conditions could result in "loss of approximately 2/3 of the world's current polar bear population by the mid 21st century."
As if anxious to confirm our recent observation that conservatives online appear incapable of producing fair and professional journalism, a new GOP-friendly media start-up has hired a former American Spectator staffer who is perhaps best known for his unfair and unprofessional behavior.
The new site in question has been dubbed Washington Free Beacon, and it's part of a larger GOP-friendly initiative called Center for American Freedom. The effort is being launched in an open attempt to match the media messaging success of Center for American Progress and other progressive outlets. Founders claim Washington Free Beacon will produce top-shelf "investigative reporting" and be seen as a "legitimate" source of information.
But as I noted last month, the fact that conservative activist Michael Goldfarb has been tapped to run the enterprises highlights how difficult the far-right media movement has finding leaders who exhibit respect for journalism. (Goldfarb most definitely does not.)
Goldfarb isn't the only recent hire who raises doubts about the endeavor. As Cheryl Biren notes at OpEdNews, Free Beacon has also hired former American Spectator editor Patrick Howley. You might recall Howley made headlines just three months ago when, while covering anti-war protesters in Washington, D.C., he infiltrated the group and then acted as a provocateur, urging a crowd to storm past guards at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The widely publicized museum confrontation, which ended when guards pepper sprayed activists, led to negative news coverage for the protest movement.
Howley initially bragged online about his adventure and conceded his role as instigator. Apparently, protesters weren't acting crazy enough while Howley was covering them and he wanted to write about how crazy they were (i.e. "to mock and undermine" them) in American Spectator. But when journalists soon highlighted Howley's questionable tactics at the museum, the American Spectator pulled his account off its website and re-wrote it without explanation. The updated version did not include Howley's overt boast about infiltrating the protesters in order to later mock them.
Obviously, what Howley did at the museum protest wasn't journalism. It was partisan activism, which is what so many conservatives prefer to practice. We'll soon see if Washington Free Beacon can distinguish between the two.
Another year, another concerted effort by conservative leaders to play catch-up with liberals and to finally launch effective media and messaging tools online. They can keep trying, but until conservatives change their behavior, their goals will remain elusive and their established trend of failure will continue indefinitely.
The news this week came in the form of a Politico article announcing the launch an outpost called Center for American Freedom, which will house a conservative news outlet called the Washington Free Beacon. Its founders are touting the launch as an effort to match the impressive gains progressives have made at places like Center for American Progress, the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. The founders are also candid about how their side has been getting lapped by progressives for years in this arena.
The reason remains simple: Partisan conservatives have routinely shown they have neither an interest in genuine journalism, nor the skills to practice it. Conversely, progressives over the last decade have put in the hard work, held themselves to professional standards of conduct, and have reaped the rewards. So it's no surprise that year after year conservatives moan that progressives have built a new media infrastructure and are outclassing them, especially online.
Right-wing media have expressed outrage over President Obama hugging Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G-20 summit, claiming that Obama is "hugging enemies [and] abandoning allies." In fact, Turkey is an ally of the United States via its membership in NATO; moreover, this is just the latest example of the right-wing media's obsession with how Obama greets leaders.
Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have falsely suggested Elena Kagan's college thesis shows she is a socialist or radical. In fact, Kagan's thesis did not express support for socialism or radicalism, and regardless, conservatives -- including Hannity -- previously said that nominees' political views are irrelevant to the confirmation process.
Jason Mattera, recently named editor in chief of the right-wing Human Events magazine, traffics in the smears and falsehoods that are typical of the conservative media. It turns out even some of Mattera's fellow conservatives are loathe to describe what he does as "journalism" -- instead, Hot Air's Ed Morrissey calls it "performance art" (via Fox Nation):
Jason Mattera gives Hot Air readers the exclusive look at the full five-minute video of his meeting with Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) in what may be the crowning achievement of Jason's performance art in support of his new book, Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation.
No, I don't have any evidence that the conservative magazine led by Bill Kristol is selling dime bags to school children. That's why there's a question mark at the end the headline above. So it isn't a despicable smear for me to suggest that The Weekly Standard pays John McCormack's salary by hooking innocent six year olds on deadly drugs that will destroy their lives. You know, because of the question mark.
Anyway, I'm sure McCormack, Kristol & co. won't mind that I've raised the question without any evidence whatsoever. After all, that's how they roll at The Weekly Standard.
Last December, for example, The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb peddled the obviously ludicrous claim that the White House had pressured Sen. Ben Nelson to support health care reform by threatening to put Nebraska's Offut Air Force Base on the BRAC base closure list. The allegation was laugh-out-loud funny on its face -- BRAC simply doesn't work that way. And Goldfarb didn't have any evidence for his claim. And the whole thing appears to have been nothing more than out-of-control rumor-mongering by a couple of former McCain presidential campaign staffers. That didn't stop the media, particularly the right-wingers at FOX, from running with it. Nor did it stop 20 Republican Senators from demanding an investigation. Though none of the people hyping the story apparently had any actual belief that it was true -- after all, they went silent pretty quickly when its obvious flaws were pointed out.
Now comes John McCormack with the sensational headline "Obama Now Selling Judgeships for Health Care Votes?" McCormack writes:
Tonight, Barack Obama will host ten House Democrats who voted against the health care bill in November at the White House; he's obviously trying to persuade them to switch their votes to yes. One of the ten is Jim Matheson of Utah. The White House just sent out a press release announcing that today President Obama nominated Matheson's brother Scott M. Matheson, Jr. to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
So, Scott Matheson appears to have the credentials to be a judge, but was his nomination used to buy off his brother's vote?
Evidence? John McCormack doesn't need evidence -- he has question marks!
Oh, and McCormack didn't mention that conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah praised Matheson's nomination:
"I'm pleased President Obama has nominated Scott Matheson to fill the vacancy on the 10th Circuit," Hatch said. "I've known Scott a long time, and he is a capable, bright attorney whose experience has prepared him for judicial service. The Matheson family has had a significant impact on Utah and can rightly be proud of Scott's nomination."
UPDATE: And sure enough, this baseless Weekly Standard allegation is playing out just like the last one: The right-wing media is running with it, and Rep. Michele Bachmann is calling for an "independent investigation." How long before they all abruptly drop it and pretend they never said anything?
UPDATE 2: Even PowerLine doesn't buy it: "Thus, President Obama could not have found a more suitable nominee, from a liberal Democratic perspective, than Scott Matheson. It would be unfair to assume that he selected Matheson in order to influence his brother; on the contrary, if Matheson had no siblings at all he would be an ideal liberal judicial candidate. So I think we must acquit President Obama of that charge."
From Weekly Standard online editor Michael Goldfarb's Twitter feed:
As I explained in a column posted yesterday, The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb's claim that the White House has threatened to close a Nebraska Air Force base if Sen. Ben Nelson doesn't support health care reform is more than a little far-fetched. In fact, it's pretty ridiculous -- even before you consider Goldfarb's history of fabrication.
But now things may be getting really interesting. Goldfarb, remember, claimed only one source, described simply as "a Senate aide." But I've just been forwarded an email that appears to show that a GOP operative was pushing the allegation the night before Goldfarb -- or, apparently, anyone else -- wrote publicly about it.
The From field of the email reads "email@example.com" -- that's apparently David Merritt, Vice President and Director of National Health Policy for The Gingrich Group (yes, that Gingrich.) Merritt wrote at 10:16 pm on Monday, December 14 (about 14 hours before Goldfarb's post):
[Nelson] is the only obstacle to 60. Word is he's been threatened for the last 10 days with losing Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha on next round of BRAC review (he's on Armed Services, but wouldn't be involved with appointing review committee...something like that). Sure sounds like Rahm, doesn't it?
The McCain angle doesn't end there. As a result of Goldfarb's story, 20 Republican Senators sent a letter requesting a Senate Armed Services Committee investigation. That letter was sent to committee chair Carl Levin and ... ranking member John McCain. But McCain doesn't appear to want to have anything to do with an investigation, according to Greg Sargent:
John McCain is staying mum on right wing calls for his Senate committe to probe claims that the White House has been privately threatening to close an Air Force base in Nebraska to force Ben Nelson into line on health care.
Turns out, though, that McCain, the relevant committee's ranking Republican, is laying very low on this story. McCain spokesperson Brooke Buchanan confirms to me that the Senator has no comment on the story or on whether he thinks the probe should move forward.
McCain's refusal to endorse the probe suggests that he doesn't place much stock in the charges and perhaps doesn't want to be publicly associated with them. But he may not want to say so publicly, in order to avoid alienating those on the right who have been pushing it with such fervor.
And Nelson? Nelson reportedly says an investigation would embarrass the Republicans:
Nelson told KLIN/Lincoln radio hosts Jack Mitchell and John Bishop that he knows who started the rumors and when it comes to light it will be "embarrassing for the other side of the aisle," presumably meaning a Republican senator or senators is behind it.
In a December 16 post, Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb defended the accuracy of his report that the White House is "threatening to close" Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base "to extort" Sen. Ben Nelson's vote on health care reform -- denied by both the White House and Nelson's office -- by pointing to a request by 20 Republican senators for a congressional investigation of his report. But a Nebraska newspaper reported on December 17 that Nelson's fellow Nebraska senator, Mike Johanns, said he signed on to the request even though he doesn't believe Goldfarb's story is true and Goldfarb's blog post follows his retraction of his prior claim that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had personally issued such a "threat."
From the December 16 edition of Fox News' Glenn Beck:
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In a December 15 post, Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb reported the claims of an unnamed "Senate aide" who allegedly said that the White House is "threatening to close" Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base "to extort" Sen. Ben Nelson's vote on health care reform. The rumor has since been denied by both Nelson's office and the White House, but Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh have nonetheless seized on Goldfarb's blog post and advanced the dubious allegation.
Former McCain staffer Michael Goldfarb claims on the Weekly Standard's blog that a source tells him the Obama administration is pressuring Sen. Ben Nelson to support health care reform:
According to a Senate aide, the White House is now threatening to put Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base on the BRAC list if Nelson doesn't fall into line.
First, note that Goldfarb describes his source as "a Senate aide" -- not "a Democratic Senate aide." Given that his source would be much more credible if described that way, we can probably assume that Goldfarb's (only) source is a Republican Senate aide. And the source's quotes certainly sound rather Republican:
As our source put it, this is a "naked effort by Rahm Emanuel and the White House to extort Nelson's vote." They are "threatening to close a base vital to national security for what?" asked the Senate staffer.
So how would this presumably Republican aide be in a position to know what the White House is "threatening" to do to Democratic Senator? Goldfarb doesn't say. (Even if the "source" is a Democrat, there's no indication s/he is in a position to know anything.) So, there's a pretty good reason to be skeptical right there.
Now, moving on to the supposed substance of the alleged threat. The BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process is specifically designed to minimize political considerations in base closing decisions. The Defense Department applies legally-mandated criteria to assess bases; an independent commission (chosen in consultation between the President and Congress) makes closure recommendations; Congress has the ability to reject those recommendations; the whole thing is a lengthy and high-profile process.
In short: if "Rahm Emanuel and the White House" want to "extort Nelson's vote," it isn't likely they would do so by trying to meddle in the BRAC process. And it's even less likely considering the risk they'd be taking -- getting caught meddling with BRAC would look significantly worse than getting caught cutting off highway funding, for example.
Basically, Goldfarb's post doesn't pass the laugh test.
And that's even before you consider the fact that Michael Goldfarb is a liar.
In an October 27 blog post - headlined "Joementum 2008?" - former McCain campaign aide and Weekly Standard online editor Michael Goldfarb writes:
Is he the greatest senator ever? He fought for victory in Iraq, he's fighting for victory in Afghanistan, and he's fighting to save us all from Obamacare. Who needs Olympia Snowe when you've got Joementum?