Last week, PBS admirably acknowledged several mistakes after airing a segment on climate change that "balanced" scientists who acknowledge the problem with a weatherman who continues to dispute the temperature record. The problems with that particular segment have been addressed, but the tricky issue of navigating climate misinformation remains.
Ideally, journalists would never need to mention untruths. Why report on myths about science when you may be inadvertently causing your audience to remember and believe them?
But we live in an era of what Grist's David Roberts has called "post-truth politics." It would be strange to report on the politics of climate change without acknowledging that many elected Republicans continue to deny it. The trick is to not leave your audience similarly confused.
This is not easy, and it helps to be a specialist -- or to become one. But there's a few basic rules of thumb, many of which are informed by SkepticalScience's straightforward and well-researched Debunking Handbook.
For stories on climate science, as opposed to climate solutions, there needs to be a focus on the facts. That means, as environmental journalist Bud Ward wrote, manmade global warming should simply be taken as a "given." The evidence for manmade climate change has only grown stronger, yet 66 percent of Americans incorrectly think that "there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening." Stories that "balance" mainstream scientists that specialize in the issue with contrarians add to this confusion. Unless you're setting out to debunk common climate science myths, why seek out the few contrarians at all?
But if and when there comes the need to quote Rep. Jim Inhofe or the Heartland Institute, journalists should keep in mind that their audience will probably trust anything they air. So they need to give their audience a warning when they are about to be told false information, and be prepared to challenge the common myths.
They'll also need to explain why these claims are false, not just state that they are. These explanations will be most effective if they come from unexpected sources: the conservatives, evangelicals, and Republican representatives, advisors and scientists that acknowledge the risks of climate change. Sometimes the best explanations don't involve any words: seeing is believing. And by disclosing any industry connections these sources may have, you'll allow your audience to decide if they have ulterior motives for propagating misleading information.
A PBS NewsHour global warming report that allowed a climate change contrarian to "counterbalance" mainstream scientific opinion is worth criticizing, according to PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler, who said he received hundreds of emails and calls about the program.
Getler said he is penning a column on the issue that is likely to be posted late today or Monday, and hinted it will be critical.
"There's just a lot of...hundreds of emails about it," Getler said when asked why he is writing about the issue. "Commentary about it all over and it's interesting."
Getler declined to offer specific views on the NewsHour report, which aired last Monday. But when asked if he has found elements to criticize, he said: "Oh yeah, of course there's material to be critical about."
When Media Matters first called this morning, Getler said he had been contacted by many viewers since Monday about the issue: "It's what everyone's calling about, the global warming thing."
At issue is the 10-minute segment that aired on September 17, 2012, on NewsHour. Much of the report focused on physicist Richard Muller, who had been skeptical of climate change for years but recently changed his mind after re-examining the data.
It also prominently featured an interview with climate change contrarian Anthony Watts, who is a former television meteorologist and claims that man-made global warming is still in doubt despite agreement among 97 percent of scientists that it is occurring. The report did not note that Watts has been paid for his work in the past by the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial group which is funded by billionaire oil magnates Charles and David Koch.
Criticism of the report and the accompanying online interview has come from numerous outlets, including PBS itself. Science reporter Miles O'Brien, who does freelance work for NewsHour, weighed in against Watts' inclusion in the report during an interview with the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. O'Brien called the report "a horrible, horrible thing."
It even prompted a petition by Forecast the Facts, a climate change awareness and advocacy group, asking Getler to investigate:
Immediately investigate the NewsHour segment featuring climate change denier and conspiracy theorist Anthony Watts for violations of PBS standards on accuracy, integrity, and transparency, and recommend corrective action to ensure that such reporting never again occurs on PBS.
Spencer Michels, who reported the story for NewsHour, has said that "we should not" have added an online post with extended remarks from Watts without providing the same platform for actual climate scientists. On September 18, NewsHour's director of digital partnership, Hari Sreenivasan, responded to complaints about the segment by encouraging viewers to "look at [it] in the context of several other segments we've been doing at the NewsHour on climate."
For its part, the Heartland Institute has praised PBS for "attempting to bring balance to the debate over man-made global warming."
Last night, PBS NewsHour turned to meteorologist and climate change contrarian Anthony Watts to "counterbalance" the mainstream scientific opinions presented by the program. This false balance is a disservice to PBS' viewers, made worse by the program's failure to explain Watts' connection to the Heartland Institute, an organization that receives funding from some corporations with a financial interest in confusing the public on climate science.
While PBS mentioned that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that manmade global warming is occurring, it did not reflect this consensus by giving significant airtime to Watts' contrarian views. The segment presented Watts as the counterbalance to scientists that believe in manmade global warming -- every time a statement that reflects the scientific consensus was aired, in came Watts to cast doubt in viewers' minds. As 66 percent of Americans incorrectly think that "there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening," news organizations need to be careful not to contribute to this confusion.
The segment focused on the findings of physicist Richard Muller, who was previously skeptical of climate science, and decided to embark on a study to re-examine the data. Muller's work was partially funded by the Koch Brothers, who fund climate contrarian groups like the Heartland Institute, and he collaborated with Watts to address his concerns about the reliability of the temperature record. Watts stated at the time, "I'm prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." But after Muller reconfirmed the surface temperature record that has been constructed by several scientific groups and is consistent with satellite temperature records, Watts continued to dispute it. Yet in the full interview with Watts that PBS posted online, reporter Spencer Michels did not challenge Watts once, instead asking questions like, "What's the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there's lots of global warming?"
In the online report, Michels revealed that he got in contact with Watts through the Heartland Institute -- which he failed to mention on-air. Segments like this one on PBS are the very goal of groups like the Heartland Institute, as the New York Times' Andrew Revkin explained:
The norm of journalistic balance has been exploited by opponents of emissions curbs. Starting in the late 1990s, big companies whose profits were tied to fossil fuels recognized they could use this journalistic practice to amplify the inherent uncertainties in climate projections and thus potentially delay cuts in emissions from burning those fuels. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this strategy was a long memo written by Joe Walker, who worked in public relations at the American Petroleum Industry, that surfaced in 1998. According to this ''Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,'' first revealed by my colleague John Cushman at the New York Times, ''Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom'' for ''average citizens'' and ''the media'' (Cushman 1998). The action plan called for scientists to be recruited, be given media training, highlight the questions about climate, and downplay evidence pointing to dangers. Since then, industry-funded groups have used the media's tradition of quoting people with competing views to convey a state of confusion even as consensus on warming has built.
In addition to being promoted by Heartland, Watts was paid by the Heartland Institute for his work on temperature stations. Yet PBS left out that fact, even as it aired Watts suggesting that 97 percent of climate scientists are lying in order to be paid by the allegedly lucrative global warming "business":
Fact-checkers have said that nearly every claim made in the latest Romney ad attacking green energy investments and the stimulus is misleading or false. Yet on The O'Reilly Factor, Lou Dobbs said "Basically [the ad is] true," and he and O'Reilly went on to amplify several of the misleading attacks in the ad.
More than half of all public broadcasting stations would be put "at risk" if federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were eliminated, according to a new report commissioned in response to attacks from conservatives that put the funding in jeopardy.
The report stated: "Ending federal funding for public broadcasting would severely diminish, if not destroy, public broadcasting service in the United States."
The study, released June 20 from Booz & Company Inc., reviewed alternative funding options for public broadcasting if federal funding is removed. It found that trying to replace such funding -- which accounts for about 15% of CPB's operating budget -- with advertising and other revenue would be detrimental as well.
In 2011, a House vote to defund National Public Radio was supported by numerous conservative commentators, many spouting false claims of liberal bias and citing alternative sources that could be used to replace the federal dollars -- many of which the CPB report finds ineffective.
"There have been a lot of suggestions that public broadcasters could just turn to commercial broadcasting, but this report shows that is not possible," said Tim Isgitt, senior vice-president for communications and government affairs at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "The most surprising thing that comes out of this report is that advertising would significantly limit our other funding sources; foundations provide funding because it is a public good and mission driven. They wouldn't do that if we were a commercial model, and individual members would be less likely to give money to an entity that is commercial."
The study was commissioned at the request of the Conference Report accompanying the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2012 (H.R. 2055). The report states that "the conferees requested that CPB provide a report to House and Senate Committees on Appropriations within 180 days of enactment of the Act on alternative sources of funding for public broadcasting stations in lieu of federal funding."
The report states, in part:
A reduction or elimination of CPB funding will put 63% (251) of radio stations and 67% (114) of television stations in the public broadcasting system at risk:
19% (76) of radio stations and 32% (54) of TV Stations that currently operate at a minimum practical cost level, and would be at a high risk of closing.
44% (175) of radio stations and 35% (60) of TV stations have a history of operating deficits and would suffer reduced effectiveness or closure under increased financial pressure.
(UPDATE 4:31PM: The Heartland Institute tells the Washington Post that the billboard will be taken down today. Heartland CEO Joseph Bast said: "The Heartland Institute knew this was a risk when deciding to test it, but decided it was a necessary price to make an emotional appeal to people who otherwise aren't following the climate change debate.")
As the evidence continues to mount that humans are changing the climate with serious consequences, the libertarian Heartland Institute is becoming increasingly desperate to recast concern about climate change as "radical." This week the organization, usually so sensitive about logical fallacies, launched a billboard campaign in Chicago associating "belief" in global warming with murderers and tyrants, including Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson and Fidel Castro.
"The point" of the billboards, according to Heartland, "is that believing in global warming is not 'mainstream,' smart or sophisticated" and "the people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society."
The message is an uphill climb for Heartland, to say the least. Basic physics indicates that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will cause warming, confirmed by decades of research. And surveys show that a vast majority of scientists, and particularly those who specialize in fields related to climate, have concluded that human-induced warming is occurring, along with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other major scientific body.
By Heartland's standard, the "radical fringe of society" also includes the Pope, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, Evangelical Christian leaders and Republican climate scientists.
The announcement that Sesame Street plans to introduce a Muppet named Lily, an impoverished girl whose family faces ongoing hunger issues, is prompting much snark and derision in the right-wing media.
For instance, The Blaze's blog had this to offer:
Uh-oh. It's time to redistribute Cookie Monster's cookies.
Question: When did Sesame Street become so focused on teaching societal issues? From Bert & Ernie's gay marriage fiasco, to Big Bird's birtherism and growing unemployment. What "injustice" might Mr. Snuffleupagus stand for?
One of my colleagues (who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons) points out that "Snuffy" actually comes from a broken home and represents a lesson in divorce for kids. I had no idea.
Here's something else Barack Obama and democrats can be proud of.
With a record number of Americans on food stamps, record unemployment, increased debt and record poverty, Sesame Street will introduce a poor, starving muppet to educate on the growing number of starving children in Obama's America.
Ever since the recent controversy broke about NPR, we've been noting how, despite the constant outcries about liberal bias in public broadcasting, conservative critics have done a very poor job documenting its supposedly offensive behavior. Apparently it's much easier to attack public broadcasting than it is to prove its journalism is unfair.
Writing at Commentary, Michael Rubin claims he has the goods (evidence of "dirty tricks") and wants the United States Congress to investigate what he presents as definitive proof of PBS's bias, as well as its unfair use of taxpayer money. The evidence? A PBS show, Frontline, hosts a website and on that website there's a "commentary" section and in that commentary section there are links to another site that Rubin does not approve of.
Did I mention he wants Congress to investigate this shocking behavior?
It seems that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has a similar problem. Someone at its Frontline website has been substituting fake biographies of conservatives written by an organization called Right Web for legitimate institutional biographies.
That they have turned PBS into a tool for policy advocacy and dirty tricks is unfortunate. If that's what Frontline wants to do, so be it. But they should not do it with taxpayer money.
Here's a sample of a supposedly "fake" bio, from the Right Web's James Woolsey entry, which comes complete with 39 footnotes:
The director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Bill Clinton (1993-1995), R. James Woolsey is a neoconservative writer, activist, and government and corporate adviser who argues that the United States is fighting a "Long War" against terror. Woolsey is a self-described "Scoop Jackson/Joe Lieberman Democrat" who, despite his party affiliation, has advised a number of Republican Party figures, including President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain.
Here's the Frontline response to Rubin's claim [emphasis added]:
The Commentary blog post contended that Right Web publishes "fake biographies of conservatives." After reviewing the matter, we find that the biographies on the Right Web site are not at all fake or fabricated, and seem to be well-sourced. However, we do think it's helpful for our readers to understand this site's particular point of view--and their stated focus on those who "promote militarist U.S. foreign and defense policies"--if they choose to click on this outside link for further information.
If conservatives are going to dedicate themselves to defunding, and demonizing, public broadcasting, they're going to have to do a better job documenting its supposed sins. Pointing to links you don't like doesn't really count.
From the February 11 edition of PBS' NewsHour:
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PBS' ombudsman Michael Getler has a column up about the McLaughlin Group -- or as he calls it, "that weekly scream-fest 'talk' show that is aired by some 315 PBS member stations but is not produced by PBS."
It seems Getler just hates getting emails about the show. So much so that the messages make him want to "grab a beer and hit the chute."
Funny, I feel the same way watching the show given all of the conservative misinformation spewed on the program by the likes of Pat Buchanan, Monica Crowley and John McLaughlin himself.
Despite reports that "don't ask, don't tell" will be tackled in President Obama's State of the Union address tonight, the initial line-up of cable and broadcast network hosts and commentators offering analysis after the speech includes only one openly LGBT figure, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
From Mediabistro's TVnewser:
|Wolf Blitzer and Campbell Brown will anchor coverage leading into the address along and post-response analysis along with John King. Soledad O'Brien will report on polling data and Jessica Yellin will moderate a focus group in Ohio. Anderson Cooper will report and anchor "AC360" from Haiti at 11pmET. Larry King will be live at 12amET.|
|"O'Reilly Factor" will end at 8:55pmET and Bret Baier will anchor the address, the Republican response, and analysis live until 10:30pmET. Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, Joe Trippi, and Bob Beckel will contribute. Carl Cameron and Major Garrett will report. Greta Van Susteren will be live for "On the Record" until 11pmET. Sean Hannity will be live from 11pmET until midnight.|
|Starting at 9pmET, Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, and Rachel Maddow will anchor coverage of the address and response. Live editions of "Countdown" and "Rachel Maddow" will air at 10:30pmET and 11:30pmET|
|Fox Business will have coverage from 8-11pmET anchored by Neil Cavuto from the Newseum. Elizabeth MacDonald will host "Fixing America" beforehand and John Stossel will lead a "town hall" discussion afterward.|
|CNBC special coverage begins at 7pmET with Larry Kudlow in D.C. followed at 8pmEt by "President Obama 1 Year Later," which will be anchored live by John Harwood and Carl Quintanilla from Washington. CNBC will carry the address with and have reaction until 10:30pmET.|
|C-SPAN will begin special coverage at 8pmET with "a historical look at Presidents in their first year in office" followed by the address and response. Coverage will conclude at 11pmET. C-SPAN2 will air live reaction from Representatives and Senators from the Capitol.|
|ABC News' Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos anchor coverage of the address and response from D.C. with Jake Tapper, Jon Karl, and Martha Raddatz contributing. Sawyer will anchor "World News" from Washington and Terry Moran will anchor "Nightline," also from D.C., live at 11:35pmET.|
|Katie Couric will anchor coverage of the address and response at 9pmET as well as CBS' "Special Report: State of the Union" afterward. She will be joined by Jeff Greenfield and Bob Schieffer, with Chip Reid and Nancy Cordes reporting. Harry Smith will anchor "The Early Show" from Washington, D.C. tomorrow morning.|
|Fox News' Shepard Smith will anchor special coverage for FOX broadcasting starting at 9pmET. Chris Wallace will join for analysis and Shannon Bream will report from Capitol Hill.|
|Brian Williams will anchor from DC for NBC News with David Gregory. NBC News correspondents Andrea Mitchell, Chuck Todd, and Kelly O'Donnell will also contribute.|
|Jim Lehrer anchors PBS' broadcast of the address and response at 9pmET followed by analysis from Mark Shields.|
Since we probably won't see much in the way of LGBT voices tonight, Pam Spaulding from Pam's House Blend brings us some reactions from LGBT leaders to President Obama's comments on DADT.
In reports on the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor, numerous media outlets quoted Sen. Jeff Sessions' assertion that he would not vote for a justice who would rely on personal experience to decide cases. But Sessions voted to confirm Samuel Alito, who highlighted the importance of his personal experience during his hearing.
New York Times columnist David Brooks asserted of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin: "She's evangelical, but she's pretty progressive on gay and lesbian issues. She's for drilling in ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge], but she talks about global warming quite a lot." But Palin has reportedly said of global warming, "I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made," a position at odds with findings by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; she has also reportedly opposed giving spousal benefits to same-sex partners of public employees.
On his PBS program, Charlie Rose did not challenge Antonin Scalia's false assertion that "the press unanimously" found that, in Rose's words, George W. Bush "won that election in Florida." In fact, according to The Washington Post, data from a study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center found that under several different criteria for assessing a voter's intent, Al Gore would have received more votes than Bush after a statewide recount of all ballots "that were initially rejected by voting machines."