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Broadcast TV news neglected many critical climate change stories in 2017 while devoting most of its climate coverage to President Donald Trump. Seventy-nine percent of climate change coverage on the major corporate broadcast TV networks last year focused on statements or actions by the Trump administration, with heavy attention given to the president's decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement and to whether he accepts that human-caused climate change is a scientific reality. But the networks undercovered or ignored the ways that climate change had real-life impacts on people, the economy, national security, and the year’s extreme weather events -- a major oversight in a year when weather disasters killed hundreds of Americans, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and cost the economy in excess of $300 billion.
This is just the latest in the media’s neglectful coverage of Puerto Rico’s recovery
A New York Times report on February 6 revealed that a FEMA contract that called for 30 million meals to be sent to Puerto Rico resulted in only 50,000 meals actually delivered. The contract was awarded to a company with no history in large-scale disaster relief, the latest in a string of poor contracting decisions in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation. Despite this, cable and broadcast news networks almost completely ignored the story, with only MSNBC and CBS even mentioning it, albeit briefly.
According to the Times’ report, FEMA awarded an $156 million contract to a company called Tribute Contracting to provide 30 million meals to Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Tiffany Brown, the owner and only employee of the company, had “no experience in large-scale disaster relief,” and had “at least five canceled government contracts in her past.” The Times notes that “by the time 18.5 million meals were due, Tribute had delivered only 50,000,” and the ones that were delivered were packaged incorrectly. FEMA eventually terminated the contract with Tribute.
Months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in September, Puerto Rico remains in desperate need of assistance. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans still lacked electricity as of January 29, 20 percent of the island is still without running water, and there are countless infrastructural problems that have yet to be fixed. Puerto Rico’s recovery has been hampered by governmental incompetence, as well as several contracts with ill-equipped companies, one of which was also made by FEMA.
Cable and broadcast news shows failed to adequately cover the latest setback for Puerto Rico. According to a Media Matters analysis, only MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CBS This Morning mentioned FEMA’s botched meals contract. CBS This Morning spent less than 30 seconds on the story, simply doing a quick headline read about the Times’ article. Morning Joe mentioned the story three times during its February 7 edition, devoting 3 minutes and 14 seconds to the topic. There was no coverage of the story on CNN, ABC, NBC, or Fox News.
News networks’ failure to highlight FEMA’s ill-informed contract and the resulting loss in supplies for Puerto Ricans is unfortunately part of a larger pattern of networks ignoring the devastation and neglect of Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made landfall.
Methodology: Media Matters searched SnapStream for mentions of “Puerto Rico” on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NBC, ABC, and CBS from February 6, when the Times story was published, until 1 p.m. on February 7.
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Each editorial USA Today publishes is accompanied by an "opposing view" op-ed that presents a counter-argument. This is a particular problem when it comes to the topic of climate change. As Media Matters has documented on multiple occasions, the newspaper's “opposing view” format regularly leads it to publish climate denial and misinformation from authors who have undisclosed fossil-fuel industry connections.
USA Today has heard from critics who have called on it to stop running climate-denying op-eds, but instead of changing its practices, the paper's editorial board is trying to defend them. Its defense does not hold up to scrutiny.
Bill Sternberg, the paper's editorial page editor, put forward that defense in a January 26 piece titled, "Why does USA TODAY pair editorials with opposing views?" From the piece:
In recent years, perhaps no debate topic has been more controversial than global warming. A number of readers and outside groups have demanded that we stop running opposing views from climate change skeptics.
We’ve tried to adhere to the rule of thumb put forth by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York: Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts.
In other words, we won’t run pieces that deny the reality of human-induced climate change. The scientific consensus on that point is overwhelming, and increasingly so.
But we will run opposing views that disagree about proposed remedies, discuss the urgency of the climate change problem compared to other problems, or raise questions about costs versus benefits.
And whenever possible, we try to disclose potential conflicts of interest, such as whether the writers, or their organizations, have received money from fossil-fuel interests.
But in fact USA Today has regularly run "opposing view" op-eds that "deny the reality of human-induced climate change." And many of them have been written by people who have "received money from fossil-fuel interests," which the paper typically fails to disclose.
A 2016 Media Matters study found that USA Today published five “opposing view” opinion pieces featuring climate denial or misinformation from January 1, 2015, through August 31, 2016. All five were written by individuals with fossil-fuel ties, which USA Today did not disclose to readers.
For example, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the Senate's leading climate denier, argued in a March 2015 "opposing view" piece that "the debate on man-driven climate change is not over," though in fact it is over. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, as Sternberg admits in his own piece.
And, in October 2015, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) wrote an "opposing view" op-ed claiming that “temperatures have been essentially flat for 18 years," pushing a favorite climate-denier myth that has been thoroughly discredited. USA Today did not disclose that Inhofe and Sessions had both received substantial campaign contributions from fossil fuel industry interests -- millions of dollars in Inhofe's case and hundreds of thousands in Sessions'.
More recently, in August 2017, USA Today published an op-ed casting doubt on a federal climate report; the piece was written by Chris Horner, who the paper identified only as "a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute." As Media Matters pointed out at the time, Horner's work has been funded by big fossil-fuel corporations for years. Horner has received payments from Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal companies in the U.S., and has numerous other ties to the coal industry. Horner’s employer, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has received more than $2 million from ExxonMobil over the past two decades, as well as funding from Marathon Petroleum, Texaco, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, Koch Industries, and the Koch brothers' charitable foundations, among others.
But USA Today might be making modest progress on disclosure, at least. In September 2017, an "opposing view" piece by longtime climate denier Myron Ebell did acknowledge some of his conflicts of interest. The bio that ran under his piece read, "Myron Ebell is director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received donations from fossil fuel interests."
If USA Today recently adopted a policy of disclosing authors' fossil-fuel industry ties, that would be a modest step in the right direction. But it still needs to do more to fix its problem. Instead of giving a platform to an increasingly small group of climate deniers, whose views are far outside the mainstream, the paper should be inviting more commentary from diverse voices in the business, military, scientific, and other communities who are arguing for different kinds of climate solutions.
The country desperately needs intelligent debate about the best ways to combat and cope with climate change, not about whether climate change is a serious problem. If, as Sternberg claims, USA Today wants to make its readers "better informed," it should publish more op-eds by people who take climate change seriously and create a vibrant forum for honest and constructive back-and-forth about climate action.
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Two new studies highlight different troubling trends in climate change reporting. First, a disproportionate amount of climate journalism in 2017 was focused on the Trump administration's actions and statements, meaning that other climate stories got less coverage than they warranted. Second, media last year consistently failed to explain how events such as extreme weather are connected to climate change.
A research group at the University of Colorado-Boulder, the International Collective on Environment, Culture and Politics (ICE CaPs), produced the findings that illustrate how much climate coverage has been driven by President Donald Trump. It examined coverage last year in five major American newspapers: The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. In the 4,117 stories in those papers that mentioned "climate change" or "global warming," the word “Trump” appeared 19,184 times -- an average of nearly 4.7 times per article.
The researchers argued that Trump-centric coverage can crowd out other reporting on climate change: “Media attention that would have focused on other climate-related events and issues instead was placed on Trump-related actions, leaving many other stories untold.”
Public Citizen, a non-profit organization that advocates for consumer rights, took a different approach in examining climate coverage in 2017. It searched a wide array of U.S. newspapers and TV and radio news programs for stories on extreme weather and pest-borne illness and then checked whether those stories mentioned climate change. The vast majority did not. At the high end, 33 percent of pieces on record heat included the words "climate change" or "global warming." At the low end, just 4 percent of pieces discussing Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, or Nate mentioned climate change. Or, in other words, 96 percent of stories about 2017’s historic hurricane season did not note the role of climate change in making hurricanes more damaging.
Public Citizen's findings align with studies done by Media Matters last year that found TV news outlets repeatedly failed to report on how climate change is linked to more intense hurricanes, heat waves, and wildfires.
These two new alarming reports bolster the argument that we need better reporting on climate change. It is natural that Trump’s statements and actions as president will drive some climate journalism, particularly because his administration is unraveling a wide variety of climate protections. But too often the focus is on Trump himself instead of the ways his administration's moves will affect millions of Americans and others around the world. And the inordinate attention given to even Trump's minor utterances and tweets displaces national discourse around important aspects of climate change, such as its impact on extreme weather.
No matter what latest Trump scandal plays out on cable news or the front pages of newspapers, climate reporters still need to focus on how climate change is happening in the real world and how climate policy affects real people. In 2017, there were too many underreported or unreported climate stories. Will 2018 be any better?
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The rapidly developing field of climate attribution science gives reporters and meteorologists a valuable tool for educating the public
Journalists too often fail to note how climate change worsens extreme weather events, as Media Matters has documented on multiple occasions. But they should feel increasingly confident doing so. In recent years, climate change attribution science -- research that documents how climate change made specific weather events worse -- has become much more robust.
Vice News correspondent Arielle Duhaime-Ross reported on the increasing speed and confidence with which scientists can now measure climate change’s impact on individual incidences of extreme weather in a January 3 segment for HBO’s Vice News Tonight:
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: This science is really new. The first proper climate attribution study was published in 2004. Before that, scientists had struggled to explain exactly how specific weather events were connected to climate change.
Now, more and more solid, peer-reviewed studies show how climate change affects the likelihood and severity of extreme weather. And the studies are getting published really quickly after extreme weather events take place.
Remember that study from 2004? It looked at a European heat wave that took place in 2003, and it took a year and a half to complete. In contrast, just three months after Hurricane Harvey, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published a study showing that Harvey dropped 38 percent more rain than it would have without underlying climate change.
E&E News reporter Chelsea Harvey published an in-depth piece on the fast development of attribution science on January 2:
Extreme event attribution not only is possible, but is one of the most rapidly expanding subfields of climate science.
Over the last few years, dozens of studies have investigated the influence of climate change on events ranging from the Russian heat wave of 2010 to the California drought, evaluating the extent to which global warming has made them more severe or more likely to occur.
The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society now issues a special report each year assessing the impact of climate change on the previous year's extreme events.
Scientists cannot currently determine the impact of climate change on a specific event while that event is happening, but they might be able to in the future. "Some scientists hope to eventually launch a kind of standardized extreme event attribution service, similar to a weather forecasting service, that would release immediate analyses—with the same uniform methods used for each one—for every extreme event that occurs," E&E News reported.
Oxford climate scientist Myles Allen made the same point in the Vice segment: "We should be able to do this much faster, but in my view, in the long term, this should be part of the duties of the weather service. It's no longer enough for the weather service just to predict the weather. They should be in the business of explaining it as well."
Journalists too should be in the business of explaining what's behind extreme weather, not just reporting on that weather. Attribution science can help, even before it reaches the point of being able to offer real-time analyses.
The next time a hurricane makes landfall in the U.S., reporters can go beyond noting that scientists have told us to expect more damaging storms because of climate change. Reporters can point to attribution studies done on Hurricane Harvey, for example, and note that climate change boosted the storm's rainfall and made its extreme rainfall three times more likely.
Attribution studies don't predict how climate change will affect future storms, but they can help the public understand that climate change is affecting our weather right now. And as attribution science improves, climate journalism has a good opportunity to improve as well.
Numerous studies have found near-unanimous scientific agreement on human-caused climate change, with perhaps the most well-known study on the matter finding that 97 percent of scientific papers taking a position on the cause of global warming agree that humans are behind it. And this year, a review of the 3 percent of papers that deny climate change found that they were all flawed. Nonetheless, Breitbart writer Delingpole claimed that 400 scientific papers published this year demonstrated that climate change is a “myth,” basing his article on a post on the denialist blog No Tricks Zone.The fact-checking website Snopes roundly debunked Delingpole’s article, giving it a “False” verdict after speaking with authors of some of the cited papers who said their work was grossly misinterpreted or misrepresented.
Daily Mail reporter David Rose alleged that climate scientists "rushed" to publish an "exaggerated" paper in an attempt to convince leaders to support the Paris agreement and spend billions to fight climate change. Rose, who has written his fair share of climate misinformation for the Mail, based his story on an “exclusive interview” with and a blog post by retired U.S. government scientist John Bates. The error-ridden article quickly made its way around right-wing media in outlets such as The Daily Caller, National Review, and Breitbart, and was even promoted by GOP members of the House science committee, including its chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). The story’s claims also received “at least 752,300 shares, likes, comments, or other interactions on social media,” according to a Buzzfeed analysis. But the claims in the article were widely discredited by climate scientists, including Bates’ former colleagues and even Bates himself. The errors in the Mail’s article were so significant that the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), an independent media regulator in the U.K., issued a ruling that "the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article ... and had then failed to correct ... significantly misleading statements." The Daily Mail was required to publish IPSO's reprimand.
As Hurricane Irma barrelled toward Florida, Limbaugh spun conspiracy theories and told his listeners that hurricane warnings are part of a scheme to benefit retailers, the media, and people like Al Gore who want to "advance this climate change agenda." Notably, Limbaugh didn’t have any skepticism about the danger Irma posed when it came to his own well-being, as he fled from his Florida home to Los Angeles before Irma made landfall. It's not the first time Limbaugh has spouted irresponsible conspiracy theories about hurricane forecasts. He was criticized last year for doing the same thing during Hurricane Matthew, earning himself a spot on the 2016 edition of this list.
After Trump’s election, The New York Times launched an ad campaign billing itself as the antidote to Trumpian “alternative facts.” Shortly after that campaign, though, the Times hired Stephens as a columnist -- a serial misinformer who had called climate change a “sick-souled religion” during his time at The Wall Street Journal. In his inaugural column for the Times, Stephens encouraged skepticism of climate scientists and compared those who advocate climate action to Cold War-era authoritarians. Stephens’ column was short on actual facts and science; the one time he cited a scientific report, he got it wrong. The Times added a correction to the column, but numerous scientists pointed out that the correction wasn’t sufficient, and a number of scientists canceled their subscriptions over Stephens’ hiring, his problematic column, and the Times public editor’s dismissive defense of Stephens’ column. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt later cited Stephens' column to defend the Trump administration's decision to pull out of the Paris agreement.
Experts and journalists have repeatedly noted that President Donald Trump's campaign promise to bring back coal jobs is an empty one, since the decades-long decline in coal mining jobs has been driven much more by economic forces, such as increased automation and competition from natural gas and renewables, than by government regulations. But that didn’t stop Moore, a frequent Fox and CNN commentator and former Trump economic advisor, from proclaiming in op-eds in The Washington Times and Breitbart that Trump had already made good on his promise after just a few months in office. Moore cited jobs reports from March and April to claim that Trump had added tens of thousands of mining jobs, thereby restoring the coal industry. But Moore grossly misrepresented the data he cited, which actually included jobs in a number of sectors like oil and gas. Had Moore bothered to look at the actual coal mining jobs category, he would have seen that it had only grown by approximately 200 jobs through April, barely moving since Election Day.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Hewitt proposed creating a “national commission led by men and women of impeccable credentials” to determine whether and how the U.S. should address climate change, arguing that the country needs a group of “[d]iverse, smart non-scientists who are going to listen to the scientists -- all of them -- and report back on what ought to be done.” But Hewitt’s proposal instantly lost all credibility when he suggested including Rush Limbaugh as one of the commission members. Limbaugh has repeatedly called climate change a hoax, promoted dangerous climate-related conspiracy theories, misrepresented research in an attempt to dispute that global warming is happening, and even criticized a TV show for portraying climate change as a reality.
2017 was a record year for hurricanes, as Harvey, Irma, and Maria wreaked havoc along their respective paths. A number of climate scientists have explained how climate change exacerbates some of the worst impacts of hurricanes. While CNN and MSNBC frequently aired segments discussing the link between climate change and hurricanes like Harvey and Irma, Fox News hosts almost exclusively covered the climate change-hurricane link by criticizing others who raised the issue. The September 11 episode of Fox's The Five, for example, featured a lengthy discussion in which hosts criticized CNN's Jim Acosta for asking Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert whether there's a link between climate change and powerful hurricanes. The hosts said that Acosta was “anti-science” and looked “stupid” and “dumb,” and they called his question was "politically opportunistic." Fox's Jesse Watters said concern about climate change stems from liberal “guilt” and a desire to control people’s lives. Likewise, on the radio show Breitbart News Daily, host Alex Marlow pushed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to deny the link between climate change and hurricanes, which Pruitt did, stating, “For opportunistic media to use events like this to, without basis or support, just to simply engage in a cause-and-effect type of discussion, and not focus upon the needs of people, I think is misplaced."
Limbaugh cited an article in the right-wing Daily Caller headlined “Bacteria Are Eating Most Of The 2010 BP Oil Spill” and concluded, “The BP spill didn’t do any environmental [damage].” The Deepwater Horizon spill, which leaked oil for 87 days, was the largest accidental spill of oil into marine waters in world history. Researchers have documented a wide array of negative environmental impacts from the disaster. For example, a 2016 study found that the BP spill may have caused irreversible damage to one of the Gulf shore’s most important ecosystems. The spill is believed to have killed tens of thousands animals in 2010, and for years afterward, dolphins and other animals in the area continued to die at higher-than-normal rates.
During a discussion about Al Gore’s warnings on climate change, Watters, a co-host of Fox News’ The Five, declared, “People are dying from terrorism. No one is dying from climate change.” Rush Limbaugh also made the same assertion this year. But an independent report commissioned by 20 governments in 2012 concluded that climate change already kills more people than terrorism, with an estimated 400,000 deaths linked to climate change each year.
Jones briefly speculated about the possibility that Hurricane Irma was “geoengineered” or created by humans before stating, “Meanwhile, though, right on time with these superstorms, we have the new film Geoengineering (sic) 2017, coming soon on October 20. Oh, just a little bit more than a month or so after Irma is set to hit. Isn’t that just perfect timing? Like all these race war films they’ve been putting out. This is starting to get suspicious. Here it is, Geostorm.” The action movie Geostorm featured satellites that controlled the global climate. Jones' speculation about the film is just one of the countless conspiracy theories he has promoted over the years.
From hurricanes to heat waves to wildfires and beyond, 2017 has been a terrifying year of disasters in the U.S. And too many media outlets have missed a key part of the story: These aren't just natural disasters; in many cases, they're climate disasters.
The Los Angeles Times did a good job of explaining the climate-wildfire link in a December 6 editorial titled "While Southern California battles its wildfires, we have to start preparing for our hotter, drier future." Fires have long been a part of California ecosystems, and many factors have played a role in making the Thomas Fire and other December blazes so destructive, the editorial board noted, but underlying all of that is the brutal fact of global warming: "What should make Southern California fearful is that climate change could mean a future of more frequent and more intense wildfires."
Indeed, a number of scientific studies have linked climate change to increased wildfire risk in California. PBS's NewsHour aired a segment on December 13 that featured climate scientists explaining some of these links. "I think the science is pretty solid to indicate that wildfire risk is likely to increase in the future due to climate change," said scientist Radley Horton, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "I think exhibit A has to be the increase in temperature that we have observed. In California, we have seen about a 1.5-degree increase in temperature over the last century."
Unfortunately, many media outlets have not been connecting the dots between climate change and wildfires the way the L.A. Times and PBS did.
When huge fires raged through Montana and the Pacific Northwest this summer, and when fires tore through Northern California wine country in October, the major broadcast TV news programs and Sunday morning talk shows did not air a single segment discussing climate change in the context of those fires, Media Matters found. This despite the fact that scientists have determined that climate change is a major factor in forest fires in the western U.S.
Beyond fires, many mainstream media outlets missed critical opportunities this year to discuss how other kinds of disasters are made worse by climate change.
In June, parts of the southwestern U.S. baked in a record heat wave that brought temperatures up to 119 degrees in Phoenix, so hot that certain types of small planes couldn't get off the ground. The record temperatures coincided with publication of a comprehensive peer-reviewed study that found deadly heat waves are on the rise thanks to climate change. But major television network affiliates in Phoenix and Las Vegas completely failed to discuss how climate change exacerbates heat waves like the one the region was experiencing, according to a Media Matters analysis.
News coverage of the impact of climate change on hurricanes has been sorely lacking this year, too. Even the unprecedented one-two-three punch of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria wasn't enough to spur some key mainstream outlets to tell an increasingly obvious story.
ABC and NBC both completely failed to bring up climate change during their coverage of Hurricane Harvey, Media Matters found. So did the New York Post, one of the highest-circulation newspapers in the country, according to a report by Public Citizen. The Weather Channel, where many Americans turn when weather disasters loom, also failed to address the climate-hurricane connection during Harvey. Worse still, both Fox News and The Wall Street Journal ran more pieces that disputed a climate-hurricane link than pieces that acknowledged it. These findings by Media Matters and others inspired climate activists to launch a Twitter campaign calling on media to end the #climatesilence.
TV news showed modest improvement at connecting the dots between climate change and hurricanes during Hurricane Irma, but still came up short. And when Maria hit, much of the mainstream media didn't even give adequate coverage to the storm itself or its aftermath, let alone the climate angle, as both Media Matters and MIT Media Lab researchers found.
Climate change cannot be blamed for wholly causing any one individual weather disaster, but it effectively loads the dice in favor of abnormal and extreme weather, as climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues have explained.
And after a weather event has occurred, scientists can analyze the extent to which climate change was a contributing factor. A new set of papers published this month found that human-caused climate change was a “significant driver” for 21 of 27 extreme weather events in 2016, including the year's record-breaking global heat. Some scientists have already done these kinds of attribution studies for 2017's hurricanes and found that climate change increased rainfall from Hurricane Harvey by between 15 and 38 percent.
We all lost big in the climate-rigged dice game this year. There were so many record-setting extreme weather incidents and disasters in 2017 that it's hard to remember them all. Consider a few you might have forgotten:
As USA Today recently put it, "From record flooding to disastrous wildfires, 2017 will go down as one of the USA's most catastrophic years ever for extreme, violent weather that disrupted the lives of millions of Americans."
But that USA Today piece neglected to note the role climate change played in juicing up 2017's count of big disasters.
Some news organizations consistently do a better job of reporting on climate change. The New York Times and The Washington Post have published strong reporting and good editorials and opinion pieces on the impact of climate change on disasters. CNN and MSNBC outperformed other TV news outlets in discussing how hurricanes Harvey and Irma were affected by climate change. In one recent segment, CNN invited climate scientist Michael Mann to explain the connection between climate change and hurricane intensity, offering a great model for other outlets:
But those kinds of segments are all too rare. Many of the most influential mainstream media outlets need to do better at reporting on the connections scientists are finding between climate change and extreme weather. When a disaster hits, that's a prime opportunity to report on climate change, a topic that at other times might not seem newsy. When a long string of unprecedented disasters hit, as happened this year, that's even more of a call for media to tell the story of global warming.
Good journalism is needed not just to help Americans understand the reality of climate change, but to inspire them to fight the problem by pushing for a rapid shift to cleaner energy, transport, and agriculture systems.
Let's hope to see more climate-focused, science-driven journalism in 2018.
Methodology: To search for broadcast television and Sunday show coverage of the Northwest and Northern California wildfires and climate change, Media Matters searched Nexis using the term (fire! OR wildfire!) w/30 (climate change OR global warming OR changing climate OR climate warm! OR warm! climate OR warm! planet OR warm! globe OR global temperatures OR rising temperatures OR hotter temperatures).
Bloomberg suggested that climate scientists doing their jobs are trying to "undermine" Trump
A Bloomberg article unfairly portrayed government employees who are producing accurate climate change reports as "quietly working to undermine Trump's agenda." Conspiracy theorists and right-wing media figures quickly pounced on the article as evidence for their paranoid "deep state" theories.
The December 18 Bloomberg article argued that "some of the roughly two million career staff [in the federal government] have found ways to obstruct, slow down or simply ignore their new leader, the president." The first and most prominent example in the article involved government reports on climate change:
In report after report following Donald Trump’s election, career staffers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] kept saying the same thing: climate change is real, serious and man-made.
That’s surprising because Trump has called global warming a hoax. His political appointees at the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, have complained to its staff, but stopped short of demanding changes or altering the findings. So the reports, blog posts and public updates kept flowing. The bureaucrats won.
By saying that NOAA employees "won," Bloomberg painted them as political operatives engaging in partisan warfare instead of as civil servants employing science in the public interest. The article later acknowledged that NOAA staffers are right on the substance, but still mischaracterized their actions:
As the case of NOAA illustrates, the most radical example of bureaucratic resistance may also be the simplest: continuing to issue information or reports that are factually accurate, even when they clash with the administration’s policies.
Issuing factually accurate information to the public should not be characterized as "radical." It should be characterized as people doing their jobs correctly.
The article also highlights activities by employees at agencies like the State Department and the General Services Administration (GSA), some of whom seem to be trying to make their Obama-era projects align better with Trump-era priorities. The GSA, for example, is now promoting its initiative to buy electric vehicles on economic grounds rather than environmental ones. This, though, is hardly nefarious stuff.
But while the Bloomberg article doesn't offer much evidence to support its thesis of federal employees mounting "radical … resistance" to Trump, its framing has been enough to get right-wingers and conspiracy theorists excited. They're claiming it supports their belief that career government employees are secretly sabotaging President Trump.
Washington bureaucrats are chipping away at Trump’s agenda https://t.co/P52jDOvENT DEEP STATE INHABITS 4TH STATE - BUREAUCRACY - unconstitutional part of government - FIRE ALL OBAMA CLINTON HOLDOVER TRAITORS THROUGHOUT ALL FEDERAL AGENCIES
— Jerome Corsi (@jerome_corsi) December 18, 2017
The Conservative Daily Post and Before It's News, both of which are known to be fake-news purveyors, wrote up the Bloomberg article on their websites. Drudge Report, the conservative blog Instapundit, and the far-right site American Action News are promoting it too.
This is why the permanent "#deepstate" is such a problem. Career civil servants are actively & passively resisting the administration. Fixing this must be a higher priority. https://t.co/xFAOAWio5B via @business
— Jarrett Stepman (@JarrettStepman) December 18, 2017
— Matthew Continetti (@continetti) December 18, 2017
Within the Bloomberg news organization itself, there seems to be disagreement about whether or not the article supports "deep state" theories.
Aaron Rutkoff, a senior editor at Bloomberg, says no:
It's not a deep-state conspiracy that's stymying the Trump agenda. It's just regular civil servants doing their regular jobs. https://t.co/Kb79hqMmJd
— Aaron Rutkoff (@aaronrutkoff) December 18, 2017
But Alex Wayne, Bloomberg Business' White House editor, says yes:
— Alex Wayne (@aawayne) December 18, 2017
When the reporting of basic scientific facts is considered radical and political, then we're in trouble.
The magazine Scientific American warned about the politicization of science in an editorial published during the 2016 presidential campaign: "A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country's particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—'We hold these truths to be self-evident'—they were asserting the fledgling nation's grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence."
Journalists, of all people, should hold fast to the idea that reporting facts is not an extreme or ideological act. It's simply a necessary one.
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