PBS Ombud: NewsHour Climate Change Report Worth Criticizing

UPDATE: PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler has written that the segment “was not the PBS NewsHour's finest 10 minutes.” Getler said that global warming is an issue where it is “wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence” between what reporter Michels called “skeptics” and “believers.” The Ombudsman added that it was “stunning” to him that PBS “picked Watts -- who is a meteorologist and commentator -- rather than a university-accredited scientist to provide 'balance.'” Getler also reported that NewsHour's executive producer has acknowledged that Watts' statements about the quality of temperature data should not have been left unchallenged.

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.”