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David Leonhardt

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  • Four ways the NY Times has undermined its own climate coverage

    The paper gave ammunition to the Trump administration to deny climate science and defend dropping out of the Paris agreement

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS

    The New York Times has done some stellar reporting on climate change, and it’s poised to do more thanks to its recent creation of a dedicated climate team. See, for instance, its impressive ongoing series on how climate change is affecting major cities, and another recent multimedia series on the melting of Antarctica.

    But the paper has made serious missteps in recent days and weeks, some of which have bolstered the White House’s case for climate denial and for dropping out of the Paris climate agreement. Here are four problems that deserve to be called out:

    1. Letting Bret Stephens spread climate denial, which was seized on by Scott Pruitt

    The New York Times hired conservative climate denier Bret Stephens as an op-ed columnist in April, and his first column was a factually compromised and misleading attack on climate science. Its publication provoked widespread condemnation of the Times and Stephens in late April.

    Then the column got a new round of attention late last week, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement. On June 2, the day after Trump’s announcement, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt defended the move from the podium in the White House briefing room, and cited Stephens' column to make the case that climate science is unsettled:

    I don’t know if you saw this article or not, but the “Climate of Complete Certainty” by Bret Stephens that was in The New York Times talked about -- and I’ll just read a quote, because I thought it was a very important quote from this article. “Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the IPCC knows that, while the modest 0.85 degrees Celsius warming of the earth that has occurred since 1880, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. Isn’t (sic) to acknowledge it honestly.”

    Pruitt actually misquoted the column, omitting Stephens’ acknowledgement that there has been “indisputable ... human influence” on the warming of the earth since 1880. But nonetheless, Pruitt left the impression that The New York Times supported his fringe views.

    As Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz put it, “It’s a disaster for a paper that sold itself to readers as a bulwark against the new president, then turned around and hired a prominent climate change skeptic.”

    2. Ignoring the fact that Pruitt seized on Stephens’ climate denial

    In an article about Trump’s views on climate change, New York Times reporter Peter Baker noted that Pruitt had questioned climate science during his remarks at the White House, but Baker neglected to mention that the EPA chief had used a New York Times column as a main piece of supporting evidence for his claims.

    3. Publishing a misleading story on small-business owners’ views on Paris, which was seized on by Pruitt

    On June 2, The New York Times published an article by Landon Thomas Jr. titled “Small Businesses Cheer ‘New Sheriff in Town’ After Climate Pact Exit.” Thomas claimed, “While multinational corporations such as Disney, Goldman Sachs and IBM have opposed the president’s decision to walk away from the international climate agreement, many small companies around the country were cheering him on, embracing the choice as a tough-minded business move that made good on Mr. Trump’s commitment to put America’s commercial interests first.”

    The article ignored the fact that hundreds of small businesses had publicly called for remaining in the Paris agreement, and it quoted no small-business owners who supported the deal. Small-business supporters weren’t that hard to find, even in red states. NPR's Morning Edition featured one, Fhebe Lane, who runs a store in a conservative Texas coal town. A Trump voter, Lane said she was concerned about the climate getting hotter and thought limiting emissions was a good idea.

    Thomas’ article also drew criticism for quoting some of the same pro-Trump voices he had cited in a previous piece, as Media Matters has noted. Boston Globe writer Michael Cohen pointed out that the article was “remarkably similar” to a piece Thomas wrote three months earlier; Cohen and others noted that the same two people “are quoted in both articles extolling Mr. Trump’s virtues” and “their positive words about Trump are used as evidence that small business owners are behind the president.”

    But Pruitt, for one, liked the article. He quoted it during an appearance on ABC’s This Week on June 4:

    Even The New York Times had an article, I think, within the last couple of days that talked about small business celebrating, euphoria, with respect to the president’s decision.

    4. Blaming the Democrats alongside the Koch brothers for GOP climate denial

    New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton published a mostly well-reported article on widespread Republican refusal to accept climate science. But the story contained a ridiculous claim that “Democratic hubris” was partly to blame:

    The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.

    While the article laid out plenty of evidence that the Koch brothers had affected elected Republicans’ views, it did not make any kind of convincing case that Democrats had.

    Talking Points Memo Editor Josh Marshall characterized the “Democratic hubris” line as “half of what is imbecilic in contemporary political journalism”:

    As New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, who wrote a book on the Koch brothers, noted in a post on June 5, Republican climate denial and the rejection of the Paris agreement are clear and direct consequences of the Kochs and other rich fossil fuel barons pouring money into the political scene. “It is, perhaps, the most astounding example of influence-buying in modern American political history,” she wrote.

    Democrats, hubristic or not, can’t claim credit for that.

    Whither the Times?

    “The paper has lost its way,” Think Progress’ Joe Romm wrote in a post criticizing the Davenport/Lipton article and other pieces published by the Times. “A shocking number of recent articles reveal a paper that’s begun to embrace false balance, giving equal time to both climate misinformers and actual climate experts, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus.”

    Still, many journalists at The New York Times are pulling in the right direction. Columnist David Leonhardt gently disputed the “Democratic hubris” argument in a piece on June 5. A number of Times journalists expressed their displeasure with Stephens’ first column. And the climate team keeps doing great work. Let’s hope their side wins the tug-of-war.

  • CJR's Salmon: New York Times "Budget Puzzle" skewed in favor of the rich

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    On Monday, I explained a few problems with the New York Times' attention-grabbing "Budget Puzzle," which encouraged readers to try to address short- and long- term budget shortfalls through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. One of those problems was what appeared to be a subtle bias against taxing the wealthy in the Times' description of estate tax options.

    As it turns out, Felix Salmon of the Columbia Journalism Review had some similar problems with the Times' approach:

    The too-hard part comes on the tax-hike side, where the options are far too limited. For instance, you have two choices when it comes to taxes on capital gains and dividends, both of which cap that tax at 20%. Can't I opt to raise that tax to the same level as the income tax? Even the deficit commission does that.

    Similarly, for the payroll tax, the most you can do is raise the ceiling so that it covers the same 90% of all income that it covered at inception; you can't raise it any further than that, or abolish the ceiling entirely.

    Most importantly, the options for new taxes are extremely constrained.

    I'd also love to see the option of a wealth tax, which could raise a lot of money from those most able to afford it.

    In my post, I noted that the Times did a poor job of explaining to readers the consequences of various options. According to Salmon, those consequences would generally be much worse for the poor and middle class than for the wealthy:

    In general, the NYT options on both the spending-cut and the tax-hike side tend to hit the poor and the middle classes more drastically than the rich; what's missing here is the option to implement something much more progressive, in both senses of the word. It's a missed opportunity, and a shame.

    As I noted on Monday, one of the biggest problems with the Times' approach was that it short-changed the importance of economic growth, both by focusing on the budget deficit rather than the struggling economy and by failing to give readers any indication of the impact their choices would have on growth. To his credit, David Leonhardt -- the Times reporter behind the "budget puzzle" -- devoted his column today to the importance of economic growth in reducing the deficit.

  • Is Paul Ryan the media's new John McCain?

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    The New York Times' David Leonhardt begins today's piece with a refreshingly straightforward lede:

    In their Pledge to America, Congressional Republicans have used the old trick of promising specific tax cuts and vague spending cuts. It's the politically easy approach, and it is likely to be as bad for the budget as when George W. Bush tried it.

    Unfortunately, Leonhardt then shifts into "Praise Paul Ryan" mode, which is apparently mandatory among Beltway media:

    The sad thing is, a truly conservative approach to the deficit does exist. You can find strands of it among Republican governors, some of the party's current Congressional candidates and the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan.

    [T]he biggest cause of looming deficits is Medicare. Mr. Daniels, a possible 2012 presidential candidate, recently told Newsweek that he favored Medicare cuts. Mr. Ryan has been willing to get specific. For everyone now under 55, he wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program that's much less generous than the program is scheduled to be.

    Mr. Ryan's budget blueprint offers an especially pointed contrast with the pledge. The Ryan plan calls for holding taxes at around 19 percent of G.D.P. and suggests specific cuts to bring spending in line. The pledge calls for even lower taxes — while offering almost no detail on spending cuts.

    Which seems more credible?

    But the Ryan plan doesn't call for "holding taxes at around 19 percent of GDP" -- it pretends that tax revenue will remain around 19 percent of GDP, even as Ryan proposes significant changes to the tax system. The Tax Policy Center's Howard Gleckman has pointed out that Ryan's proposed changes are similar to those offered by Fred Thompson during his presidential campaign -- and that Thompson's "scheme would reduce tax revenues by between $6 trillion and $8 trillion over 10 years."

    Ryan specifically instructed the Congressional Budget Office to ignore his actual tax proposals and instead simply assume that tax revenue remains at 19 percent of GDP -- and yet Ryan consistently wins media praise for producing a "specific" and "credible" budget blueprint. Bizarre. It's like he's the new John McCain.