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  • How a scheme to discredit climate science spread from conservative media to the EPA chief

    Scott Pruitt has embraced the “red team/blue team” idea that got exposure from Daily Caller and WSJ

    Blog ››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is calling for a “red team/blue team” review of climate science that would attempt to cast doubt on well-established science and lend an outsize voice to fringe scientists. The idea spread from a climate-denying scientist to conservative outlets like The Daily Caller and The Wall Street Journal to Pruitt, and now more right-wing outlets are promoting it.

    How the “red team/blue team” idea spread

    John Christy, a fringe scientist and climate denier, proposed the creation of a “red team” in comments submitted to the EPA in 2014. His proposal was promoted by the denialist Cooler Heads Coalition, a group of organizations that “question global warming alarmism.” In his comments, Christy wrote:

    The EPA should constitute a “Red Team” of analysts, independent from the climate modeling industry, to judge the current state of knowledge, i.e. the current state of how much we know about the “why” of climate variations. Such an examination would provide transparency to the process and give confidence to the public that the agency values open examination of its methodology.

    In 2015, Christy again promoted the idea of the federal government funding a new “red team” that would review the climate science currently being produced by what he calls the “blue team.” The Daily Caller reported on Christy’s proposal in December 2015:

    Christy told the [Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness] he believes the attempt to study climate change objectively is thwarted by the federal funding process.

    Christy, a well-known climate change skeptic, suggests Congress can fix the problem by directly funding independent “red team” programs.

    And in March of this year, Christy promoted the idea during a hearing held in the House Science Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), a noted climate denier. Judith Curry, another scientist who’s been skeptical of the mainstream consensus on climate change, also testified in favor of the idea. The Washington Post reported on Christy and Curry’s testimony and the “red team” idea:

    A main mission of red teams would be to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, including the work of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports are widely considered the authority on climate science.

    On April 20, the idea got more exposure when it was endorsed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist who has a history of climate denial and served as undersecretary at the Energy Department under President Barack Obama for two years before resigning. Koonin called on the Trump administration “to convene a ‘Red Team/Blue Team’ process for climate science, one of the most important and contentious issues of our age.” He continued:

    The national-security community pioneered the “Red Team” methodology to test assumptions and analyses, identify risks, and reduce—or at least understand—uncertainties. The process is now considered a best practice in high-consequence situations such as intelligence assessments, spacecraft design and major industrial operations.

    As justification for such an exercise, Koonin claimed that the “public is largely unaware of the intense debates within climate science.”

    Shortly after his op-ed was published, Koonin told Axios, “I can tell you that’s found some resonance within the administration. I’m just going to say people seem to be interested.”

    One of those people is Pruitt. In a radio interview on Breitbart News Daily on June 5, Pruitt expressed interest in the “red team/blue team” idea. From a Breitbart article about the interview:

    “What the American people deserve is a true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2,” [Pruitt] said. “There was a great article that was in the Wall Street Journal about a month or so ago called ‘Red Team, Blue Team’ by Steve Koonin, a scientist, I believe, at NYU. He talked about the importance of having a Red Team of scientists and a Blue Team of scientists, and those scientists get into a room and ask, ‘What do we know? What don’t we know? What risk does it pose to health in the United States and the world, with respect to this issue of [carbon dioxide]?’”

    In the days after that interview, right-wing outlets picked up on the idea again. The Daily Caller reported that it “could upset the supposed ‘consensus’ on man-made global warming.” Breitbart said the proposal “has naturally caused massive upset among the ivory towers of climate science academe” where researchers “aren’t at all used to having their dodgy theories exposed to serious scrutiny.” The right-wing website Daily Signal, the conservative blog Power Line, and the climate-denial blog Watts Up With That also highlighted Pruitt's interview and the red team proposal.

    Why the “red team/blue team” idea is wrongheaded

    In advocating for a “red team” review of climate science, Pruitt, Koonin, and right-wing media are glossing over the fact that climate science already has a method for testing assumptions and analyses: the peer-review system. Climate science papers submitted to respected journals are reviewed by other scientists in the field to assess their soundness and validity.

    As Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Washington Post in June, creating a red team to review climate science would constitute an act of false equivalence and lend, as the Post wrote, “more prominence to alternative ideas than they have earned in the refereed journal process.” Earlier, in March, he told the Post, “The notion that we would need to create an entirely different new approach, in particular for the specific question around global warming is unfounded and ridiculous and simply intended to promote the notion of a lack of consensus about the core findings, which in fact is a false notion.”

    The Post also quoted Marshall Shepherd, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Georgia, who called Koonin’s proposal a “gimmick,” saying, “This just feels to me a like another way to skirt the tried and true scientific process that has worked for years in our field and many others.”

    Climate science has already been litigated ad nauseum in mainstream forums. Numerous studies have found that the vast majority of climate scientists agree that humans are the primary cause of global warming. And recent studies examining the robustness of that consensus have reaffirmed it; about 97 percent of publishing climate scientists concur.


    Via Skeptical Science

    Creating a “red team” could lead to scenarios like the one at a House science committee hearing in March, when climate scientist Michael Mann was outnumbered by fringe scientists and forced to be the sole representative of the scientific consensus on climate change. “We find ourselves at this hearing today, with three individuals who represent that tiny minority that reject this consensus or downplay its significance, and only one—myself—who is in the mainstream,” Mann said in his opening testimony.

    The impact of major newspapers’ opinion pages

    Though fringe, right-wing media have played a substantial role in spreading the “red team/blue team” proposal and other denialist ideas, mainstream newspapers also bear some responsibility. When Pruitt referenced Koonin’s op-ed, it was the second time in less than a week that he had lifted an argument from the opinion pages of a major newspaper to cast doubt on established climate science. On June 2, standing at the podium of the White House press briefing room, Pruitt cited an error-riddled, denialist New York Times column by Bret Stephens in order to downplay “exaggerated” concerns about climate change.

    As a Media Matters study conducted last year demonstrated, climate denial remains a significant problem in the major newspapers. The world has just endured the three hottest years on record, and newspapers are still allowing their opinion pages to be used to deny climate change. That trend is all the more alarming now that the Trump administration is quickly adopting those denialist arguments.

  • Media shouldn’t fall for Trump’s infrastructure scheme

    Don’t be fooled: Trump’s “$1 trillion” infrastructure agenda is actually just a $200 billion tax giveaway

    Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON

    President Donald Trump is back on the campaign trail today promoting his infrastructure agenda, which the White House has falsely labeled as a $1 trillion plan to stimulate the economy and upgrade American infrastructure. Media outlets should avoid accepting the administration’s characterization of its scheme, which falls short of its already inadequate price tag and would saddle Americans with additional tolls and user fees.

    On June 7, Trump is scheduled to appear at a rally in Cincinnati, OH, where he will promote his plan for American public infrastructure. The White House has billed its infrastructure agenda as a $1 trillion plan to upgrade and revitalize failing public works around the country. But, as The Associated Press (AP) and CNN reported, the plan outlined in Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 just called for $200 billion in tax cuts spread over nine years meant to “leverage $1 trillion worth of construction.” The plan would establish a nationwide system of so-called “public-private partnerships” -- sometimes referred to as P3s -- that could impose new cost burdens on taxpayers. An article in The New York Times outlined how P3s “may result in near-term savings” but “there is little hard evidence that they perform better over time.” Eventually, taxpayers end up paying for infrastructure via taxes or tolls whether it is controlled by the government or leased to a private for-profit firm. A June 7 column in Politico went into even more details of the potential pitfalls of Trump’s pursuit of a public-private partnership model:

    The government can reap huge benefits from public-private partnerships—but only if they are structured correctly. All too often, though, government officials lack the knowledge and experience necessary to negotiate good deals, ultimately costing taxpayers millions, if not billions, of dollars. In their attacks, Democrats may be misusing the word “privatization” when describing Trump’s infrastructure plan but the risks they describe are very real.

    Other than the pitfalls of public-private partnerships inherent to Trump’s plan, it is also woefully inadequate to address the needs of public infrastructure in the 21st century. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), public infrastructure in the United States earned a D+ grade in 2017 and is in need of over $2 trillion of new investments over the next decade. Even in the best-case scenario, Trump’s plan would fall far short of these necessary investments -- and as some Democratic lawmakers have pointed out, Trump is actually cutting more from existing infrastructure programs than he plans to spend on tax cuts for new infrastructure. In contrast to Trump, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) does have a plan to make up for the roughly $2 trillion infrastructure funding gap, which it believes would create millions of new jobs and meet America’s infrastructure needs. The CPC proposal released last month stresses the need to “prioritize public investment over corporate giveaways” while addressing the need to “prioritize racial and gender equity and environmental justice” while stoking economic growth.

    Far from being a $1 trillion plan to inject desperately needed federal investments into ailing public works, the Trump plan is little more than trickle-down economics loaded with tax giveaways for business and it is inadequate at best. Media coverage of his proposal needs to reflect those facts and would benefit from including expert perspectives and opposing views to better inform the infrastructure debate.

  • 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.

  • Right-wing media continue to push myth that Trump can get a better deal than Paris

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    via flickr creative commons user neurotic_buddha

    Within hours of President Donald Trump’s announcement that he intends to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement and negotiate a better deal, other world leaders made it clear that renegotiation is not an option. But right-wing media and the administration are continuing to push the fanciful notion that Trump can negotiate a more favorable pact.

    Trump claims Paris was a bad deal and he can get a better one

    When Trump made his announcement on June 1 -- a move cheered by many in conservative media -- he said he intended to renegotiate:

    [T]he United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord … but but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or an -- really entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we're getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that's fair. And if we can, that's great. And if we can't, that's fine.

    The White House talking points about the decision stress the idea that the Paris accord was a bad deal for the U.S. -- bad in all caps, lest you miss the point:

    The Paris Accord is a BAD deal for Americans. … The deal was negotiated BADLY.

    Right-wing media push bad-deal/good-deal frame

    This frame -- that Paris is a bad deal and Trump can get a good deal -- had been pushed by right-wing media in the days leading up to his decision, and the claim continued to make the rounds after the announcement was made, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

    On May 30, David Bossie -- a former deputy campaign manager for Trump and a Fox News contributor who is being considered for a role in the White House -- went on Fox News Radio and called for the Trump administration to renegotiate the Paris deal:

    My recommendation is: You get out of Paris, you get out of the Paris treaty, you get out right now, and then you let Scott Pruitt, your EPA administrator, who is very good and a great negotiator, go out and negotiate new deals, deals that are good for America and the rest of the world combined.

    On June 1, before Trump made his announcement, Stuart Varney of Fox Business' Varney & Co. argued that former President Obama did a terrible job negotiating the Paris deal and Trump could do much better:

    The Obama team gave virtually everything away -- our money and our jobs -- and received only vague promises of future good behavior. In my opinion, it was a lousy deal. So maybe our president will do the same as he did with NAFTA -- that is, threaten to withdraw, then negotiate a better deal. … He did, after all, write the book The Art of the Deal.

    And Fox Business tweeted out the point too:

    During Trump's speech, Breitbart's Curt Schilling tweeted out his approval of the president's plan to renegotiate the deal:

    Nobody wants to renegotiate with the U.S.

    But other world leaders are not interested in sitting down at the table with the U.S. again, as they quickly made clear.

    Shortly after Trump's announcement, the leaders of France, Italy, and Germany issued a joint statement refuting the notion that the Paris deal is up for renegotiation:

    We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe that the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.

    And a group of ministers from 24 nations -- known as the High Ambition Coalition, which pushed to make the Paris agreement as strong as possible -- also threw cold water on the idea of renegotiating:

    Our commitment to the Paris Agreement is unshakeable. We have every reason to fight for its full implementation.

    “Apparently the White House has no understanding of how an international treaty works," said Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), who led the negotiation process leading up to the Paris agreement. "There is no such thing as withdrawing and then negotiating.”

    And the current secretariat of the UNFCCC also put out a statement saying that the agreement "cannot be renegotiated based on the request of a single Party."

    Bloomberg summed up the situation in headline: "Everyone But Donald Trump Is Standing By the Paris Climate Agreement."

    Right-wing media still insist Trump can negotiate a better deal

    Even after world leaders made their opposition to renegotiation crystal clear, right-wing media continued to push the myth that the president could get a new and improved deal.

    "One of the [things] I'm looking forward to, and I've seen some of: Donald Trump's ability to renegotiate a better deal and better positioning for the United States of America," said Eboni Williams, a co-host of The Fox News Specialists, on June 2.

    "If the Paris accord was actually meant to save the environment, the globalists would be happy to renegotiate the deal with President Trump," wrote Kit Daniels at Infowars on June 3.

    Administration officials also went on Fox News to keep pushing the "better deal" idea.

    Vice President Mike Pence said on Fox & Friends on June 2, "You also heard [Trump] leave the door open to renegotiating a better arrangement, to maybe re-entering the Paris accord under new terms and new conditions. … In withdrawing from the Paris accord, and in offering to renegotiate it in a way that is more fair, more equitable to our economy and every economy in the world, again you see President Donald Trump is being leader of the free world." Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt did not push back on that assertion.

    And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke went on Fox News' America's Newsroom on June 2 to defend Trump's move: "It was a bad deal. I think the president has said he’s going to renegotiate it, offer to renegotiate it. … If we're going to sit down, let's make sure the agreement has shared burden." Fox host Bill Hemmer neglected to point out that other countries have said they will not sit down to renegotiate the deal with the Trump administration.

    Informed commentators mock renegotiation claims

    New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, speaking on The New Yorker's "Politics and More" podcast on June 2, slapped down the renegotiation idea: "When Trump says, 'I'm going to negotiate a better deal,' well that's a lie, that's just not possible."

    Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who played a key role in negotiating the Paris agreement, was even more forceful on this point during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press on June 4:

    When Donald Trump says, well, we're going to negotiate a better deal, you know, he's going to go out and find a better deal? That's like O.J. Simpson saying he's going to go out and find the real killer. Everybody knows he isn't going to do that.

    The U.S. already had a favorable deal

    Even if other countries were willing to sit back down at the table, it's highly unlikely the U.S. would get a better deal. That's because the U.S. already got a favorable deal when the Paris agreement was negotiated in 2015.

    The Paris deal "is more fair to the U.S. than previous agreements because it includes all the major economies of the world, not just the rich countries, so both developed countries and developing countries have skin in the game," Jody Freeman, director of Harvard Law School's Environmental Law and Policy Program, told The Washington Post after Trump made his announcement.

    "Paris already gives countries tremendous flexibility, and no penalties," Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental law at Columbia and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told the Post.

    The Obama administration had wanted to take part in the agreement, but it knew that a climate treaty couldn't get ratified by the U.S. Senate. So the entire global community bent over backward to accommodate the U.S. political system -- crafting a nonbinding accord that's looser than a treaty and making action pledges voluntary with no enforcement mechanisms. 

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before the negotiations that a good agreement would be “binding,” but she and other like-minded leaders gave in to the U.S. on this point.

    As The Guardian reported just after the Paris negotiations took place in December 2015, "Under US insistence, the 31-page agreement was explicitly crafted to exclude emissions reductions targets and finance from the legally binding parts of the deal. … The other exclusion zone was any clause in the agreement that would expose the US to liability and compensation claims for causing climate change."

    Ultimately, many world leaders and climate advocates thought the U.S. got too good of deal -- so good that the resulting agreement was disappointingly weak.

    From The Guardian: "The US – and European – position was a huge disappointment for the low-lying and small island states, which argued they needed recognition that their countries could pay the ultimate price for climate change in terms of land loss and migration."

    “The United States has hindered ambition," Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth U.S., said in December 2015. "Using the world’s atmosphere and the suffering of the vulnerable as a guide, the United States is failing -- by a long shot -- to do what climate science and justice demand. This holds true for the United States' greenhouse gas reduction pledge, its provision of funds for developing countries to take climate action and its obstruction of progress on loss and damage.”

    Despite the United States' successful effort to water down the Paris agreement, other countries, both rich and poor, still stepped up to the plate with meaningful action pledges. As The Economist noted just after Trump made his announcement, "All [of the Paris agreement's] signatories—which is to say, every country except Syria, Nicaragua and now America—have undertaken to reduce emissions against business-as-usual targets." This despite the fact that many of those countries have contributed very little to the problem of climate change, while the U.S. is the biggest carbon polluter in history, as The New York Times pointed out.

    So now other countries are moving forward without the U.S. The Europeans are planning to work more closely with China and India. The leaders of France and India have announced that they're going to cooperate jointly on fighting climate change. Instead of getting a better deal, the U.S. is cut out of the dealmaking.

  • Right-wing media cheer Trump withdrawing United States from the Paris climate agreement

    Business leaders and experts agree decision to pull out of agreement “would harm every American” and "devastate [America’s] international credibility"

    ››› ››› BRENDAN KARET & NICK FERNANDEZ

    Right-wing media figures cheered President Donald Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris climate agreement, which sought to reduce international greenhouse gas emissions. But experts and business leaders condemned the decision, calling the move a “historic mistake” and “a gratuitous thumb in everyone’s eye.”

  • Did the NY Times forget the “long trail of deception” that spurred hiring a public editor in the first place?

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    It’s nearly impossible to consider The New York Times’ decision this week to eliminate its public editor after more than a decade without remembering the man who made the position happen in the first place: Jayson Blair.

    Blair was no high-level editor or publishing executive at the Times in 2003 when he caused the biggest scandal in the paper’s history, which eventually forced the Grey Lady to create the ombudsman-like position.

    He was just a reporter.

    But the way he manipulated people and facts with a combination of distortions, plagiarism, and outright lies boosted his ability to affect the paper’s credibility and image as much as any top editor or publisher.

    In the words of the Times’ own unprecedented 7,300-word investigative report about Blair's "long trail of deception," which ran on page one and spanned four full inside pages of the Mother’s Day, 2003, edition:

    He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.

    And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq.

    The Times’ report warranted the bylines of five reporters and additional help from two other researchers to detail how Blair had spent years making up sources, quotes, and facts -- and even lying about being in locations where he had purported to covered news.

    In the end, Blair caused the departure of the paper’s top two editors, sparked a massive internal investigation and mea culpa, and left the paper’s image so broken that it desperately sought to repair it by hiring an independent ombudsman.

    But he did not wreak all of the havoc on his own. As the internal investigation found, Blair was aided by editors who ignored warnings of poor reporting and questionable actions, as well as colleagues who found his charm and flattery endearing:

    The Times inquiry also establishes that various editors and reporters expressed misgivings about Mr. Blair's reporting skills, maturity and behavior during his five-year journey from raw intern to reporter on national news events. Their warnings centered mostly on the errors in his articles.

    His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional, that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: ''We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.''

    The lengthy article went on to detail how Blair had been given chance after chance despite his poor record of credibility and reporting. And he did not just make mistakes of carelessness or laziness; there was outright deception.

    One of the most notable examples was coverage of the 2002 sniper case in suburban Washington, D.C., which terrorized the area for months. Blair wrote two stories cited in the Times review about the two men arrested in the case that were later found to include inaccurate information attributed to unnamed sources.

    As a reporter at newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher at the time, I was one of many media scribes who covered the historic scandal.

    For anyone in the news business then, the Blair bombshell threw the Times’ then-152-year history of respectable journalism and reporting into a tailspin.

    While the paper received credit for revealing so much of its scandal so openly, critics also took hold of the massive pile of lies that Blair had orchestrated and wondered if the paper’s image could ever recover.

    And other news outlets felt the shock waves from the Times’ ethical earthquake as news in general came under scrutiny and new questions about how newsrooms reviewed sources and stories were raised. Many argued that if the Times could be taken in such a major way, what’s happening at other, smaller news outlets?

    Eventually the Times made several moves to pick up the pieces of its shattered credibility.

    Less than a month after the lengthy May 2003 report, the paper fired then-executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd. Raines, a former editorial page editor, had been hailed just a year earlier when the paper swept half of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, many of them related to coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

    Editor & Publisher had even named Raines editor of the year.

    Soon after, the Times appointed a 25-person committee led by assistant managing editor Allan Siegal and including a number of staff as well as several distinguished leaders in journalism to review the paper’s practices and recommend changes to prevent future Jayson Blairs.

    Among the recommendations in the eventual 58-page committee report was the hiring of a public editor who would have complete autonomous power to review complaints and issues related to the paper’s work. The editor would serve for a fixed term to allow even more independent review.

    In the 14 years since the Blair scandal and the follow-up recommendations it spurred, six people have served in the public editor role. And on Wednesday, just hours after the announcement of the position’s demise, four of those past public editors told me the decision to end the position was a mistake.

    In all, more than 900 public editor columns have been written and remain on the Times website, weighing in on issues ranging from poor coverage of pre-war weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to reporting on sexual assaults and sexual harassment.

    And according to Daniel Okrent, the Times’ first public editor, the most discussed issue through all of those years has been the use of “unattributed sources.” It’s a problem he says the public editor role was able to seriously investigate, but one that still needs continued review -- and it’s now fueling public debate.  

    Times editors apparently think that enough time and criticism have tamed the problems that allowed the Blair scandal to occur 14 years ago. However, as the journalism world fights new battles every day, the need for the strong, independent voice of a public editor may be greater than even in Blair’s time.

  • NY Times' Farhad Manjoo shows how disinformation moves from message boards through Twitter and ends up on Hannity

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo reported on the ecosystem that allows disinformation to spread through Twitter and to mainstream and right-wing media, including a conspiracy theory surrounding the murder of a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer that was cooked up in message boards and eventually promoted by Fox News host Sean Hannity.

    Though Facebook has enabled a fake news ecosystem that empowers total lies, anonymous Twitter bots have also played a part in undermining discourse and truth. Former FBI agent Clint Watts testified in front of the Senate intelligence committee in March about “how Russians used armies of Twitter bots to spread fake news using accounts that seem to be Midwestern swing-voter Republicans,” as NPR described it. And according to a McClatchy report, the FBI is investigating Russian operatives and far-right news websites for their use of bots to spread misinformation.

    In a May 31 report, the Times’ Manjoo detailed the role of Twitter in spreading disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories, using the story of murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich as one example. The report noted that though “Hannity pushed the theory the loudest, … it was groups on Twitter -- or more specifically, bots on Twitter -- that were first to the story and helped make it huge”:

    [T]he biggest problem with Twitter’s place in the news is its role in the production and dissemination of propaganda and misinformation. It keeps pushing conspiracy theories — and because lots of people in the media, not to mention many news consumers, don’t quite understand how it works, the precise mechanism is worth digging into.

    We recently saw the mechanism in action when another baseless conspiracy theory rose to the top of the news: The idea that the murder last year of Seth Rich, a staff member at the Democratic National Committee, was linked, somehow, to the leaking of Clinton campaign emails. The Fox News host Sean Hannity pushed the theory the loudest, but it was groups on Twitter — or, more specifically, bots on Twitter — that were first to the story and helped make it huge.

    Hannity’s obsession with Rich’s murder is a strong example of how this ecosystem shapes media narratives. Hannity has come under fire and lost a number of his advertisers for his relentless promotion of a conspiracy theory alleging that Rich’s 2016 murder was a result of his leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Hannity’s promotion of the theory continued after Fox News retracted an online story making similar claims and after Rich’s family requested that Hannity stop pushing the story. Hannity has a long history of pushing conspiracy theories.

    Manjoo quotes an expert on internet propaganda who said Twitter bots amplify groups’ messages and allow them to “use Twitter as a megaphone” and eventually “manufactur[e] consensus” for ideas. Manjoo contextualized how that works for conspiracy theories. First, groups take to message boards like Reddit or 4chan or Facebook groups to “decide on a particular message to push.” Then bots “flood the network, tweeting and retweeting thousands or hundreds of thousands of messages in support of the story.” These tweets often include a “branding hashtag” such as #sethrich. The report noted that “the initial aim isn’t to convince or persuade, but simply to overwhelm,” and that as stories become Trending Topics, reporters are forced to respond, thereby aiding the propagandists’ spread of the story even as media outlets debunk it. Others, like Hannity, pick up the weaponized disinformation, attempt to legitimize it, and put it on a larger platform like his prime-time Fox News show or radio program:

    “Bots allow groups to speak much more loudly than they would be able to on any other social media platforms — it lets them use Twitter as a megaphone,” said Samuel Woolley, the director for research at Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project. “It’s doing something that I call ‘manufacturing consensus,’ or building the illusion of popularity for a candidate or a particular idea.”

    How this works for conspiracy theories is relatively straightforward. Outside of Twitter — in message boards or Facebook groups — a group will decide on a particular message to push. Then the deluge begins. Bots flood the network, tweeting and retweeting thousands or hundreds of thousands of messages in support of the story, often accompanied by a branding hashtag — #pizzagate, or, a few weeks ago, #sethrich.

    The initial aim isn’t to convince or persuade, but simply to overwhelm — to so completely saturate the network that it seems as if people are talking about a particular story. The biggest prize is to get on Twitter’s Trending Topics list, which is often used as an assignment sheet for the rest of the internet.

    I witnessed this in mid-May, just after the Fox affiliate in Washington reported that a private investigator for Mr. Rich’s family had bombshell evidence in the case. The story later fell apart, but that night, Twitter bots went with it.

    Hundreds of accounts with few or no followers began tweeting links to the story. By the next morning, #SethRich was trending nationally on Twitter — and the conspiracy theory was getting wide coverage across the right, including, in time, Mr. Hannity.

    [...]

    Because they operate unseen, bots catalyze the news: They speed up the process of discovery and dissemination of particular stories, turning an unknown hashtag into the next big thing. A trending hashtag creates a trap for journalists who cover the internet: Even if they cover a conspiracy theory only to debunk it, they’re most likely playing into what the propagandists’ want.

  • EPA reportedly helped Paris agreement opponents place op-eds in newspapers

    ››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER & LISA HYMAS

    President Donald Trump has decided to exit the Paris climate agreement, according to Axios. The news site also reported that the Scott Pruitt-led Environmental Protection Agency has been “quietly working” with opponents of the agreement to help them place op-eds in newspapers. Media Matters identified a number of anti-Paris agreement op-eds that have been published in papers around the U.S. in recent weeks, spreading misinformation about the expected economic impacts of the agreement, the commitment of developing countries to cutting emissions, and climate science in general.

  • “Mind control,” “shadow government,” and Seth Rich: Sean Hannity’s history of pushing conspiracy theories

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    Fox News host Sean Hannity attracted widespread condemnation for pushing conspiracy theories about a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, but it wasn’t his first time promoting or entertaining such wild claims on air. From claiming that the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick protested the national anthem because he “may have converted to Islam” to implying that former President Barack Obama is a terrorist sympathizer, here are some examples of Hannity embracing conspiracy theories.

  • Here are the oil and coal companies, Fortune 500 corporations, and Republicans who want to stay in the Paris agreement

    ExxonMobil, Apple, Google, and hundreds of other firms support the climate pact, as do some GOP members of Congress

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS

    With President Donald Trump reportedly poised to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, right-wing media are encouraging the move by misleading about the accord. They're claiming that it is a job killer and “anti-Western,” that it would lead to "economic devastation," and that it amounts to an "international regulatory scheme.”

    But leaving the Paris agreement would go against the overwhelming will of the U.S. business sector, not to mention the American public and the global community. Many of the most powerful corporations and institutional investors in the United States are calling on Trump to stay in the pact, as are some of his fellow Republicans. Dropping out of the global climate accord will satisfy only a handful of coal and mining interests and Trump's most ideological aides and backers.

    Oil and coal companies that support Paris agreement

    ExxonMobil, the nation's biggest oil company, is in favor of the Paris agreement. The firm's CEO, Darren Woods, sent Trump a personal letter urging him to keep the U.S. in the agreement. Woods' predecessor, Rex Tillerson, now secretary of state, has also argued for remaining in the climate deal.

    Other major oil companies that want the U.S. to stay in the agreement include BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell. Many oil companies believe a concerted push for climate action will give them the opportunity to sell more natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal when burned to produce electricity (though leaks in natural gas drilling and transport infrastructure can neutralize that climate advantage).

    Even one major coal company, Cloud Peak Energy, is asking Trump to stay in the accord. "By remaining in the Paris Agreement, albeit with a much different pledge on emissions, you can help shape a more rational international approach to climate policy," Cloud Peak CEO Colin Marshall wrote Trump in a letter. Marshall argued that remaining in the Paris agreement could encourage support for technologies that reduce and capture CO2 emissions from coal plants. Two other coal companies, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, have not publicly called for staying in Paris, but they have reportedly told administration officials that they would not object to remaining.

    Fortune 500 corporations that support Paris agreement

    At least 69 Fortune 500 companies have voiced support for the Paris accord.

    Twenty-five large U.S. companies, including digital powerhouses Apple, Facebook, and Google, recently ran full-page ads in major newspapers urging Trump to remain in the climate accord. "Continued U.S. participation in the agreement benefits U.S. businesses and the U.S. economy in many ways," they wrote in the ad, including by "strengthening competitiveness," "creating jobs, markets and growth," and "reducing business risks."

    Separately, more than 1,000 companies, big and small, signed a letter calling for the U.S. to “realize the Paris Agreement’s commitment of a global economy that limits global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius.” Altogether, businesses backing the Paris climate agreement represent more than $3.7 trillion in annual revenues and employ nearly 8.6 million workers, according to Ceres.

    Here are some of the Fortune 500 companies that signed onto the ads or letter or have otherwise expressed support for Paris:

    Amazon
    Apple
    Bank of America
    Berkshire Hathaway
    Campbell Soup
    Citigroup
    Dow Chemical
    DuPont
    eBay
    Facebook
    Gap
    General Mills
    General Motors
    General Electric
    Goldman Sachs
    Google
    The Hartford
    HP
    Hilton
    Intel
    Johnson & Johnson
    Kellogg
    Microsoft
    Monsanto
    Morgan Stanley
    Nike
    NRG Energy
    PG&E
    Salesforce
    Staples
    Starbucks
    Symantec
    Walmart
    Wells Fargo

    Major institutional investors that support Paris agreement

    More than 280 institutional investors that together manage more than $17 trillion in assets, including Allianz Global Investors, CalPERS, and HSBC Global Asset Management, recently signed a letter emphasizing their strong support for the Paris agreement. "The implementation of effective climate policy mechanisms and the regular monitoring of outcomes is vital for investors to make well-informed investment decisions that can also better support governments in delivering their national commitments and priorities," they wrote.

    Republicans who support Paris agreement

    More than a dozen Republicans in Congress support staying in the climate deal.

    Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who advised Trump on energy issues during the campaign, has been outspoken in calling for the U.S. to remain in the pact. He and eight other Republican representatives sent Trump a letter in April asking him to stay in the agreement but withdraw the country's emissions-cutting pledge and replace it with a weaker one. "The U.S. should use its seat at the Paris table to defend and promote our commercial interests, including our manufacturing and fossil fuel sectors,” they wrote. “Our engagement must prevent the development of harmful policies which undermine economic growth and energy security here and abroad.”

    Other Republicans have voiced support for the Paris deal without calling for rolling back U.S. emissions-cutting goals. Said Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, "Given the trillions of dollars in cleaner energy investments and countless good-paying American jobs that would result from remaining in the Paris Agreement, I again urge President Trump to make sure our country keeps its commitment to lead.”

    Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently argued that Trump should not take the country out of Paris: "If he does withdraw, that would be a definitive statement from the president that he believes climate change is a hoax," Graham said on CNN's State of the Union. "It would be taken as a statement that climate change is not a problem; is not real. So that would be bad for the party, bad for the country."

    George P. Shultz, who served as secretary of state under Ronald Reagan and secretary of the treasury under Richard Nixon, recently co-authored a New York Times op-ed titled "The Business Case for the Paris Climate Accord." And three Republicans who headed up the Environmental Protection Agency during GOP administrations recently argued in a Washington Post op-ed that joining the international effort to fight climate change, via the Paris agreement, is the prudent path forward, adding, "With no seeming clue as to what’s going on, the president seems to have cast our lot with a small coterie of climate skeptics and their industry allies rather than trying to better understand the impact of increased greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere. His policy of willful ignorance is a bet-the-house approach that is destructive of responsible government."

    The Trump administration, too, has members who have been arguing for remaining in the climate deal, including Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, economic adviser Gary Cohn, and the president's daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner have also called for staying in but renegotiating or changing the standards of the agreement.

    Widespread support for the Paris agreement across the board

    As Media Matters noted last week, a number of newspapers, from The New York Times to USA Today to The Virginian-Pilot, have run editorials calling on Trump to keep the U.S. in the Paris deal. More than two-thirds of American voters support staying in the accord, according to a recent survey. And nearly every nation on Earth -- 195 in total -- signed on to the agreement. The only exceptions are Syria and Nicaragua.

    Pulling the U.S. out of the Paris deal would not only isolate the country from the international community, but also isolate the Trump administration from the business community. For a president who claims to be all about jobs and the economy, it's an unwise move.

  • The role of journalism in exposing a culture of violence at Rikers Island

    ››› ››› DINA RADTKE & NINA MAST

    After years of investigations into a culture of violence, abuse, and neglect for human life at Rikers Island prison complex, correction officials’ attempts to cover it up, and the failures of New York City’s elected officials to implement real reforms, Rikers prison is set to be closed in the next 10 years. Here, we document some of the crucial investigative journalism and storytelling by The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and The New York Times that helped expose the extent of the horrors at one of the worst prisons in America.

  • Some of the best media take downs of Trump’s “repugnant grab bag” of a budget

    ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

    On May 23, President Donald Trump released his vision for the fiscal year 2018 federal budget titled, “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” which called for deep cuts to Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), student loan assistance, and anti-poverty programs geared toward working- and middle-class Americans while providing gargantuan tax cuts for top income earners and increasing military spending. As details of the budget began to surface in the lead up to the announcement, Media Matters identified some of the best take downs from journalists and experts hammering the proposal for its “ruthless” cuts.

  • Media fell for Trump's spin that cutting Social Security isn't really a cut to Social Security

    Trump promised not to touch Social Security during the campaign, but some reporters reframed that broken promise for him

    Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A number of usually reliable reporters were duped by White House spin that President Donald Trump’s draconian budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 to slash spending for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) was not a violation of his major campaign pledge to protect Social Security from cuts.

    During his June 16, 2015, announcement to run for president, Trump clearly and unequivocally promised that if he was elected, he would “save Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security without cuts.” Trump’s campaign declaration fit previous statements he made in the run-up to his announcement, wherein he claimed he was “the only [Republican] who won’t cut Social Security” and stated “I am going to save Social Security without any cuts.” Trump even hit then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee for copying his call to safeguard Social Security with “no cuts” and later reiterated his promise to “save” the program while attacking former presidential candidate and current member of Trump’s cabinet Ben Carson:

    After Trump’s repeated statements that he would not cut Social Security, the White House’s decision to include significant cuts to SSDI in its 2018 budget request represents a broken campaign promise. Some journalists -- including Washington Post reporter Philip Bump, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, and NBC News reporter Benjy Sarlin -- caught on to what was actually being proposed, and Vox’s Dylan Matthews stated that these cuts clearly break “a crucial campaign promise.” Yet, despite this, several other journalists fell for the White House’s misleading spin.

    In the midst of an otherwise brutal recap of Trump’s budget, HuffPost reporter Arthur Delaney claimed “the document mostly honors Trump’s unorthodox campaign promise not to cut Social Security or Medicare” before actually quoting Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, as he expounded on proposed cuts to “disability insurance.”* In her write-up of the budget that detailed the profound impact it will have on low-income communities, New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor noted that Trump “would cut access to disability payments through Social Security” but casually added “the main function of Social Security — retirement income — would flow unimpeded.” New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis included similar misleading language in her report on the budget, arguing, “The blueprint also steers clear of changing Social Security’s retirement program or Medicare” and promoting the administration’s claim that Trump’s promise to protect “retirement” was intact.

    Washington Post reporters Damian Paletta and Robert Costa also fell for the White House’s misdirection gambit, writing of the president’s campaign rhetoric: “Trump insisted that they could not cut retirement benefits for Social Security.” NPR reporter Scott Horsley also detailed the “significant cuts to social safety net programs” while promoting the Trump administration’s spin that the campaign promise was merely to “preserve” the “Social Security retirement program.” Axios reporter Jonathan Swan managed to write a review of Trump’s budget that committed both sins; first claiming that the Trump budget fulfilled “his campaign promise” not to touch Social Security and later claiming that it merely would not affect retirees**:

    ORIGINAL: President Trump's 2018 budget proposal on Tuesday won't reform Social Security or Medicare — in line with his campaign promise — but it will make serious cuts to other entitlement programs. A source with direct knowledge tells me the Trump budget will save $1.7 trillion on the mandatory side over the next ten years.

    CURRENT: President Trump's 2018 budget proposal on Tuesday won't cut Social Security payments to retirees or Medicare, but it will make serious cuts to other entitlement programs. A source with direct knowledge tells me the Trump budget will save $1.7 trillion on the mandatory side over the next ten years.

    *The HuffPost report was corrected after pressure from readers and disability advocates to include the word “mostly.” The original post did not include that conditional language and incorrectly stated “the document honors Trump’s unorthodox campaign promise not to cut Social Security or Medicare.”

    **The Axios report was changed after its initial publication but no editor’s note or correction was added to indicate the revision. Media Matters had criticized the original language of the article in a May 22 blog.