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.