Feb 25, 2009
After eight years of George W. Bush's rule, popular disapproval of policies that had come to be regarded as grave mistakes--from the invasion of Iraq to the response to the economic crisis--drove the Republicans from power.
Unfortunately, the media system has no such built-in check on powerful pundits, as the unchallenged reign of another George W. with a long record of mistakes can attest.
The ongoing controversy over a recent error-plagued climate change column penned by George Will--a Washington Post syndicated columnist whose record of error spans decades--offers a good case study in the impunity of the punditocracy.
As bloggers, media activists and environmentalists were quick to point out, Will made three significant errors in his climate change column, which was published in the Post (2/15/09) and scores of daily newspapers nationwide last week. First, he misrepresented scientific research from the 1970s, claiming that global cooling was then the prevailing concern. Second, he claimed the University of Illinois had found global sea ice was increasing, when in fact the school's researchers found the opposite. Finally, he claimed that U.N. climate researchers have found "no recorded global warming for more than a decade."
In the wake of widespread refutations on blogs, and action alerts by FAIR and Media Matters, the Washington Post received floods of emails complaining about the inaccuracies in Will's column, and the Post's ombud Andy Alexander soon issued a response to a blogger at Think Progress.
Claiming that Will's column had been subject to multiple fact-checks, Alexander addressed only critics' concern about Will's misrepresentation of the University of Illinois's sea ice research, defending Will by citing a University of Illinois statement that, in fact, actually refuted Will's claim.
Given that the position of ombud (a person responsible for responding to reader complaints and upholding accuracy at a media outlet) is the closest thing to a system of accountability that exists at newspapers, the Post ombud's response aptly illustrated the bankruptcy of what passes for accountability at a leading newspaper.
Unfortunately, the erroneous climate change column is not a blip on Will's record. On the issue of climate change alone, FAIR's magazine Extra!documents that Will's history of misquoting data to distort the debate goes back nearly two decades. As FAIR's senior analyst Steve Rendall recently noted on the FAIR Blog, in 1992, Will so grossly misrepresented a Gallup poll on scientists' views on climate change that Gallup took the rare step of issuing a written correction to Will's column. A decade before that, Will made such a glaring factual error in a column published in Newsweek that the magazine took the unusual step of agreeing to publish a letter by Noam Chomsky (Will managed to block the letter's publication by throwing a temper tantrum.)
And yet this serial distorter of the facts continues to published by more newspapers than any other columnist. In addition to the Post, 367 newspapers publish his column. Why? This is a question newspaper editors should have to answer.
As blogger Jonathan Schwarz recently pointed out, the internet has profoundly changed the landscape of pundit impunity since Will's 1982 temper tantrum. The Washington Post ombud's role in protecting Will's work from the facts may be highly reminiscent of Newsweek's decision to spike Chomsky's letter. However, with the proliferation of blogs devoted to correcting the media record, and the advent of online media activism campaigns that can in a matter of hours generate thousands of reader complaints to editors, concerned members of the public have more tools than ever before to publicly debunk media errors and to push for greater accountability.
In this context, the Post ombud's inadequate response simply added fuel to the campaigns challenging the Post on Will's climate distortions. Yesterday, the presidents of leading environmental groups joined Media Matters in issuing a letter to the newspaper, and FAIR issued a new call for its supporters to contact the Post's ombud (firstname.lastname@example.org)
And given that it is not just the Post but some 368 newspapers nationwide that carry Will's column, the challenge of holding Will accountable is one in which people across the nation have to play a vital role in writing to any newspapers in their own local communities that published Will's error-plagued climate change column.
Given the abundance of online media activism resources, it is not hard to take action to push for greater accountability in one's local newspaper. (Media Matters has a useful application on its website that allows users to easily find out if George Will's column is carried in their local newspaper, and tips on writing letters to the editor can be found in FAIR's media activism kit.)
Given that the corporate media have granted Will impunity for decades now, this accountability is long overdue.
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