'Climategate' Overshadows Copenhagen: Media regress to the bad old days of false balance

With the Kyoto Protocol expiring in 2012, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP15) was intended to make new international commitments to reduce emissions and fight the effects of global warming. But instead of discussing measures, deadlines and the urgency of international action, the overriding media story going into Copenhagen was whether scientists have been making up the whole "global warming" thing all along.

Just a few weeks before the conference's December 7 opening, hackers made public a trove of private emails and documents stolen from the Climate Research Unit at Britain's University of East Anglia; they had combed through the cache and highlighted some exchanges that were depicted by climate change deniers as evidence that human-influenced global warming is a fraud. On November 21, the New York Times ran the story on its front page, and what soon become known as "Climategate" stole Copenhagen's media thunder.

The name "Climategate," which has been repeated endlessly across the corporate media as a catchy shorthand for the story, implies some sort of sinister actions and politicization on the part of climate scientists, as science blogger Matthew Nisbet pointed out (Framing Science, 12/6/09). In fact, the Watergate analogy is much more aptly applied to the scandal of the illegal hack into East Anglia's email server in order to smear deniers' "opponents"-the climate scientists.

And thorough debunkings of denialists' claims quickly emerged from those with actual scientific expertise. One detailed analysis, from the Union of Concerned Scientists (12/2/09), concluded:

The email content being quoted does not indicate that climate data and research have been compromised. Most importantly, nothing in the content of these stolen emails has any impact on our overall understanding that human activities are driving dangerous levels of global warming. Media reports and contrarian claims that they do are inaccurate.

Many others also provided in-depth debunkings, such as the Pew Center on Climate Change (Climate Compass, 11/24/09) and environmental blog EnviroKnow (11/25/09). So why did media decide to downplay the hacking scandal and focus on the deniers' claims?

Recent years have seen a positive media shift in climate change reporting, as journalists largely took as a given the scientifically accepted stance that climate change is a very real problem; editorials and columns around the country in the wake of the released emails reflected that (e.g., New York Times, 12/6/09; L.A. Times, 12/7/09). But in their news sections, editors and reporters appeared to return to the pernicious practice of false balance-that "both sides" should be given space to air their claims, despite the fact that the issue is not one of opinion, but of science. There might be people who don't believe gravity exists, but that doesn't mean journalists should include their views for "balance" every time they report on something falling.

Breaking news reports from the country's most prominent papers played the story as a "he said, she said" spat over whether the emails showed, as climate change deniers claimed (Washington Post, 11/21/09), "that scientific data have been rigged to make it appear as if humans are causing global warming."

In the New York Times' front-page article (11/21/09), climate reporter Andrew Revkin (see p. 11) also ran with the deniers' framing, setting up the story by explaining that they "say [the emails] show that climate scientists conspired to overstate the case for a human influence on climate change." Revkin quoted denier Patrick Michaels (see sidebar) saying, "This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud." He returned to Michaels later in the piece, as well as quoting denialist blogger Stephen McIntyre.

USA Today led its short November 23 piece on the story by explaining that a leading scientist implicated in the email hack is "appalled at the very selective use of the emails and the fact they've been taken out of context," only to promptly provide an example of exactly how that is done, citing denialist McIntyre and then quoting one seemingly incriminating line from the scientists' emails to conclude the piece-no context provided.

While newspapers set the tone, television took the concept of false balance even further. Equal time for deniers and scientists was standard procedure (see, e.g., NBC Nightly News, 12/4/09), and the denier claims were treated with utmost seriousness.

CBS Evening News (12/5/09) anchor Jeff Glor teased the program's East Anglia segment, "Did some scientists fudge the numbers to make climate change look worse than it is?" Correspondent Kimberly Dozier reported that the hacked emails

have cast doubts on the very science this summit is based on. The emails seem to show that some of the world's top experts decided to exclude or manipulate some research that didn't help prove global warming exists. 1998 was the hottest year since record-keeping began. But the temperature went down the next year, and it's only spiked a couple of times since. An email from 1999 shows scientists worked hard to demonstrate an upward trend. They talk of using a "trick" to "hide the decline" in global temperatures.

Actually, that particular email referred to "Mike's Nature trick," referring to a solution to a problem of divergent temperature records that was published in 1998 in Nature (5/28/98), the world's most prominent science journal-an unlikely place to "hide" anything. And the discussion was not about a decline "in global temperatures"; Nature could hardly have been concealing a decline in 1998, a year that broke temperature records.

After quoting a scientist, leading denier Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, Dozier concluded: "But the leaked memos have given ammunition to critics of climate change, so climate change supporters fear Copenhagen may only produce the framework for an agreement that then will be passed on to next year."

The idea that the emails were serious "ammunition" was a common theme, as when ABC World News (12/6/09) reported:

Tomorrow is the start of a huge global summit on what some people believe is the most important problem in the world, climate change. However, as this summit begins, climate change skeptics have been handed some real ammunition, a scandal over leaked emails from key scientists.

CNN produced perhaps the most egregious coverage of the story. On the first two days of the Copenhagen conference, primetime news anchor Campbell Brown ran special segments called "Global Warming: Trick or Truth?"-the tag the network used across its programming for reports on the email brouhaha.

On December 7-Day 1 of Copenhagen-after a segment explaining the emails, Brown kicked off her "Trick or Truth" coverage with a roundtable featuring deniers Stephen McIntyre (described as a "skeptical scientist"-actually a former oil industry adviser with a mathematics background) and attorney Chris Horner against climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, with CNN's John Roberts thrown into the mix. Brown concluded by asking for "areas where you think we could agree in terms of the policies we should be pursuing." Of course, looking for climate change policies endorsable by climate change deniers is absurd; unsurprisingly, they couldn't come up with any.

Brown then turned to CNN reporter Tom Foreman to "do a little reality check on climate change" and "try to separate fact from fiction for us." Foreman explained that "supporters" of climate change say it's a "serious problem," while "skeptics" say "we've got a lot more time to study this and figure out if we're right or wrong." He concluded with a painstaking lack of conclusion: "Again, not taking any stance on this, Campbell, but that's the general sense of where we stand. We look about why this is happening and what the two different arguments are about what we should or shouldn't do about it."

The next day, Brown featured denialist Michaels vs. Bill Nye "The Science Guy," and Republican Congressman Darrell Issa vs. Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee. Brown argued to Nye:

The problem is, you keep saying, the scientists say, the scientists say, but can't you see that what's happened with these e-mails, again, fairly or unfairly, has caused a lot of people to doubt what the scientists are saying? Their credibility was damaged by this, you know, whether, again, it deserved to be or not. So, how do you address that problem going forward?

One might have thought it was Brown's job as a journalist to help clear up scientific credibility on the issue-to ascertain whether scientists were being questioned "fairly or unfairly."

But she wasn't alone at CNN in feeding into the doubts and confusion. Her primetime colleague Anderson Cooper teased one of his East Anglia segments (12/7/09): "Hacked emails that climate change skeptics say prove scientists have distorted the facts on global warming. We'll show you some of the emails and you'll hear from both sides of the sides of the debate. You make up your own mind." Cooper seemed to be trying to take a page from the network that's been trouncing him in ratings lately, stealing their "We report, you decide" slogan-a particularly inappropriate methodology for a settled scientific question.

Likewise, CNN's Rick Sanchez (12/7/09) told viewers: "This controversy over these hacked emails that reveal that there may have been some shenanigans going on with some of the leading scientists over in Europe. And, certainly, the right is making a lot of hay out of it, and so is the left." Exactly how the left was "making hay" out of the situation is unclear. When Sanchez later noted, "Look, we're not going to settle the global warming argument here on CNN," that failure was already painfully clear.

It's not that journalists couldn't settle the argument; while there remain legitimate debates within the scientific community over the rate of warming and the most effective means to reverse it, the argument over whether man is contributing to climate change exists only within the political world, not the scientific one. But why disturb behemoths like the energy and auto industries-which advertise heavily in the media-by acknowledging that?

Over at NBC (whose parent company, GE, has significant fossil-fuel interests), a Today report by chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson (12/7/09) made something of an attempt to throw some facts back into the discussion, citing a sea-ice study and the fact that scientists "say it doesn't matter what's in those e-mails, the Earth is changing"-only to be wrapped up by NBC Today co-anchor Meredith Vieira concluding, "Yeah, but the controversy will certainly continue." And so it will, as long as corporate journalists pretend there's a legitimate debate there.

SIDEBAR: Undisclosed Interests

Patrick Michaels, described by the New York Times' Andrew Revkin as "a climatologist who has long faulted evidence pointing to human-driven warming and is criticized in the documents," is also a senior fellow at the free-market Cato Institute and a favorite denialist source because of his climatology background, which is regularly cited as a way of informing news consumers of his apparent expertise.

What's not regularly cited is the hundreds of thousands of dollars Michaels has received from the fossil fuel industries over the years (Sourcewatch, "Patrick J. Michaels")-background that people might find even more useful in judging his statements. In the East Anglia coverage, Michaels appeared on CNN five times between December 5 and 8, as well as on Fox (12/10/09) and NBC (12/4/09); not once was his industry funding disclosed.

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