Media's Weird Ethics: Pretending to Be Someone Else Is Worse Than Facilitating Global Catastrophe

There's a popular verb in headlines about climate researcher Peter Gleick's admission that he used trickery to get damning documents out of the climate change-denialist group the Heartland Institute: "Activist Says He Lied to Obtain Climate Papers" (New York Times, 2/21/12); "Scientist Peter Gleick Admits He Lied to Get Climate Documents" (L.A. Times, 2/21/12); "Climate Researcher Says He Lied to Obtain Heartland Documents" (, 2/21/12).

What you wouldn't gather from all these pants-on-fire condemnations is that there is a long and honorable tradition, from Nellie Bly feigning madness to expose mistreatment of the mentally ill to the Chicago Sun-Times' Mirage Tavern corruption lab, of investigative journalists using false identities to gather information--when the public interest is clear, and there's no other way to get the story. While it's not possible to give Gleick ethical absolution without knowing more details of what he did, it's clear that Heartland was not about to give up incriminating documents to anyone they thought would make them public--and there is hardly a story where the public interest is more obvious than in documenting efforts to block action to stop catastrophic global climate change.

However, as Aaron Swartz pointed out in Extra! (3-4/08), in recent years corporate media have largely abandoned the tactic of undercover reporting, largely in response to the Food Lion case, in which ABC was sued (ultimately unsuccessfully) for having its reporters get grocery store jobs without revealing that they planned use their positions to gather evidence of unsafe food handling. Bizarrely, many journalistic observers seemed to find Food Lion's position persuasive--an ethical stance that is great for corporate malefactors but terrible for the public interest, since it would virtually insure that reporters can never be eyewitness to workplace abuses that happen in employees-only areas.

Thus when Ken Silverstein (Harper's, 7/07) pretended to represent a Central Asian dictatorship to document lobbying groups' eagerness to work for human rights abusers, he got a chorus of scoldings from ethical arbiters like Howard Kurtz (Washington Post, 6/25/07): "No matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects." In this peculiar moral universe, pretending to work for a ruthless dictatorship is every bit as ethically questionable as actually volunteering to do so.

And that's the standard that's being applied to Gleick (Climate Central, 2/21/12): The New York Times' Andy Revkin (Dot Earth, 2/20/12) charged that "Gleick's use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others." Wrote Bryan Walsh for (2/20/12): "No reputable investigative reporter would be permitted to do what Gleick did. It's almost certainly a firing offense." According to Houston Post science editor Eric Berger (2/21/12), Gleick "has unquestionably ceded some of the high ground scientists held in the climate science debate. It will not be easily won back."

Funny, you'd think that climate scientists held the high ground in the climate science debate because of, you know, science--the science that shows that we're making catastrophic changes to the Earth's atmosphere?

Holding that Gleick's sins are much worse than Heartland's--I predict you will see virtually nothing from now on in establishment outlets about the contents of the Heartland memos--is a bizarre moral proposition, equivalent to holding that a child should starve to death rather than a loaf of bread be stolen. (Do bear in mind a fact that seems entirely absent from the media discussion of global warming, which is that large numbers of people, many of them children, are already dying as a result of lack of action on climate change.) But the most maddening thing is that these same media outlets are entirely willing to accept misrepresentation and illegally gathered information as legitimate parts of journalism--when they are used to advance a right-wing agenda, including climate change denial.

As Exhibit A, look at James O'Keefe, who famously and proudly passed off his partner as a prostitute while secretly videotaping ACORN staffers. Who in the debate over O'Keefe's work took the position that because the colleague was not actually a prostitute, the entire project was unethical and therefore all of his videotapes should be ignored? The actual objection to O'Keefe's work (Extra!, 4/10) was that he deceived the public--misleadingly editing his footage to create false impressions, including the popular delusion that O'Keefe had gone into ACORN offices wearing an outlandish Superfly costume. Nevertheless, he got overwhelmingly positive coverage from right-wing and centrist news outlets alike, with the result that his mendacious reporting had the successful result of helping to bring ACORN down.

And on the issue of climate change itself, corporate news outlets devoted endless attention to the "Climategate" story (Extra!, 2/10), the selective release of scientists' private emails, evidently obtained through hacking. This release was designed to create the appearance of scientific impropriety where none existed, as every inquiry into the controversy has determined (FAIR Blog, 4/19/10). In a journalistic failure that will likely surpass the selling of the Iraq invasion and the overlooking of the housing bubble in terms of human devastation, media allowed this malicious hoax to upend the climate change discussion (FAIR Blog, 2/2/10), turning the scientific consensus on global warming once again into an open question and effectively taking real action to reduce greenhouse gasses off the political table.

Climate Central's round-up of reactions to the Heartland/Gleick story cites's Warren Meyer (2/21/12)--identified not as a prominent global warming denier (he's got a video called Catastrophe Denied, for Pete's sake), but merely as one of "several commentators" making the point that people on both sides in the "climate debate" have caused it to become "unethical and dangerous." Meyer is quoted, seemingly approvingly: "When we convince ourselves that those who disagree with us are not people of goodwill who simply reach different conclusions from the data, but are instead driven by evil intentions and nefarious sources of funding, then it becomes easier to convince oneself that the ends justify the means."

Here's what the Heartland documents actually show (Deep Climate, 2/14/12): The leadership of those who reject climate science are not people of goodwill who simply reach different conclusions from the data, but instead are driven by nefarious sources of funding. If you want to call that "evil," when you're talking about working to prevent action to avoid worldwide disaster, I think you're on solid moral ground.

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