Monday, November 28, 2011

Leaked Emails Raise Questions About NYT’s ClimateGate Coverage

Alana Goodman

A new batch of stolen emails from the East Anglia climate research center was released last week. Anthony Watts and JunkScience are doing some of the best up-to-the-minute blog coverage, and if you feel like digging through the 5,000+ emails, EcoWho has compiled them into a handy search engine.

The most striking take-away from the emails is how obsessed the climatologists seemed to be with media coverage – almost as if they were public relations associates as opposed to scientists. The extent of cooperation between the climate researchers and some friendly news outlets is also fascinating. (David Rose has an excellent article exploring the connections between East Anglia and the BBC.)

One New York Times writer, Andy Revkin, pops up numerous times in the emails. During the time the conversations took place, Revkin was a supposedly objective reporter on the environmental beat for the Times. He became an opinion blogger for the paper after leaving the news section at the end of 2009, which seems to be a better fit after reading some of his emails.

In one 2006 exchange between Revkin and the scientists, the reporter makes his disdain for Sen. James Inhofe – and “a big chunk” of the American public – clear, while promoting his book on the Arctic:
[Sen. Inhofe] still speaks to and for a big chunk of America — people whose understanding of science and engagement with such issues is so slight that they happily sit in pre-conceived positions. [T]hat might be one reason he doesn’t like [my] book, which is devoid of easily-attacked spin and scare tactics and lets the science point the way itself. [I]‘m just trying to be sure that folks like all of you take an extra couple seconds to use Inhofe against himself and forward the blog/book link to a few people who might not be aware of this book — the first on Arctic and global climate change for all readers 10 and up — and of Inhofe’s moves.
At the time, Inhofe had been critical of Revkin’s book, which promoted the theory of human-caused climate change, and said it undermined his objectivity as a reporter. Revkin responded to the senator publicly, though in a much less condescending manner. But the snideness in this private email isn’t nearly as bad as the fact that Revkin – at the time, an allegedly objective, neutral environmental reporter for the New York Times – seemed to be asking his highly ideological sources to back him up in this fight against Inhofe and other skeptics.

In another email, Revkin and climate scientist Michael Schlesinger appear to muse about how much better the world would be if only Al Gore had won the 2000 election.
“[H]ad the 5-to-4 ‘hanging-chad’ decision of the U.S. Supreme Court swung the other way, the U.S. would have confronted the challenges of human-induced climate change these past 6 years, rather than deny and avoid them,” Schlessinger wrote to Revkin in the 2007 email. “And, we would not now be mired in Iraq.”
“[A] very very very poignant and true point, [M]ichael,” responded Revkin. “[I] have a song called “a very fine line” that explores all those facets of life like that.” (In addition to his journalistic talents, Revkin is also a musician.)
In other emails, Revkin is dismissive of climate change skeptics, people who probably should have been an integral part of his beat. “[W]hat’s amusing, in a way, is how the ‘skeptics’ jump on a cold patch as evidence of global cooling but attack enviros for highlighting warming trends,” he wrote in February 2008.
In another message, he informed the scientists:
Because the ‘Average Joe’ out there is only hearing radio soundbites about the sun turning off, or cable-news coverage or some stray TV image of snow in Baghdad (and particularly with a big ‘skeptics conference’ coming next week), I think it’s important to do a story putting a cold stretch in context against the evidence for the long-term warming trajectory from greenhouse forcing. Would need input from you by end of Thursday ideally.
Revkin’s view of climate change skeptics at the time couldn’t be clearer: he thought they were uneducated morons, and took it as his mission to enlighten them with the facts as determined by himself and his fellow global warming advocates. Revkin speaks even more candidly about how he views his “job” in a 2007 email to NASA scientist Jim Hansen and others (emphasis added):
[A] key take-home point, please, is that this story was written mainly for the benefit of the 10s of millions of disengaged or doubtful or simply under-educated Americans out there for whom it is NEWS that the only discourse now is among folks who believe human-forced climate change is a huge problem. (as Jim Hansen said in my story, exclamation point included!)
the ‘hotter’ voices are doing their job well. i’m doing mine.
Which may explain why the scientists seem to view Revkin as more of an ally than a reporter in some of the emails among themselves. “I’ll let all of you know if there are any other reasonable interview requests from folks we trust (e.g. Andy Revkin, etc.),” wrote climate scientist David Thompson to his colleague Phil Jones in one message.

Some may argue that it’s unfair to criticize Revkin for his private comments, and point out that none of these emails on its own could be characterized as an egregious ethical lapse.

Maybe. But combined, they point to a pattern. There’s also this: Revkin was the same Times reporter who refused to publish the first trove of ClimateGate emails in 2009, claiming they were off-limits because they were “private” conversations (a standard the paper evidently hasn’t applied to other leaked documents). He also dismissed the scandal as meritless.

As one of the leading national environmental reporters, Revkin had a huge amount of influence over whether the ClimateGate controversy went anywhere. He ended up doing all he could to snuff it out. Should the fact that he wasn’t just involved in the emails, but also seemed to portray himself as an ideological ally to the scientists, raise ethical questions about the Times’ coverage of the first ClimateGate? I’d say so. And maybe Revkin’s departure from the news section one month after the emails leaked in 2009 means that, internally, the Times thought so as well.

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