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Climate Change on ‘The New York Times’ Opinion Page: “Diversity” or More “False Balance”?

frank photofrank photoBY RUSSELL FRANK 

Less than a week after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 U. S. presidential election, the top brass at The New York Times obliquely addressed the widespread sense that they and the rest of the mainstream news media had misread the mood of the electorate by paying too little attention to the disaffection of voters in towns far from the bright lights of the big cities. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Executive Editor Dean Baquet told readers that they would redouble their efforts “to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you.”1

James Bennet, the paper’s editorial page editor, echoed his bosses this past April. “Given how polarizing and partisan this era has become,” he wrote, “we think it’s important to recommit ourselves” to making the opinion pages a place “of collegial debate among brave, honest journalists with very different points of view.”2

The occasion was Bennet’s introduction of Bret Stephens as a Times columnist. Progressive readers familiar with Stephens’ brand of conservative punditry at The Wall Street Journal, where he won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, were not pleased. Critics—not only environmentalists—were particularly unhappy with what they saw as his dismissive view of climate change.

Stephens did nothing to ingratiate himself with his new audience when he devoted his debut column to that very topic. Stephens acknowledged that the Earth is heating up and the consequences could be severe. But he questioned the certainty of the science behind the predictions of global catastrophe and warned that strident calls for immediate action could alienate climate skeptics and lead to poor policy decisions.

Stephens anticipated the ensuing firestorm. “I can almost hear the heads exploding,” he wrote.3

Specifically, 1,551 heads exploded—or at least that’s how many reader comments the Times posted, most of which picked apart Stephens’ arguments. Countless Twitter and Facebook users as well as bloggers weighed in as well, many of whom threatened to cancel their Times subscriptions.

On the face of it, the reaction reinforced a narrative of illiberal liberalism: the argument that the preachers of tolerance on the left are intolerant of those who disagree with them.

Surely, on an opinion page that features the moderate-to-liberal voices of Charles Blow, Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristof, Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd, Frank Bruni, Timothy Egan, Thomas Friedman and maybe even David Brooks, there is room for another conservative voice alongside that of Ross Douthat.

But many commenters insisted it wasn’t Stephens’ conservatism they objected to. Some even concurred with what Liz Spayd, the Times’s public editor, referred to as “the general principle of busting up the mostly liberal echo chamber around here.”4

Rather it was Stephens' act of perpetuating doubt about the validity of the conclusions drawn by climate scientists, and therefore about the urgency of the problem, that incurred their wrath. Unlike those who cited the polar vortex or the “snowpocalypse” of recent winters as evidence that Planet Earth could maybe stand a little warming, Stephens conceded a lot of ground. “The science is settled,” he wrote. “The threat is clear.”5

But to his detractors, that only made his “healthy skepticism” more insidious.6 By equating those who insist that we must act at once to stave off disaster with the pollsters and Hillary Clinton campaign staffers who, blinded by “certitude” and “hubris,” were sure Trump would lose in November, he cast himself as the voice of reason amid the shrill cries of the alarmists.

Worse still, The New York Times legitimated his specious arguments by hoisting him onto the mighty platform of its opinion page, that bastion of “intelligent discussion,” as James Bennet put it.7

And so came the furious responses: “Cancel my subscription!”

There are a number of intertwined ethics issues here, all having to do with the relationship between journalistic balance and the perception of journalistic bias. On the face of it, balance—that is, presenting both sides (or all sides if there are more than two) of a controversy—sounds like responsible journalism. This is readily apparent when two candidates are running for public office. Accurately reporting what each candidate says enables voters to judge for themselves which of the two would do a better job.

But the commitment to balanced reporting becomes problematized as soon as one of the candidates, or a spokesperson on one side of a controversy, misstates the facts either inadvertently or deliberately. Giving roughly equal time or space and therefore substantially equal weight to competing claims without regard to the validity of those claims may give fraudulent claims a legitimacy that they do not deserve. Correcting false statements, on the other hand, exposes the news organization to charges that it is taking sides.

Complicating matters for an organization like The New York Times is its longstanding reputation as a “liberal paper.” That reputation largely stems from the liberal slant of its editorial writers and columnists in recent decades. Journalists expect readers to understand that a paper’s editorial board does not dictate news coverage.

But do readers understand journalism’s version of a “separation of powers” standard?

Any blurring of the line between news and editorial functions makes it easier for critics, especially conservative critics such as Charlie Sykes,8 who seem to have adopted this strategy at least two decades ago, to challenge the impartiality of the paper’s reporting. Such challenges may, in turn, bait a news organization into providing “even-handed” or “balanced” coverage in situations where the public would be better served by more critical analysis of suspect claims.9

This may have been what happened during the early stages of coverage of climate change. News organizations could perhaps be forgiven for treating global warming as an open question and therefore offering a range of views on the subject, at first. But this “debate” in the news media went on long after climate scientists had arrived at what Michael Mann refers to as an “overwhelming consensus.”10 The consensus began to emerge at least as early as 1990, with the release of the first report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But consider this paragraph from a 1992 story in the Los Angeles Times:

The ability to study climatic patterns has been critical to the debate over the phenomenon called “global warming.” Some scientists believe—and some ice core studies seem to indicate—that humanity’s production of carbon dioxide is leading to a potentially dangerous overheating of the planet. But skeptics contend there is no evidence the warming exceeds the climate’s natural variations.11

As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) pointed out, “Pitting what ‘some scientists believe’ against what ‘skeptics contend’ implies a roughly even division within the scientific community. And putting the term ‘global warming’ in scare quotes serves to subtly cast doubt on the reality of such a phenomenon.”12

In “balancing” the findings of scientists who were sounding the alarm about climate change with the objections of those who questioned the methods, the data, the interpretation of the data and in some cases, the motives of those scientists, the press provided political cover to those who, driven by greed, ideology, or just unwillingness to tackle a new problem, sought to stall or stop efforts to slow the warming of the planet.

Climate scientist Maxwell Boykoff found that mainstream press coverage of climate change did not begin shifting away from balanced coverage and toward reflecting the scientific consensus until 2005.13 But Joe Romm, editor of the blog Climate Progress, offers an example of The New York Times still flirting with false balance as recently as 2012:

The handful of climate researchers who question the scientific consensus about global warming do not deny that the ocean is rising. But they often assert that the rise is a result of natural climate variability, they dispute that the pace is likely to accelerate, and they say that society will be able to adjust to a continuing slow rise.14

“Why,” asks Romm, "does The New York Times have to publish a full paragraph of the erroneous and questionable beliefs of the tiny fraction of actual climate researchers who don’t accept the broad scientific understanding?”15

The AP Stylebook editors did not update their global warming entry to reflect the consensus until 2015.16 The Poynter Institute felt it needed to offer “4 Guidelines for Covering Climate Change” at the beginning of this year.17

Now, though, when The New York Times reports that President Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, says carbon dioxide is not “a primary contributor” to global warming, it points out—in the lede—that his views are “at odds with the established scientific consensus on climate change.”18

That story was published on March 9, 2017. Stephens’ column appeared on April 28. Thus, just when it seemed that the “debate” on global warming had shifted once and for all from “whether it’s a problem” to “what to do about it,” the Times gave new life to the “deniers.” And, many critics said that the need to act has simply gotten too urgent for any revival of doubt about that imperative merely in the service of opinion diversity. What may have seemed to Times editors as a bracing challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy came across to many readers as dishonest and irresponsible. It would be hard to avoid the conclusion that deniers are beholden to the oil and gas industries or are otherwise so locked into short-term thinking about the economic impact of weaning ourselves from old energy-consumption habits that they can’t see the urgency of the problem—but it is unlikely that all the deniers will go away, regardless of what evidence for global warming is provided.  

“I wonder to what standards the Times holds the Op-Ed columns,” one reader wrote to Liz Spayd. “Is there fact checking on columns? Can a columnist invent/stretch facts? Are columnists held to the same standards around facts, sources, attribution, and other journalistic practices as are reporters?”19

As of this writing, the Times has stood by its new columnist—and its commitment to diversify its roster of opinion writers (though critics were less than impressed with Stephens’s (a white male) credentials as a “diversity hire”20). Many of the threatened subscription cancellations appear to have been heat-of-the-moment responses which, if not acted upon, yielded to a sober look at the big picture of Times journalism.

Just two days after the publication of Stephens’ debut, the Times delivered a stunning piece of environmental journalism: a front-page story in the Sunday edition about what China’s enormous fishing fleet is doing to world fisheries and to the livelihoods of West African fishermen.21 That kind of reporting might prompt disgruntled Times readers to consider another kind of balance—between the paper’s occasional failings, including this one column by one conservative columnist, and all the important reporting that routinely appears on its pages.

In a friendly but pointed exchange after Stephens debuted, one Facebook user mocked a friend for giving up on the Times. “By all means, cancel your Times subscription,” he wrote. “Why would you want to support one of the outlets left that takes its Fourth Estate responsibilities seriously?"

Footnotes

1 Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Dean Baquet (2016). “To Our Readers from the Publisher and Executive Editor,” New York Times, Nov. 13. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/us/elections/to-our-readers-from-the-publisher-and-executive-editor.html

2 James Bennet (2017). “Introducing Our New Columnist,” New York Times, April 28. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/opinion/introducing-our-new-columnist.html

3 Bret Stephens (2017). “Climate of Complete Certainty,” New York Times, April 28. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/opinion/climate-of-complete-certainty.html?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

4 Liz Spayd (2017). Bret Stephens Takes On Climate Change. Readers Unleash Their Fury. New York Times, May 3. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/03/public-editor/bret-stephens-climate-change-liz-spayd-public-editor.html?rref=collection%2Fbyline%2Fliz-spayd&action=click&contentCollection=undefined&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=collection

5 Stephens, op. cit.

6 Emily Atkin (2017), “The Rise of ‘Kinder, Gentler’ Climate-Change Deniers,” New Republic, May 2. https://newrepublic.com/article/142421/rise-kinder-gentler-climate-change-deniers

7 Bennet, op. cit.

8 Charlie Sykes was quoted in Emma Roller’s column in the Times (“Your Facts or Mine?” October 25, 2016) as saying “We have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media. And by the way, a lot of it has been justifiable. There is real bias. But at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there … and I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘To what extent did I contribute?’”

9 Todd Gitlin (2004). “The Great Media Breakdown,” Mother Jones, Nov./Dec. http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2004/11/great-media-breakdown

10 Michael Mann (2014). “If You See Something, Say Something,” New York Times, Jan. 17. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/opinion/sunday/if-you-see-something-say-something.html?_r=0

11 Rudy Abramson (1992). “Ice Cores May Hold Clues to Weather 200,000 Years Ago," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 2. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-12-02/news/mn-1291_1_ice-core. Quoted in FAIR (2004). “Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias,” FAIR, Nov. 1. http://fair.org/extra/journalistic-balance-as-global-warming-bias/

12 FAIR, op. cit.

13 Maxwell Boykoff (2007). “Flogging a Dead Norm? Newspaper Coverage of Anthropogenic Climate Change in the United States and United Kingdom from 2003 to 2006,” Area 39, pp. 470-481, Oct. 31. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2007.00769.x/full

14 Justin Gillis (2012). “Rising Sea Levels Seen as Threat to Coastal U. S.,” New York Times, March 13. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/14/science/earth/study-rising-sea-levels-a-risk-to-coastal-states.html?_r=1&hp=&pagewanted=print. Quoted in Joe Romm (2012), “False Balance Lives at the New York Times,” ThinkProgress, March 14. https://thinkprogress.org/false-balance-lives-at-the-new-york-times-37e128bbe245

15 Romm, op. cit.

16 Paul Colford (2015). “An Addition to AP Stylebook Entry on Global Warming,” AP: The Definitive Source, Sept. 22. https://blog.ap.org/announcements/an-addition-to-ap-stylebook-entry-on-global-warming

17 Vicki Krueger (2017). “4 Guidelines for Writing About Climate Change,” Poynter, Jan. 24. https://www.poynter.org/2017/4-guidelines-for-writing-about-climate-change/446450/. “The overarching issue,” writes Krueger, “is as settled as things get in science: The planet is warming and humans are largely responsible. As a result, glaciers and ice sheets are melting. New, contradictory evidence could come along—science is always subject to revision. But the idea that humans are causing climate change is not scientifically controversial.”

18 Coral Davenport (2017). “E.P.A. Chief Doubts Consensus View of Climate Change,” New York Times, March 9. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/us/politics/epa-scott-pruitt-global-warming.html?rref=collection%2Fbyline%2Fcoral-davenport&action=click&contentCollection=undefined&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=10&pgtype=collection

19 Liz Spayd with Evan Gershkovich (2017). “Friday Mailbag: A Columnist Has a Fiery Debut and Another Goes Missing," New York Times, May 5. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/public-editor/friday-mailbag-a-columnist-has-a-fiery-debut-and-another-goes-missing.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fthe-public-editor&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=collection

20 Sarah Jones (2017). “Bret Stephens Isn’t the Only Problem at the New York Times Op-Ed Page,” New Republic, May 2. https://newrepublic.com/article/142439/bret-stephens-isnt-problem-new-york-times-op-ed-page

21 Andrew Jacobs (2017). “China’s Appetite Pushes Fisheries to the Brink,” New York Times, April 30. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/30/world/asia/chinas-appetite-pushes-fisheries-to-the-brink.html?_r=0