The New York Times spun a tall tale the
other day, and Bill O'Reilly of the Fox News Channel - the fabled
"No Spin Zone" - fell for it. Hard.
About a hundred newspapers joined him.1
It happened in the New York Times' breathless
news story that the Bush Administration "censored"
one of its own reports on the environment after appointees at
the federal Council on Environmental Quality disagreed with staffers
at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the degree
to which there is a scientific consensus on global warming.
As a result, compromise was decided upon.
The EPA issued a report June 23 that neither asserts a global
warming consensus nor denies one.
EPA Chief Christie Whitman said she is
"perfectly comfortable" with the report.
Not so O'Reilly, the New York Times nor
a legion of editorialists, most of whom couldn't tell anyone
a thing about actual climate science.
"Censored" was O'Reilly's term
first ("censoring global warming studies is wrong,"2 O'Reilly primly said, as if someone had done
so). The Times first used the term "edited"3 - oddly implying that editing text before publishing
it is a bad thing - but switched to O'Reilly's term within a
day in a staff editorial entitled "Censorship in Global
"Censorship" is an odd word
to use to describe White House participation in an Administration
report. (Do college students ever wait until the night before
a big paper is due to "censor" it?) And in case anyone
is wondering, the report - regardless of whose draft was used
- was never going to include new research data. All the studies
considered as possible references are extremely well-publicized,
and have long been in the public domain - in headlines, even.
Four days after its indignant editorial,
the Times revealed to readers that the total length of the "censored"
materials was all of two pages.5
Two pages worth of references to studies everyone with an interest
already has seen.
However, the spinning didn't stop with
the weird semantics.
With its disapproval evident, the Times
told its readers that the Bush Administration sought to drop
references to two studies and add "a reference to a new
study, partly financed by the American Petroleum Institute."
Readers weren't told that of the two
studies the White House didn't want to cite, the first is an
inconclusive, swiftly-written summary of another study everyone
even vaguely familiar with climate change has already seen while
the second study's conclusions are widely contested on scientific
Nor did the Times tell its readers that
the study it described only as "partly financed by the American
Petroleum Institute" was mostly financed by the U.S. government,
in the form of grants from NASA, the Air Force Office of Scientific
Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Nor did it tell readers the study was conducted by the prestigious
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.6
No, the Times apparently wanted to leave
the impression that that a study affiliated with two of America's
most prestigious academic institutions was scarcely more worthy
than half-baked crayon scribblings by greedy oilmen.
There is supposed to be a difference
between a page one news story and an editorial, yet even editorials
are not supposed to mislead.
Ironically, the Harvard-Smithsonian study
the Times sought to slur doesn't take a position on the causes
or likelihood of any future global warming. The study was a review
of 240 peer-reviewed studies of the Earth's climate over the
last 1,000 years.
In other words, a scholarly weather report.
Look out, National Weather Service. The Times may be after you
The Times also complained that the White
House had struck from a draft the sixth grade-level sentence
"Climate change has global consequences for human health
and the environment."
Saying climate change has global consequences
for the environment is rather like saying that climate change
has consequences for our weather. We already agree on that much.
Any half-competent editor would strike
that sentence out, but the Times called its removal a "shameful
case of censorship."
It may be news to the New York Times,
but everyone involved in the global warming debate agrees that
climate change matters, and that if we have global warming (or
global cooling, for that matter) there will consequences of some
kind (some may even be positive) for human health.
What isn't agreed upon is if significant
temperature changes are actually happening, and, if they are,
if human activities are partly responsible. The Times misunderstands
Bill O'Reilly ends every one of his Fox
News Channel shows with the slogan "The Spin Stops Here,"
while, in light of recent controversies, the Times says it is
"re-examining some of our internal rules and structures."7
We hope so.
1 Analysis of citations in the Google "news" search
engine of the original New York Times story of June 19 done on
June 20, 21 and 23, 2003.
2 Bill O'Reilly, "Talking Points Memo," "The O'Reilly
Factor," Fox News Channel, June 19, 2003, available at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,89964,00.html
as of June 23, 2003.
3 Andrew C. Revkin and Katharine Q. Seelye, "Report by the
E.P.A. Leaves Out Data on Climate Change," New York Times,
June 19, 2003, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/19/politics/19CLIM.html
as of June 23, 2003.
4 "Censorship in Global Warming," editorial, New York
Times, June 20, 2003, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/20/opinion/20FRI1.html?ex=1056772800&en=c925304c02222945&ei=5062&partner=GOOGLE
as of June 23, 2003.
5 Katharine Q. Seelye and Jennifer 8. Lee, "E.P.A. Calls
U.S. Cleaner and Greener than 30 Years Ago," New York Times,
June 24, 2003, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/24/politics/24ENVI.html?ex=1057118400&en=723bc9dc05a2b10b&ei=5062&partner=GOOGLE
as of June 24, 2003.
6 "20th Century Climate Not So Hot," press release,
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts,
March 31, 2003, available at http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/press/pr0310.html
as of June 25, 2003, describes the study and its funding.
7 "Leadership at the Times," editorial, New York Times,
June 6, 2003, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/06/opinion/06FRI1.html?ex=1056600000&en=074da595b51d5a79&ei=5070
as of June 24, 2003.