01 Jun 2003 On Global Warming, the New York Times Spins Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone”… and the Rest of Us
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 Warming.”4
“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 grounds.
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 next.
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 the controversy.
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.
Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
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.