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NYT’s Revkin Denies Bias in ClimateGate Coverage

Yesterday, I wrote a post on the newly-released “ClimateGate II” emails, which included a number of messages from former New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin. Most of Revkin’s emails were typical, unobjectionable conversations with scientific sources. But some of them included disparaging remarks about climate change skeptics, and supportive comments that seemed to indicate – in my opinion – that Revkin saw himself on the same “team” as the climate scientists.

All reporters interact with sources differently, and none of the individual messages Revkin messages sent were blatantly outside the bounds of ethics. But the combination of them, along with his decision to not publish the 2009 ClimateGate emails, seemed problematic. I also felt that his coverage of ClimateGate downplayed the story, focusing more on the fallout of the scandal than on the actual content of the emails.

Unsurprisingly, Revkin disagrees, and he asked for a chance to respond. Here’s my email exchange with him (my questions and comments to him are highlighted in bold):

In some of the emails, you wrote disparagingly of climate change skeptics. You wrote that 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.” And you wrote that “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.”

There are ill-informed people at both edges of the spectrum on climate science and policy, and influential people in the debate who tend to rely on caricatures to suit our soundbite culture. This particular e-mail was about an influential subset at one end (those who tend to bundle a big, rich body of science on greenhouse warming into a simple basket called “hoax”). I know from the careful wording of his speeches that Inhofe is mainly rejecting evidence pointing to “catastrophic” human-caused warming, but I don’t see him being quick to point out that he doesn’t dispute the basic reality that greenhouse gases keep Earth warm and more will make things warmer. That’s a starting point for discussing the need for, and nature of, any response.

Someone could easily sift my e-mails and find some in which I’ve spoken disparagingly of climate scientists and campaigners pushing a scientifically unsupported case for greenhouse action, as well. Of course that wouldn’t serve the interests of the person behind the email release called FOIA2011.

At the time, did you think that people who didn’t agree with the AGW theory were uneducated, or were being fed lies by irresponsible media outlets? And did you think that someone could be a global warming “denier” if he was also an educated, sincere person?

On AGW (anthropogenic global warming) Theory: Here, you’re making the mistake I allude to above in discussing Sen. Inhofe — lumping “AGW theory” (which even Michael Crichton did not dispute) with the range of views (some supported, some not) on whether the case has been made for dangerous human-driven climate change. That’s a very different question, and one laden with values judgments. A first step in having any kind of informed discussion of climate science and policy has to start with that delineation. I’ve even come up with a visual aid to help.

On bad media: There’s been plenty of misinformation and/or disinformation on climate disseminated by media over the years — much of it related to the AGW point above (conflating all climate science with flawed examples, or mashing up meanings). One case in point was George Will’s coverage of polar climate issues. Another was Time Magazine’s “Be Worried, Be Very Worried” cover story.

On the word “denier” and sincerity: There are plenty of sincere, highly educated critics of some climate science and scientists. Words like denier and skeptic have been greatly abused in the climate fight for far too long — often as a catch-all. I’ve long pointed out that there is a dizzyingly wide spectrum of attitudes, some informed, some not, on the amorphous thing called global warming. I’ve also noted that there has been plenty of denial to go around — noting that  I was in denial for a long time, presuming that more communication of climate findings could matter.

In another email you wrote, “the only discourse now is among folks who believe human-forced climate change is a huge problem…the ‘hotter’ voices are doing their job well. I’m doing mine.” From the context and the linked article, I take this to mean that your “job” was to inform the public that the only respectable discussions on climate change were going on between the “reasonable” AGW believers (you, in this case), and the extreme AGW believers – cutting out the skeptics completely. Is that what you were trying to say, or can you clarify?

I find it hard to draw the same conclusion in looking at my coverage, which has long included the voices of researchers challenging the predominant line of thinking on climate science, among them Roger Pielke Sr.Richard Lindzen, who was quoted in the 2006 article you read, John ChristyIvar Giaever (Nobelist who rejects the science pointing to dangerous greenhouse warming) and others.

Did your decision to not publish the emails have anything to do with your involvement on the email list, and your relationship with the scientists? You seemed to have a friendship with some of them, and agree on the issues – did this play a role in your coverage of ClimateGate?

The simple answer is no. First of all, I noted from the start that I was mentioned in some of the emails. The 2009 batch was there for anyone to sift for meaning from the get-go.

As has been written about extensively (see Steve McIntyre’s post on the hypocrisy of the Times), the decision on publishing the emails directly in the paper was not made by me, but by Times lawyers. This was made clear in a big addendum to my original coverage back on 11/29/09.

What many critics fail to note is that I did quote from and link to the emails repeatedly, including in the initial page-one article. (The emails were all quickly assembled in searchable databases, as with those now available for the new batch).

As for friendships, there are people on all sides of the climate story who became — over two decades — what I would call friendly acquaintances. But the idea that I was in cahoots with one side or the other isn’t well borne out by my coverage, which has been attacked routinely by liberals and conservatives alike as not to their liking.

That’s one reason the climate scientist Michael Mann admonished a colleague (in the 2009 emails) to be careful what he shared with me, saying I’m “not as predictable as we’d like.”

As for fairness, in general, have a look back at Anthony Watts’ post on my departure from the Times staff.

Clearly this isn’t an issue that’s purely black-and-white. Revkin obviously has his personal views on climate change, which he writes about regularly at his Dot Earth blog. Whether those opinions influenced his reporting, consciously or not, isn’t something that can be definitively known.

Having an opinion on an issue is hardly a disqualifier for reporters. All reporters have to make judgment calls which stories they cover, which sources they contact, which angles they focus on. A pro-life reporter might cover the abortion issue differently than a pro-choice reporter. Does that mean either of them is being intentionally dishonest? Of course not. But it does mean they should be aware of their biases.

On the whole, I think Revkin has tried to be fair to all sides of the climate change debate. But I still don’t believe he gives fair coverage to the content of the original ClimateGate emails — emails that he personally had a part in. If the messages had shown prominent climate change skeptics plotting media strategy, obscuring data, and acting more like lobbyists than scientists, the New York Times would certainly have treated it like the scandal it is. And if the Times is willing to devote space to crowdsourcing the Sarah Palin emails, it had no excuse for not doing the same with emails written by prominent scientists who help shape international environmental policy.



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