Dial-a-denialist journalism in the New York Times

A letter sent to the public editor of the New York Times:

Dear Mr Brisbane,

You are no doubt deluged by complaints about the NY Times’ climate change coverage, and so I am sorry to add to the volume of your correspondence on the subject.

I refer you to “Rising Sea Levels Seen as Threat to Coastal U.S.”, Justin Gillis, March 13, 2012.

The article makes a point of quoting Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, for a contrary view on warming.

Why? If there was an earthquake, the Times would not seek out a denier of earthquakes. If this was an article on medicine, the Times would not automatically seek out the views of a homeopath or acupuncturist. If this was an article on astronomy, you (the Times) would not make an obligatory pilgrimage to the UFO community. Yet on climate change… you bow again and again to the immense vested interests that fund the climate denial industry. This does not give your readers balance – in fact, it distorts their views of the actual facts.

Mr Ebell’s organisation receives substantial funding from Exxon Mobil, a point not mentioned in this article.

The article also does not mention that Mr Ebell is not a climate scientist, and that he functions as a professional skeptic. Arguably, he would lose income were he to change his views on the subject. He can therefore hardly be considered independent or expert in a class with the scientists whose views your colleague’s article leads with.

Vanity Fair has described Mr Ebell thus: “Every day, journalists around the world call C.E.I. for its take on the latest global-warming studies, and Ebell, or one of his colleagues who also deal with the press—Marlo Lewis, Iain Murray, and Christopher Horner—happily obliges. The journalists like to air all views—”on the one hand, on the other”—so they plug in Ebell’s latest retorts, giving them equal weight with new scientific findings.”

Turning to a standard dial-a-denialist source on climate change for a formulaic science-and-denial story does not suggest much rigour in the work of your colleague. It is lazy journalism.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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10 Responses to Dial-a-denialist journalism in the New York Times

  1. cityinonek says:

    I hope you sent this to the NYT as well!

  2. Nishit says:

    Reblogged this on freedune and commented:
    I have seen this strategy among pro-software patent, pro-proprietary software journos-for-sale as well as pro-fossil fuel industry ‘think tanks’.

    Very nicely written letter to the NYT. I wonder why people did not realise this of their own, sooner.

  3. flagondry says:

    Go, David!

  4. David says:

    Thanks for circulating it, Nishit – I appreciate it.

  5. Great letter David, and a wonderful point… I hope more journalists and editors read it and take note

  6. Craig says:

    Thanks, David. When balance is actually imbalance. Great point! It’s like those smoking people who came up with “their own” method of testing tar and nicotine content until the Surgeon-General stipulated a uniform standardised methodology. Unfortunately, anyone with a webite, email address, fax machine andtelephone … And funding, can purport to be “expert”. Peer-reviewed scientific evidence for human-induced climate change = 99%. Funded lobby denial group 1% but they each get equal weighting in a misguided attempt at “balance”. Great point. Peace.

  7. Rosie Fiore says:

    Fantastic! So pleased this is getting the attention it deserves. It’s such an emotive subject: admitting we’re killing our planet and that we will have to change the way we live substantially is a very hard pill for most to swallow. Our lazy, selfish instinct is to embrace someone who tells us it’s all not true and that what we’re doing is fine. Brilliant blog/letter (is that a bletter?)

    • David says:

      Hi Rosie, thanks! Yes, we do need to change the way we live – I think the mistake many people make, though, is thinking that having less will mean poorer lives. In fact, it just means a return (in some ways) to how people have lived for most of history, excluding perhaps, the last 50 years. And I don’t mean we have to give up modern medicine or computers or other seriously helpful conveniences… We don’t actually understand how having too much stuff has actually impoverished us – turning the stuff of life, of infinite wonder, into inert things that all too often are discarded after a very few years – this is not actually a great trade. A world overflowing with life that we treasure and share will be a far richer place for all.

  8. Ken Bridgens says:

    Unfortunately commercial self interest and climate change are diametrically opposed. The planet Earth has always had the capability of absorbing human abuse but the tipping point is approaching. When human abuse becomes intolerable, retribution will naturally take place. Look out for Tornadoes , hurricanes, tsunamis, extreme storms in a location near you soon.

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