Archive for the ‘Journalism, Science & Environment’ Category

Governance as Usual: Film at 11

July 9th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I have long considered Andy Revkin of the New York Times to be the dean of reporters covering climate science. But there is one issue that I think he consistently gets wrong, and that is his coverage of the politics of internal bureaucratic-politician conflicts. His story in today’s NYT is a good example.

Andy writes, breathlessly:

Vice President Dick Cheney’s office was involved in removing statements on health risks posed by global warming from a draft of a health official’s Senate testimony last year, a former senior government environmental official said on Tuesday.

Watergate this is not. In fact, the editing of testimony probably occurs just about every time that an employee of the executive branch is set to testify before Congress, and this has been standard operating procedure for decades. The more significant the issue the higher up the chain of command the review takes place. The procedure is clearly outlined in OMB Circular-21 (PDF):

Unless a specific exemption is approved by OMB, materials subject to OMB clearance include:

• All budget justifications and budget-related oversight materials;
• Testimony before and letters to congressional committees;
• Written responses to congressional inquiries or other materials for the record; . . .

Now if you or I were in a decision making position in the Executive Branch we might make decisions about what to allow in testimony differently than those in the current administration. But make no mistake, such decisions are under the discretion of the administration. Federal employees who don’t like those decisions are free to go public or even resign (both occurred in this case).

A spat between elected and career officials may or may not be significant, as they happen all the time. My problem with the track record of coverage of such disputes on climate change by the NYT is that it they have been very misleading about what the news is in such situations. The headline reads: “Cheney’s Office Said to Edit Draft Testimony” suggesting that there is something improper or perhaps even illegal about the editing of testimony in the Executive Office of the President. There is not.

Revkin and I have disagreed on this same issue before. At the time I called the NYT coverage of Bush officials editing Bush Administration documents a “manufactured controversy” and I think that statement applies to today’s revelations as well.

Here are the comments I left on Andy’s blog, to which, perhaps understandably, he reacted a bit snippily:


This is a “dog bites man” story in the form of “pit bull bites man”. It is red meat for those who do not like pit bulls, but at the same time, everyone knows that pit bulls bite.

Can you name a presidential administration in which senior officials did not play a role in shaping testimony on important issues? This is a loaded question, because of course you cannot.

I’m no fan of Bush or Cheney, or their approach to climate, but at the same time I think that it is only appropriate to present to your readers an accurate sense of how policy making actually works. In this case, Marburger’s explanation [cited on Andy's blog] is exactly correct.

It is perfectly fair for people to disagree with the actions taken by the Bush Administration on this testimony, but was it improper or even illegal? No, not even close.

Science does not dictate particular policies, and presidential administration’s have wide latitude in what information they present and how they present it. This is spelled out in OMB Circular 22: r/s22.pdf

Dog bites man is not news.

[ANDY REVKIN says: Roger, maybe you forgot to read the entire 2004 story, which made the points you’re making now.]

— Posted by Roger Pielke, Jr.

A Follow Up on Media Coverage and Climate Change

December 19th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Last week I asked a few reporters and scholars why it is that a major paper in Nature last week on hurricanes and global warming received almost no media coverage whereas another paper released last summer received quite a bit more. Andy Revkin raised the issue on his blog which stimulated many more responses. With this post I’d like to report back on what I’ve heard, and what I’ve concluded, at least tentatively, on the role of the media in the climate debate.


A Question for the Media

December 14th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I’ve generally thought that the media has done a nice job on covering the climate issue over the past 20 years. There are of course leaders and laggards, but overall, I think that the community of journalists has done a nice job on a very tough issue. However, there are times when I am less impressed. Here is one example.


Nature magazine, arguably the leading scientific journal in the world, published a paper this week by two widely-respected scholars — Gabriel Vecchi and Brian Soden — suggesting that global warming may have a minimal effect on hurricanes. Over two days the media — as measured by Google News — published a grand total of 3 news stories on this paper. Now contrast this with a paper published in July in a fairly obscure journal by two other respected scholars — Peter Webster and Greg Holland — suggesting that global warming has a huge effect on hurricanes. That paper resulted in 79 news stories stories over two days.

What accounts for the 26 to 1 ratio in news stories?

Sustainability: John Stossel versus Anderson Cooper

October 26th, 2007

Posted by: admin

During the past week, ABC and CNN both tackled global environmental issues — but in completely different ways. In a 20/20 segment, John Stossel weighed in on global warming in predictable fashion, using half truths and complete nonsense to make the case that “when the Nobel prize winner says, ‘the debate’s over,’ I say, ‘give me a break!’” Meanwhile, over at CNN, Anderson Cooper, Jeff Corwin and Sanjay Gupta did a shockingly good job with a four-hour documentary titled Planet-in-Peril.

In his 20/20 segment, Stossel copied and pasted the usual exhausted arguments about global warming, including that old one about atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rising hundreds of years after temperatures began to increase when the Earth was emerging from past ice ages. I guess he was trying to convince viewers that greenhouse gases don’t actually warm the planet, almost putting him in the same company as flat Earthers.

Of course he is either willfully ignorant or willfully misleading. At risk of annoying those Prometheus readers who generally don’t want to waste time on issues like this… Scientists have long known that CO2 and other greenhouse gases lag climate change in the ice core record, and they offer a widely accepted explanation. Changes in Earth’s orientation to the sun are believed to initiate the rise in temperature that heralds the end of an ice age. This rise in temperature, in turn, causes greenhouse gases to be emitted into the atmosphere — for example, as permafrost melts, methane is released. And this accentuates the warming. (For an excellent explanation of this idea, see this RealClimate post.)