NY Times watchdog whitewashes Climategate

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt responded to our request to examine the propriety of Andrew Revkin’s reporting on Climategate. Not only is Revkin part of the Climategate story (he’s mentioned in the e-mails) but he clearly has a special relationship with the Climategate actors that calls into question whether he can report on them without bias.

Here’s Hoyt’s whitewash of the issue, interrupted by our comments where warranted:

December 6, 2009
The Public Editor
Stolen E-Mail, Stoking the Climate Debate

AS world leaders prepare to meet tomorrow in Copenhagen to address global warming, skeptics are pointing to e-mail hacked from a computer server at a British university as evidence that the conference may be much ado about nothing. They say the e-mail messages show a conspiracy among scientists to overstate human influence on the climate — and some accuse The Times of mishandling the story.

[Not to get off-topic, but there is no evidence of any hacking or theft of the e-mails. They were collected in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and were then stored on a public server — inadvertently or not. Info stored on a public server is legally available to the public.]

Although The Times was among the first to report on the e-mail, in a front-page article late last month, and has continued to write about the issue almost daily in the paper or on its Web site, readers have raised a variety of complaints:

Some say Andrew Revkin, the veteran environmental reporter who is covering what skeptics have dubbed “Climategate,” has a conflict of interest because he wrote or is mentioned in some of the e-mail messages that the University of East Anglia says were stolen. Others wondered why The Times did not make the e-mail available on its Web site, and scoffed at an explanation by Revkin in a blog post that they contain “private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye.” What about the Pentagon Papers? they asked.

Others contended that The Times was playing down a story with global implications, coming as world leaders consider a treaty to limit the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere from autos, power plants and other sources.

Luis Alvarez Jr. of Charlottesville, Va., was outraged that a front-page article on President Obama’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States had not a single mention of the e-mail, in which one scientist, for example, said he had used a “trick” to “hide” a recent decline in temperatures.

Richard Murphy of Fairfield, Conn., said, “Given that the hacked e-mails cast doubt on some of the critical research that underlies the entire global warming argument, I am astounded that The Times has treated the issue in such a cavalier fashion.”

Does Revkin have a conflict of interest, as Steven Milloy, the publisher of JunkScience.com, and others contended? Why didn’t The Times put the e-mail on its Web site? And, most important, is The Times being cavalier about a story that could change our understanding of global warming? Or, as The Times’s John Broder, who covers environmental issues in Washington, put it, “When does a story rise to three-alarm coverage?”

Erica Goode, the environment editor, said that as soon as she learned that Revkin was mentioned in the scientists’ e-mail, she consulted with Philip Corbett, the standards editor. She said she read the roughly one dozen messages containing Revkin’s name and decided they showed a reporter asking for information for news articles, with “no particular close relationship with the scientists other than the fact that he knew them.” Goode and Corbett said they agreed that Revkin did not have a significant conflict and was good to go, with an acknowledgment in the article that he and other journalists were named in the e-mail.

[The-emails also showed, as mentioned by Hoyt below, that Revkin was, to some extent, a “reliable” reporter for the Climategaters. More on this point later. In large part, Climategate is all about the credibility of Revkin’s long-time sources… and to no one’s surprise, he helped give them a clean bill of health.]

I read all the messages involving Revkin, and I did not see anything to keep him off the story. If anything, there was an indication that the scientists whom some readers accused Revkin of being too cozy with were wary of his independence. One, Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, warned a colleague, Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia, to be careful what he shared with “Andy” because, “He’s not as predictable as we’d like.”

[Isn’t “not as predictable as we’d like” a giant red flag? The Climategaters, of course, would like a reporter to carry their water 100% of the time. So if Revkin was only 95% efficient for them, we can see where they would be 5% unhappy. But isn’t a reporter’s 95% pliability a problem? Has Revkin ever had a skeptical thought? ]

As for not posting the e-mail, Revkin said he should have used better language in his blog, Dot Earth, to explain the decision, which was driven by advice from a Times attorney. The lawyer, George Freeman, told me that there is a large legal distinction between government documents like the Pentagon Papers, which The Times published over the objections of the Nixon administration, and e-mail between private individuals, even if they may receive some government money for their work. He said the Constitution protects the publication of leaked government information, as long as it is newsworthy and the media did not obtain it illegally. But the purloined e-mail, he said, was covered by copyright law in the United States and Britain.

[As discussed above, the e-mail was not purloined. This paragraph, however, is simple distraction from the main issue — i.e., should Revkin have been the reporter on this story.]

I think that any notion that The Times was trying to avoid publishing the e-mail messages is a manufactured issue. On Freeman’s advice, the paper linked to them — on a skeptic’s Web site as it happens — and they were a click away for anyone who wanted to examine them.

The biggest question is what the messages amount to — an embarrassing revelation that scientists can be petty and defensive and even cheat around the edges, or a major scandal that undercuts the scientific premise for global warming. The former is a story. The latter is a huge story. And the answer is tied up in complex science that is difficult even for experts to understand, and in politics in which passionate sides have been taken, sometimes regardless of the facts.

[It’s a story that Andrew Revkin long ago made up his mind about — and that decision is evident in his Climategate reporting.]

John Tierney, a Times science columnist, explained in Science Times last week the most controversial revelation so far in the e-mail — Jones’s effort to “hide the decline” when preparing a graph for the cover of a report to be read by policy makers. The graph, showing sharply higher temperatures in the last several decades, relied in part on tree ring data, until the rings began to diverge from thermometer readings and show a decline in temperatures. Jones and his colleagues did not believe that data and removed it from the graph, substituting direct thermometer readings without explicitly acknowledging the switch.

“The story behind that graph certainly didn’t show that global warming was a hoax or a fraud, as some skeptics proclaimed,” Tierney wrote, “but it did illustrate another of their arguments: that the evidence for global warming is not as unequivocal as many scientists claim.”

[The most important revelation in the e-mails is IPCC muckety-muck Kevin Trenberth’s admission that he doesn’t understand energy flows in the atmosphere — which means that there’s no way he or anyone else can competently model the atmosphere. This is devastating.]

Revkin said last week on his blog that he was asking a variety of researchers if the e-mail changed our understanding of global warming. One, Roger Pielke Sr. of the University of Colorado, who has been critical of what he called “the climate oligarchy,” including some of the scientists involved in the e-mail, replied that it did not. Pielke has characterized some scientists in the field as inbred and wedded to their views, but he said that the temperature measurement by Jones’s group was only one of several showing a long-term warming trend, and that there was no doubt that carbon dioxide produced by humans was a major factor.

[Not precisely true. Pielke’s position is more that human activities in total are a major climate driver — not CO2 emissions alone.]

But Revkin and Tierney both told me that, after that broad understanding among scientists, there is sharp debate over how fast the earth is warming, how much human activity is contributing and how severe the impact will be.

[And just where does any of this uncertainty show up in Revkin’s articles? In Revkin’s initial Nov. 20 article about Climategate he wrote, “The evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to global warming is so widely accepted that the hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument.” ]

“Our coverage, looked at in toto, has never bought the catastrophe conclusion and always aimed to examine the potential for both overstatement and understatement,” Revkin said.

[On the eve of the Waxman-Markey vote, June 26, 2009, the New York Times lead editorial stated, “We also urge them to read the scientific analysis forecasting the catastrophic costs to the planet, this country’s security and its economy if global warming is left unchecked.” “Catastrophe” is also a favorite global warming adjective of the Time‘s columnists and op-ed writers, especially Paul Krugman. Does Revkin read his own paper? Does Revkin read his own articles? I did a Nexis search and found the word “catastrophe” in dozens of  his climate articles dating back to 1997.]

Goode, his editor, said: “We here at The Times are not scientists. We don’t collect the data or analyze it, and so the best we can do is to give our readers a sense of what the prevailing scientific view is, based on interviews with scientists” and the expertise of reporters like Revkin.

[I guess it never occurred to Goode that Revkin and the Climategaters have so much personally invested in global warming hysteria that they could never walk back without great embarrassment the alarm that they’ve sown. They have no choice but to proceed with the hysteria. Moreover, the official policy of the New York Times is full-speed ahead with global warming hysteria. Every Times‘ news article and editorial/op-ed on climate is crafted to sow alarm and dismiss dissent. Goode is correct that Revkin is not a scientist — he is a climate activist masquerading as a reporter.]

So far, I think The Times has handled Climategate appropriately — a story, not a three-alarm story.

[They seem pretty upset in the UK — CRU chief Phil Jones has had to step down. Penn State has announced an investigation of Climategater Michael Mann. Sen. Inhofe has requested an congressional investigation. Obama changed his Copenhagen plans after Climategate broke. I dunno… sounds like at least a five-alarmer to me.]

The public editor can be reached by e-mail: public@nytimes.com.

[Send Mr. Hoyt your thoughts.]

14 thoughts on “NY Times watchdog whitewashes Climategate”

  1. Well done.

    The NY Times makes a good point that the allegedly stolen information was fully available with an easy link.

    The Times mis-characterization regarding the views of Pielke Sr. is tellingly evasive.

    A better reporter to be assigned to this story would have been Davidoff, who normally does sports, but who had the integrity to interview Freeman Dyson, published by the same newspaper. Or, they could try to re-hire a previous reporter who left the newspaper after admitting doubts about the severity of risks posed by dioxin.

    The idea that there is broad scientific consensus that CO2 will cause catastrophic global warming is an assertion of some politicians. As a newspaper dedicated to reporting all the news as fit to print for merely Democratic party voters, it is no surprise that the Times would have long aimed to sell newspapers that please their readers rather than seek an honest, two or ten sided airing of this highly politicized public issue.
    In this way, the Times has done sad dis-service not only to its readers, but to civil society, in the US and further afield. This is true also of the Finanacial Times and the Economist, though they are more centrist publications.

    A former head of the US National Academy of Sciences deplored the fanatical claims regarding CO2 induced catastrophe. There is Dr. Dyson. Professor Lindzen of MIT has been a titanic profile in intellectual integrity. Someday his picture should be honored on a postage stamp, like other heroes.

    In due course, CO2 induced climate catastrophe will be revealed as ludicrous. The global climate is enormously complicated and includes a great number of contributing and simultaneous factors, involving a vast number of uncertainties. Prima facie, anyone who asserts that all the science is known or is even knowable, given such as complicated topic as the climate is necessarily unthoughtful.

  2. “the answer is tied up in complex science that is difficult even for experts to understand… among scientists, there is sharp debate over how fast the earth is warming, how much human activity is contributing and how severe the impact will be…”

    What, *now* the claim is that it’s more complicated than, “There’s a consensus, you’re a denier, shut up?”

    “Goode, his editor, said: ‘We here at The Times are not scientists…'”

    Neither are they journalists. For the past six years, the major business of the New York Times has been writing its own obituary.

  3. If these folks truly believe CO2 is a harmful gas then any carbonated substance should outlawed, that includes soft drinks and beer. Anything that uses yeast should be stopped from being made. And maybe the 6 or 7 billion people who inhabit this world should stop exhaling. I think Gore, Hanson and Mann, among others, connived to perpetuate a lie for their own personal gain. If Obama is stupid or insensitive enough to agree to anything at Copenhagen I hope there are enough reasonable members of the senate to over turn him.

  4. I believe the main problem is that our enviro’s are locked into a brief moment of time–human lifetimes. The Earth and its processes operate on a much longer time-scale, so great that a human life is but the blink of an eye. Man has had the numbers and the industry to make a slight impression on nature only for the time of two eye-blinks. This idea that man can control a natural process (weather) and the world’s population by micromanagement, has to be the ultimate conceit of mankind.

  5. It is telling the Times had to turn to Pieklke Sr. for backing. The Times must know the newspaper itself has no global warming credibility. So they quote the kind of person they would typically insult as a “denier” to give themselves a defense. They invoke Pielke to agree there is a little warming, but then preposterously ignore his fundamental point there are many contributing causes and its not possible to isolate the contribution of each. Its a pathetic and dishonest defense by the Times.

    The science as advanced by the alarmists is as simple as baby-talk. Its for use by politicians who want babytalk simplicity to relay to voters. Part of the source of this problem owes to the great and laudable craving among people (voters) to “do good.” Some want to “save the Earth.” This gives them a noble mission and raison d’etre.

    Such lofty stakes create enormous pressure to conjure up a threat against which the Earth needs to be Saved. You cannot save the Earth without a Peril. The result is a quasi-religious cult, eager to do good. They hear the Planet is in peril, so are easily recruited by political organizations like environmental NGOs that welcome their financial contributions to Save the Earth.

    Another root problem is an atrocious job by the National Academy of Sciences and by the Royal Society in England. These associations of eminent scientists have bungled this issue and ill-served the NY Times and politicians and everyday people. They need to replace their leaders and install people who are disinvolved with advocating for Global Warming. They need to be led by neutral “methodologists”, people who understand the limitations to scientific methods.

  6. A lot of the alarmist scientists must be very well educated and well intended people.

    A problem is that the climate is not a hard discipline like mathematics. In math, mathematicians challenge one another and debate their work, in search of better, more elegant solutions. Right answers can sometimes be clearly found and generally accepted. The field is all based on logic and rules.

    However, the climate is a very different kind of discipline. There are not clearcut answers to many things. The entirety of the system is very complicated and interactive.

    So it is possible for Alarmists to be very well intentioned and very well educated, but not realistic about the great the uncertainties associated with their field. Their funders want quick or simple answers and assert that the Earth is in Peril. In fact, tomorrow will be the Earth’s last chance not to immolate, or something. So there is enormous pressure of expectations put upon potentially quite honest scientists and they start making assumptions and building upon these and create their insular little fiefdoms, with enemies outside, “deniers”, people who are ignorant and derided as “flat earthers.”

    It must be a very difficult situation, to be expected to save the earth. No wonder Mann came up with the lame hockey stick. He is just a human being, but one under enormous pressure to enable the very survival of the planet and all living things upon it. And millions of people will thank him for the inventing hockey stick and hiding the decline, so as to save the Earth. That is a very tough spot for any person to be in. What a choice, what a pickle.

  7. Nothing the Times has to say is truth they only report their agenda; look out we are going to be steam rolled on this one and they only way to over turn it would be to filled the congress with like minded people and over turn cap an trade or anything else , we face a real danger from the EPA, they are poised to present us with a gift for Christmas we can spend and that is that Co2 is now a dangerous gas and we will be looking at paying 5 to 6 bucks a gallon for gasoline and our electric rates with in the words of Obama will “Sky rocket”

  8. justbeau, I think you are far to soft on the AGW crowd, many know better but have been bought and paid for and have become science prostitutes. As for your deniers being ignorant, lets look at a group of over 32,000 scientists whose credentials were checked before accepting their signatures on a petition to the US Senate to not pass on a bill that would obligate the USA to honor the Kyoto Protocols. I am proud to have my signature on that petition. There were over 9,000 PhD’s in the group of petitioners, done in May ’08.
    If you have never heard of this petition, and I have never seen reference to it either because there has been a cloak of protection around AGW, it has been promoted by outright lies, obfuscations and vindictive towards us skeptics. Worst of all has been the problem of getting the skeptic side of the argument in the media and publications of scientific persuasion. Why should this be? Only because politicians and some industrialists love it for its money raising ability in hidden taxation (Cap & Trade) and the huge investment required in this misbegotten attempt to control climate.I can assure you as much as science is possible that we are in no danger from an overheating earth from CO2 or it would have happened back in the age of the dinosaurs when evidence points to as much as 20 times as much CO2 as in our air today. It was considerably warmer than today but life adapted and thrived. Reptiles developed from amphibians, as did the first mammals, birds from reptiles, decidious trees and flowering plants. So, where’s the danger from the tiny amount of CO2 in today’s air? If I were looking for a climate to worry about, I would suggest that we are far more likely to freeze up than burn up. But that is too long a story to tell here

  9. justbeau is RIGHT ON! Science and scientists have never been so corrupted as by the hypothesis of AGW. It will play out as sciences blackest eye.

  10. Lindzen, Dyson, the National Academy and the Royal Society are more important than a laundry list of 32,000 signees who have degrees in something. What is important is not how many people think something, rather its the quality of the facts and the thinking about facts, regardless of the number of adherents.

    Dyson and Lindzen are among those who think exaggerations and simplifications have entered public debate. If they are right, then the political class needs to consider how this has happenned and work to prevent its repetition.

  11. To the blogger above who minimized the importance of 32,000 scientists who are on record against AGW. We do not claim to be climate scientists. We deplore the lack of scientific integrity of those of us who have been bought and paid for their continued support of a shoddy hypothesis. An idea that could not find support with 20 years of research and over $30 billion in grants is no longer acceptable as a vehicle for waste of the world’s riches and the loss of the good name of science. To cap the rediculous timing of this nonsense, our world is in the grip of a glacial climate, several degrees below the world norm, and have been for the last 14 million years since ice formed at our polar regions, and will remain until it disappears. These facts are indications that we are much more likely to ice up again than get too warm. After all, it is indisputable that we are at least 11,000 years into the latest 5th or 6th (depending on who is counting) Interglacial Period in the northern hemisphere in the past 1.75 million years. And,considering our true position within our cyclic climate system, it seems the wrong time to be sequestering a beneficial gas that in higher concentrations might discourage another glacial onslaught.

Comments are closed.