The lack of climate skeptics on PBS's 'Newshour'

Russell Cook
I stopped watching commercial network news in the '80s, but still had PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and its trademark two-side analysis of major news. Gradually after 2002, the lack of global warming skeptic scientists offering rebuttal to their IPCC guests began bothering me, so I wrote and asked about it, starting in 2007. I also started writing to the Media Research Center this year, asking them to include PBS when they criticized broadcast news outlets' lack of balance in global warming stories. Long  story short, the PBS Ombudsman answered on 12/17 (here, 2/3rds down the page at the headline "Hot About Warming"), and Tim Graham at MRC's NewsBusters also wrote a nice 12/21 analysis of PBS' response.

What's missing from the PBS response is an outright explanation for its lack of skeptic scientist guests, and Ombudsman Getler's "danger of establishing a false equivalence" observation was a head-snapper for me because it mimics Society of Environmental Journalists board director Robert McClure's opinion in his October 16th reply to me at his web page here (comment #7).

I cannot speak for The News Hour, but I do know that for me and most other journalists covering climate change, there came a time when scientists like Singer and Michaels no longer were credible.

Yes, we *could* have one of them in a story, or on a show, and have a representative of the "other side." But that would be false balance.

Interestingly, McClure wrote in his July 2006 Seattle P-I blog about skeptic Pat Michaels, quoting CNN's Peter Dykstra:

He fills the false journalistic need for balance on the topic...

An isolated observation? From a 2007 PDF file, "ExxonMobil's Tobacco-like Disinformation Campaign on Global Warming Science" at the Union of Concerned Scientists' site:

...journalists' inclination to provide political "balance" leads to inaccurate media reporting on scientific issues. Far from making news stories more balanced, quoting ExxonMobil-funded groups and spokespeople misleads the public by downplaying the strength of the scientific consensus...

From a 2005 Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard page, "Global Warming: What's Known vs. What's Told", first quoting from other Nieman writers, then environment reporter Bud Ward:

"The result of the routine media practice of quoting conflicting 'sides,'" wrote Corbett and Durfee, is "giving equal weight to fringe and nonscientists as much as scientists ... even though the majority of evidence or opinion may fall clearly to one side."

Ward: ..."the old journalism 101 thing about balance" is creating a problem in the coverage of climate change. "Balance in some cases can be the enemy of accuracy..."

From a Competitive Enterprise Institute PDF by David Murray, "The Political Economy of Climate Science, Print Media and Climate Change Coverage", noting Arizona Republic reporter Steve Wilson's November 24, 1995 article quote about ASU professor Robert Balling:

"... greenhouse critics like Arizona's own, Dr. Robert Balling "should continue to be heard, but they should not counterbalance the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion."

Finally, one with an intriguing twist - from former reporter Ross Gelbspan in another 2005 Nieman Foundation piece, describing the fossil fuel lobby:

For the longest time, this industry's well-funded disinformation campaigns have duped reporters into practicing a profoundly distorted form of journalistic balance. In the early 1990's, the coal industry paid a tiny handful of dissenting scientists (with little or no standing in the mainstream scientific community) under the table to deny the reality of climate change.

Excuse me? What "journalistic balance"? If the NewsHour's ultimate explanation is that they did avoid such a 'distorted form of journalistic balance' for years, did they first check the veracity of accusations against skeptics?

Has any mainstream media news outlet checked the veracity of those accusations of corruption?

I stopped watching commercial network news in the '80s, but still had PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and its trademark two-side analysis of major news. Gradually after 2002, the lack of global warming skeptic scientists offering rebuttal to their IPCC guests began bothering me, so I wrote and asked about it, starting in 2007. I also started writing to the Media Research Center this year, asking them to include PBS when they criticized broadcast news outlets' lack of balance in global warming stories. Long  story short, the PBS Ombudsman answered on 12/17 (here, 2/3rds down the page at the headline "Hot About Warming"), and Tim Graham at MRC's NewsBusters also wrote a nice 12/21 analysis of PBS' response.

What's missing from the PBS response is an outright explanation for its lack of skeptic scientist guests, and Ombudsman Getler's "danger of establishing a false equivalence" observation was a head-snapper for me because it mimics Society of Environmental Journalists board director Robert McClure's opinion in his October 16th reply to me at his web page here (comment #7).

I cannot speak for The News Hour, but I do know that for me and most other journalists covering climate change, there came a time when scientists like Singer and Michaels no longer were credible.

Yes, we *could* have one of them in a story, or on a show, and have a representative of the "other side." But that would be false balance.

Interestingly, McClure wrote in his July 2006 Seattle P-I blog about skeptic Pat Michaels, quoting CNN's Peter Dykstra:

He fills the false journalistic need for balance on the topic...

An isolated observation? From a 2007 PDF file, "ExxonMobil's Tobacco-like Disinformation Campaign on Global Warming Science" at the Union of Concerned Scientists' site:

...journalists' inclination to provide political "balance" leads to inaccurate media reporting on scientific issues. Far from making news stories more balanced, quoting ExxonMobil-funded groups and spokespeople misleads the public by downplaying the strength of the scientific consensus...

From a 2005 Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard page, "Global Warming: What's Known vs. What's Told", first quoting from other Nieman writers, then environment reporter Bud Ward:

"The result of the routine media practice of quoting conflicting 'sides,'" wrote Corbett and Durfee, is "giving equal weight to fringe and nonscientists as much as scientists ... even though the majority of evidence or opinion may fall clearly to one side."

Ward: ..."the old journalism 101 thing about balance" is creating a problem in the coverage of climate change. "Balance in some cases can be the enemy of accuracy..."

From a Competitive Enterprise Institute PDF by David Murray, "The Political Economy of Climate Science, Print Media and Climate Change Coverage", noting Arizona Republic reporter Steve Wilson's November 24, 1995 article quote about ASU professor Robert Balling:

"... greenhouse critics like Arizona's own, Dr. Robert Balling "should continue to be heard, but they should not counterbalance the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion."

Finally, one with an intriguing twist - from former reporter Ross Gelbspan in another 2005 Nieman Foundation piece, describing the fossil fuel lobby:

For the longest time, this industry's well-funded disinformation campaigns have duped reporters into practicing a profoundly distorted form of journalistic balance. In the early 1990's, the coal industry paid a tiny handful of dissenting scientists (with little or no standing in the mainstream scientific community) under the table to deny the reality of climate change.

Excuse me? What "journalistic balance"? If the NewsHour's ultimate explanation is that they did avoid such a 'distorted form of journalistic balance' for years, did they first check the veracity of accusations against skeptics?

Has any mainstream media news outlet checked the veracity of those accusations of corruption?