The day DC journalism died: Washington Post is staffed with people who found ZERO mistakes in George Will’s error-filled denial column

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After my debunking of George Will‘s recent column collection of error-filled denier talking points [redundant], it became somewhat of a sport on the Internet (see Island of Doubt). I had written:

I don’t know whether it is more pathetic that Will believes this or that the Washington Post simply lets him publish this lie again and again.

Now we know it is the latter, thanks to Brad Johnson at WonkRoom, who got this jaw-dropping email from Post ombudsman Andy Alexander:

Basically, I was told that the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.

Paging Woodward and Bernstein. [The CP fact checker notes that Woodward abandoned journalism based on facts, at least checkable facts, many years ago.]

Both of my parents were professional journalists, and I must say that response makes me want to cry. I could understand Will’s people stooges signing off on his crap — they drink from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid. And I could understand if the Post said that they don’t fact-check opinion pieces.

But there is no clearer evidence of how far traditional journalism has sunk than that five different editors associated with the Washington Post signed off on a piece that brings to mind Mary McCarthy’s famous quip about Lillian Hellman:

Every word she writes is a lie — including ‘and’ and ‘the.’

I am not going to redebunk Will here point-by-point, but I will excerpt the devastating response to the ombudsman’s lazy defense of Will penned by Hilzoy of the Washington Monthly. After you read it, I’m sure you will want to give Andy Alexander ( — “the reader’s advocate” — a piece of your mind (and please do repost it in the comments).

Alexander’s original email ends:

The University of Illinois center that Will cited has now said it doesn’t agree with his conclusion, but earlier this year it put out a statement ( that was among several sources for this column and that notes in part that “Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979.”

Hilzoy writes:

Naturally, I clicked the link Mr. Alexander provided, and read it. Did he? I don’t know what would be worse: that he did, and takes it to support Will, or that he didn’t take his job seriously enough to bother.

Remember Will wrote:

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

Hilzoy then reprints “the statement Mr. Alexander cites as ‘one of’ Will’s sources, including the sentence he specifically references,” (noting that it is a response to an earlier piece in the Daily Tech called “Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979”):

One important detail about the article in the Daily Tech is that the author is comparing the GLOBAL sea ice area from December 31, 2008 to same variable for December 31, 1979. In the context of climate change, GLOBAL sea ice area may not be the most relevant indicator. Almost all global climate models project a decrease in the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area over the next several decades under increasing greenhouse gas scenarios. But, the same model responses of the Southern Hemisphere sea ice
are less certain. In fact, there have been some recent studies suggesting the amount of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere may initially increase as a response to atmospheric warming through increased evaporation and subsequent snowfall onto the sea ice.

Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979, as noted in the Daily Tech article. However, observed N. Hemisphere sea ice area is almost one million sq. km below values seen in late 1979 and S. Hemisphere sea ice area is about 0.5 million sq. km above that seen in late 1979, partly offsetting the N. Hemisphere reduction.

Hilzoy writes:

Where I come from, when someone writes something of the form: “P is not evidence for Q, and here’s why”, it is dishonest to quote that person saying P and use that quote as evidence for Q. If one of my students did this, I would grade her down considerably, and would drag her into my office for an unpleasant talk about basic scholarly standards. If she misused quotes in this way repeatedly, I might flunk her.

Will does this more than once. Since it’s Will’s only citation of a peer-reviewed journal I recognize, I checked the quote from Science in this passage:

“Although some disputed that the “cooling trend” could result in “a return to another ice age” (the Times, Sept. 14, 1975), others anticipated “a full-blown 10,000-year ice age” involving “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” (Science News, March 1, 1975, and Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976, respectively).”

It’s from this paper (pdf, subscription wall.) Here is the bit Will cited in context:

Future climate. Having presented evidence that major changes in past climate were associated with variations in the geometry of the earth’s orbit, we should be able to predict the trend of future climate. Such forecasts must be qualified in two ways. First, they apply only to the natural component of future climatic trends — and not to such anthropogenic effects as those due to the burning of fossil fuels. Second, they describe only the long-term trends, because they are linked to orbital variations with periods of 20,000 years and longer. Climatic oscillations at higher frequencies are not predicted.

One approach to forecasting the natural long-term climate trend is to estimate the time constants of response necessary to explain the observed phase relationships between orbital variation and climatic change, and then to use those time constants in an exponential-response model. When such a model is applied to Vernekar’s astronomical projections, the results indicate that the long-term trend over the next 20,000 years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and cooler climate.”

So that “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” is (a) supposed to happen “over the next 20,000 years”, not imminently, and (b), more importantly: it’s a prediction that does not take into account anthropogenic changes in climate, like, um, those “due to the burning of fossil fuels”. Which is to say, the kind of global warming we’re now talking about.

The fact that this prediction specifically excludes anthropogenic climate change means that you cannot use it to say: those silly scientists; they used to believe that the earth was cooling, and now they think it’s warming. When scientists say “if we don’t take man-made changes to climate into account, the earth will get cooler over the next 20,000 years”, this is completely consistent with saying: “however, when you factor in those man-made changes, the earth will get warmer”, or “when you factor in those changes, we don’t know”, or any number of things.

If Will actually read these two articles, it’s hard to see how he’s not being deliberately deceptive by citing them as he did. If, as I suspect, he just got them from some set of climate change denialist talking points and didn’t bother to actually check them out for himself, he’s being irresponsible. All those people who supposedly fact-checked Will’s article as part of the Post’s “multi-layer editing process” — “people [George Will] personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors” — should be fired, either for not doing their job or for doing it utterly incompetently. These are hard times for newspapers; I wouldn’t have thought they could afford more than one layer of an editing process that produces no discernible improvement in quality.

Hear! Hear!

I would also add as more confirmatory analysis in support of Hilzoy, Will writes “Besides, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization [WMO], there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.” As I demonstrated in my original post, the WMO doesn’t believe there has been global cooling, is in fact is a strong articulator of human-caused global warming, and “citing the World Meteorological Organization against the theory of human-caused global warming makes George Will the most ignorant national columnist, if not the most ignorant columnist in the whole globally warmed world.”But again, the Post would need to take advantage of the high-tech fact checker I use — Google — to know any of that, and the Post is obviously stuck in the days of yellow journalism. Hilzoy ends:

And Andy Alexander? He should read the cites George Will gives him before he sends them out, under his own name, in support of his paper’s decision to publish Will’s piece, if he doesn’t want to be embarrassed like this again.

So now we have a leading Washington Post columnist, his minions, five editors associated with the Post, and the Post ombudsman unable to do the most basic fact checking.

Seriously, one 20-something with access to Google could have done a better job than all of them combined. I used to bemoan the decline of the print media, since my father was a newspaper editor for 30 years and my mother was a columnist a number of times. But now I just see it as a logical evolution.

If you want to find the best journalism now on climate — the most science-based, the most fact-based, the most relevant to your lives and the lives of your children and the people you care about and indeed all of humanity — you must go to the web, specifically the blogosphere.

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26 Responses to The day DC journalism died: Washington Post is staffed with people who found ZERO mistakes in George Will’s error-filled denial column

  1. Shelly T. says:

    To help in writing to the Washington Post about their terrible fact-checking process, use a quote from a site called The Cryosphere Today. It has great animation of sea ice and even mentions George Will:

    “February 15, 2009
    In an opinion piece by George Will published on February 15, 2009 in the Washington Post, George Will states “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

    We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

    It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts. ”

    The animation of sea ice shows a lot of open water near the pole in January 2009 too.

    I think George Will is going to have to apologize for at least his very wrong claim about sea ice. It’s indefensible and denialists are using it already.

  2. Dennis says:

    The Post’s ombudsman has a column that I believe appears tomorrow (Saturday). It will be interesting if the Post determines that this topic is important enough to be addressed there.

  3. It may be asking too much for any advertiser supported medium to be clear thinking enough to act responsibly.

    Not just advertisers — our economic market place is loaded with carbon commerce. George will is just the crazy uncle of that family. None dare criticize him.

    More and more the carbon cheerleaders must extend increasing energy spinning through contorted denialist scripts. It will grow increasingly difficult to watch.

    They know that as soon as they give up denial, the will have to label CO2 as the problem. And restricting CO2 as the solution.

    George Will is just a pathetic PR bag boy for CO2 commerce.

  4. Jeff Green says:

    Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. See Synonyms at belief, trust.

    There is science which works through rigorous observation standards to pull apart the details of the climate. They openly publish their work and await feedbback to see how what they believe is true to hold up. If someone can legitimatley falsify a statement, its time to go back to work.

    As an amateur follower of climate science, there just isn’t any real science that holds up to scrutiny and clear observation that AGW isn’t true.

    Denial of AGW does not need scientific observation for their core principles. It truly is an act of faith. No matter how many times one can show that their statements don’t hold true, this group of people keep on repeating the same false statements. The act and work of science is no longer relevant to these people.

    George Will with his broad persona is being laughed at for the really poor performance of science based information. I put George Will in the category of faith based belief. Since George is more faith based than science based, he is very much disasociating himself with the broad science of climatology.

    It’s time for the conservatives to come to the table and get real with the observations of our best and brightest scientists in the world. We have the lives of future generations in our hands with our carbon emissions problem.

  5. Linda S says:

    Significantly, Will wrote, “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979,” and did not specify sea ice AREA which makes his statement even farther from the truth. The UI report concludes with the statement, “the ice that is presently in the Arctic Ocean is younger and thinner than the ice of the 1980’s and 1990’s. So Arctic ice volume is now below its long-term average by an even greater amount than is ice extent or area.”

    If that is not irresponsible journalism, I don’t know what is!

  6. Mark says:

    This is why print media is dying. In the case of the Washington and NY Posts, they deserve it.

  7. Gary Herstein says:

    (I probably shouldn’t do these things, write letters etc, as I am losing all patience with such folks. FWIW, I don’t usually wave my titles around — seems a bit like comparing genital sizes. I did in this instance just on account. Also, FWIW, I’m never this impatient in the classroom. In any event, my note to Alexander follows.)

    SUBJECT: Will on Climate Change (Sunday, February 15, 2009 Collumn)

    Dear Mr. Alexander,
    I have been following the events swirling around Mr. Will’s latest fact-free screed on global climate change. I will not bother to rehearse in detail matters that have been thoroughly documented elsewhere, facts such as

    (1) That Will’s collumn was so riddled with errors that it might as well have been fabricated out of whole cloth:

    (2) Or Mr. Will’s own evident incapacity to reliably engage in any activity which might — by even the most reckless stretch of the imagination — ever qualify as basic logical reasoning:

    (3) Or your own scurillous and utterly incomprehensible defense of Will and the Post’s supposed “multi-layered fact checking” process:

    Given the above I will simply content myself with wondering in astonishment how anyone, anywhere — and most especially including youself — could be bewildered at the death of print journalism.

    There’s is no possible excuse for either your or Mr. Will’s behavior in this matter.

    Gary L. Herstein
    (If you’re impressed by such things, that’s “Dr. Herstein, PhD.”

  8. Eric Zimmer says:

    Dear Washington Post,

    I was disappointed by the egregious lack of facts in the column that Mr. Will published on February 15, 2009. I however, was stunned to find out that you claim to actually have fact checked that piece.

    I have some good material that shows cigarettes are also good for your health if you‘d like to review that also. On matters of public health you have a responsibility to report the facts. You should also have some ability to discriminate between real scientific studies and industry fronted groups that publish “science”. Again think about cigarettes as an example. If Mr. Will said that all the fuss about cigarettes causing cancer was a left wing conspiracy and pointed you to a study funded by Phillip Morris would you fact check and publish that?

    If you weren’t a newspaper of such importance and with such a strong journalistic history I wouldn’t bother to write.

    Thank you,

    Eric Zimmer

  9. Lou Grinzo says:

    I’ve made no secret here and on my own site of my feelings about the spectacular failings of the traditional mainstream media when covering climate chaos. But I have to admit that this latest turn of events in this Case of Willful Deception is far worse than I expected. I honestly thought that the WaPo would have either stonewalled inquiries or fallen back on the old “mistakes were made, we’ll beat an intern bloody with a copy of Stronk and White, it won’t happen Ever, Ever Again”.

    Instead, we get the equivalent of a phenomenon George Carlin used to talk about: A cat falling off a couch or running into a wall and then acting like it meant to do it all along.

    When a cat acts that way, it’s somewhat amusing and normally of little consequence; when the Washington Post(!!!) does it, it’s a very sad day for journalism and all those it should be serving in the public at large.

  10. tidal says:

    For any Climate Progress readers in the Greater Toronto Area… this seminar next week looks germane.
    Climate Change Through the Media Lens: An Assessment of the Role of Mainstream Media in Forming Public Opinion on Climate Change
    Feb 25, 4 – 5:30 pm


    ABSTRACT: Most media organizations are above all else businesses. In some cases businesses with an agenda, no doubt, but nonetheless businesses preoccupied with making payroll and creating shareholder value. They are organizations accountable through the (often daily) choice of consumers and advertisers, operating on ever-shrinking budgets. Indeed, resource constraints and the commercial realities of reader preference define today’s media environment and can lead to lapses in journalistic standards and a tendency to sensationalist reporting. As the economic downturn bites, this lecture examines how these intensifying pressures on media organizations affect reporting on climate change issues. And in turn how the traits of modern media define public opinion on climate change and the implication for policy making. Specifically, the talk will cover, trends in news reporting, fact checking for climate science, personality culture in climate change reporting, climate change sensationalism, conflict, opinion and balanced reporting on climate change.

    BRIEF BIO: Stefan Reichenbach is Global Head of Environmental Markets at Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading provider of financial news and information. Under his leadership, Thomson Reuters has emerged as a leading business media company for the environmental finance sector. Stefan introduced innovative online initiatives that inform the global carbon market and bring the market’s buyers and sellers together…

  11. Jean says:

    I sent a note to the Ombudsman asking that Joseph,Hansen,Pope each get column time to try to mitigate the harm done by George Will

  12. lgcarey says:

    I don’t expect it to make any difference, but I find this incident to be an infuriating reminder of the absolute failure of the MSM to help folks figure out where the truth lies. Following is the text of my email to the WP ombudsman:

    Dear Mr. Alexander,
    I don’t usually bother to respond to columns with which I happen to disagree, but the combination of George Will’s recent “Dark Green Doomsayers” column, with its discussion of a supposed “global cooling consensus”, together with the publication of your very puzzling response to Brad Johnson at the Wonk Room has impelled me to write. I must ask whether “fact-checking” at the Washington Post consists of merely confirming that a specific sequence of words happens to appear somewhere in the source cited by the columnist, or whether “fact-checking” extends to actually considering whether the cited words read in their context in fact support what the columnist asserts they say — in other words, is anyone actually looking at the MEANING of the stuff being cited?

    It appears obvious from even briefly reviewing the NSIDC data and the Science and Science News pieces cited by Mr. Will, these sources say pretty much the opposite of what Mr. Will asserts they say. The words are there, but in their original context they mean something much different than Mr. Will asserts.

    One might be inclined to write off such obvious misinterpretation of sources as a result of a columnist venturing into unfamiliar territory … that is, if this column was Mr. Will’s first venture with this “the scientists feared global cooling” trope. However, it is not (as a simple Google search would have confirmed). In fact, a simple Google search would have revealed to anyone interested that not only had Mr. Will explored this topic before, but that Mr. Will’s previous use of the “global cooling” trope had been thoroughly demolished by Peterson, Connolley and Fleck in “The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus” published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

    I also note that John Fleck, one of the authors of the cited AMS article, is not happy that notwithstanding the complete debunking, Mr. Will is again recycling this nonsense, and notes in his column in the Albequerque Journal on Wednesday that “When George Will last wrote about this subject, in May 2008, I sent him a copy of the 1975 Science News article, hoping he might get a fuller picture of what was going on at the time. I got a nice note back from him thanking me for sharing it. It doesn’t seem as if he read it, which would have been nicer. ”

    I’m not a journalist, but in my line of work, when somebody keeps repeating stuff that’s demonstrably untrue, after having had the error previously pointed out to him, we call that “lying”. Apparently, the Washington Post calls it “fact-checked journalism”.


    L. G. Carey

  13. Brewster says:

    I can’t even get my own local Calgary Herald to pay attention to the facts…

  14. Ronald says:

    And isn’t the Washington Post considered the second best newspaper in the US? (after the New York Times) By the Columbia School of Journalism.

  15. Andy Gunther says:

    Mr. Ombudsman:

    It has come to my attention that it is your contention that Mr. Will’s column “Dark Green Doomsdayers” was fact-checked by several staffers of Mr. Will’s and your newspaper. Sir, I believe your editorial system has a major problem, as Will’s article is full inaccuracies. Let me just point out a few.

    He repeats the long-debunked myth that scientists were predicting global cooling in the 1970’s by citing from the media, whereas the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Association notes in a 2008 review that human-caused warming dominated the scientific literature of the time.

    He then follows this up with incorrect arguments that confuse predictions about the Arctic and Antarctic. Scientists have said that Arctic sea ice has declined precipitously in the 30 years, and especially over the last several years, and that was evidence of man-made global warming. Antarctic sea ice has been predicted to increase for the next few decades.

    He also incorrectly interprets the last decade of temperature around the globe. 1998 is presently the hottest year in global record, so if you start counting there we have not seen a major increase in temperature, but this is obviously a silly (and actually pernicious) action. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the decade 1998-2007 is the hottest on record.

    That the Post allows such misinformation to go uncorrected, and in fact claim it to be correct, is a disservice to your readers and the nation.

  16. Mark says:

    “If you want to find the best journalism now on climate — the most science-based, the most fact-based, the most relevant to your lives and the lives of your children and the people you care about and indeed all of humanity — you must go to the web, specifically the blogosphere.”

    I don’t know about that. The blogosphere is full of trashy contrarian blogs and disinformation – on balance at least as much as the mainstream media.

  17. Mark says:

    George Will has been in the global warming denial business for decades. Here’s discussion of another spin piece from 1992:

    “But expecting others to do as he says, not as he does, is par for Will’s course. Take his 1992 attack (Washington Post, 9/3/92) on Al Gore for being “cavalier with the truth” in his “wastebasket-worthy” book Earth in the Balance. Will confronted Gore on the issue of global warming: “Gore knows, or should know before pontificating, that a recent Gallup Poll of scientists concerned with global climate research shows that 53 percent do not believe warming has occurred, and another 30 percent are uncertain.”

    It was Will, however, who should have read the poll more carefully “before pontificating.” Gallup actually reported that 66 percent of the scientists said that human-induced global warming was occurring, with only 10 percent disagreeing and the rest undecided. Gallup took the unusual step of issuing a written correction to Will’s column (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/27/92): “Most scientists involved in research in this area believe that human-induced global warming is occurring now.” Will never noted the error in his column.”

    Even back then, when global mean temperatures were roughly 0.3 C cooler than they are now, scientists were in general agreement on the issue. The evidence has only grown much stronger since. George Will appears to remain blinded by ideology.

  18. Scatter says:

    “I don’t know about that. The blogosphere is full of trashy contrarian blogs and disinformation – on balance at least as much as the mainstream media.”

    Sure there’s crap in the blogosphere but you just have to wade through that and filter it out. in traditional media, there’s just crap. well that’s being unkind, but it’s mostly true.

    find the right blog and you will have quite simply the finest, most robust journalism that exists on earth.

  19. Magnus says:


    Just wanted to let you know that living in Sweden and reading how the
    climate discussion in the US is handled is really frustrating. Don’t the
    journalists get any education on how to handle scientific matters? Have
    you no educated fact checkers?

    It really is too much, you can’t make stuff like this up.

  20. paulm says:

    Sue did any one mention sue. Come on Gore.

  21. abb3w says:

    In slight defense of the Ombudsman, for “one 20-something with access to Google” to be able to “do a better job than all of them combined”, the 20-something would have to be a bit more motivated than the average 20-something to do the checking thoroughly.

    That said… Google Scholar has the potential to be the best thing to happen to juvenile education since the advent of the Children’s Television Workshop.

  22. hapa says:

    this is the first page of questions. the first question on the second page is, “why is the washington post trying to damage public knowledge again. they took a strong editorial stance in favor of invading iraq and are constant advocates for ‘reforming’ the social security trust fund out of existence to subsidize top-bracket tax cuts. WHO ARE THEY TRYING TO HELP BY DIRTYING THE ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY DISCUSSION?”

  23. Hank Roberts says:

    > Google Scholar

    What we’re starting to need is a blocklist for crap “answers” sites that are being rolled out by so-called “social media” marketing organizations. Notice how many of them you stumble into every time you search with Yahoo or Google?

    They scrape fragments of material or get ‘users’ to do so, breaking all connections to source or cite or updates, drop them in as ‘answers’ for people who think they’re ‘sharing the site’ with people who think like they do and are fooled into thinking they are getting some actual social benefit from using the source.

    And they sell ads like crazy so the search engine companies have every reason to keep feeding them to people as though they were information sources.

    They’ve found out how to get Google to do evil by making profitable places to sell ads out of this kind of crap answer site.

    They’ll pollute Scholar next.

  24. Baerbel W. says:

    I have to agree with Hank – Yahoo-Answers is full of climate-denier crap and it usually is one of the denier’s answers which gets awarded the “best answer” either by the poll or by the asker who had just posted a rhethorical question as their only purpose was to feed their own confirmation bias. Nonetheless, I often cannot resist to post answers myself together with links to real sources as there is still a chance that folks who are not (yet) completely fooled read them. If it weren’t so serious a topic it would be even funny if answers where I basically just point out the difference between weather and climate collect many negative points.

    I recently sent a suggestion to Yahoo-Answers that they should stop calling the winning reply “best answer” and instead just call it “most popular answer”. They also should post a disclaimer that neither a “best” nor a “most popular” answer should be seen as a correct answer!

  25. David B. Benson says:

    Here is Carl Zimmer in The Loom on this mistake:

    “I got a prompt response from Bill Chapman, a University of Illinois climate scientist:

    ‘It’s refreshing to have someone ask about the data before they write about it.’”

  26. Hank (et al.) Unfortunately, Google Scholar is already contaminated with seriously non-scientific sources. The Young Earth Creationist ‘journal’, from the Institute for Creation Research, ‘Impact’, is indexed. Take a minute or three to look for the antiscientific ‘journals’ that you know of. I wager that most are there already.