The Post ombudsman whitewashes George Will’s columns, the editors, and his own role

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"The Post ombudsman whitewashes George Will’s columns, the editors, and his own role"

Please email and phone Andrew Alexander at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

The Washington Post ombudsman is the paper’s “internal critic and represents readers.” Yet Andrew Alexander has basically decided to take on the role of defender of Will and the Post and his own mistakes. He has seriously undermined both his credibility and his independence, while at the same time making himself part of the story — serious mistakes for an ombudsman.

You can read Alexander’s column here. You can read a good line by line response by Siegal here.

I have three main issues. First, for Alexander, the entire controversy is about “the reference to the Arctic Climate Research Center.” In short, he got suckered by Will’s second column in which Will now infamously made his most egregious lie and the Post editors let him get away with it:

The [February 15] column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged. The challenge is mistaken.

As readers know, the first column contained multiple falsehoods that were challenged point by point here, elsewhere, and even in a joint letter to the Post from several leading environmentalists.

And the second column was egregiously allowed to reassert that all of those other falsehoods were “factual assertions,” plus make some new falsehoods, as I detailed at length here: In a blunder reminiscent of Janet Cooke scandal, the Washington Post lets George Will reassert all his climate falsehoods plus some new ones.

[This is not to let Will off for his abuse of the Arctic ice source, which Alexander entirely missed the point on. See, for instance, the NYT’s Revkin here and below.]

Second, relatedly, Alexander essentially ignores the second column, even though it compounds the first with ever more falsehoods. I summarize the falsehoods and abuse of sources in both columns as:

  • Blatant Repeated Misuse Of A Source – After Being Called Out On The Deception
  • Cooke-Like Fabrication Of A Source
  • No Source To Back Up His Smearing Of Steven Chu
  • Blatant Fabrication About 1970s Global Cooling Myth
  • Blatant Misuse Of A Source To Push 1970s Global Cooling Myth

He also grossly mischaracterized the NYT‘s work by suggesting it was among those making “1970s predictions about the near certainty of calamitous global cooling” (see here).

But, of course, the big lie in the second column was

The [February 15] column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged. The challenge is mistaken.

Note: The kindler, gentler Joe Romm now intends to mostly use the word “falsehood” rather than “lie,” but not here: This is arguably the single most outrageous and easily disproven lie ever published by the Washington Post in any column in its history. It has been widely condemned, and by failing to point that out, by focusing entirely on one small piece of one of the two Will pieces — “The column triggered e-mails to The Post from hundreds of angry environmental activists and a few scientists, many asserting that the center had said exactly the opposite.” — the ombudsman is affirming the lie.

Third, Alexander fails to fully own up to his mistakes — and this calls into question his own independence. He writes:

The ruckus grew when I e-mailed readers who had inquired about the editing process for Will’s column. My comments accurately conveyed what I had been told by editorial page editor Fred Hiatt — that multiple editors had checked Will’s sources, including the reference to the Arctic Climate Research Center. Although I didn’t render a judgment, my response was understandably seen as an institutional defense and prompted an orchestrated e-mail campaign in which thousands demanded that The Post correct Will’s “falsehoods.” Like they say when the pro football rookie gets clobbered: “Welcome to the NFL.”

Uhh, no.

It is hard for me to believe that the ombudsman didn’t, for instance, see the devastating response his ombudsman’s lazy defense of Will by Hilzoy of the Washington Monthly. Let me just repeat the key points. Alexander’s original email to Brad Johnson of Wonk Room 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 (http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/ cryosphere/ global.sea.ice.area.pdf) 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….

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….

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.

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.

The email might be excusable as a rookie mistake — something dashed off quickly based on overconfidence in the Post’s fact-checking process. But with this column, Alexander has seriously undermined both his credibility and his independence. He can only fix that by doing some serious journalism of his own here and write a second column.

Near the end of the column he writes:

There is a disturbing if-you-don’t-agree-with-me-you’re-an-idiot tone to much of the global warming debate. Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute. But that’s where The Post could have helped, and can in the future.

I would urge readers to avoid that tone and just emphasize to Alexander that this is about much, much more than one paragraph in Will’s first story — and that by focusing exclusively on the one Arctic issue, he is essentially acting as a defender of the veracity of every other line Will wrote in both pieces.

On a personal note, I try not to have a “if-you-don’t-agree-with-me-you’re-an-idiot tone.” I do try to have a “if you don’t do your homework and understand the science, if you simply repeat (or endorse or refuse to fact-check) assertions that are nothing more than talking points from global warming deniers that have been long debunked in the scientific literature then you are unwittingly contributing to humanity’s self-destruction” tone.

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35 Responses to The Post ombudsman whitewashes George Will’s columns, the editors, and his own role

  1. john says:

    It is interesting that Alexander attempts to take refuge around matters of tone — Specifically, “if you don’t agree with me then you’re an idiot.”

    Agree with “me” is not the issue — one must be in agreement with, and accurately represent the factual findings of science, if one is going to attempt to use science in an argument.

    Science, unlike policy and politics, is not a matter of opinion, and therefore, whether one person is in “agreement” with another is scintillatingly irrelevant.
    If Mr. Alexander senses hostility and disrespect in our tone, it is because Mr. Will is knowingly misrepresenting the science.

    Either that, or he is an idiot.

  2. DB says:

    “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.”

    However, that doesn’t change the original fact P (global sea near or slightly lower than 30 years ago).

  3. DavidONE says:

    Shortly winging its way to Alexander:

    > There is a disturbing if-you-don’t-agree-with-me-you’re-an-idiot tone to much of the global warming debate.

    No, there’s a disturbing I-found-a-factoid-on-some-sideshow-blog-and-it’s-just-as-good-as-your-peer-reviewed-science tone to much of the global warming ‘debate’. There’s a disturbing I-will-cherry-pick-distort-and-lie-to-try-and-win tone to the ‘debate’.

    I have little compunction in referring to these people as idiots.

    > Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute.

    Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent from the current ‘debate’ (more accurately referred to as idiocy, obfuscation and spoiling) because one side – the Deniers – do not enter the conversation with intellectual honesty or good intentions. They knew before they joined the conversation, without the aid of evidence or science, that they were right. Their acceptance of anthropogenic climate change would erode their neocon, libertarian, free-market-solves-all, capitalism-at-any-cost world view. Their ideology precludes rational thought.

    Their denial of the unequivocal science marks them as – Deniers. Plain and simple.

    > The Post could have helped, and can in the future.

    The Post has amply demonstrated its journalistic standards and integrity. And if the comments attached to Will’s last abomination are indicative, there are many who won’t be referring to the Post for anything other than as an example of how a newspaper can be run in to the ground by allowing truth to take second place to hubris, ideology, ignorance and lies.

  4. Anne says:

    George Will is a regular on the Sunday talk show, This Week with George Stayontopofthis (I mean, er, Stephanopoulis.)

    The website for the show has an appeal to submit questions for the show — how about flooding it with questions about why the Washington Post is an accomplice to Will’s outright lying on climate change and why the Ombudsman has failed in his job to exercise objectivity and represent the readers….

    http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/story?id=6205231&page=1

    Or to boycott the paper, cancel subscriptions until the problem is remedied.

    Else, how to let them know we mean serious business???

  5. Anne says:

    OK — this is the comment I submitted to ABC news, with the hope that Stephanopoulos will raise it (crossing fingers but not holding breath…)
    “George Will wrote a column in the Washington Post on Feb. 15, “Dark Green Doomsdayers,” in which he made several false statements about mainstream scientific conclusions about climate disruption. Many wrote the paper to protest the Post’s failure to insist Will fact-check his writing, including us at Climate Science Watch (http://tinyurl.com/c29pd5) and Joe Romm of Climate Progress (http://tinyurl.com/aqjasf)
    The Arctic Climate Research Center refuted Will’s statements (http://tinyurl.com/3bwgwu)
    The Post’s Ombudsman just made things worse by defending Will (again, Joe Romm, at (http://tinyurl.com/dby2at) The question for George Will is, why haven’t you read the scientific literature before making definitive statements on a topic you obviously either know little about (or are simply willing to lie about), and why does the Washington Post let you get away with it?”

  6. K. Nockels says:

    All the deiners are going to keep on lying about a lot of diffrent points of the current crisis. They will keep on now because they have only two choices own up to the truth if they even now what that is or keep their present positions to keep face. As we get deeper into the crisis and anyone who goes outside or watches the news starts to realise that it is really happening there will still be those that will listen to the deiners because not to means they may have to except that some part is their fault or the deniel out of fear. With all the information out there and more coming out every week it has gotten to the point where if you are uninformed about this issue it is your own fault. The tide has turnned and more of us know its happening then don’t, the deiners know this too. Action is beginning the queation is will it be enough, or is it really to late to miss 6 degress. I think the really big question is have the delayers, delayed us long enough to win the money but lose the planet.

  7. Anne – what an excellent suggestion !

    I really like writing to the sources whenever possible. Once more than a few people write in, then it will be hard for them to ignore.

    “Hey George Stephanopoulis, are you really afraid of asking George Will some tough questions about global warming?”

  8. Also when we watch on Sunday, be sure to note who buys paid commercials… my guess is it will be Chevron, EnergyTomorrow.org and IBM (with references to the energy crisis)

    I can see why it will be difficult for ABC to bring up the subject that is bothersome to their cash flows.

  9. DB says:

    “With all the information out there and more coming out every week it has gotten to the point where if you are uninformed about this issue it is your own fault.”

    And yet only a small percentage see it as a priority. From a recent NYT poll:
    http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/politics/20090224poll-results.pdf

    13. Beside the economy, which of these domestic policy areas do you want the President and Congress to concentrate on MOST right now – health care, global warming, education or Social Security?

    40% Health care
    27% Education
    22% Social Security
    5% Global warming
    4% Something else/
    Combination
    DK/NA 1

    DB2

  10. crf says:

    The institutional-style defence of Will by the Post’s ombudsman is very disheartening. Will has been writing garbage. Errors in it escaped Will, the editor, fact-checkers and copy-editors, which is bad enough. But the ombudsman seeing nothing much the matter here is mind-boggling. The column self-evidently has errors, so something went wrong in the fact checking process, or it needs to be drummed into the Post’s workers that it alone is insufficient. An ombudsman concerned only with having columnists check off the appropriate boxes in the editing process is acting only as a mindless bureaucrat, unconcerned with actual intellectual quality and subteties of judgement that only experience, care, and peer review can identify. I thought journalism was a profession, akin to doctor, lawyer or scientist, and not remotely akin to bureaucratic or assembly line work.

    How mistaken was I.

  11. RB says:

    I use to think George Will was a reasonable intelligent thinking conservative. That was until he wrote his Prius vs. Hummer column in April 2007 (http://tinyurl.com/d236gq). He had many actual errors in that article too. There is no excuse for these errors. It only takes minutes to verify things these day using the internet.

    Now, I don’t trust anything George Will writes. I think reasonable intellectual thinking conservatives died with William F. Buckley. Buckley would listen and provide thoughtful responses. George Will is just another unthinking conservative shill corrupted by today’s political climate. Its sad to see the state the state to which conservative thought has degenerated.

    As for the Washington Post and newspapers in general, I find editorial integrity has severely degenerated over the years. There is hardly a news outlet that tries to report objectively or verify facts. We live in an era in which people think its wrong to own up to one’s mistakes. We also think that by repeating lies enough they will become truth. Its a near futile effort to fight what is happening. Joe, thanks for trying.

  12. Jim Eager says:

    I’m sure that if you had poled them not many of the passengers on the Titanic would have been all that concerned about ice bergs either, DB.

    Global warming/climate change isn’t going to wait around for popular acceptance of the idea. Greenhouse gases are going to do what they do regardless of public opinion. Reality just works that way, you know?

  13. Bryan Walker says:

    The sheer ignorance of George Will’s coumns was illuminating. It is perfectly clear that he has read virtually nothing about climate science. I write occasional columns on climate change issues for my regional newspaper here in New Zealand and am grateful for the information I have had from books by US scientists actively working in the field – Archer, Alley, Broecker, Ward, come immediately to mind among others, and of course Hansen’s papers and articles. I can attest that you don’t have to be a scientist to follow such writing, though you do need to knuckle down for a few hours. Perhaps that doesn’t appeal to Will. As for Alexander’s comment that thoughful discourse is notably absent, I presume he too has done no reading. I don’t detect any “if you don’t agree with me you’re an idiot” in the science writing – just plain explanation of how things stand and why they are so serious.

  14. Lou Grinzo says:

    Of course the passengers on the Titanic weren’t worried about icebergs. Didn’t you hear? That ship was unsinkable! “Everyone” knew it.

    My only quibble with boycotting the WaPo is that so few people would do it that the effect would be swamped out in their data stream by the people who are already fleeing them for other reasons. Boycotts only work when (1) they hurt the people or organizations intended, and (2) those being hurt know who hurt them and why. (Kind of sounds like Poe’s requirements for getting revenge on someone, sad to say.)

    I fully expect to see the denierbots crank up their lying and volume dramatically. Not only has there been a deluge of bad climate news lately, but there are enough members of the Blue Team in the House, Senate, and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to pose a very serious threat to the right-wing ideologues. Everything we’ve seen until now has been little more than pre-game warmups.

  15. DB says:

    “I’m sure that if you had poled them not many of the passengers on the Titanic would have been all that concerned about ice bergs either, DB.”

    Most likely the case, although there weren’t a lot of people going around warning the passengers on a regular basis. I was responding to what Nockels wrote about all the information being out there and readily available. If that is the case, and the knowledge is out there, then it is clear that people haven’t signed on to the program (for whatever reasons).

    Do you have any thoughts on why there is such a low priority given to climate change?

  16. Steve Bloom says:

    Climate disruption looks to many people like a lion in the distance, DB. We evolved to keep an eye on such things but otherwise go about our business. This approach worked for our species even though those lions would sometimes end up eating individuals who ignored them for too long. Unfortunately, it’s a very poor method for dealing with global threats.

  17. Steve Bloom says:

    Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen mention of the other Will lies regarding the sea ice, one of which is worse than the one that’s gotten all the attention. Here’s Will’s original passage:

    “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.”

    Re the first sentence, Will had to make this claim first in order to justify paying attention to*global* sea ice levels to the exclusion of northern hemisphere ones. I’m pretty sure there is not a single instance of an expert saying such a thing, which is unsurprising since the global figure masks what’s going on at each pole and so lacks climatological significance.

    Re the second sentence, that “however” is a claim that it somehow contradicts concerns abut dropping sea ice levels. In fact, since predictions are for summer sea ice to drop much more quickly than winter levels, that the recovery rate is sharper than in the past simply confirms the trend. Will has turned the meaning of this on its head.

    All the brouhaha has focused on the last sentence, but the first one is clearly the greater lie.

    The foregoing brought this passage to mind (h/t Some are Boojums via Rabett Run):

    _________________

    In Dashiell Hammett’s story The Golden Horseshoe, much of the action takes place in a bar of that name in Tijuana. At one point the narrator, an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, kills a few strategic seconds by studying the decorations:

    I was reading a sign high on the wall behind the bar:

    ONLY GENUINE PRE-WAR AMERICAN AND BRITISH WHISKEYS SERVED HERE

    I was trying to count how many lies could be found in those nine words, and had reached four, with promise of more …

    Sometimes I come across an article, web posting, advertisement or other statement that makes me feel when I read it just as I imagine the Continental Op did in that Tijuana bar.

    How can they possibly pack so much misinformation into such a small space?
    _________________

    How indeed?

    (Also posted at Energy Smart.)

  18. John Hollenberg says:

    > Do you have any thoughts on why there is such a low priority given to climate change?

    Yes. Several reasons:

    1) The changes are very slow and not obvious to the average person
    2) The most significant problems are many years from now
    3) The deniers are working hard to try to confuse people so they believe there is significant uncertainty about the existence and/or scope of the problem.

  19. ecostew says:

    So, why did Will do it and why did the WP defend it?

  20. ecostew says:

    And, if you would like to follow the ice trends:

    Arctic today small box center – long term, bottom long bar just below & “AT” just below – updated daily

    http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/

  21. ecostew says:

    And, it you want to follow US snowpack etc.

    http://www.wrcc.dri.edu/cgi-bin/sno_narr3_pl

  22. ecostew says:

    AGW:

    climate change – it’s more than AGW, but the issue is AGW

    we must have energy security without compromising food, water, environment, etc.

    policy must be grounded in ROI/EROI/carbon footprint and it must be sustainable

  23. AngelHair says:

    Observant outdoor people do notice warming signs like earlier springs and warmer winters, at least in northern areas of the U.S. In Alaska, they see receding glaciers or large chunks of ice floating by that didn’t use to be there. I even heard a high school student tell me that winters weren’t as harsh as when she was a kid.

    Will’s column yesterday is so artful — he refers to the ‘global cooling’ blather in the news media in the 70s but never says it was the scientific consensus. Leads the reader to the conclusion without actually saying it. How to lie with omissions.

    Interesting that Senator John Kerry chose to challenge Will on this (HuffingtonPost.com

  24. paulm says:

    Abrupt climate shifts may move faster than thought
    Rising seas, severe drought, could come in decades, says US report
    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-12/teia-acs121908.php

    The United States could suffer the effects of abrupt climate changes within decades—sooner than some previously thought–says a new government report.

  25. paulm says:

    ecostew, solar irradiance?

  26. Larry Coleman says:

    >> Do you have any thoughts on why there is such a low priority given to climate change?

    >Yes. Several reasons:

    >1) The changes are very slow and not obvious to the average person
    >2) The most significant problems are many years from now
    >3) The deniers are working hard to try to confuse people so they believe >there is significant uncertainty about the existence and/or scope of the >problem.

    I believe it is #3 only. Why? Consider a similar scenario.

    Suppose astronomers find a 20-mile diameter asteroid on a path to collide with Earth in 50 years. They tell us that the probability of collision is 90%. Further, experts tell us that we can deflect the trajectory sufficiently to miss Earth if we send a spacecraft to give the asteroid a nudge, but only if we launch within ten years, which requires that we begin to develop the spacecraft technology now.

    Would there be this huge discussion of whether to embark on this project? Certainly not. Even Rush Limbaugh would support it. The public would demand it.

    Yet, in common with GW this scenario has the characteristics of there not being any obvious problem to the public (#1) and a problem that is years off (#2). The spacecraft would be built and launched because of the lack of deniers who obfuscate.

    Deniers will (with 90% probability) have a great deal to answer for in the years to come if their campaign continues to be successful so that nothing meaningful is done.

  27. paulm says:

    I think some deniers actually want a world cull of humans…

  28. Dennis says:

    Here’s the text of a letter I just sent to the Post Ombudsman:

    I am a loyal, 15-year daily subscriber to the Washington Post. Every morning, with coffee mug in hand, I turn straight to the Post’s Op Ed page for what I had considered some of the best writing in the country.

    However, I am writing to express my deep disappointment with your paper’s handling of George Will’s two recent columns on the topic of climate change. I object to the manner in which the Post publishes information — opinion or otherwise — about science. Unfortunately, because of your column today, I have serious doubts about your ability to distinguish sound, well-researched scientific data and analysis from the shrill nonsense of partisan battles.

    Science is about collecting and documenting data, analyzing it, passing it from qualified scientist to qualified scientist, and finally having results peer reviewed and published for everyone to read. Unfortunately, the Post seems to think that George Will can bypass that process.

    If George Will is going to raise scientific data and build a scientific argument from it, then it is the Post’s obligation to make him bring his scientific credentials along with him and run his data and analysis through the same peer review process scientists face before the argument meets the ink.

    I am not a climate scientist; neither are you, nor is George Will. Yet, throughout Mr. Will’s and your column, I am confronted with a cascade of “we checked this, we checked that” assertions from people who are not qualified to understand this complex issue. I read a great deal about climate change and there is still a lot I don’t know. Has George Will read any of the IPCC reports? Have you read any textbooks on how the greenhouse effect works? On both points I can answer yes. Would that qualify me to publish my findings in place of George Will’s? We both know that answer to that is no.

    So then, why were George Will’s scientific findings published? Is that how the Post wants the scientific process to work? I hope the answer to that is no, and I hope you will provide the opportunity for some genuine, qualified climate scientists to correct the facts regarding Mr. Will’s assertions in as wide a forum as you provide Mr. Will. And I hope you will stop the practice of allowing a non-scientist like Mr. Will to write about scientific matters he knows absolutely nothing about.

  29. ecostew says:

    My Point – Will could have easily checked the climate science, and most of it is actually free!

  30. Lewis says:

    Mr. Will’s points were not only contested in this most recent instance but have been contested on prior occasions where he put forth similar if not identical falsehoods.

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/12/will-full-ignorance/

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/12/george-will-misled-and-misleading/langswitch_lang/in

  31. paulm says:

    “Things are worse than they can possibly be.”

    I think wee Willy was referring to the state of the media reporting on Climate Change.

  32. Dave S. says:

    “Deniers will (with 90% probability) have a great deal to answer for in the years to come if their campaign continues to be successful so that nothing meaningful is done.”

    I wouldn’t count on it. One thing deniers excel at is moving the goalposts. When it was shown again and again that the vaccine additive Thimerosol was not causing increased rates of autism, the anti-vax community simply shifted the goalposts and are now primarily blaming other additives, or claiming it’s too much-too soon.

    It’s very easy to shift from ‘there’s no warming’ to ‘there is warming, but we aren’t causing it’. Some even now shift effortlessly back and forth between the two.

  33. That's says:

    have a problem with Neil’s course. That’s right — 4%!!! (Polls are still open below

  34. Cewek Cantik says:

    I like this comment, I am not a climate scientist; neither are you, nor is George Will. Yet, throughout Mr. Will’s and your column, I am confronted with a cascade of “we checked this, we checked that” assertions from people who are not qualified to understand this complex issue. I read a great deal about climate change and there is still a lot I don’t know. Has George Will read any of the IPCC reports? Have you read any textbooks on how the greenhouse effect works? On both points I can answer yes. Would that qualify me to publish my findings in place of George Will’s? We both know that answer to that is no.