MacCracken: The New York Times quote did not represent my views, and it did not even represent the reporters attempt to portray my comments

When we last left the New York Times, they were burying the exclusive they got on climate science impacts report that NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco called a “game changer” (see Memo to White House: The NYT buried the “exclusive” you gave them on the landmark U.S. climate impacts report).

[It was, of course, purely a coincidence that, the very same day, they ran a deceptive front-page ad by the company most responsible for pushing disinformation on climate science (see The New York Times sells its integrity to ExxonMobil with front-page ad that falsely asserts “Today’s car has 95% fewer emissions than a car from 1970″³).]

One of the ways that the NYT intellectualized burying this landmark report is that they found a serious scientist who appeared to downplay the report’s importance:

Michael C. MacCracken, a leader of the 2000 study and a principal outside reviewer of the current one, said in an e-mail message that the new report was a useful overview of the state of current climate science in the United States, but “there is not much that is new.”

I said I would email Mike, a friend, to explain this absurd quote.  I’ve certainly been misquoted by reporters and bloggers many times, so it’s only fair to allow Mike his full response.

Also, I think this episode provides a very good lesson to anyone who talks to the media on how NOT to get your message out. One of my readers, Anna Haynes, got an even more thorough reply than I did, which she posted here and I’m reprinting below:

No, the New York Times quote did not represent my views, and it did not even represent the reporter’s attempt to portray my comments–I am told the article was edited down a lot from his submission.

As for me, they quoted 7 words out of a 34 word sentence that was part of a 900 plus word set of comments on the background of this report that also said it was an impressive synthesis. The point I had tried to make was that since the Bush Administration had not supported new regional studies (and had limited the resources the authors could draw on to already published and approved assessment reports) and that there were no regional workshops or studies to draw out new issues and questions from stakeholders, there was not much coverage of new issues. And this is actually true. But the report is overall a new synthesis with updated data, and done very impressively. Having been on the review panel for the report, I had put in a lot of comments and suggestions–and in that way worked to contribute to the synthesis-and I very much support its publication.

I do, however, believe that it has to be viewed as only a beginning that is focused on issues we have known a lot about for many years. A once every 4 report, as legally required (and this one took 8 years), is not how the American public needs to be served-they need an ongoing assessment process that they can go to to ask questions, get specialized data needed to address their questions, etc. We started that effort over the period 1997-2000, and then it essentially wilted with no attention given to it. This whole effort needs to get restarted and strengthened as climate change is affecting the US now, and preparing and planning now can help to reduce future costs and impacts.

The NYT ended up ignoring all such talk and pulled the quote out of context. Very poorly done by them–and by me as I should have given them only the 7 words that I would wanted to have them use. I am hoping to meet with the reporter in a couple of weeks when we are both in town and try to work to build better understanding on all of this.

I confess I often have the same problem with the media, since I have a great desire to explain things at length, but the longer you talk with them, the more likely they will find a few words that taken out of context will allow them to push the spin they want rather than accurately portray what you are saying.

So this is an important lesson to anyone who talks to the media. Keep it short and when they keep asking you the same version of one question over and over again, they are trying to get you to answer it differently. Don’t do it!

14 Responses to MacCracken: The New York Times quote did not represent my views, and it did not even represent the reporters attempt to portray my comments

  1. Morris says:

    MacCracken writes: “The point I had tried to make was that since the Bush Administration had not supported new regional studies (and had limited the resources the authors could draw on to already published and approved assessment reports) and that there were no regional workshops or studies to draw out new issues and questions from stakeholders, there was not much coverage of new issues”

    Looking through supports what MacCracken has explained. Information and analysis in the new report is mostly limited to what had made it through the Bush Administration oversight in previous reports. I was hoping for more of a “Climate Code Red”, given where we are right now. Two wheels off the road and all that

    That being said, what is new is that the report is comprehensive in scope. It will serve as solid foundation for an ongoing assesment such as MacCracken recommends.

    For most Americans, the material presented will be a wake up call. Bonus: the material has been so thoroughly vetted, there will likely be no place for the denier machine to begin rubbishing the report. (yeah right)

    What about using the report to develop a cost estimate of how damage will be done to America? Most of this data is out there already. Add up the cost, and then present the bill to the unscrupulous corporations who have brought this about. There is precedent in the Tobacco settlement. Sometimes I wonder if the whole ongoing orchestrated denier cult is just an effort by Exxon and others to moderate just such a settlement.

    What is the price tag here?

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    I agree that one should be careful when talking to the media. And what I’m about to say doesn’t change that. But . . .

    In a subject area of such importance (science, climate change, etc.), media leaders (e.g. The Times) simply should have writers and relevant editors who have sufficient scientific training and respect for accuracy that such incidents don’t arise.

    Either the writer wasn’t really listening to what was being said, or didn’t understand it, and/or the editor didn’t care about accuracy (I thought that’s what editors are supposed to do: CARE about accuracy?), and/or the writer deferred to the editor’s hack job, or etc.

    My point is that, if you have a newspaper that actually has the appropriate background (on staff) to be able to at least try to understand what’s being said, and if that newspaper has a genuine goal to present accuracy (rather than the boxing match), and if that newspaper is curious and has listening skills, and if the editor cares about the situation, then we shouldn’t have these sorts of problems so darn often, on such important issues.

    Also, if The Times “buries” such a report mainly because of a view on their part (or a misinterpretation on their part) that there’s not enough “new” in it, that itself is a problem, in this case. Most of our understanding of climate change is not “new” in the sense of “new last week” or “new last month” or “new since we buried the last not-new report”. Yet, public understanding is still dismal. The Times needs to shift paradigms: People often need to hear new communications of, and new reminders of, and new updates on, “old” information in these important cases. Frequency. The advertisers that fund the Times know about frequency in their ads, and depend on it.

    Too, if ExxonMobil meant what they must have meant in their front-page PR piece about “95% fewer emissions”, then they were talking about an old definition of “emissions” as well as reductions that mostly occurred years ago. So, is that “new”? Yet, it’s on the front page. The Times now has an obligation, in my view, to give the straight story to people about what CO2 trends from auto use in the U.S. have really been. The Times may not see that info as “new”, but it’s “new” relative to the understanding of many readers, “newer” (and more accurate) than the confusing message ExxonMobil put on the front page, “new” relative to the fact that The Times hasn’t communicated the matter clearly for a long time, and perhaps never on the front page, and also — “new” or not — it’s vitally important information.

    “New” information and “new” presentations of it are not the same things. “The public good” often requires old information to be repeated and updated and re-covered, in new ways. And, especially when someone introduces confusions, it becomes necessary to remind people of the straight story.

    Indeed, if The Times really wants something “new” and exciting, all the more reason they should offer the public a blizzard of fact-based criticism regarding ExxonMobil’s attempts to confuse and mislead. After all, the most recent and “new” example of that appeared on their own front page, just Tuesday. Is that new enough, for ya?

    Be Well,


  3. Morris says:

    Take a look at page 117 of the report, Regional Climate Impacts–Midwest. It Shows how summer time in Illinois will become like summer in Texas under the high range scenario ( and they might have pointed out this happens if the permafrost bomb and or other non linear climate responses occur) (this is the UCS graphic from their Great Lakes impacts report.)

    My question, why aren’t they warning of what will happen to those two hundred bushel/acre corn yields which we have now in Illinois?

    You don’t get yields like that in Texas unless you irrigate.

    This is very straightforward. Illinois summers become Texas summers. Corn and soybean yields plummet over the next 85 years.

    Major climate impact, yes. Clearly stated in the report–I haven’t found it yet.

  4. SecularAnimist says:

    Media critic Bob Somerby juxtaposes the Washington Post‘s coverage of the new report with their coverage of NASA’s research on climate change impacts from 23 YEARS AGO:

    David Fahrenthold, June 17, 2009:

    The hottest days could get hotter across much of the country: Parts of the South that experience about 60 days a year with temperatures higher than 90 degrees could experience 150 such days by 2100. The same warming could make Washington’s summers even more uncomfortable.

    Cass Peterson, June 11, 1986:

    By the middle of the next century, [DC] area residents can expect three months of daily temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, 12 days of temperatures above 100 degrees and 19 nights when the temperature does not fall below 80 degrees, according to NASA research on the “greenhouse effect” created by pollutants.

    Obviously, much work has been done in the past 23 years to provide a better picture of the impacts that global warming will bring. But the fact is we had a pretty good picture 23 years ago. We’ve known what was at stake for 23 years. And for 23 years we have done nothing — except to make our prospects worse.

    [JR: Can’t argue with that!]

  5. dhogaza says:

    So this is an important lesson to anyone who talks to the media. Keep it short …

    It also applies to those who have more modest interactions with the media, in particular those who write Letter to the Editor.

    In one of my first letters I was rebutting a couple of timber industry talking points regarding forest management and wildlife conservation that had been prominently highlighted in a front-page article on the Old Growth Wars out here in the Pacific Northwest.

    I made the mistake of trying to rebut *a couple of points* rather than to write a very short and concise rebuttal of a single point, one short enough to be published in full (or close to it).

    They published my letter but whacked out about 1/2-2/3 of my words. In doing so, they managed a perfect quote mine which managed to make my comments convey exactly the opposite meaning which I’d intended.

    A hard-learned lesson.

    As MacCracken hopefully understands now, he should’ve hammered home the point that the report’s a good comprehensive survey of available info, but the Bush administration stopped further research stopped further research STOPPED FURTHER RESEARCH, pounding that single point into the reporter’s head and refusing to allow the reporter to divert the interview elsewhere.

  6. paulm says:

    They do this on purpose.

  7. jbrosius says:

    resource-media is the name of the PR firm used to promote this. They were paid to talk up these reports and send notices. They used an experienced handler to get the info out. Sometimes papers push back a little when handlers tell theem what to say.
    This group is well recognized for the silicon implant scare and the alar apple scare.
    They have not had this account very long. Resource media was part of EMS

  8. DavidCOG says:

    Are we going to have a ‘Philip Cooney‘ crawl out of the woodwork at the NYT?

  9. Anne says:

    In 1990, I came very close to starting a new small business: a media training school for scientists coming to testify before Congress or working on policy issues. Talking to the press is very tricky business, we have all been misquoted. Stephen Schneider used to say, “Either talk to the press all the time, or not at all.” What he meant was, either have a solid relationship with a reporter to ensure you are fully understood, and that you have ground rules: know when you are “on background” and when it is fair game to quote you. If Mike had made it doubly clear that he was “on background” — and gave permission only for certain quotes — this quote would not have been used. Also, it’s important to note that Andy Revkin would have been the one to cover the report but he was in Korea on another story. Broder is not as steeped in the climate issue as Revkin. So there was shared “blame” here. Lessons learned by all. And Joe’s advice is good. Don’t let reporters badger or con you into contradicting yourself, going too far out on a limb, over-speculating, or saying anything at all that you wouldn’t be proud to see in print and show your mother or your kids, or your boss. I still think we need a media school on how to talk about climate change for the MSM but also the indy media as well. All too often, they get it wrong. And we need to train scientists on how better to talk with the media in an ongoing conversation. Any entrepreneurs out there want to start a biz?

  10. I’ve done this too.

    It’s tempting to think that if you talk more, the reporter will better understand your position and better synthesize it into something digestible.

    Reporters don’t create meaning, though.

  11. A Siegel says:

    1. Good reach out to Mike and good follow-up.

    2. Best approach, it seems, is to have a longer discussion on “background”, which enables reaching some understanding, with an agreement to ‘move to’ directly quotable material or for the reporter to return asking “can I quote you with X?”

    3. Would be interesting to see article as submitted vs as published. Perhaps the original article got it “right” and the editing is what distorted.

    4. In any event, did any US newspaper put this report on the front page? I haven’t seen / heard of any yet.

  12. Kate Cell says:

    Helpful tip – the Union of Concerned Scientists have a book, “A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Media.” There’s a presentation based on that on their website – see UCS runs workshops based on this work at professional meetings, too, so check your program to see if there’s one at your next conference.

    Full disclosure – I work with UCS to help them engage economists in their climate program.

  13. Gary says:

    The problem with the press is that it feels forced to be “fair and balanced” and so reporters try to see the opposite of an issue, when there really isn’t one, ie climate change is real vs climate change is natural, or inevitable. The NYT report is just another sympotom of the news media’s equivocation at the expense of honesty. Wait till geoengineering becomes a big issue, and see how it’s covered.

    for more

  14. Jenna says:

    I agree with what Gary says. The concept of “fair and balanced” has really done all of us a disservice as it has seriously impacted our day to day media coverage.

    The real issue with this “always need the other side” component is that it not only justifies what are really extreme arguments, but reporters seem to be really picking and choosing what qualifies as “the other side” in a way that must be political. For example – why aren’t even more extreme view points solicited more often? There are people who think an alien culture came to Earth and started life here, but you never hear their position reflected in creationism vs. evolution debates. My point is: reporters are picking and choosing what they say are “legitimate” positions in service to a politically motivated, outdated tenet of journalism that has long been irrelevant.