False Balance On Climate Change at PBS NewsHour

False balance is alive and well even at the so-called liberal media, the PBS NewsHour.

The story in question, which aired Monday, is “Teachers Endure Balancing Act Over Climate Change Curriculum.”  Unfortunately, PBS treats the subject as if they were a teacher straitjacketed by some absurd state law forcing them to maximize confusion:

  • PBS doesn’t actually interview a single climate scientist for the story.
  • They quote Mitt Romney’s anti-scientific etch-a-sketch moment on climate — “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”
  • And they still give “equal time” to the Heartland Institute, a fringe right-wing think tank funded by the pollutocrat Koch brothers, that pushes long-debunked climate myths and indeed is planning an effort to dupe children into believing that climate change is a hoax.

The disinformers are helping to ruin our children’s future and have no place in a story on climate education.

Watch it:

I am not going to print the Heartland’s myths, especially after running Romney’s. All successful disinformation is the same, at the end, cleverly crafted myths and lies designed to sound plausible and stick in your memory.

PBS itself follows the Heartland falsehoods by saying, “These are views challenged by scientific evidence.”

Seriously PBS? Would you give air time to someone who says the Earth is flat or cigarettes don’t cause cancer and simply follow those falsehoods by “These are views challenged by scientific evidence.” Would PBS go so far as to give air time to an even more extreme kind of disinformer, a Holocaust denier? Where do they draw the line?

Let’s remember that several climate scientists who “had their emails stolen [in 2009], posted online and grossly misrepresented,” slammed Heartland for “spreading misinformation” and “personally attacking climate scientists to further its goals.” The scientists specifically noted:

In 2009, the Heartland Institute was among the groups that spread false allegations about what these stolen emails said. Despite multiple independent investigations, which demonstrated that allegations against scientists were false, the Heartland Institute continued to attack scientists based on the stolen emails. When more stolen emails were posted online in 2011, the Heartland Institute again pointed to their release and spread false claims about scientists.

You can read Heartland’s reply to similar charges here.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention one of the worst things about this piece. By quoting Heartland, PBS  is conferring legitimacy on it as a source. After all, the NewsHours is highly credible news outlet. The message PBS sends to the audience and the world by quoting Heartland at all is that these folks have a legitimate place in the debate. They don’t.

The bottom line is that if the media outlet knows that the scientific evidence contradicts someone’s statements, why report the lies in the first place? Considerable social science research shows that you don’t effectively debunk myths by repeating them and then contradicting them. That merely perpetuates the falsehood in the minds of many listeners (see “The difficulty of debunking a myth” for a discussion of the literature).

This post has been updated for clarity.

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NOTE: ThinkProgress is among several publications to have published documents attributed to the Heartland Institute and sent to us from an anonymous and then unknown source. The source later revealed himself. The AP worked to independently verify the documents and concluded, “The federal consultant working on the classroom curriculum, the former TV weatherman, a Chicago elected official who campaigns against hidden local debt and two corporate donors all confirmed to the AP that the sections in the document that pertained to them were accurate. No one the AP contacted said the budget or fundraising documents mentioning them were incorrect.” Heartland Institute has issued several press releases on the documents. See also “CAPAF General Counsel Responds To Heartland Institute.”

21 Responses to False Balance On Climate Change at PBS NewsHour

  1. M Tucker says:

    PBS and NPR are seriously paranoid of being called liberal. They live in fear of a Republican congress just itching to cut of funding. The Republican war on public television and radio has been going on for many years now and Republicans have succeeded in substantially reducing the amount that the federal government contributes. So do not be surprised that the public media will do all the wrong things. I am not defending their crappy reporting or trying to justify their attitude toward the radicalized Republican Party. The media, public or private, is weak. Media reporting on science has historically been flawed and now, with all the second guessing and tip-toeing around the Republican agenda, it has become downright useless. I weep for our children’s future and their education is not the primary reason.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    The Kochs have invested heavily in both PBS and NPR, neutering them. Mainstream media won’t talk about it, and few would even know about this and similar stories if not for your work here, Joe. The media are so intimidated that only the obvious ones (like Murdoch) get any heat from their competitors.

    David Koch was once introduced to the audience at the Brooklyn Ballet, to whom he had given something like $15 million. The audience booed him lustily. It’s time these extremists were called out by a lot more people than those few who pay attention through blogs such as this one.

  3. kindler says:

    To be fair, right after the quote from Heartland, the reporter narrating this story says “These are views challenged by scientific evidence.”

    I do agree that they should have mentioned how Heartland has been discredited and where they get their money from. Beyond that, I don’t see major problems with this story.

  4. Joe Romm says:

    To be fair, read the post.

  5. Bill Walker says:

    Chevron is a sponsor of the News Hour. Coincidence?

  6. fj says:

    Sometimes when I see or read something when I’m tired or consumed by something else I completely misinterpret it.

    To me this seems to be a very good description of the problems that teachers are having when students and parents have been exposed to climate change denier misinformation.

    As far as I can determine the video was very explicit that climate change was very real and serious and was not a controversy among scientists.

    The main teacher in this video was explicit about getting her students to understand the reasons when and why the so-called denier controversies arose and described methods she used to get the students to form their own opinions — one of the most effective ways to be convinced — on the true nature of the science and how the economics and politics was something else entirely but not science.

  7. fj says:

    And when frustration levels are very high — as well they should be — it is way too easy to be way too nuanced.

  8. fj says:

    This may have been as much the preferred reporting style described as being neutral in tone; and this is how the lies and entire untruths by deniers have been completely corrupting the process which is totally their intent.

  9. Makan says:

    We had a heated discussion at home as we watched this news item. In my view the Heartland statements were, in effect, left to stand as valid comments.

    I agree wholeheartedly that they are as ridiculous as counter views on flat earth, cigarettes and vaccination and should be treated accordingly. When news media give these views airspace, they give them validity they don’t deserve.

    I would be prepared to give PBS some leeway because the item was about teaching, not about climate science per se. But then I wonder why they had to include the lies from a fringe extremist group at all. Maybe they could have restricted Heartland comment to their views about pedagogy — HOW to teach not WHAT to teach. Heartland have certainly been successful in communicating ideas. Pity they get the facts so wrong. Repeatedly.

  10. IANVS says:

    No Koch Foundations listed under PBS Current NewsHour Funders.

    However, we have seen credits for David H. Koch funding of NOVA,

    including NOVA Education:

    “Funding for NOVA is provided by David H. Koch, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Lockheed Martin Corporation, and PBS viewers.”

  11. otter17 says:

    I posted a comment on this over at Climate Crocks, but I agree with the evidence presented here as well.

    Prepare your head clamp… Heartland sees the PBS piece as a victory for their activism.
    “It was biased heavily toward the views of climate alarmists, which was hardly a surprise. But since The Heartland Institute has been gaining attention for our plans to craft climate curriculum, the PBS producers reached out to us for “balance.””


  12. pete mason says:

    “I am not going to print the Heartland’s myths, especially after running Romney’s…”

    Good to see that – do it more often.

    Better maybe to have summarised Romney also, with suitably chosen epithets, including a peppering of “falsely claims that” and similar.

  13. When it comes to fact vs fiction, the public seems to have lost interest. How else would the GOP attract any voters at all?

  14. You can express dismay about this story to the PBS Ombudsman here

  15. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    I’m a fan of this blog but I don’t get this post at all. The Newshour story was great, and I’m putting it up on my Facebook page. It shows the Heartland guy in the second half to explain where the social pressures emanate from. The kind of pressures that informed the uptight mom in the beginning. The story clearly represents climate science as fact and that teachers are at the front lines of the misinformation thrust.

  16. Ed DeMeo says:

    Joe, I watched this piece last night and again on this page. I think you’re off base on this one. I see this piece as glass half-full — perhaps a bit more — than glass half empty. The good news is that a major member of MSM news airs a thoughtful piece on climate change. How often does that happen in the USA?

    More importantly, my sense is that the Colorado science teacher and those supporting her were clearly saying that the evidence — not opinions — are paramount, and that the weight of the evidence is not on the side of the deniers. Hari Sreenavasan says this himself after the Heartland piece.

    Even more importantly, I think Heartland shot themselves in the foot with the quote from Mr. Taylor. He says droughts are decreasing, extreme weather is decreasing, and warming is good for humanity. It’s one thing to deny climate change, but it’s another to deny weather facts that are as plain as day for people to see. My wife and I both immediately reacted by asking what planet he’s from.

    I think PBS has provided a public service by addressing this issue — and with some sensitivity. Let’s encourage more of this in the press rather than dumping on them when they do try to raise awareness of this issue.

  17. David Lewis says:

    I have a transcript fragment I made at some point near late 2009, from an NPR show, I think it was Flatow on Science Friday.

    I’ve wondered for many years why climate has been reported as if the basic facts were the subject of some great debate among the relevant scientists when there hasn’t been such debate for decades. You don’t often hear candid discussion by a show host that says anything about why they report the way they do, so I wrote what I heard down. Unfortunately I didn’t also record the name of the show, the host, and the date. But this is a quote from an NPR radio show host:

    “The NPR Science Desk decided, as you said, we’re not going to find the one guy who says there is no climate change…. we’re not going to make it a quid quo pro debate issue any longer…..”

    I would like to hear a formal statement from the NPR “Science Desk” about why they finally decided to adopt the policy their show host was referring to. I would also like to know why they decided they needed to change it, and what their policy is now.

    NPR isn’t the wildest example of this kind of thing, in my mind.

    Consider this recent Nature News story, i.e. “Evolution advocate turns to climate”. Nature used a quote from Heartland to provide the false balance its editor(s) deemed necessary, going so far as to obscure Heartland’s position on climate science.

    Eg: “The core issue is not whether global warming is happening, or whether humans are involved, but whether it is a crisis,” says James Taylor, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago, Illinois, that opposes the regulation of carbon emissions”. Note that the quote would allow the uninitiated to believe Heartland does not deny climate science but rather it questions how grave the crisis is. I found it incredible they would even use Heartland as a source for any comment on anything. I suggested to the editors that they make sure to include a comment from the Flat Earth Society the next time they did a story that discussed scientific data gathered by satellite.

    Nature likes to believe of itself that it is the best magazine of its type in the world. This is its standard for reporting on climate change. It is astonishing.

  18. Joe Romm says:

    They quoted Heartland! Which was wrong before today, but now is so clearly head-exploding.

  19. Joe Romm says:

    Other than quoting the Heartland fanatics….

  20. This is not the first time PBS has reported on climate change using a “fair and balanced” approach as if the topic was debatable and unsettled.

    I sent PBS another comment on this issue and suggest others write the PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler, “who serves as an independent internal critic within PBS seeking to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity”.

    Mr. Getler can be reached via this address: