PBS NewsHour Science Reporter Miles O’Brien: Climate Denier Segment A ‘Horrible, Horrible Thing’

by Brad Johnson, campaign manager of Forecast the Facts

Veteran science correspondent Miles O’Brien has weighed in on the PBS NewsHour climate change segment featuring denier Anthony Watts, calling it a “horrible, horrible thing.”

The segment by reporter Spencer Michels — and an accompanying blog post of his interview with Watts 00 were part of the Monday NewsHour broadcast. Asked by Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, about the segment, O’Brien said that it “reflects badly both on the program and, indirectly, on himself”:

That might raise the question: Why not use veteran science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who NewsHour brought in to cover complex science issues after he and the science staff had been let go by CNN? Climate change is an issue on which O’Brien has done substantial earlier coverage, and it’s a subject he says he is eager to continue reporting on.

There’s an answer to that question, actually. O’Brien said in a phone interview that he is a freelancer with a contract to do 15 science stories a year for NewsHour … specifically excluding climate science. “I’m not in the loop on climate stories,” O’Brien said, characterizing the recent NewsHour broadcast as “a horrible, horrible thing” that he fears reflects badly both on the program and, indirectly, on himself.

The Heartland Institute praised PBS for “attempting to bring balance to the debate over man-made global warming.” Science bloggers, media critics, and the general public have criticized the NewsHour segment as an egregious example of false balance, with the debunked conspiracy theories of Anthony Watts used to “counter” a Koch-funded study that affirms the scientific knowledge of manmade climate change. Scientists are portrayed by Michels as “believers,” as opposed to “skeptics” such as Watts.

The general public has spoken out as well, with over 15,000 people signing a Forecast the Facts petition to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler demanding an investigation of how this violation of PBS journalistic standards made it to broadcast.

20 Responses to PBS NewsHour Science Reporter Miles O’Brien: Climate Denier Segment A ‘Horrible, Horrible Thing’

  1. Jan says:

    Does PBS dance to a Tea Bag tune in order to avoid funding threats?

    PBS, I won’t call you chicken, but how far you have sunk in the high regard I had held for you.

    How about doing an interview with Dr. Hansen, hmmm?

  2. I saw the segment & was yelling at the TV. PBS is MSM…

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    We shouldn’t treat this segment as a mistake, or that PBS will respond to entreaties to tell the truth. The choice of Michels over O’Brien has destroyed their credibility forever, and it was low to begin with.

    Yes, PBS gets money from oil companies, but isn’t it still “Public” broadcasting? The 2013 Congress should demand a reorganization, including firing all executives who signed off on a segment that is not only false, but absurd. Nothing less will make any difference.

  4. Jack Burton says:

    PBS just caved to the big interests in America. They gave the corporations and the right wing political movement just what they wanted in the form of an open surrender via Mr. Watts appearance. It was a signal that “We” have changed, “We” can now be trusted. “We” are now mainstream media and will answer to our masters, just like all the corporate networks.
    Make no mistake, PBS knew what it was doing when it put Watt on and tossed softball questions just like FOX.
    Nope, forget PBS, except for their imports of British television series on Sunday evenings, I never watch them.
    The tide of climate change is advancing at lightning speed, yet America has tuned out the coming disaster and are crowding the stores to get new I-Phone 5’s. Is there anything more about our coming fate you need to know??

  5. catman306 says:

    The right wing administrators of NPR/PBS have succeeded in destroying their credibility as a news source. Nice going! Blame Bush II.

    If they say today is Friday, I’ll check my calendar, before I believe it. But I haven’t listened to them in several years anyway.

  6. fgsgeneg says:

    I haven’t listened to NPR regularly since Bush was successful in stacking their leadership back in the mid oughts. They’ve sold out to the fair and balanced crowd. There’s nothing fair about balancing sense with nonsense. NPR has just become FOXNews for people who think they’re too sophisticated to get caught in the FOXNews world. There was a message that should have been heard when NPR fired Bob Edwards. They’ve become the polished arm of the crazy.

  7. Doug Bostrom says:

    O’Brien’s contract:

    Specifically excluding climate science.

    That demands urgent followup. Why?

  8. Doug Bostrom says:

    Just a point of clarification: NPR is not PBS. There’s no relationship between the two, other than each receives a relatively small amount of money from CPB.

  9. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    Because, and I hope Romm and others are listening here, PBS Newshour does many great global warming stories ALL OF THE TIME. They excel at it. They have a whole ongoing series on climate change and sections of their website dedicated to it. This story was an ANOMALY.

    And also, this story wasn’t lying. Any careful listener would conclude that Watts was wrong. The complaint about this story was the way it was structured and where the emphasis lay, and how far away the bad info was from the explanation of the bad info. I, for one, was fascinated to hear Watts in person spin his BS. But for the uninitiated it’s true that more hand holding was needed.

    And then there is the argument about whether the coverage of the issue was even warranted. That’s a legit criticism.

  10. Ozonator says:

    It has been a bad week for extremist media outlets to get a free lunch. They couldn’t report on the AGW predicted “blast” hitting Jupiter nor the AGW predicted Arctic Sea ice catastrophe. Ice and snow increases in the Southern Hemisphere and Antarctica during their winter is poorly funded from Chilean and New Zealand ski lodges. Thus, if 5-watts and his familiars hadn’t paid for the PBS show, they would have sewn more confusion to entice a new generation by substitution of 5-watts’ bad neighbor image with a Naomi Watts like their brethren causing riots in Muslim regions.

  11. Jim says:

    The one thing I’ve been thinking is that it was not that long ago when the push back from something like this would not have been as aggressive.

    It give me some measure of encouragement to see smart people who actually know what they are talking about give PBS a LOT of hell for this abomination.

    I know we should be way past this by now but we’re not. Some progress is better than having this stuff just go unchallenged as so much of it does in the blogosphere.

  12. Joe Romm says:

    The point is that the most important audience IS the unitiated!

  13. This is from Media Matters: a PBS ombudsman is publishing an article that is apparently going to criticize PBS over all this. Our ‘modest’ climate movement is having some effect it seems. Link is here:

  14. Alex J says:

    Another question: Would an outlet like NBC News get away with an extensive interview of a denier who has no real expertise or standing in climate science? And if not, how low does that suggest PBS has slipped?

  15. I would like to see Anthony Watts talking face to face to the people of the Maldives and telling them we need to move slow regarding GW. It would have been very appropriate to have him in this speech by the VP of the Maldives,

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    PBS, like the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and, no doubt most Western public broadcasters, has been purged and stacked over the years by Rightwing regimes who share a common totalitarian instinct when it comes to information. The Right simply detest contrary opinion because, being morally and intellectually insufficient, they cannot face criticism and debate, less they get the backsides kicked. Better to have a ‘debate’ as the ABC and BBC do, where two Rightists furiously agree, and everybody sneers at a ‘Left’ that is denied ‘the oxygen of publicity’.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yep. Michels will be rewarded, one way or another, for his service to power.

  18. Neal J. King says:

    PBS screwed up, and they know it. But I don’t see the need to crucify the people involved, they are already feeling the heat. PBS does mostly a pretty good job on climate issues, so they deserve to be cut a little slack for that.

    The critical error, in my opinion, was that Spencer Michels does not seem to have the scientific background necessary to be sensitive to when he was being led off into the woods. He doesn’t spend a lot of time following up on the ways in which technical arguments can be structured to mislead, as many of the readers of climate blogs do.

    The solution is not to fire the staff, but to refocus their efforts. I suggest a good start would be to get someone with more scientific training and sensitivity for this “beat”, maybe Miles O’Brien, who has the background and the interest.

    The “death penalty” is not always the best punishment!

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This incident just goes to show how laughable and sordid is the claim that the capitalist West has a ‘Free Press’. We have a business MSM, which operates as an increasingly extreme propaganda service for the ideological poison that infects the reptilian minds of the Right, and which they will inflict on humanity until they are stopped, by humanity, or by ecological catastrophe. A world totally controlled by the Right not only will be destroyed by their stupidity and malice, but deserves to be.

  20. Mike Roddy says:

    I believe that you are being naive.