PBS Ombudsman: NewsHour Climate Story ‘Stumbled Badly’, Use Of Non-Scientist Watts For Balance Was ‘Stunning’

PBS viewers who understand climate science were understandably shocked by the PBS News Hour last week. Their climate segment (below) and online interview focusing on the long-debunked views of non-scientist Anthony Watts were widely criticized — see here and here.

The PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler has responded with a lengthy and thoughtful piece, “Climate Change Creates a Storm,” which opens:

It was not the PBS NewsHour’s finest 10 minutes. In my view, and that of hundreds, even thousands of others, the program stumbled badly. On the other hand, it was not the end of the world, so to speak.

A segment on climate change last Monday evening produced a storm of protest from critics who felt the program mislead viewers — by a faulty application of journalistic balance — about the very real threat of global warming and man’s contribution to it, as well as a sprinkling of support from those who think that threat is overstated and that balance was just the right touch for the NewsHour.

Just below is a video link to the segment so those that did not see it, or wish to see it again, can form their own opinions.

This may be the longest ombudsman column I’ve ever posted because the subject generates about as much thunder and heat as one of those storms many have experienced lately that at least seem to make us think more about climate change. It also is one of those lose-lose subjects for an ombudsman in which whatever one writes is certain not to satisfy a lot of people.

The post notes the segment was widely criticized and it links to my piece, “False Balance Lives: In Worst Climate Story Of The Year, PBS Channels Fox News” and to an excellent commentary by Bud Ward at the Yale Forum.

Here is some of Getler’s specific criticism:

Downside Dominates

But the missteps created by the program and committed on the air and online dominate the reasons why this segment is being most widely viewed as falling short of NewsHour standards. I feel that way as well. And the main factor was the choice and appearance of Anthony Watts as someone interviewed on the broadcast, and also interviewed at much greater length by Michels on the NewsHour’s “Rundown” blog. My focus is only on the broadcast, which is what most people wrote and commented about to me.

Watts did not seem to get more time than some of the other major figures but he seemed to dominate the program. Watts is a broadcast meteorologist, entrepreneur and the founder of the “Watts Up With That?” blog that focuses on global warming. He is a leading skeptic, especially about the role of humans in the warming process, and his blog is billed as among the most popular and widely viewed on the subject.

Although global warming strikes me as one of those issues where there is no real balance and it is wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence, there is no harm and some possibility of benefit in inviting skeptics about the human contribution and other factors to speak, but in a setting in which the context of the vast majority of scientific evidence and speakers is also made clear.

What was stunning to me as I watched this program is that the NewsHour and Michels had picked Watts — who is a meteorologist and commentator — rather than a university-accredited scientist to provide “balance.” I had never heard of Watts before this program and I’m sure most viewers don’t, as part of their routines, read global warming blogs on either side of the issue.

Precisely. Good climate science stories interview climate scientists.

I’m not being judgmental about Watts or anything he said. He undoubtedly is an effective spokesperson. But it seems to me that if you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist.

As it turned out, Michels, in his blog post on Monday, revealed that Watts had been recommended to him by The Heartland Institute, that he described as “a conservative, Chicago-based non-profit that is one of the leading groups that doubt that climate change — if it exists — is attributable to human activities.” The Heartland connection, which has included some funding, was not mentioned on the air.

Watts is articulate and confident and used his time well to make some strong assertions. A key one that he is associated with is his past efforts to show that climate warming data is inaccurate because weather stations where measurements are taken often soak up heat from their surroundings. Michels did not challenge that view, which has been disputed, and, in a highly unusual move, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent this statement to The NewsHour….

The whole piece is well worth reading and Getler deserves kudos for it.

Here is what Bud Ward concluded:

Bottom line on all this? No question that Michels clearly did not appear in the interview or on the broadcast to have “done due diligence” — that is, to have done his homework on climate science. No responsible science journalist could be pleased with his mishandling of those pieces or, for instance, with his sophomoric characterization of “believers.” He allowed the interviewee to opine not only on science but also on policy issues, without drawing any distinction and without adequately characterizing the nature of Watts’ scientific, let alone policy, credentials.

Sreenivasan’s weak-kneed defense of the whole episode came across as overly defensive, and it included mis-steps of its own that he later had to take back.

In the end, it may have been “NewsHour” … but it certainly was not its “finest hour.” One expects more from the program, and the abundant critical comments are a sure sign that it did not measure-up in this case….

The NewsHour’s journalistic shortcomings in this instance are far from the most serious committed in the name of broadcast journalism on climate science … they’re just the most surprising and, in some ways, the most disappointing.

27 Responses to PBS Ombudsman: NewsHour Climate Story ‘Stumbled Badly’, Use Of Non-Scientist Watts For Balance Was ‘Stunning’

  1. SecularAnimist says:

    Getler wrote: “I’m not being judgmental about Watts or anything he said.”

    Fail. Total fail.

    Not being “judgmental”? Spare me. Watts is a paid liar. He lied — blatantly LIED — on the PBS segment.

    And all Getler can say is that he won’t be “judgmental” and that Watts was “undoubtedly an effective spokesperson” for “the other side.”

    This is pathetic and cowardly.

    The problem is not that Watts simply lacks the scientific credentials to have been included on the program — the problem is that Watts is a paid propagandist for the fossil fuel corporations, who was recommended to Michels by Heartland Institute, a propanganda mill funded by the fossil fuel corporations — some of which, e.g. Koch, also fund PBS science programs! — and Michels hid this fact from the program’s audience.

    This was not merely a failure by Michels to “do his homework”. It was a blatant conflict of interest and a serious violation of journalistic integrity, which raises the question of whether deliberately misleading the PBS audience by hiding the true corporate-funded, propagandistic nature of Watts’ so-called “skepticism” was a rogue act by Michels, or whether it is, in fact, PBS policy.

    If PBS wants to restore public trust in its integrity, a mealy-mouthed blog post by the ombudsman — which only a fraction of News Hour viewers will ever see — won’t do it.

    Michels should be fired, and News Hour should run another segment, apologizing for this incident, and exposing the bogus “skepticism” of paid liars like Watts for what it is.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Getler is saying the right things here, but it remains to be seen if PBS management will respond. PBS and FCC are still staffed by Bush/Cheney holdovers, and their noncoverage of key climate issues has turned many of us off for a long time now.

    It’s a mystery that Watts has the chutzpah to show his face in public at all after NOAA’s thorough debunking of his “Temperature Stations Project”. Some of us find it hard to believe that station managers did not do their homework, since anyone versed in climate science knows all about Anthony Watts. It’s more likely that they were genuflecting to the fossil fuel money behind both PBS and the US media.

    We will regain faith in PBS if they run a program lacerating Watts and his denier friends like McIntyre and Michaels. Prediction: not going to happen. As usual, we will have to rely on blogs such as this one and Rolling Stone magazine to learn what is going on in the most critical issue in human history.

  3. Agreed. PBS may be shamed into silence, but they will never speak out on global warming. To do so would jeopardize their Koch $ and Mobil and BP funding. They are the “Petroleum Broadcast System”

    However this means they grow increasingly worthless as a news organization – since all environmental stories now have a global warming aspect. Fires? Floods? Drought? How does PBS expect to do respectable journalism?

    Answer: They can’t. They are now a Propaganda Broadcast Service. Too bad. They used to be great.

    But, good news for web sites and independent news outlets!

  4. Indeed. Pure hubris for him to write “On the other hand, it was not the end of the world,…”

    Quite many scientist say that it may be the end of the human species, and even more say there is nothing in the science that precludes such a climate demise.

    I would say that PBS is missing a big story here, at least. At most, they are joining in a conspiracy to plunder the future.

    Again, with another media outlet we have to ask, “Are they dumb or immoral?”

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice post, Secular.

  6. Ozonator says:

    This is all gravy for extremist Republicans and Christians watching us waste time with the relatively useless extremist media outfalls’ master deniers. Watts & Mengele types always have a hard time earning their free lunches when the heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes hit during the late summer and fall. For example Evil Inhofe got lots of press for his igloo but little for getting sick from sewer algae in a hot Oklahoma lake. Ditto with Looter Limbaugh’s and National Review’s manly measurement but no inches for measuring torrential rainfall events around the world.

  7. Lore says:

    “On the other hand, it was not the end of the world, so to speak.”

    Au contraire, so to speak. we are talking about the end of the world. At least as we know it.

  8. Lore says:

    The crux of the problem is that we cannot dismiss so large a part of the denying population and come out of our environmental tailspin. We are joined at the hip no matter how hard we pull in the opposite direction. What’s unfolding is unlike anything in human history. We can’t simply pick up our marbles and go home. People like Watts, Limbaugh and Inhofe and their followers are the weak link that will eventually break the human chain.

  9. catman306 says:

    Thank you, SecularAnimist, Richard Pauli, and Mike Roddy. Big lying requires big rebutting.

  10. Chris Winter says:

    First let me say that the PBS video linked in this post is much better than the Michels interview with Anthony Watts by itself. But it still has the problem of presenting Watts’s view of “overselling” unchallenged.

    Also, I wish I could feel good about the PBS ombudsman’s statement. He certainly deserves credit for acknowledging that the NewsHour “stumbled badly” in presenting Watts as it did. However…

    Michael Getler wrote: “As it turned out, Michels, in his blog post on Monday, revealed that Watts had been recommended to him by The Heartland Institute, that he described as ‘a conservative, Chicago-based non-profit that is one of the leading groups that doubt that climate change — if it exists — is attributable to human activities.’ The Heartland connection, which has included some funding, was not mentioned on the air.”

    So this, then, appears to be something like product placement, in which a manufacturer — the Longines Watch Company, for example — pays a media outlet to feature its product in a presentation. If Heartland paid PBS, or Michels, to do the interview with Watts, I submit they got their money’s worth. Watts’s plausible-seeming assertion of bias in temperature data, along with Michels’s inclusion of the phrase “if it exists” with respect to climate change, are an effective advertisement for Heartland’s product. As anyone who follows that Institute’s activities knows, its product is doubt about accepted scientific facts. (In fairness, Michels did not use that phrase on the air, AFAIK, but only on his blog. Still, using it at all indicates an untenable position.)

    The crucial point is that persuading some viewers of a movie, say, to buy Longines watches instead of Timex watches has only a minor impact on their lives. Persuading viewers to the false impression that climate change is not a serious problem, on the other hand, could have a major impact on the world as a whole.

    Much remains to be learned about climate change and the magnitude of the problems it will bring. But let there be no doubt about these basic facts: Our world is currently warming, and we are largely responsible.

    Getler: “I’m not being judgmental about Watts or anything he said. He undoubtedly is an effective spokesperson. But it seems to me that if you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist.”

    With respect, Mr. Getler, you’re not quite there yet. What you need to have is a scientist with some valid evidence for any contrary position.

  11. Michael Valentine says:

    I wonder if the Koch Brothers Industries sponsorship of many PBS programs has anything to do with the shoddy reporting?

  12. Joan Savage says:

    I’m relieved that the PBS ombudsman gave such a careful analysis, and please, please, let’s not allow the mess with Spencer Michels to shut down the News Hour series on climate change.

    In earlier Spencer Michels’ posts for PBS, he had downplayed or ignored climate change completely. In the PBS roster of recent stories Michels ran two stories on California water, neither looking at long-term future trends.

    Michels is a senior PBS reporter while Sreenivasan is relatively new to the PBS viewers. Sreenivasan was given oversight of the program material on climate change, and yet it’s not clear if he has veto power over a post by a long-time reporter.

    One of the few clues about how the Michels’ piece slipped by is that Michels had already posted the Watts interview to Michels’ own blog before the News Hour aired. (This timeline information from Bud Ward’s analysis.)

    Perhaps we can infer that Michels was not team-playing with the News Hour staff (Sreenivasan) on this one.

  13. Leif says:

    Do you think for a minute that Koch et. al. fund PBS out of the goodness of their hearts?

    I fully agree with the commentators above. All future PBS viewing is out of my life! Petro Broadcasting Shills is the correct call.

  14. Ozonator says:

    I agree. I believe that if we do one, we should do the other at the same time. Whereas the deniers, teach no science, sell no winter clothing, practice plagiarism better than an 8th grader high on memeograph fumes, and somehow are considered first among equals in any area of civilization.

  15. Artful Dodger says:

    Joe, how can you let this comment slip past without comment?

    “The Heartland connection, which has included some funding, was not mentioned on the air.”

    If true, this is an outrageous breach of ethics and trust. Inexcusable, and worthy of it’s own investigation.

    I want to see the emails!

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I would be surprised if the PBS apparatchiki were not all Rightwing zealots. Any other type has been purged from the MSM, including public broadcasting, for quite some time.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Not of the world, but of humanity, as we know it.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    So, Michels admits to being a facilitator of Rightwing agit-prop. Big surprise! I foresee a bright career path, perhaps crowned by an occasional appearance on that wonder of our age- Fox News.

  19. Spike says:

    I’m afraid the public service broadcaster in the UK is also timorous, afraid, and incoherent in its reporting of climate change. As the Carbon Brief reported:

    “The Today programme is the BBC’s flagship radio news programme. At best, it is characterised by challenging, critical reporting that is informative, asks difficult questions and sets the news agenda.

    Why then, can the programme’s standards slip so badly when it comes to reporting climate change? Listening to this morning’s interview between John Humphrys and president of the US National Academy of Science Ralph Cicerone, it was clear that the programme was out of its depth.

    Just two days after a poorly-handled phone-in on Radio 5 that pitted skeptics against campaigners over whether climate change has “caused” the recent wet weather, Cicerone found himself defending the basics of climate science against a set of increasingly strange arguments put to him by presenter John Humphrys.”

  20. BillD says:

    My view is a little different from most of what has been written above. First, I have a problem with calling the Mullers’ “climate scientists.” They still don’t have a single article published or in press and their recent interviews seems to reflect the same lack of knowledge of the climate change literature that probably caused them to doubt the science. Second, we seem to be living in a world where a journalist (Michels)looks to the “Heartland Insitute” for advice on “skepticism.” Heartland seems to be complete scam, taking scientific articles and turning them on their heads, so that they draw essentially the opposite conclusions of the science authors. My view is that I can only hope that we don’t see another science feature by Michels on PBS. I do expect they PBS will continue to cover climate science news. The usual format for science on the News Hour is to interview that scientist who made the discovery and published the article and/or to bring in a scientist with strong credentials in that field. They should stick with those approaches.

  21. Lionel A says:

    Watts is a broadcast meteorologist, entrepreneur and the founder of the “Watts Up With That?” blog that focuses on global warming. He is a leading skeptic…

    No Watts is not a sceptic, he is clearly a denier as described by Robert Manne in the excellent talk, video here:

    Robert Manne: How Vested Interests Defeated Climate Science but I hope we are not defeated yet for if so the irony will be that the deniers and their future generations will be defeated too.

  22. Dennis says:

    Agreed, Lionel. Watts is a denier. He repeatedly fails to even acknowledge the vast published scientific literature on climate change, and instead dismisses the scientific community as, at best,mistaken, or at worse, as engaged in a massive fraud. To not recognize that fact up front was PBS’s epic fail.

  23. John McCormick says:

    Getler’s comment seemed an honest attempt to chastise the Michel fiasco and PBS failure to meet its journalistic standards.

    Enough evidence in that comment to cause PBS to take the next honest and noble step; fire Michel.

    Fire him immediately.

    Make him pay the price for bringing down PBS ‘standards of journalism’. He is a hack and not worthy of a place in the profession.


  24. Helpful analogy. But we have to include ethics. And true accounting.

    Because a watch is a simple object – and anyone can do without one.

    But to deny the looming danger of climate change can cause direct harm. And remaining unprepared just so an oil company can plunder more profits is just wrong. Unethical to regard ANY harmful product as just a product. Whether it is tobacco, insecticide, coal or any carbon fuel – those all deserve true cost accounting. The cost of buying is one thing, but the post consumption cost is huge. With carbon fuels – it may be infinite cost.

    Lack of ethics is the problem.

  25. I think that is referring to a financial connection between Heartland and Watts, not Heartland and PBS. Obscurely written, at the least.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Not a chance. The upper echelons at PBS, the Rightwing Thought Control Police, will be well pleased with Michel’s work. I expect him to be promoted, or resign himself, and take up a juicy sinecure at Fox News or the like. Service to power is rewarded, not punished.

  27. Chris Winter says:

    You are undoubtedly right. Assuming the latter was a bad move on my part.