In Epic Blunder, NY Times And Washington Post All But Abandon Specialized Climate Science Coverage

Columbia Journalism Review slams Times for “outright lie” about its commitment to environmental coverage.

This weekend two of the premier newspapers in the country basically abandoned the story of the century — climate change — as a specialized beat. The NY Times shut down its Green Blog (fast on the heels of dismantling its environment desk) and the Washingon Post is switching its lead climate reporter, Juliet Eilperin, off the environment beat.

These epic blunders in editorial judgment essentially signal the end of the era of great national newspapers — certainly neither the New York Times nor Washingon Post qualify anymore. One can hardly be a great national newspaper while moving to slash coverage of the single most important story to the nation (and the world), the story that will have the biggest impact on the lives of readers and their children in the coming decades.

And we can finally strip the NY Times of its vaunted title “The Paper of Record.” Now, like most others, it is just a “paper of record-keeping.”

Back in January, I reported that the Times was “Widely Cricitized For Dismantling Its Environment Desk, Eliminating Editorial Positions.” Now, to compound that mistake, the NY Times has terminated its Green Blog, with this abrupt post:

The Times is discontinuing the Green blog, which was created to track environmental and energy news and to foster lively discussion of developments in both areas. This change will allow us to direct production resources to other online projects. But we will forge ahead with our aggressive reporting on environmental and energy topics, including climate change, land use, threatened ecosystems, government policy, the fossil fuel industries, the growing renewables sector and consumer choices.

Thanks to all of our readers.

Since Sandy was a freak, once-in-a-century superstorm, we figure New York is safe for another century.

OK, I added the final sentence, but still this move is doubly head-exploding in a post-Sandy world where even the media elite now know they aren’t free from the ravages of climate change. And again, we’ve only seen the impact of slightly more than a degree Fahrenheit of warming — we’re all but certain to see at least 5 times as much warming this century as we did last century, especially if the ignorati (not-so-intelligentsia?) gag themselves on the greatest story never told.

Curtis Brainard, editor of Columbia Journalism Review‘s “online critique of science and environment reporting,” slammed the move:

This is terrible news, to say the least. When the Times announced in January that it was dismantling its three-year-old environment pod and reassigning its editors and reporters to other desks, managing editor Dean Baquet insisted that the outlet remained as committed as ever to covering the environment. Obviously, that was an outright lie.

The Green blog was a crucial platform for stories that didn’t fit into the print edition’s already shrunken news hole—which is a lot on the energy and environment beat—and it was a place where reporters could add valuable to context and information to pieces that did make the paper….

In an act of total cowardice, the Times clearly timed its announcement to avoid (for the weekend, at least) having to deal with what is sure to be widespread criticism. When I called the paper shortly after 5pm on Friday, I was informed that executive editor Jill Abramson, managing editor Dean Baquet, and corporate spokeswoman Eileen Murphy were all out of the office for the day….

Those masthead editors should be ashamed of themselves. They’ve made a horrible decision that ensures the deterioration of the Times’s environmental coverage at a time when debates about climate change, energy, natural resources, and sustainability have never been more important to public welfare, and they’ve done so while keeping their staff in the dark. Readers deserve an explanation, but I can’t think of a single one that would justify this folly.

Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the NYT called “an expert on environmental communications,” emailed me:

The NY Times coverage of the environment has continued its journey from bad to worse. It continues to abrogate its responsibility to inform the public about critical issues.

Slate has terrific piece, “The Times Kills Its Environmental Blog To Focus on Horse Racing and Awards Shows,” which lists some of the “the 65-odd other Times blogs” (!) saved from the axe while the green blog was beheaded:

  • Five blogs on business and finance, including “Bucks: A guide to consumer tactics that helps readers sort out their financial lives,” and “You’re the Boss: Where small-business owners get news, ask questions, and learn from one another’s mistakes.”
  • Four technology blogs, including “Gadgetwise: Helping consumers get the most out of their personal tech,” and “Open: A blog about code and development written by New York Times developers.”
  • Five blogs on culture and media, including “The Carbetbagger,” about awards shows; “After Deadline: Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style;” and “Media Decoder,” a media-industry blog that so far has not seen fit to cover the Times’ own elimination of its “Green” blog.
  • Six blogs on styles, travel, and leisure, including two on fashion, two on travel, and one “all about the Times’ crossword puzzle, constructors and clues.”
  • Nine sports blogs, including “On Par,” a golf blog, “Straight Sets,” a tennis blog, and “The Rail,” on horse racing.
  • Six blogs on health, family, and education, including “The Choice: Help for students, parents and counselors on applying to, and paying for, college.”

So you can see the Times has its priorities straight.

This lame and ultimately self-defeating move proves one thing above all — that John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer, was accurate when he reported three years ago:

Two sources at the Science Times section of the New York Times have told me that a majority of the section’s editorial staff doubts that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity.

Which is another way of saying that the Science Times is run by people who simply don’t know climate science — see, for instance:

Ah, if only the editors at the NY Times were as up on the science as school children.

Of if they only read their own newspaper, then they’d know that their top international columnist, Tom Friedman, has repeatedly explained to NYT readers, The Hidden Ways Climate Change Contributes To Global Insecurity.

As for the Washington Post, they have long had a dismal editorial understanding of climate change, see, for instance:

That is precisely why Juliet Eilperin, their top climate reporter for nearly a decade, was so important to the paper. I didn’t agree with all of her coverage, but she had a strong command of the subject. Heck, back in 2009, she was one of the reporters who took the unprecedented step of contradicting columnist George Will in a news article.

In short, Eilperin was a key counterweight to the Post’s myriad failings on climate. That’s why this announcement from deputy national editor Cameron Barr and political editor Steven Ginsberg was so unfortunate:

We’re very excited to announce the latest evolution of our political team — an online strike force that will help lead our journalism during the day. To augment our already top-notch online presence, we’re putting point people on each of our main coverage areas and shifting some roles among our bloggers to make us even faster and smarter. The team will write news and analysis, much of which will go into PostPolitics and The Fix. These reporters will also continue to coordinate closely with colleagues in their coverage areas….Without further ado, the group:

Juliet Eilperin will return to the world of politics to cover the White House. Juliet has had a terrific run on the environment beat, becoming one of the country’s leading reporters on climate change. She will continue to cover White House policy on climate from her new perch. Her high metabolism is legendary within The Post and her deep sourcing in the political world will be key to her new role.

Yes, no point in keeping one of the country’s leading reporters on climate change on the story of the century. She had a good run, but that climate story is so five minutes ago. Lord knows we don’t have enough coverage of the White House!

As an aside, “high metabolism” is a journalistic euphemism for a reporter we can work to death without actually killing her.

It would seem the Post is going to treat climate like another political horse race story — rather than what it truly is, a scientific, technological, and political race to avoid the self-destruction of modern civilization, a race that deserves the very best full-time beat reporters.

I’m still in Johns Hopkins recovering (so far, quite well) from (what appears to be successful) major pancreatic surgery, so I’ll reserve more comments on the underlying reasons for this collapse in climate coverage for a later date.

I’ll simply end by quoting a Daily Climate from early January:

“I ask myself, ‘In 20 years, what will we be proudest that we addressed, and where will we scratch our head and say why didn’t we focus more on that?’ ” said Glenn Kramon, assistant managing editor of the New York Times….

Climate change is one of the few subjects so important that we need to be oblivious to cycles and just cover it as hard as we can all the time,” Kramon said….


40 Responses to In Epic Blunder, NY Times And Washington Post All But Abandon Specialized Climate Science Coverage

  1. D Williamson says:

    Get well quick Joe, the planet needs you.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    I see this less as a blunder from NYT and Post executives than sobering examples of how we no longer have a free press. The fossil fuel advertisers have so much money that they can dictate content. Media companies are running scared, and click their heels.

    Setting up competitors takes a lot of capital, and won’t happen soon, but is inevitable. Too many people want a replacement for the New York Times, which has been the paper of record for 150 years. The times no longer deserves that title, and won’t regain their reputation.

  3. Ben Lieberman says:

    This decision will only further increase the impact of prominent columnists and opinion writers at the Times who either dismiss the seriousness of the climate crisis (a certain blogger), cheer lead for dirty energy (Joe Nocera), or act as if there is nothing to talk about (David Brooks).

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    If I might inverts Stalin’s apothegm, this is worse than a mistake, this is a crime. No ‘blunder’ here – just a cold, hard, calculus.

  5. Lore says:

    They can run, but they can’t hide! It won’t be long before events overtake complacency. Although, headlines dedicated to panic and despair make for sensational news, it’ll end up being a poor legacy for those who could have done so much more to prevent it.

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    This is simply the latest and most egregious examples of media myopia. They have found it’s easier and cheaper and more profitable to sell not News Coverage, in the traditional sense, but a subset, perhaps call it News Lite, that’s restricted to those topics and views people want to hear. No sense getting people all riled up with something that has barely begun to happen (in comparison to the hell and high water that’s coming) — better to fill your product with ephemera until the Really Bad Stuff starts to happen, and then treat each incident as an independent “natural disaster”.

    I would offer an opinion here of what I think of people who do these things to papers like the Times and the Post and all of us, in effect, but neither Joe nor his readers would appreciate the graphic and crude language I’d use, so I’ll refrain.

    Be well and be strong, Joe. We love and need you more than ever.

  7. Joe,

    We need you, so get better. But more important, we need and want you to be healthy and happy, so take your time and make sure you’re 110% before returning to the fray.

    Meanwhile, we’ll keep it going: Here’s my comment on the Dot Earth post on the demise of the Green Blog:

    ONE WONDERS whether an ostrich, having stuck its head into the sand when frightened, struggles to push further downward if it continues to hear disconcerting ambient sounds.

    Part of the fallout of Friday’s Congressional non-vote on the sequester is that we will now get less climate data from satellites and less timely and accurate weather reporting. Just at the time we need more information about climate developments and, due to a sharp increase in extreme weather events, a better early warning system, we will be deprived of such information — much to the delight, one can assume, of climate-change deniers.

    Will “the market” pick up the slack? Let’s check in with our midwestern farmers in a couple of years and see how they are faring without foreknowledge of certain weather developments.

    Concurrently, the managers of the LA Times, Washington Post, myriad smaller papers and now the NY Times has decided that the public has little interest in environmental issues — it would rather read about the the Kardashian sisters. Perhaps they’re right. Who wants to hear about depressing environmental developments when he can fantasize about being like or being among the rich and famous?

    That environmental reporting could be critical to the future welfare of the nation’s children need not be considered — just as their welfare is abjured by the Congress.

    But please remember: What goes around comes around.

  8. Sasparilla says:

    I think you’ve called it perfectly here. I can’t say the number of times I see Exxon advertisements in the NYTimes and I’m sure those aren’t without some suggestions for “updates” to the Times coverage.

    I’m sure ol’ Rex down at Exxon is very happy with the Environment blog being dropped – the political system is a slave to corporatists and its time to finish the conversion for the propaganda, er, um I mean news outlets.

  9. Sasparilla says:

    Well, Lou…I’d appreciate the language. ;-)

    Spoken so well, as usual, even without the crude language. As far as I know not a single national newspaper (other than the Huntington, but its not one of the traditional big ones) was suggesting a cancelation of the XL on climate change grounds – shows how far out they are from reality (or us, but I think we’re right as we watch the arctic melt out before our eyes).

  10. Sasparilla says:

    Climate news is mostly delivered (as it pretty much was already) via the Web (and the Guardian/UK and Hunnington Post). This just makes it more official – although not less sad at the absolute decline of Print Journalism in the U.S..

    Other than disjointed coverage of the actual catastrophe’s and misery thereafter the newspaper’s and their advertisers would rather not have this inconvenient stuff covered.

    Anyone know if the LA Times still covers the environment specifically? (wondering if there was still one big one left)

  11. Mossy says:

    Not surprising news, but nonetheless another thorn in the mission to spread the message of climate reality. Heal well and fast, Joe; we need you!

  12. Bill says:

    Weapons of mass destruction, swiftboating, Wall Street advising Obama, “all of the above”, etc….the New York Times of Pentagon Papers died a long time ago. At 397 ppm, 4 C is already in the cards, pull up a seat and watch the show until our last breaths. Paraphrasing the second in command of the Russian boat in the Hunt for Red October, “you idiots now you’ve killed us all!”

  13. The Times and the Post are compromising their values just the way Obama has, and for the same reason: they can’t play at the national level without money. I’m sure their rationale is that they’d rather perform a reduced journalistic role than oppose the monied forces, lose that revenue stream altogether, cease to exist, and play no role at all.

    Although I can see the realpolitik, and can be pulled in be the logic, it saddens me.

  14. BBHY says:

    In other news, I have all but abandoned the Washington Post and New York Times, along with thousands of others.

  15. Camburn says:

    This is probably good news. The scientific quality of most of the articles coming from the Times was not laudable.

    The Times has to sell papers, and it hyped events that are weather and started calling them climate with no justification.

    An example would be hurricane Sandy. The power of Sandy did not match the power of the Long Island Express, thankfully. Yet, from reports one would think that Sandy was something extremely rare.

    Or the drought of 2012 in the Midwest. This is a very normal occurrence and this drought is not even a severe drought as far as droughts go.

    Most folks do not study climate, but are very aware of weather. To equate weather as climate did a disservice to Science and has clouded folks thinking.

    Let’s stick to the literature itself, rather than the dramatization of weather.

  16. Spike says:

    Probably better not covered rather than lied about, covered misleadingly or with false concern troll type approaches.

    I do wonder if we as a species are TSTS – too stupid to survive. The nature of the blogs alluded to above seem to indicate that, or we have entered into the terminal decadence that precedes the fall of many empires (except this time its all of us and for ever).

  17. Mayson Lancaster says:

    Note that Glenn Kramon is no longer assistant managing editor: he was sent to San Francisco to cover Technology for Business Day in January.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Denialist trolls are so predictable. In fact any half-witted programmer could concoct a computer program that would churn out this dross, or a room full of (intellectually challenged) monkeys with type-writers.

  19. Superman1 says:

    No blunder here, but we diverge on rationale. I don’t believe the readership is interested in climate change, and that’s why they dropped it. These polls are meaningless. There’s a small cadre that cares about the issue, and a much smaller cadre willing to do what it takes to avoid catastrophe. Look at the MSN page on your browser; complete trivia, never a mention of climate. That’s what people want and that’s what they get.

  20. fj says:

    I remember years ago discussion about how the New York Times did not cover the holocaust even though they most likely or most assuredly knew it was happening.

    It was a soul searching discussion . . . with big important questions.

    And I am not sure there is a connection and do not know what it all means.

    Though we prevailed, the horrors of World War II remain true to this day as do those looming before us of climate change . . .

    We must daily live with our horrors as it must inform who we are and what we must do and how we must get the most out of life and we must have a functional reality because we must carry on and things are not exactly what they seem.

    And, as Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book “Thinking Fast And Slow,” it is a true blessing being an optimist.

  21. Jay Alt says:

    There are two ways people ought to respond. With red-hot letters to the editor from subscribers. And from everyone – support for alternative reporting through crowd-sourcing or some other system. I know there are a few writers out there doing that and I’d like to know more about them, in a survey article of sorts.

  22. Jay Alt says:

    Scientific literature always lags current events. Your predictions of relevance will be shown false by a flurry of scientific articles within 18 months. The basis of many of them has already be discussed here.

  23. Thomas says:

    I don’t think it makes a damn difference if they drop their environment converage. Those outlets like WaPo and NYT are not equipped to speak about climate change with any credibility. I basically come here for the coverage, Climate Central or Jeff Masters blog for weather related events. I think as more people discover these sites, the less chance that WaPo and NYT have to confuse the readers.

  24. Ben Lieberman says:

    At least Joe Niocera can pick up the slack.

  25. jk says:

    Nocera’s op-ed column today is a disgrace.
    But it has drawn over 200 astute responses from readers.

  26. red-diaper baby 1942 says:

    Like many posters here I’m both saddened and outraged by this. But I’m not sure how much loss Andrew Revkin’s NYT blog will be; it’s often been hard to figure out what — if anything — he’s actually saying about AGW and climate change.
    It’s this blog on TP that I find most useful among the mainstream media. But while I myself am neither a climate scientist nor a biologist, I’ve been following the scientific literature from quite a close perspective; as an American academic living in Finland, I do a lot of work as copy-editor for Finnish biological (ecological) scientists, and that’s where the unvarnished, unpoliticized truth about AGW can be seen.

  27. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “These epic blunders in editorial judgment …”

    It is a blunder to imagine that these decisions are “blunders”.

    It’s a deliberate coverup.

    That’s the corporate media’s response to the escalating public concern about the impact of warming-driven “weather of mass destruction”: stop reporting on the problem.

  28. Jay Dee Are says:

    The Times’s closing down the Green Blog is a classic Friday afternoon massacre: presumably the people adversely affected will have the weekend to get over it. They don’t. It’s just an act of cowardice.

    The Post, while transferring Juliet Eilperin, continues to give George Will a platform to misinform (if he’s just ignorant) or disinform (if he’s dishonest) readers about climate and has yet to give equal space to science-based rebuttals to Will’s columns.

    The climate-change denial at Science Times hints at the possibility of the staff’s being populated with scientists who don’t understand climatology, but seem to think they do. I have seen some pretty strange letters in Physics Today and The Bent of Tau Beta Pi about climate. Intelligent people subscribe and write to these magazines. Presumably, if they did their homework, they could see that the climatologists’ concerns are justified. It’s only intellectual laziness that keeps them from doing so.

  29. M Tucker says:

    I’m not a big NYT reader but I am curious, is Brulle right that the coverage was tracking from “bad to worse” or is Brainard correct that the blog was a place for “valuable context and information?”

    Is it possible for both to be right?

    I have also come to accept that many main stream science writers “doubt that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity.” That is why I have always counseled that anyone interested in getting decent science reporting should go to science publications, science based sites or read Joe’s posts.

    Get well soon Joe. I hope you are not in too much pain. I hope they are feeding you well. My prayers are with you.

    As for John Horgan, he can still be found at Sci Am online. SA has a rather large blog network and Horgan’s blog is called Cross-Check.

  30. Chris Winter says:

    Slate observes that the NYT retains “Four technology blogs, including “Gadgetwise: Helping consumers get the most out of their personal tech,” and “Open: A blog about code and development written by New York Times developers.”

    The NYT has software developers? How come then that their blogging software is so hard to use?

  31. Joan Savage says:

    Crisis is opportunity!

    The younger generations are more likely to get news from internet sources, amplified – or prompted by – their social networks. Major events like Hurricane Sandy had video on youtube and facebook as fast as or faster than conventional journalism.

    If the WaPo or the NYT don’t have the staff with the intellect to pull together big stories on climate change, closing down conventional news feeds isn’t as big a loss as one might think.

    What was already in short supply was investigative journalism that integrates multiple sources into a greater insight.

    (No wonder I’m such a regular at Climate Progress.)

  32. Chris Winter says:

    “As an aside, “high metabolism” is a journalistic euphemism for a reporter we can work to death without actually killing her.”

    Or to put it another way, she’s dedicated — as opposed to the “nine-to-fivers”: those who don’t care too much about digging deep into a story.

    For some strange reason I am reminded of Jane Fonda’s character in The China Syndrome and what type of reporter her bosses wanted her to be.

  33. Aldous says:

    My momma always said, “No news is good news.”

  34. Joe Romm says:

    Revkin’s blog is untouched!

  35. Russ says:

    The Keystone does present all sorts of complicated problems, but our penchant for game theory eventually has to take a backseat to our climate. Every circumstance in which we compete for resources will offer excuse not to change the tide, but if cooking the Earth isn’t a deterrent, what is?

  36. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    See no climate change, hear no climate change, speak no climate change.

    Wow, such a truely effective mitigation/adaption strategy.

  37. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    The richest man in the world is carlos slim, worth about 75 billion dollars. Carlos slim owns 8% of the new york times, and he helped bail the paper out of financial difficulty in 2009, for an obvious price. I would bet that if it were researched, it would be found that the time’s shift in coverage of global warming happened shortly after billionaire slim bailed out the times. Carlos slim did not become the richest man in the world by being honest, decent, or caring for people, Carlos became rich by exploiting a decaying society, which is classic capitalism.

  38. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The dog that didn’t bark keeps his bone.

  39. Lollipop says:

    Well, something happened in that time period. I checked and from January 01 2006 to December 31 2008 the NYTimes had 895 articles that mentioned “climate change” or “global warming” in the abstract. But from January 01 2010 to December 31 2012 there were only 357. That seemed pretty sad, so to double check I re-ran the searches as as full-text and got 2078 hits for the 2010-2012 and 3408. So, yeah something happened that led to the editorial decision to seriously reduce climate change coverage.

  40. Lollipop says:

    Oh, after 3408 it should say from 2006-2008. I also ran a subject search for the subject headings (“global warming” OR “climate change”)for both time periods and I got 753 hits for the 2006-2008 period and only 436 for the 2010-2012 time period. Since we know the news and need for commentary didn’t slow down during that period, I have to think that an editorial decision was made somewhere to tone it down a couple of notches.