George Will wrote a column suggesting that there was a broad scientific consensus in the 1970s regarding the threat of global cooling. This is simply not true. Moreover, this untruth is readily verifiable. And George Will attempted to sow doubts about global warming by citing a bogus analysis of research findings, from an organization that has publicly said that the analysis was bogus and that their research in fact says just the opposite of what George Will argued. And then of course there is the fact that there is a broad scientific consensus regarding the threat of global warming, supported by overwhelming evidence.
The Post continues to not even address the majority of these concerns. Instead, in the eyes of the Post the only issue here is that there’s a disagreement between Will and some other people about how to characterize research findings from the Arctic Climate Research Center. The Post thinks that the opportunity should have been taken to foster more constructive debate about this. But why would there be a “debate” about how to interpret scientific findings undertaken between, on the one hand, the scientists who did the research and on the other hand a political pundit who’s misrepresenting it? Then the Post simply has nothing to say about the fact that Will’s column falsely claimed—and not for the first time!—that there was a scientific consensus in the 1970s about a global cooling phenomenon. This myth, though widespread, is false. And though false, it’s widespread, because prominent media organizations like The Washington Post see misleading people about climate change as a valuable service that they’ll pay people money to do.
When the press does its job well, it deserves defenders, and when it does a lousy job, it deserves being taken to task. The complaint seems to be that the criticism is without foundation, and there’s some of that, but the fundamental problem is not, in my view, the people doing the criticizing, it’s the media companies themselves. The argument also seems to treat “media” as something other than Fox News. I agree that the term journalism conjures up another image, as it should, but presently Fox News isn’t clearly separate from other media outlets, far from it, and the commingling of all of these sources of information in the minds of the public is part of the problem. If journalists in the mainstream media want respect, they need to differentiate themselves from the “partisan outlets,” including calling foul loudly and in no uncertain terms when Fox or whomever crosses the line, and they also need to do a better job themselves of establishing and maintaining their credibility through solid reporting.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently of the narrow question of the declining economic feasibility of the newspaper business model. But there’s a broader crisis of legitimacy in the broader news media. And I think The New Republic is looking at this in precisely the wrong way. Decades ago, the press began to come under systematic attack from a conservative movement that wanted to transform it from something that’s primarily a vehicle for truth-telling into something that’s primarily a vehicle for transmitting right-wing propaganda. Media organizations could have chosen to stand firm against that. And those institutions and—more common—individual journalists who’ve done that of course deserve support. But most organizations chose to respond to the attacks by bending to the will of the right.
So George Will will lie to you about climate change, and when this is pointed out The Washington Post will throw its institutional weight behind a defense of lying and an attack on people being rude to Will. This kind of behavior doesn’t earn you a respite from the right’s attacks, but it does make it impossible for a progressive to, in good conscience, defend your organization.