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:

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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.”