The NY Times made a mistake in its big climate story, then things got really vicious

Climate deniers pounce on mistake in NY Times story to spread misinformation.

CREDIT: AP/Richard Drew
CREDIT: AP/Richard Drew

On Monday night, the New York Times dropped a bombshell story online about a leaked draft of a major government climate report and the scientists who were worried that the Trump administration would censor the findings or water it down in some way. The piece quickly garnered significant attention.

But there was one problem: the story had a mistake. The Times claimed that the leaked draft was new and not public, but that wasn’t precisely true, as numerous people pointed out to them almost immediately. So the paper issued this correction Wednesday:

Correction: August 9, 2017 

An article on Tuesday about a sweeping federal climate change report referred incorrectly to the availability of the report. While it was not widely publicized, the report was uploaded by the nonprofit Internet Archive in January; it was not first made public by The New York Times.

Now here’s where things get both tedious and weird.

The weird part is that the Times had already fixed the key mistake it made before it published the correction. The paper had obtained the “final draft” of the report (the fifth draft), which is dated June 28, and posted it online. This was the draft being handed off to Trump’s political appointees, the draft team Trump could censor or water down, the way they already have so many other climate studies and federal websites. But the Times decided not to explain that in the correction.

The tedious part is that the error was then construed as a reason to dismiss the Times piece entirely. Even more predictably, climate science deniers like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science Committee, used the Times’ minor mistake as an opportunity to discount the report’s findings and spread his disinformation, making “some confusing/wrong claims about the report’s science in a statement,” as Buzzfeed’s Zahra Hirji put it.


The error also seemed to present an opportunity for the EPA — the agency now led by climate science denier Scott Pruitt, which has been deleting climate science on its website and aggressively working to roll back climate regulations — to pounce. In an interview with a Texas radio show on Thursday morning, Pruitt said “science should not be politicized,” and that the draft report should be subject to peer-review. Of course, it already has been peer-reviewed multiple times.

And then in what may be a first, the agency emailed out a news release Thursday afternoon that had nothing to do with the EPA or environmental protection, but merely was gloating about the Times’ correction. The Hill’s Timothy Cama tweeted it out:

The full email release consists of nothing but a reprint of a Washington Post opinion piece from Thursday, “New York Times guilty of large screw-up on climate-change story.”


But really, the Times’ error was not a “large screw-up,” and the Post piece is wildly overblown. Readers know I am quite willing to criticize the Times when I think their coverage is flawed. This particular mistake was a journalistic error to be sure — but contrary to what the Post and the climate science deniers have written or said about it, it was not a particularly substantive one.

For instance, the Post story, after listing the correction, writes (emphasis in original):

Yet given the magnitude of the screw-up, it should sit atop the story, surrounded by red flashing lights and perhaps an audio track to instruct readers: Warning: This story once peddled a faulty and damaging premise.

That premise suggests that the Trump administration is stifling a damaging draft report — part of the congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment — with dire warnings about climate change.

Except that was not the premise of the story. The premise of the story– and this is the fundamental distinction the critics get wrong — is that scientists were worried the Trump administration might censor or water down the report once Trump’s political appointees were given the final draft to edit.

Scientists had every reason to think that might happen with this National Climate Assessment (NCA) report from 13 federal agencies because that’s exactly what the George W. Bush Administration did when they were given the final draft of the NCA, as climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe explained to ThinkProgress in an email:

“This is the precise point in the lengthy review process where — back in November 2008 — the final draft of NCA2, the report known as “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,” was returned to the author team with Bush-era political edits.

To be clear, Hayhoe is referring to the fifth and final draft of the new report, the one that the Times posted on Wednesday. The draft the Times originally posted was the third draft, from earlier in 2017. Hayhoe explained that “the primary differences between the third and fifth order draft are the authors’ response to the extremely extensive national academy review.”


So, yes, the Times made a journalistic mistake, and a couple of sentences in their original story had to be fixed, but the main thrust of the story was accurate and very important. The Post quotes NY Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller explaining what happened: “We were just not aware that somebody involved in the report had put a draft on this nonprofit Internet site. It was not a well-known site to us and the point is that the people who shared the draft with us were not aware of it either. That doesn’t change the larger point that scientists were worried that the government wouldn’t approve the report or release it through normal channels.”

No it doesn’t change the larger point that scientists were worried, and remain worried, that the report will be censored or watered down. Again, it has happened to them before, and the Trump administration is already establishing a record of censorship that is worse than that of the Bush administration.

The NY Times did the public a service by getting this story out there, and by ultimately getting the final draft of the report online. Now we will be able to see exactly what, if any, changes are made by team Trump.