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This NY Times climate story captures ‘half of what is imbecilic’ in journalism today

The NY Times’ dangerous embrace of false balance on climate change

Ad from The New York Times’ marketing campaign. Credit: The New York Times via AdAge
Ad from The New York Times’ marketing campaign. Credit: The New York Times via AdAge

After the New York Times stood behind its decision to hire and publish the columns of a proven climate misinformer, a number of climate scientists elected to cancel their subscriptions. It seems they were right.

The paper has lost its way and in many respects is now “part of the problem,” as leading climatologist Michael Mann told ThinkProgress at the time.

A shocking number of recent articles reveal a paper that’s begun to embrace false balance, giving equal time to both climate misinformers and actual climate experts, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus. Yet, the Times had been advertising itself as the antidote to “alternative facts” in the Trump era.

One recent piece of false equivalence inspired Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, to label it “half of what is imbecilic in contemporary political journalism” on Twitter.

In a long piece on the Republican Party’s shift toward near uniform rejection of established climate science, the Times attributes a significant portion of the blame to “Democratic hubris.”

Sadly, that false equivalence was also part of the headline in the print edition.

David Leonhardt, the Times’ own columnist, addresses this false equivalence in his Monday column, explaining that “the basic answer is that the party has become radicalized over the last generation,” and the climate science denial “is of a piece with its shutdown of the government,” its efforts to stop U.S. citizens from voting and, of course, the nomination of Trump.

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“Climate advocates shouldn’t distract themselves by thinking that the Republican position on climate change might be different if only recent history had taken a somewhat different turn,” Leonhardt concludes.

Precisely. “There’s literally no ‘hubris” detailed in article,” tweeted Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert, “but Both Sides Olympics!“

The “both sides do it” approach to modern journalism is both pervasive and dangerous. It’s of a piece with the return of false balance to the Times, starting with their hiring of columnist Bret Stephens — a “climate change bull-shitter,” as Vox described him.

James Bennet, the Times’ editorial page editor, defended the hire with a classic false balance defense. He said it was delusional “to pretend like the views of a thinker like Bret, and the millions of people who agree with him on a range of issues, should simply be ignored, that they’re outside the bounds of reasonable debate.”

But no one ever said climate science denial should be ignored. In fact, rather than giving equal time to denialists, as the Times’ editors are now doing, they should be debunking it, something the science section of the paper routinely does. As Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca put it, the Stephens hire “is meant to signal an openness to opposing ideas. It’s also a rejection of rational thought.”

Does the Times’ now think its job is to search for popular ideas to spread even if they are known to be false “alternative” facts?

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Apparently, so, judging by this column that appeared Thursday, the same day President Donald Trump announced his decision to exit the Paris climate deal: “3 Books That Help Make Sense of the Climate Change Debate.”

What are these three books? The first is Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, written by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. It’s a widely-praised book on the origins of the fossil fuel funded disinformation campaign that has so warped the climate discussion.

The second is An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming by Nigel Lawson. Lawson runs a widely debunked climate misinformation group and has “links to Europe’s colossal coal polluter.” The third book is Flight Behavior, by acclaimed novelist Barbara Kingsolver.

So we have one highly regard work of nonfiction and two works of fiction, only one of which is intentionally so. The Times is severely confused if it thinks a work of climate misinformation could “help make sense of the climate change debate.”

Oreskes summed it up in an email to ThinkProgress: “More false equivalence from the NY Times.”

As if this weren’t enough, the Times’ editors decided to let their other conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, publish his own piece of un-fact-checked nonsense this weekend, “Neither Hot Nor Cold on Climate.”

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Douthat says his views match those of the “lukewarmers” who “look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s official projections and see a strong likelihood that rising temperatures will drag on GDP without leading to catastrophe. They look at the record of climatological predictions and see a pattern in which observed warming hugs the lower, non-disastrous end of the spectrum of projections.”

Douthat’s first link is back to a 2008 article by the climate-science-denying Cato Institute, which in the previous decade had been funded by Exxon Mobil. (Cato asked me to respond to that article at the time, so you can read my debunking of it here.)

Douthat then proceeds to debunk himself by noting that in fact recent warming does not hug the “the lower, non-disastrous end” of projections. And Douthat fails to mention entirely that predictions of Arctic sea ice loss, Greenland ice sheet loss, and Antarctic ice sheet loss all exceed the disastrous end of projections.

And we have yet one more recent example of false balance published by the Times: “Does Donald Trump Still Think Climate Change Is a Hoax? No One Can Say.” The piece apparently takes for granted that readers know climate change is not a hoax — but the article never actually quotes any climate scientists or makes that case at all.

The end result is a series of mostly unchecked lies and falsehoods about climate change from Trump, his EPA chief Scott Pruitt, and even a professional denier. A reader who didn’t know the facts before reading the article would end up even more misinformed.

Ironically, the article quotes Pruitt’s misleading defense of Trump’s decision to exit Paris at length with no rebuttal — and without mentioning that Pruitt had quoted (and misquoted!) Stephens’ error-riddled first column for the Times.

What better example could there be of how far the Times has strayed from its mission of correcting “alternative facts” than to have one of its own pieces become a source for the hard-core climate misinformers?