Comments of the Week

February 8-12, 2010

Every Friday, we excerpt some of the most insightful, articulate, interesting, and entertaining comments we’ve received that week. Think we’ve missed something? Well… comment!

The Press and Climate Skeptics

Last week, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center hosted “”The Public Divide over Climate Change: Scientists, Skeptics, & the Media,” a conference that explored the decline in public belief that global warming matters, and what that trend means for reporters. Science journalist Phillip J. Hilts wrote an account of the event for “The Observatory,” and the comments started coming in.

The New York Times, including Andy and Dot Earth, are among the reasons that the communication of the problem (of global warming) is NOT working and that the media are losing credibility.

Do you — The Observatory — mean to say that you don’t get that, yet?

Did you read the recent Times story, on the front page, today, and have you read Andy’s most recent piece about a comment on an IPCC draft made long ago? If you read those two pieces, and then reflect on all the matters that The Times hasn’t covered (e.g., they never covered the letter from seventeen leading scientific organizations to the U.S. Senate late last year), and then ask yourself why the public is confused and the media are losing credibility…. well anyhow, that’s what I’d suggest.

Did the panel really sit around and have to wonder why the public are confused and why credibility (of science, of the media, or etc.) is going down the tubes? If so, I think that is yet another problem, and the credibility-losing enterprise is forming an ever wider self-inflicted circle.

I’m being harsh, here, for a reason: CJR and The Observatory are supposed to be helping to correct and improve the media, and it doesn’t seem to be happening, at least not to the degree that is Necessary (with a big N) today.

I started participating on Dot Earth within a couple weeks after it started, and I’ve followed the Times’s coverage closely. There should be no secret or mystery: The Times’s coverage is part of the problem. They might be better than many others in the media, but that’s like saying that a student who is getting a D- (when it comes to the real task at hand) is better than the other students, who are getting Fs. The aim isn’t merely to be “better than” the next guy or gal. Instead, it is to convey genuine information, in keeping with the vital importance of an issue, clearly and responsibly, in a way that is UNDERSTOOD by readers, and in a way that genuinely serves the public good.

— Jeff Huggins

I feel that the scientific information IPCC compiled to prove global warming is strong and defensible. What I don’t understand is the point of using the grey literature to push the conclusions further. As a researcher I believe that if the IPCC authors had been more forthright about declaring what they don’t know, it would have given more credibility to what they know. There is no smoking gun evidence of climate change and there won’t be one for a while, and the media has to learn to write sensible stories with imperfect information and analysis.

Regarding Nisbet’s comment about linking climate impacts to health issue to bolster public interest, that’s not necessarily true. It is well known that the lack of clean drinking water is really bad for health, but it has still failed to motivate governments in many developing countries to fix the problem. For years the World Bank tried to convince governments to adopt stricter air emissions standards using health impacts analysis but it has barely worked—air pollution remains a huge problem in developing countries. I am sort of influenced by my own experience of implementing environmental policies in many countries —I never found health impacts to be a very convincing argument. So Nisbet’s suggestion remains a testable hypothesis.

Revkin is right about focusing on energy—it won’t be easy but sooner or later there would be some genuine policy interest in restructuring the energy sector. It is worth focusing on energy conservation and clean technologies because these can be communicated as values that could possibly appeal to the general public.


Bronner and Son

This week’s “News Meeting” question asked readers to weigh in on the high-profile dispute at The New York Times, where public editor Clark Hoyt think Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner should be reassigned while his son serves in the Israeli military, and executive editor Bill Keller disagrees. Few commenters took Keller’s side.

Since there is so much acrimony regarding Bronner, why doesn’t the NYT just move him to another post? Then, if the NYT was really an objective paper, assign a Palestinian/American in his place… or an Arab…or a Muslim.

Don’t tell me there aren’t any good Arab/Palestinian reporters. There are dozens from Al Jazeera English, from other Arab stations and from Gaza. To suggest that only a Jew can cover this conflict, is, in itself, a racist idea.

The NYT should take an ethical stand and move Bronner someplace else.


The question of whether this is a conflict of interest is easily resolved by simply asking how the Times would react if the kid had joined the other side. So I’ve rewritten the intro accordingly:

“The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief has a son who has joined the armed wing of Hamas. The Times’s public editor, Clark Hoyt, says this situation has the appearance of a conflict of interest, and the reporter should move to another beat. The paper’s editor, Bill Keller, publicly disagreed, and defended his reporter’s right to stay.”

Can anyone imagine Bill Keller doing this? Of course not. So really, what this story illustrates is not just the reporter’s conflict of interest, but the entire New York Times’ conflict of interest in Middle Eastern reporting, because this is a paper that sees one people as legitimate and the other as criminal.

—Kevin Robb

Bill Keller’s response is correct in principle, as far as it goes, but the real point here is that most of the US mainstream media is laughably biased in favour of Israel. It’s normal - the US has always had an affinity with Israel and post 9/11, all Arabs and Muslims became “the enemy.” The Bronner imbroglio shows that public opinion is now shifting in another direction. It also come at a time when, with the rapid development of the web, the NYT has two audiences, its core newspaper-buying American audience, which traditionally favours Israel, hence the paper’s own slant, and the global, well-educated, smart and English-speaking web audience, much of which is more sympathetic to the Palestinians. In the past it has been easy to dismiss this growing multicultural global intelligentsia; it’s not so easy any more.

Thus, neither Keller nor Hoyt addresses the real question. Hoyt talks about the “appearance of conflict of interest”. But people are only looking for “evidence” of a conflict of interest because they already believe the reporting is biased in the first place, based on its actual content. Keller disagrees because that bias is his newspaper’s default position.

The NYT’s repeated gaffes and mea culpas over the past 10 years reflect the angst with which the previously uber-confident society it comes from is facing both its own hubris and the development of a multi-polar world.

—Tom Spender

True Transparency

On Wednesday, Trudy Lieberman took a look at what a transparent debate on health care reform would have looked like, and what putting the talks on C-SPAN might or might not have accomplished. That prompted this bit of programming advice for the cable channel:

C-Span is most excellent at explaining complex issues or concepts in their in-depth interview formats. (TR Reid is scheduled for a 3-hour in-depth interview in March, which could be helpful in enlightening the public conversation). Good, understandable information also comes out when they broadcast panel discussions/debates as they did recently with this interesting session at UVA (the Q&A at the end was the most interesting, particularly the comments of the German economist about the current situation with Germany’s health system).

Personally, I thought it was really not worth pre-empting Book TV for the Senate vote. It’s important that they document the official proceedings but health reform is too complex to gain useful understanding just by watching Congress-cam. Also by the time they’re voting on such important issues, the public can do nothing about their decisions other than cheer or boo. Also Congress uses those sessions to inflame public opinion by throwing out buzz words or other pieces of shallow commentary which is another form of public-debate pollution (more bad hot air for a topic that needs clear deep breaths).

C-Span’s Writers in America series was a great format that could be adapted for health reform if, instead on focusing on the career of one writer at a time, they focused on the history and practice of healthcare in one universal-coverage country at a time.

I just searched C-Span and found zero results for William Hsiao. I think Brian Lamb should spend some quality time with the Harvard professor who designed Taiwan’s health system that provides affordable, universal coverage for the people of Taiwan.


O’Keefe Again

Finally, Greg Marx returned once more this week to James O’Keefe—and specifically to Max Blumenthal’s critical look at O’Keefe’s racial politics in Salon, which Marx found had gone astray on a key detail.

To Greg Marx: I hope CJR is internalizing the obvious here - that people on the Left are very free and easy with accusations of racism, particularly when their political fortunes are in decline. Since this stuff has a nasty history in recent memory (i.e., the disgusting performance of much of the press, led by the unreliable NY Times, in the fetid Duke/lacrosse scandal), I believe that every reporter’s BS detector should go off when left-wing journalists and activists start playing the race card.

Unjustified accusations of racial motive (usually defined in slippery terms) have as scabrous an effect on civic discourse as does racism itself. (Several MSM stalwarts were also humiliatingly taken in by the Kentucky census worker scam, thanks to the same lazy biases, too.) It is good to see CJR approaching this stuff with skeptical scrutiny.

—Mark Richard

While I appreciate you stating the obvious, Mr. Marx, and it needed to be said, I can’t help but feel you just winked at journalists who ask the public to trust them again, and again, and again, etc. You don’t seem terribly concerned about cookie jar raids.


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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.