Evaluating Inhofe’s speech, Easterbrook said, “For Inhofe, this is a triumph of thoughtfulness.” He added, however, that the senator’s speech fell short of a clear distinction between bad reporting and bad science. Inhofe criticized recent reports by Time, CBS’s 60 Minutes, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, and other “eco-doomsayers.” But if he had any valid points to make, they were lost in a maelstrom of mixed arguments. Most of his tirade was based on the MSM’s coverage of alternating scientific predictions of global warming and cooling over the last 100 years. This, he said, indicates a penchant for the “sensational” promotion of extreme climate scenarios, though he totally ignores the fact that even ten years ago, technology was extremely limited by today’s standards. The problem, Revkin suggested, is that the senator’s speech was “more about politics, but artfully designed to look like a argument about science.”


Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor of journalism at American University, attempted to deconstruct Inhofe’s behavior on his blog, Framing Science: “When news reports don’t favor preferred policy positions, whether it is election politics or scientific topics like global warming, conservatives attack the messenger.”


Indeed, some would argue that Inhofe’s speech was just the most recent manifestation of a larger, more calculated plan to slam the media in public. In July, Greenwire published the story of two other attacks. The senator denounced a lack of balance in an article by Seth Borenstein at the Associated Press about scientific reaction to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s much-hyped movie on environmental degradation, and in a documentary by Tom Brokaw on the Discovery Channel about climate change. The Greenwire article suggested that, “in setting his sights on the press, Inhofe appears to be incorporating a strategy hatched by the [Committee on Environment and Public Works’] new communications director, Marc Morano.”


Morano’s dealings with the media are certainly suspect. He was the lead source on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign against John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. But Greenwire also rushed to conclusions when it raised the specter of outright press intimidation. Inhofe’s critique of the media and science, however muddled, is nothing new. “He’s a politician not a scientist, and he has a very entrenched position on climate, and he is selecting facts to build a highly polemical speech around that,” Revkin said. “And that’s his right as an elected official. They do that all the time; it’s the way it works.”


That leaves the most important question hanging in the balance: to what degree is the American public capable of discerning bad reporting from bad science? That ability might improve if the media were more insistent on finding new ways to front their stories without resorting to overblown predictions of doom. Greater attention must be focused on the appropriate level of “balance” in each article, and on the arguments of men like James Inhofe. According to the senator, “The American people know when their intelligence is being insulted. They know when they are being used and when they are being duped by the hysterical left.”


Let us hope that is true, and that Americans are equally wary of the hysterical right.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.