Newsweek v. Newsweek

Samuelson rebuts Begley’s cover story

I love to see columnists and reporters arguing in the pages of the same magazine, especially about climate change. This week, Newsweek has a good in-house squabble for readers.

Columnist Robert J. Samuelson takes issue with last week’s cover story by science writer Sharon Begley about the climate “denial machine.” In that article, Begley makes the case that a “well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry” continues to undermine the scientific consensus that man-made global warming is a problem. Begley chronicles the last twenty years of this campaign, coming to the conclusion that it is still inhibiting meaningful political action.

According to Samuelson, however, this is all much ado about trifles. “The story was a wonderful read,” he writes in the current issue, “marred only by its being fundamentally misleading.” There are much bigger issues at stake, he says: “The global-warming debate’s great unmentionable is this: we lack the technology to get from here to there.”

Samuelson is very pessimistic. In light of the immense (and possibly insurmountable) difficulty of mitigating global warming, he argues, Begley’s article is “peripheral and highly contrived.” As we struggle to find climate change solutions, such as curbing greenhouse gas emissions, “journalists should resist the temptation to portray global warming as a morality tale.” He accuses Begley of oversimplifying a “messy story” by succumbing to “good guys vs. bad guys” approach.

But let’s consider who is really oversimplifying things here.

Good-guys-vs.-bad-guys reporting is, in fact, a problem in science journalism, especially when it come to climate change. Reporters who do not understand a piece of controversial research will often frame it with he-said, she-said quotes to meet a deadline and satisfy those cautious editors. But that is not the case with Begley’s cover story. She does not pit talking heads against one another, but rather chooses to chronicle the history of one side in detail. It is no simple morality tale, and the clever manipulations of that side are certainly not trifling, if Samuelson is indeed concerned about solutions.

Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, gave a pithy enough response to Samuelson’s column in the front of the book: “The point of the cover story stands, for the question of what to do about global warming is made more difficult when influential voices from talk radio to Capitol Hill speak as though global warming is, in Rush Limbaugh’s term, a ‘hoax.’”

Samuelson is not a global warming skeptic. He thinks it has “clearly occurred; the hard question is what to do about it.” But Meacham correctly points out that Samuelson is, to some degree, making a disjointed comparison between his point that climate solutions will be difficult to elusive, and Begley’s point that there is a long-running effort to discredit the majority opinion that we actually need solutions, no matter how difficult. Those two angles are both perfectly legitimate, equally important, and they need not be mutually exclusive. Samuelson insinuates that Begley is suppressing minority opinion and fostering a situation in which “anyone who questions [global warming’s] gravity or proposed solutions may be ridiculed as a fool, a crank or an industry stooge.”

Again, this is simply not the case. If one wanted to attack the balance of Begley’s article, one could point out that there is perhaps a better-coordinated, better-funded campaign to support mainstream climate science than there is to refute it. And like it’s skeptical counterpart, this campaign has also used deceptive tactics (think ubiquitous pictures of “starving” polar bears) to advance its opinions and agendas. But Begley’s article was not about that side - it was about the skeptics (she calls them “deniers”); the tone of her writing does not ridicule anybody, and she does not use the words crank and stooge. Samuelson argues for hearing different solutions, but the organizations and individuals that Begley wrote about-and that he defends-are antisolution. Most of them support a do-nothing approach to climate change.

It is worth listening to Samuelson’s opinions about climate policy, however. In the current issue he calls for more energy research and development and raising the gasoline tax, and he has argued against “symbolic gestures [that] masquerade as policy” since the 1980s. He is correct that the world needs solutions-oriented journalism. An article in last Sunday’s New York Times Money section echoed Samuelson’s concerns about the slow progress of warming-mitigation technologies. But the frustration Samuelson directs at Begley seems misplaced and, to use his own word, oversimplified.

This is not to say that I think Samuelson did a bad thing. Like I said, I love to see columnists and reporters wrangling in the pages of their own publication. This spring, The Nation ran opposing climate articles by writer Alexander Cockburn and scientist James Hansen - I did not find either piece particularly compelling, but the tension between them was refreshing. And they were not even attempting to rebut each other specifically.

So I wrote to Meacham asking if Samuelson’s column had caused any strain in Newsweek’s newsroom, but he was headed out of town and referred me back to his editor’s note with the additional line: “Vigorous disagreement is a sign of a healthy and challenging journalistic culture that is ultimately good for our readers.”

He has a point. I disagree with Samuelson’s rebuttal of Begley’s piece, but such in-house debate is likely to make readers think harder about information they receive via the media.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.