Environmental Defense, an environmental advocacy organization, provided a 17-page, item-by-item rebuttal to each of Tierney’s claims. The group called the article “anything but a fact-based assessment,” and accused Tierney of “unquestioningly repeat[ing] the claims of a group of think tanks and consultants” with ideological objections to recycling, like the libertarian Cato Institute and Reason Foundation. One of the major opponents of recycling quoted by Tierney headed an environmental consulting business for hire to solid waste companies, giving him a clear financial interest in opposing recycling.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), another environmental advocacy organization, produced an 86-page rebuttal of its own. Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a NRDC scientist, called Tierney’s story “an intellectually dishonest piece of advocacy.”
In September of this year, Tierney wrote another story for the Times magazine, in which he attacked opponents of suburban sprawl, and called for “more tolls, more roads, and yes, more cars.” As a way to reduce driving, Tierney proposed a punitive tax on the cost of gasoline. In return, environmentalists would have to support new toll lanes and road construction.
When environmentalists pointed out that a gas tax would do little to reduce driving as long as people continue to need to travel long distances to get to work, Tierney abruptly changed the terms of the debate, arguing that opposition to driving is mere snobbish elitism. “If people are willing to keep driving,” he wrote, “why are they and their cars any more objectionable than the commoners who offended the Duke of Wellington with their desire to ride the railroad?” Along the way, he ignored entirely the reasons that environmentalists want to reduce driving in the first place: to curb global warming and air pollution. Indeed, in a 5,468-word story extolling the benefits of driving, the phrase “global warming” appears just once, in passing, and “climate change” not at all.
Neha Bhatt of the Sierra Club, who spoke to Tierney at length for the piece — he quoted one sentence — doesn’t believe Tierney approached the issue in good faith. (Full disclosure: I used to work at Sierra Club. Bhatt was a colleague.) “There was no real sincere intent to look at the problems [of sprawl, smart growth, and global warming],” she told CJR Daily. “I think he wrote that article before he even called us.”
Perhaps Tierney’s lack of alarm at the looming threat of global warming isn’t surprising — he’s on record as believing that it could be a good thing. A Tierney column from 2001 touted a study suggesting that expected future rises in mean air temperature were likely to be a boon to the U.S. economy. There’s a far more substantial body of research that shows the opposite, of course — that global warming and its effects will cost the U.S. billions of dollars. That research was ignored.
A 1999 Tierney column used a similar method of selective sourcing, arguing that the worker safety regulations inspired by the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire did little to protect workers, whose lot only improved as a result of free-market competition. In the sweatshops of early twentieth century New York, Tierney saw a “dynamic economy” in which “a worker could walk across the street to a competing company or a whole new industry.” But again, he cherry-picked a single study by a University of Arizona professor who had reached a conclusion he liked, and gave short shrift to the vast body of evidence showing that workers had little job mobility 90 years ago, and that safety improved as a direct result of the labor movement and government legislation.
It’s in the nature of an opinion writer to advance arguments, and sometimes to generate opposition. But a good opinion writer deals with the arguments of those with whom he disagrees fully and fairly, then goes on to explain the merits of his position. Tierney’s record, at least when he addresses major national policy issues — which are what, presumably, he’d be focusing on for the Times op-ed page — suggests a different modus operandi.
The Times famously gives its op-ed columnists a large degree of leeway. That’s why the job requires someone who has demonstrated a willingness to deal genuinely with opponents’ arguments. Tierney is an innovative and an engaging writer, but that sort of honest deliberation doesn’t appear to be his strong suit.