A few hours after Michels’ blog post appeared online, the NewsHour aired a roughly ten minute segment that focused on UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller’s self-styled “conversion” from climate skeptic to adherent of the longstanding scientific consensus on the matter. As I wrote in August, Muller’s turnaround basically amounts to a publicity stunt that persuaded the press to give him an undue amount of coverage, but that wasn’t the main problem Michels’ stale report. The problem was the inclusion of Watts, and the fact that Michels repeatedly referred to those who accept climate science as “believers,” implying that their acceptance is based on faith rather than fact.
Following an uproar from disappointed viewers, both Michels and Hari Sreenivasan, who oversees the NewsHour’s climate coverage, posted blog items offering weak excuses, which mentioned “different perspectives” and “context,” for why they chose to include Watts. Thankfully, following a petition from Forecast the Facts, a group that advocates for action to address climate change, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler looked into the story as well. While he, too, defended elements of the report and didn’t come down as hard on the NewsHour as he should have, he at least conceded that:
The missteps created by the program and committed on the air and online dominate the reasons why this segment is being most widely viewed as falling short of NewsHour standards. I feel that way as well.
Viewers deserve better than this tepid condemnation, however. For instance, Ward, at the Yale Forum, was right to ask why PBS “did not use veteran science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who NewsHour brought in to cover complex science issues .” According to Ward:
There’s an answer to that question, actually. O’Brien said in a phone interview that he is a freelancer with a contract to do 15 science stories a year for NewsHour specifically excluding climate science. “I’m not in the loop on climate stories,” O’Brien said, characterizing the recent NewsHour broadcast as “a horrible, horrible thing” that he fears reflects badly both on the program and, indirectly, on himself.
That’s a shame.