“Whatever one thinks about the report (and some outside scientists disagree with its assessment, as we will report tomorrow), it attempts to quantify the amount of oil that is still there and what state that oil is in. The 26 percent that is still in the water or onshore, the report concludes, is biodegrading rapidly. The scientists who worked on the report say that this means it appears less likely that massive additional oil will come to shore or hang densely in the water column to do further damage. That is the idea that is reflected in the lede. This doesn’t say anything about the damage that the oil has already done or the potential for future damage to the food chain (as Justin Gillis points out in the story). In fact, two weeks ago Justin and Leslie Kaufman wrote an extensive front-page piece describing in great detail the longterm damage that even a small oil spill can do.”

That’s a reasonable reply, and I hope for the best, too, but I still think the Times went a bit too far in reading between the lines. I’m not saying that federal scientists think the lingering oil will wreak havoc, but in every quote I’ve seen from Lubchenco, Allen, and marine scientists, they say that they simply do not know what the risk is. Isn’t it better to just leave it at that unless they say (explicitly) otherwise?]

The Times’s reporting is already fueling widespread misunderstanding. Indeed, CBS News, Bloomberg News, and New York Magazine have all cited Times while naively repeating its unsubstantiated assertion. Across the pond, the Telegraph did it, too, though it didn’t cite the Times directly.

Worse still, this is not the first time that Times has gotten ahead of itself on the front page and ended up making excuses for BP and the government. A mere thirteen days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded—when officials were still offering ludicrously low-ball estimates of the spill rate—the paper had the audacity to tell readers that, “No one, not even the oil industry’s most fervent apologists, is making light of this accident.”

Commendably, the Today show’s Matt Lauer pressed White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner on the question about the current risk from lingering oil on Wednesday morning. All she would say is that the oil will continue to breakdown and that she thinks that the recovery efforts had “turned an important corner” with the news that BP’s so-called “static kill” of the Macondo well was going well. And that news is good enough! The New York Times does not need to call this game before it’s over.

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