The Media Today

The Trump administration is suppressing climate science

August 7, 2019

On Friday, Lewis Ziska, a climate scientist who specializes in plant physiology, left his job at the US Department of Agriculture after more than 20 years. On Monday, Helena Bottemiller Evich, a food and agriculture reporter at Politico, explained why. Ziska had worked on a groundbreaking study that found rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are causing rice to lose nutrients—a potential disaster for the 600 million people worldwide who rely on rice as a staple. Science Advances, the journal that published the study, expected that it would attract widespread interest, and advised its authors to prepare resources for the media. The Department of Agriculture refused. Officials spiked a press release promoting Ziska’s work, and asked the University of Washington, a collaborator on the paper, not to promote it either. CNN requested an interview with Ziska. Agriculture’s press office said no. That was a first, Ziska said.

Frustrated, Ziska decided to quit. Speaking with Politico, he “painted a picture of a department in constant fear of the president and Secretary Sonny Perdue’s open skepticism about broadly accepted climate science, leading officials to go to extremes to obscure their work to avoid political blowback,” Evich writes. “You get the sense,” Ziska told her, “that things have changed, that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don’t agree with someone’s political views.” The situation “feels like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.”

ICYMI: We asked the NYT how the Trump headline that caused a backlash ended up on the front page

The Department of Agriculture denied Ziska’s account; it declined to promote his findings due to scientific concerns raised by career staffers, it said. But the department previously cleared the study, and it was externally peer reviewed, too. And Ziska’s case fits a worrying broader trend. As Evich previously reported, Agriculture has declined to publicize dozens of climate-related studies since 2017; a sweeping climate-change response plan was never published at all. It’s not just Agriculture. Across the administration, departments and agencies have strived to keep climate science out of the public eye since Donald Trump took office.

In some quarters, even the words “climate change” have been banned. In 2017, officials at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a unit of the Department of Agriculture, told staff that they should instead say “weather extremes” in their work; according to emails obtained by The Guardian, the phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” was also blacklisted. The same year, references to the dangers of climate change were scrubbed from the websites of the White House and the Interior Department. The Environmental Protection Agency removed a whole section of its website containing climate-change information, citing a need to “update” its language; more than two years later, the page does not appear to have been reinstated. As I reported for CJR last year, the EPA also moved to cut its funding of the Bay Journal, a newspaper established under the Clean Water Act to report on environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay. (The Bay Journal sued under the First Amendment; the EPA backed down.) In November, the White House tried to bury a dire climate report—that drew on the work of 13 federal agencies—by releasing it over Thanksgiving. (The attempt backfired.) According to E&E News, the US Geological Survey, too, has removed climate references from press releases.

Nor is Ziska the only government official to lose his job over this administration’s climate stance. In 2017, Joel Clement, who was studying the impact of climate change on Alaska at the Interior Department, was reassigned to an accounting job collecting royalties from oil and gas companies; he spoke out, then resigned. In February, Maria Caffrey, who was modelling sea level and storm surge projections for the National Park Service, was effectively forced out after refusing to let officials excise references to man-made climate change from her report. Just last week, Rod Schoonover wrote, in a New York Times op-ed, that he decided to quit his job at the State Department after his bosses blocked written testimony from his office to the House Intelligence Committee on the national-security implications of the climate crisis. “I believe such acts weaken our nation,” Schoonover said.

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The Trump White House is an informational water cannon; the endless noise of the president’s tweets and rallies disorients reporters, leads our coverage, and—all too often—distracts attention from the stories officials don’t want us to cover. As Evich notes, agency intransigence “means research from scores of government scientists receives less public attention” than it should; “Climate-related studies are still being published without fanfare in scientific journals, but they can be very difficult to find.” We need to work harder to find them, and to noisily promote them where the government will not. Let’s not be complicit in the state’s suppression of science.

Below, more on climate science:

  • The big picture: In May, the Times’s Coral Davenport and Mark Landler outlined the Trump administration’s latest assaults on climate science. “Parts of the federal government will no longer fulfill what scientists say is one of the most urgent jobs of climate science studies: reporting on the future effects of a rapidly warming planet.”
  • The bigger picture: Somini Sengupta and Weiyi Cai reported yesterday, also for the Times, that a quarter of humanity could run out of water in the near future. According to newly published data, “From India to Iran to Botswana, 17 countries around the world are currently under extremely high water stress… Climate change heightens the risk.”
  • Improving coverage: CJR and The Nation are partnering on Covering Climate Now, a new project that aims to improve the visibility and quality of the media’s treatment of the climate story. So far, more than 60 news organizations have agreed to dedicate a week of coverage to climate change in September. Your newsroom can get involved here.

Other notable stories: 

  • Yesterday, The New York Times continued to attract criticism over a print headline—“Trump urges unity vs. racism”—that was desperately lacking in skepticism; at one point, #CancelNYT trended on Twitter. Gabriel Snyder, CJR’s public editor for the Times, checked in with Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor. The headline, which Baquet pointed out he did not write, was “bad,” Baquet said. “The masthead and senior leadership get the front page at night, and I think we’ve gotten casual about when we look at it.” The headline, of course, points to a broader criticism: that the Times’s coverage of the present moment is insufficiently urgent. But Baquet “doesn’t see this moment in American history as particularly aberrant,” Snyder writes.
  • In April, The Markup, a much-hyped investigative startup focused on the tech world, imploded following an extraordinary public spat between Julia Angwin, its founding editor, and Sue Gardner, its CEO; Angwin was fired—she said Gardner had an anti-tech agenda; Gardner disputed this—and six of the site’s seven editorial staffers quit in solidarity. Now The Markup is back on track—without Gardner, but with Angwin, the six staffers who quit, and two new leaders, Nabiha Syed, formerly an executive at BuzzFeed, and Evelyn Larrubia, formerly the editor of Marketplace. (Angwin and the editorial staff continued to be paid during the hiatus.) The Times’s Marc Tracy has more.
  • Toni Morrison, the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning writer and editor, died this week. She was 88. Tributes poured forth: Morrison “not only made me confront my blackness, she made me love it,” CNN’s Lisa Respers France wrote; “Even as we celebrate her as a novelist, we should remember her also as a titan of criticism and a shepherd of an entire generation of black writers,” Slate’s Ismail Muhammad added. On Twitter, a video circulated of Morrison slapping down an ignorant inquiry from a journalist—asked if she planned to write books “that incorporate white lives into them substantially,” Morrison replied, “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?”
  • For CJR’s series on the world of criticism, Alexandria Neason spoke with Dart Adams, a longtime music journalist; Naima Cochrane, a music writer and former industry executive; and David Dennis Jr., a music writer and academic, about past coverage of R. Kelly. “There was a belief that as objective journalists, we needed to cover the art separate from the artist,” Dennis says. “But as we’ve come to learn, you cannot separate the art and the artist. R. Kelly had underage girls in the studio with him.”
  • The CBS–Viacom merger could be announced as soon as tomorrow—and Vice wants a piece of the action. Nancy Dubuc, its CEO, “has made a deal with CBS-Viacom a strategic imperative,” Vanity Fair’s William D. Cohan reports. “Not only does the deal make a lot of sense to her… but if she could only get back inside a real corporation, she might have a chance to resurrect her own once-high-flying career,” Dubuc believes.
  • In 2017, a district court dismissed a libel claim that Sarah Palin brought against the Times; at issue was an editorial linking a crosshairs graphic produced by a Palin PAC to the shooting, in 2011, of Rep. Gabby Giffords and six other people in Tucson, Arizona. Yesterday, Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports, an appeals court revived the case, ruling that the prior dismissal violated Palin’s procedural rights. The case will now likely go to trial.
  • NPR is making layoffs. Fewer than 10 people will lose their jobs; Nancy Barnes, NPR’s editorial director, stressed that the move was “not about saving money,” but rather part of a pivot that will boost the broadcaster’s investigative output and coverage of climate change, the opioid crisis, and pharmaceuticals, NPR’s David Folkenflik reports. National security reporter David Welna, a 37-year veteran of NPR, was among those to see their jobs cut. He wrote colleagues: “I hope none of you will ever be treated this way.”
  • On Monday, the government of India stripped Jammu and Kashmir state of the limited autonomy it enjoys under the constitution, effectively placing it under federal control. The region is on lockdown; officials blocked phone and internet services, curtailing local journalists’ efforts to cover the crisis. One of them, Qazi Shibli, is in police custody.
  • And for The New York Times Magazine, Matt Flegenheimer explores how Bill de Blasio, the New York City mayor and 2020 presidential candidate, became a media punching bag. “Aides say de Blasio has taken much of his coverage personally,” Flegenheimer writes. “‘You don’t understand,’ he told a staff member once. ‘They hate me.’”

ICYMI: NPR kills journalist’s piece over her accent

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.