PBS Takes “He said She Said” False Balance Climate Reporting to New Lows

September 20, 2012

In 2003 the United States went to war against Iraq with 80 percent of the US public believing a proposition that was empirically, demonstrably, factually, objectively false. That Saddam Hussien had attacked us on 9/11.

As I pointed out in a post last week, when the news media goes about systematically misinforming or disinforming the public in a democracy, bad things happen.

When bad things happen in the decisions about war and peace in the world’s greatest democracy – you get a two trillion dollar fiasco, the greatest foreign policy blunder in US history, and maybe in the last 2000 years.  When the world’s largest economy is misinformed about the consequences of  a fossil fueled industrial system – we get the largest blunder of the geological epoch – the event that historians 50 millennia from now, if there are any,  will judge us by.

The latest demonstration of how this misinforming process works was provided, depressingly, by PBS, in a spectacularly bone-headed example of the “false balance” style of reporting that passes for journalism in the current age. (“most scientists say the moon is not made of cheese. One man disagrees. We’ll talk to him..at eleven..”)

Bud Ward gives a good play by play in the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, reposted here in entirety with permission:

Commenters to  public broadcasting’s ‘NewsHour’ site decry a ‘hack piece’ of reporting involving an extensive interview with blogger skeptic and former weathercaster Anthony Watts … and also the several responses by the NewsHour editor and reporter directly involved.

A PBS “NewsHour” broadcast and companion blog posting are raising the kind of rancor generally associated with Fox TV talk-show programming or Wall Street Journal opinion pieces dealing with climate change. The in-coming is primarily from what climate contrarians might dismiss as the “warmist” or “believer” side of the issue, and not from the usual critics of PBS climate broadcasts.

The ruckus started with a blog posting interview with “Watts Up With That” meteorologist and climate contrarian Anthony Watts by NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels. Michels clearly seemed out of his depth in dealing with specific Watts’s points, in particular those dealing with potential urban heat island effects and with what Watts, unsurprisingly, criticized as inappropriate siting of temperature stations. Michels did not reply to or challenge either of Watts’ questionable claims on those issues, both of which have been long since rebutted in peer-reviewed journals.

News Analysis 

That might raise the question: Why not use veteran science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who NewsHour brought in to cover complex science issues after he and the science staff had been let go by CNN? Climate change is an issue on which O’Brien has done substantial earlier coverage, and it’s a subject he says he is eager to continue reporting on.

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.)

Timeline of Blogs,  Broadcast, More Blogs … Explanations and Apologies

Back to the PBS blog posting and the broadcast piece itself … and to the subsequent somewhat defensive responses, apologies, and retractions from NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan and from reporter Michels. The chain of events:

-Reporter Michels posted a blog piece and interview with Watts on September 17 at 4:55 p.m. EDT, prior to the NewsHour’s broadcast of his piece. That initial posting consisted solely of the one-on-one interview with Watts, running about 9-1/2 minutes. Michels said Watts — who he said “doesn’t come across as a true believer or fanatic” — had been recommended for an interview by the Heartland Institute, which Michels described as a leading climate science doubter. Both the 9-1/2 minute video and the full transcript of that interview are available at the site above.

– The actual 10-1/2 minute broadcast that same evening, (at the top of this page) aired around 6:28 p.m. EDT and was posted, again along with a full transcript, about three hours later. That piece dealt substantially with Berkeley physicist Richard Muller’s much-ballyhooed, and controversial, “conversion” from being a skeptic. In that piece, Michels interviewed Watts, Muller and his mathematician daughter, and also Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory scientist William Collins. In that broadcast, Michels several times referred to the vast community of scientists and others accepting the scientific consensus as “believers.” He did not challenge Watts’ seemingly self-serving comments about peer review. Michels in that piece also referred to “the 97 percent of scientists who say that it is real.” He did not challenge Watts’ comments undercutting numerous public opinion surveys suggesting substantial levels of public concern and anxiety, nor ask Watts the basis of his opinions on those surveys.

– The next day, Sreenivasan, who has overall editorial responsibility for NewsHour’s climate coverage, posted a blog piece referring to “the amount of personal e-mail that hit my inbox last night” after Michel’s blog post. He tried in that post to “clear a couple of things up regarding what was on-air, what was online, when and why.” Sreenivasan characterized the Michels blog post interview with Watts as “one element; it was not the entire piece…., one segment, which you might want to look at in the context of several other segments we’ve been doing at the NewsHour on climate. (The next day, Sreenivasan updated his post because he had “implied that Anthony Watts is a scientist. As we reported on the broadcast, he is not.”)

– As promised by Sreenivasan’s September 18 reaction post, Michels returned at 6:08 EDT that evening with his own posting. “Anything dealing with climate change is bound to provoke an argument,” Michels opened. He said his initial online posting of the Watts interview “was to let the audience hear more about the views of a prominent voice from the community of skeptics,” but he did not address his own unquestioning — and un-inquisitive — interviewing technique. “As many of you wrote us to complain,” he continued, “we should have not ONLY posted additional comments from Watts’ perspective.” (emphasis in original)

He pointed and linked to a NOAA response that its temperature record is “scientifically sound and reliable” and supported in the peer-reviewed literature. He also provided a NOAANational Climate Data Center link and one to skepticalscience.com, which he said “examines and pushes back on the critique from the skeptics’ community.” Michels in that posting also reported Georgia Tech scientist Judith Curry’s being “appalled” with how her views were characterized in the on-air broadcast. Curry told Michels in an e-mail that her marks were presented in a way that suggests “I don’t think human-produced CO2 accounts for any of the climate change we have been seeing. This is absolutely incorrect.”

She said her recent posts on Arctic sea ice decline estimate that human CO2 emissions are responsible for about half that decline. Michels’ response to Curry in his blog post: “In retrospect, we should have said that Curry suspects natural variability accounts for some amount of climate change, but she also believes human-induced CO2 plays some role in what has been happening to the planet.” Closing the program’s September 18 broadcast, Sreenavasan, without acknowledging shortcomings, briefly pointed viewers to the additional materials posted on the NewsHour website addressing the criticisms and the program’s online responses.

Commenters Largely Critical

As they frequently are, comments submitted online in response to the NewsHour posts and broadcast represented a wide spectrum of pro-and-con views, but the majority were critical of Michels’ handling of the Watts interview and the broadcast itself. Some faulted his several times referring to those accepting warming as partly caused by human emissions as little more than “believers.” Some faulted the program’s virtually equating meteorologist Watts with the vast community of peer-reviewed climatologists. A West Orange, N.J., commenter characterized the pieces as “just another ‘he said, she said’-style hack piece of the sort that has become endemic in the MSM” (mainstream media).

Another commenter wrote: “When I watch PBS I expect hard journalism. I expect the reporter to have researched the issue and to be asking tough question that put the subject on the spot. If Michels were to interview [Penn State climatologist] Michael Mann or [NASA scientist] James Hansen I would expect exactly the same treatment. Tough, hard-nosed journalism.”

All the comments are online at the sites linked to above … but one seemed to capture many of the key points made by those upset about the NewsHour/Michels coverage. Here’s that comment in full:

The problem is that Watts’ inaccurate comments went unchallenged by the interviewer. His claim that inaccurate temperature measurements are responsible for the increase in global average temperatures in the data base is unsupported by statistical analysis and has been debunked by about a dozen peer reviewed scientific publications. Spencer Michels did not challenge him at all on this during the interview. This was a major failure of this story, which you need to correct.

It doesn’t matter that other stories on climate change may have been more accurate and scientific.

On September 17, a climate activist organization, Forecast the Facts, initiated a grassroots petition signing campaign asking PBS ombudsman Michael Getler to investigate the Watts interview segment for what the group called “violations of PBS standards on accuracy, integrity, and transparency.”

Bottom Line: Expect More, Better from PBS NewsHour

Bottom line on all this? No question that Michels clearly did not appear in the interview or on the broadcast to have “done due diligence” — that is, to have done his homework on climate science. No responsible science journalist could be pleased with his mishandling of those pieces or, for instance, with his sophomoric characterization of “believers.” He allowed the interviewee to opine not only on science but also on policy issues, without drawing any distinction and without adequately characterizing the nature of Watts’ scientific, let alone policy, credentials.

Sreenivasan’s weak-kneed defense of the whole episode came across as overly defensive, and it included mis-steps of its own that he later had to take back.

In the end, it may have been “NewsHour” … but it certainly was not its “finest hour.” One expects more from the program, and the abundant critical comments are a sure sign that it did not measure-up in this case.

It’s one thing for a PBS broadcast to take rhetorical hits from those flat-out dismissive of the enormous body of climate science evidence. That goes with the turn and is to be expected. It’s altogether something else when the barrage comes from those normally respective of PBS NewsHour reporting and in sync with the scientific community on climate science.  The NewsHour’s journalistic shortcomings in this instance are far from the most serious committed in the name of broadcast journalism on climate science … they’re just the most surprising and, in some ways, the most disappointing.

Bud Ward  is editor of The Yale Forum

Muller Interview here:

Lawrence Berkeley Lab scientist William Collins interview here

PBS defense of the story here.

10 Responses to “PBS Takes “He said She Said” False Balance Climate Reporting to New Lows”

  1. witsendnj Says:

    I don’t know why everyone is so shocked shocked. PBS has been a handmaiden for corporate sponsors for years now.

    Here’s a great analysis of the “Petroleum Broadcast System”:


  2. skeptictmac57 Says:

    PBS needs to produce a 2 hour piece on climate change that is actually balanced.
    The show would be structured like this:
    1 minute each allocated to 97 climate scientists who accept AGW,to make their best case.
    1 minute each to 3 AGW ‘skeptic’ climate scientists to make their best case.
    20 minutes distributed throughout the show for introductions and other needed purposes.
    If the skeptics feel that 1 minute is not enough time for their segment then however much time they are allowed,will also be allowed for each of the climate scientists who accept AGW (could make for a very long show!).

    At least Muller wasn’t able to get in his new talking points about how the only way we can mitigate AGW is through massively increasing our use of natural gas.
    I guess that it is only coincidental that the Koch’s have major holdings in the natural gas industry.

  3. Alteredstory Says:

    One bit that seems really bizarre to me is Watts apparent belief that those who want regulations on things like CO2 emissions like regulations as an end all by themselves, rather than as a tool to deal with a problem.

  4. CPB’s NPR doesn’t cover climate science often enough, but when it does the segments are anchored to reality.

  5. […] In 2003 the United States went to war against Iraq with 80 percent of the US public believing a proposition that was empirically, demonstrably, factually, objectively false. That Saddam Hussien had…  […]

  6. ontspan Says:

    So the lobby-club Heartland, who sponsors Anthony Watts, pointed Michels to Watts for the septic point of view.

    Who pointed Michels to Heartland for the goto question?

  7. atoieno Says:

    I just can’t bring myself press the play button for the Tony Watts clip…feelings of nausea accompany the idea. As for “Conversation with Global Warming Sceptic…” I reckon he put the con in conversation.

  8. Gillian King Says:

    Yes, I agree. The big question is why does NewsHour go to Heartland for advice on who to interview about climate science?

    Bizarre. Unprofessional.

  9. […] No false balance in this account. Just a scientist telling us what we, as a species, know about the astonishing pace of change on our home planet. Rate this:Share this:FacebookTwitterPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted by greenman3610 Filed in Crock of the Week Leave a Comment » […]

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