NYT Reporter's 'Misstep' Causes Furor Among 'Skeptics'

July 15, 2009

Veteran New York Times science writer Andy Revkin calls it "my worst misstep as a journalist in 26 years."

A vocal and prolific British climate contrarian is less charitable. "Deliberate misrepresentation," said Christopher Monckton in complaining that Revkin, in an April 24 front-page article, "offends grievously" the newspaper's journalism ethics guidelines.

Monckton asked Times Public Editor and Readers' Representative Clark Hoyt to conduct a "disciplinary enquiry into Revkin's conduct."

While they're at it, Monckton wants to see the Times give more coverage to those who share his largely discredited views of the science of climate change and to report the issue "in a more impartial, neutral fashion" reflecting what he sees as the "imaginary" risks of anthropogenic global warming.

This is far from the first time that Revkin's reporting has comforted one side or the other in the climate change arena. As the nation's most highprofile, most closely watched, and most widely respected reporter focusing on the issue, he's used to the barbs from all sides. That said, his reporting over the past two decades has focused largely on the science of climate change, and that's an area generally seen as having moved steadily, if often incrementally and fittingly, toward increased concern over the issue.

Bottom line here: Revkin's reporting occasionally raises the eyebrows of those committed to the so-called "consensus science" of IPCC, those who also are eager to move forward with stringent controls on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It very likely more often gets under the skin of the so-called climate "skeptics" or contrarians.

The Nature of the 'Misstep'

So what exactly was Revkin's "misstep"? Aserious journalistic lapse or oversight? Or a blip in an impressive journalism career? Perhaps both?

The story in question was basically one of those "gotcha" stories the media often love, complete with an element of cover-up and sleight of hand.

Headlined "Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate," the story reported that a once-powerful but now long-defunct fossilfuel- based industry coalition, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), had ignored its own scientific and technical experts. Based on a recently uncovered GCC internal report, Revkin reported the industry experts' view that "The scientific basis for the greenhouse effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 is well established and cannot be denied."

The group's policy leaders then turned around, appeared to deep-six that internal technical advice, and in a publicly distributed "backgrounder" continued to refute the science while "policy makers and pundits were fiercely debating whether humans could dangerously warm the planet," Revkin reported.

Revkin also reported that "some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain."

That's an ouch. Dem's fightin' words, as they say.

Those generally identified as contrarians were quick to pounce, yelling and blogging foul, but providing scant evidence to counter Revkin's report.

With Al Gore testifying on Capitol Hill the same day the Times article was published, the former vice president was quick to point to the Revkin article to buttress his own position. Gore alleged "a massive fraud far larger than Bernie Madoff's fraud. They are the Bernie Madoffs of global warming," he complained, pointing to the disgraced Wall Street investor.

Monckton speculated on a conspiracy between Gore and Revkin and his Times colleagues, but offered no proof to substantiate his accusation.

Revkin and the Times' Hoyt replied to Monckton's "deliberate misrepresentation" accusations only to find the next day that there indeed was a problem with the Revkin report.

The paper on May 2 posted an editor's note saying that the Revkin article had pointed to one version of a Global Climate Coalition public "backgrounder" without knowing there was a subsequent backgrounder "that included language that conformed to the scientific advisory committee's conclusion." The newspaper's correction continued: The later version was distributed publicly in 1998, but existed in some form as early as 1995, according to an online archive kept by Greenpeace. The amended version, which was brought to the attention of the Times by a reader, acknowledged the consensus that greenhouse gases could contribute to warming. What scientists disagreed about, it said, was "the rate and magnitude of the 'enhanced effect' (warming) that will result."

The paper pointed out that the coalition in that later backgrounder did omit any reference to the internal report section saying "contrarian" theories on rising temperatures "do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change."

Revkin on the Pains of His Mistake

Revkin pointed to that last omission in saying he thinks the story would have been news even if he had been fully aware of that second backgrounder. He said he had downloaded that subsequent document b ut had not read it carefully enough to pick up on the differences.

 Would it still have been a front-page story? And did it really merit such prominent front-page placement (below the fold) in the first place, given that the group has long been out of existence? According to Revkin, "The underlying issue — illustrated in the GCC's removal of the critique of 'contrarian' arguments from its internal primer — still stands … but the featured example of public doublespeak doesn't."

But Revkin said he couldn't answer whether the story as originally published warranted page-one coverage or whether a story reflecting the subsequent backgrounder still would have commanded such prominent play. He said those placement decisions are made by editors.

Asked about his characterization of this as his "biggest misstep" in 26 years, Revkin said he could not identify a comparable mistake of the same magnitude. "I can't think of one bigger," he said.

'Tyranny of Time'…and Journalism as 'Self-Correcting'

Clearly discomforted by his reporting error, Revkin said "one mistake is more powerful than 750 stories" reported accurately. He said the mistake confirmed his "biggest frustration" that evertightening time demands on reporters can make reporting errors more common.

"It's the tyranny of time," Revkin said, "and it makes me a victim of my own lessons" to journalists about the need to take their time to ensure their accuracy in reporting on such issues.

Revkin's own pains with the situation notwithstanding, the mishap clearly provided an opening for critics and helped create a "distraction" from serious attention on the issue, Revkin said.

Prolific blogger Marc Morano, former staffer to Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), for instance, rushed to put out a "Breaking" Saturday, May 2, e-mail blast celebrating the correction.

More philosophical in commenting on the Revkin mistake, former NationalAssociation of ScienceWriters President Cristine Russell, now associated with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard University, told Revkin in an e-mail that he "handled the correction extremely well. Very fair and transparent, straightforward.

"Journalism is a self-correcting process, and you have shown how to handle something like this," said Russell, who earlier had worked as a science reporter for The Washington Post and, before that, with the old Washington Star.

This article first appeared in the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, where Bud Ward, an SEJ founder, is editor.

 ** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue

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