Archive for December 6th, 2009

NY Times watchdog whitewashes Climategate

December 6, 2009

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt responded to our request to examine the propriety of Andrew Revkin’s reporting on Climategate. Not only is Revkin part of the Climategate story (he’s mentioned in the e-mails) but he clearly has a special relationship with the Climategate actors that calls into question whether he can report on them without bias.

Here’s Hoyt’s whitewash of the issue, interrupted by our comments where warranted:

December 6, 2009
The Public Editor
Stolen E-Mail, Stoking the Climate Debate

AS world leaders prepare to meet tomorrow in Copenhagen to address global warming, skeptics are pointing to e-mail hacked from a computer server at a British university as evidence that the conference may be much ado about nothing. They say the e-mail messages show a conspiracy among scientists to overstate human influence on the climate — and some accuse The Times of mishandling the story.

[Not to get off-topic, but there is no evidence of any hacking or theft of the e-mails. They were collected in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and were then stored on a public server — inadvertently or not. Info stored on a public server is legally available to the public.]

Although The Times was among the first to report on the e-mail, in a front-page article late last month, and has continued to write about the issue almost daily in the paper or on its Web site, readers have raised a variety of complaints:

Some say Andrew Revkin, the veteran environmental reporter who is covering what skeptics have dubbed “Climategate,” has a conflict of interest because he wrote or is mentioned in some of the e-mail messages that the University of East Anglia says were stolen. Others wondered why The Times did not make the e-mail available on its Web site, and scoffed at an explanation by Revkin in a blog post that they contain “private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye.” What about the Pentagon Papers? they asked.

Others contended that The Times was playing down a story with global implications, coming as world leaders consider a treaty to limit the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere from autos, power plants and other sources.

Luis Alvarez Jr. of Charlottesville, Va., was outraged that a front-page article on President Obama’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States had not a single mention of the e-mail, in which one scientist, for example, said he had used a “trick” to “hide” a recent decline in temperatures.

Richard Murphy of Fairfield, Conn., said, “Given that the hacked e-mails cast doubt on some of the critical research that underlies the entire global warming argument, I am astounded that The Times has treated the issue in such a cavalier fashion.”

Does Revkin have a conflict of interest, as Steven Milloy, the publisher of, and others contended? Why didn’t The Times put the e-mail on its Web site? And, most important, is The Times being cavalier about a story that could change our understanding of global warming? Or, as The Times’s John Broder, who covers environmental issues in Washington, put it, “When does a story rise to three-alarm coverage?”

Erica Goode, the environment editor, said that as soon as she learned that Revkin was mentioned in the scientists’ e-mail, she consulted with Philip Corbett, the standards editor. She said she read the roughly one dozen messages containing Revkin’s name and decided they showed a reporter asking for information for news articles, with “no particular close relationship with the scientists other than the fact that he knew them.” Goode and Corbett said they agreed that Revkin did not have a significant conflict and was good to go, with an acknowledgment in the article that he and other journalists were named in the e-mail.

[The-emails also showed, as mentioned by Hoyt below, that Revkin was, to some extent, a “reliable” reporter for the Climategaters. More on this point later. In large part, Climategate is all about the credibility of Revkin’s long-time sources… and to no one’s surprise, he helped give them a clean bill of health.]

I read all the messages involving Revkin, and I did not see anything to keep him off the story. If anything, there was an indication that the scientists whom some readers accused Revkin of being too cozy with were wary of his independence. One, Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, warned a colleague, Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia, to be careful what he shared with “Andy” because, “He’s not as predictable as we’d like.”

[Isn’t “not as predictable as we’d like” a giant red flag? The Climategaters, of course, would like a reporter to carry their water 100% of the time. So if Revkin was only 95% efficient for them, we can see where they would be 5% unhappy. But isn’t a reporter’s 95% pliability a problem? Has Revkin ever had a skeptical thought? ]

As for not posting the e-mail, Revkin said he should have used better language in his blog, Dot Earth, to explain the decision, which was driven by advice from a Times attorney. The lawyer, George Freeman, told me that there is a large legal distinction between government documents like the Pentagon Papers, which The Times published over the objections of the Nixon administration, and e-mail between private individuals, even if they may receive some government money for their work. He said the Constitution protects the publication of leaked government information, as long as it is newsworthy and the media did not obtain it illegally. But the purloined e-mail, he said, was covered by copyright law in the United States and Britain.

[As discussed above, the e-mail was not purloined. This paragraph, however, is simple distraction from the main issue — i.e., should Revkin have been the reporter on this story.]

I think that any notion that The Times was trying to avoid publishing the e-mail messages is a manufactured issue. On Freeman’s advice, the paper linked to them — on a skeptic’s Web site as it happens — and they were a click away for anyone who wanted to examine them.

The biggest question is what the messages amount to — an embarrassing revelation that scientists can be petty and defensive and even cheat around the edges, or a major scandal that undercuts the scientific premise for global warming. The former is a story. The latter is a huge story. And the answer is tied up in complex science that is difficult even for experts to understand, and in politics in which passionate sides have been taken, sometimes regardless of the facts.

[It’s a story that Andrew Revkin long ago made up his mind about — and that decision is evident in his Climategate reporting.]

John Tierney, a Times science columnist, explained in Science Times last week the most controversial revelation so far in the e-mail — Jones’s effort to “hide the decline” when preparing a graph for the cover of a report to be read by policy makers. The graph, showing sharply higher temperatures in the last several decades, relied in part on tree ring data, until the rings began to diverge from thermometer readings and show a decline in temperatures. Jones and his colleagues did not believe that data and removed it from the graph, substituting direct thermometer readings without explicitly acknowledging the switch.

“The story behind that graph certainly didn’t show that global warming was a hoax or a fraud, as some skeptics proclaimed,” Tierney wrote, “but it did illustrate another of their arguments: that the evidence for global warming is not as unequivocal as many scientists claim.”

[The most important revelation in the e-mails is IPCC muckety-muck Kevin Trenberth’s admission that he doesn’t understand energy flows in the atmosphere — which means that there’s no way he or anyone else can competently model the atmosphere. This is devastating.]

Revkin said last week on his blog that he was asking a variety of researchers if the e-mail changed our understanding of global warming. One, Roger Pielke Sr. of the University of Colorado, who has been critical of what he called “the climate oligarchy,” including some of the scientists involved in the e-mail, replied that it did not. Pielke has characterized some scientists in the field as inbred and wedded to their views, but he said that the temperature measurement by Jones’s group was only one of several showing a long-term warming trend, and that there was no doubt that carbon dioxide produced by humans was a major factor.

[Not precisely true. Pielke’s position is more that human activities in total are a major climate driver — not CO2 emissions alone.]

But Revkin and Tierney both told me that, after that broad understanding among scientists, there is sharp debate over how fast the earth is warming, how much human activity is contributing and how severe the impact will be.

[And just where does any of this uncertainty show up in Revkin’s articles? In Revkin’s initial Nov. 20 article about Climategate he wrote, “The evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to global warming is so widely accepted that the hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument.” ]

“Our coverage, looked at in toto, has never bought the catastrophe conclusion and always aimed to examine the potential for both overstatement and understatement,” Revkin said.

[On the eve of the Waxman-Markey vote, June 26, 2009, the New York Times lead editorial stated, “We also urge them to read the scientific analysis forecasting the catastrophic costs to the planet, this country’s security and its economy if global warming is left unchecked.” “Catastrophe” is also a favorite global warming adjective of the Time‘s columnists and op-ed writers, especially Paul Krugman. Does Revkin read his own paper? Does Revkin read his own articles? I did a Nexis search and found the word “catastrophe” in dozens of  his climate articles dating back to 1997.]

Goode, his editor, said: “We here at The Times are not scientists. We don’t collect the data or analyze it, and so the best we can do is to give our readers a sense of what the prevailing scientific view is, based on interviews with scientists” and the expertise of reporters like Revkin.

[I guess it never occurred to Goode that Revkin and the Climategaters have so much personally invested in global warming hysteria that they could never walk back without great embarrassment the alarm that they’ve sown. They have no choice but to proceed with the hysteria. Moreover, the official policy of the New York Times is full-speed ahead with global warming hysteria. Every Times‘ news article and editorial/op-ed on climate is crafted to sow alarm and dismiss dissent. Goode is correct that Revkin is not a scientist — he is a climate activist masquerading as a reporter.]

So far, I think The Times has handled Climategate appropriately — a story, not a three-alarm story.

[They seem pretty upset in the UK — CRU chief Phil Jones has had to step down. Penn State has announced an investigation of Climategater Michael Mann. Sen. Inhofe has requested an congressional investigation. Obama changed his Copenhagen plans after Climategate broke. I dunno… sounds like at least a five-alarmer to me.]

The public editor can be reached by e-mail:

[Send Mr. Hoyt your thoughts.]