Friday I chatted with NYU professor, blogger, and media critic Jay Rosen as I began thinking about The Huffington Post’s story about the letter from NASA retirees criticizing the agency’s climate research. This transcript is meant to accompany my post on that topic.

SR: Did you follow this story at all as it happened?

Jay: yes, someone pinged me about the original
then I read Dave’s
that’s all I really know
just posted on Twitter about it

SR: OK, good. Did you see the editor’s note they posted?

Jay: yes

SR: OK. So here’s what I’m thinking:
Dave was sort of gentlemanly about it and said, “let’s move on”
But I looked at that editor’s note and thought, wait a minute

Jay: right

SR: They’re now saying, “we agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide”
Which is pretty much the same as saying, “We disagree with these NASA retirees”
yet the story played it totally straight, and still does, only now, instead of a lame “What do you think?” it ends with “here’s what we think”

Jay: there’s a contradiction there, true
they removed the glaring part; they did not go back and ask: how did we get here?

SR: So I’m just wondering how you might view (a) the original NASA-retiree story as an exercise in “reverse verification” and then (b) the HuffPo fumble as a failure in responding to that kind of disinformation effort

Jay: right, gotcha
well, let’s start with “what reverse verification” is
verification is taking something that might be true, and trying to nail it down with facts
in reverse verification you take something that’s been nailed down and try to introduce doubt about it
was Obama born in the United States? is the clearest example
the phenomenon of “verification in reverse” poses a special problem for journalists
On the one hand, they are supposed to report what people are saying. They are supposed to bring us the news of controversies, protests, disagreements. “Conflict makes news,” and all that.
On the other hand, verification is their business
If they cannot support that, they cannot support themselves or their users
They are socially useless, in fact, if they cannot stand up for verification

SR: right. the trust is the main thing that they’re standing on compared with the broader “Anyone can play” media world

Jay: correct….. there is also a reluctance to wade into this dilemma, because it can have explosive consequences….
and so you have constituencies outside the press and critics like me who are focused on it, but journalists themselves wish the whole thing would go away
except in science journalism, largely because of climate change
and climate denialism

SR: so this issue actually pits groups of different journalists against one another:
you’ve got the science specialists who feel that this is a settled issue, and how can any rational person argue otherwise?
and the political beat people, who see it as part of the play-by-play partisan struggle

Jay: no, I would say science journalism is just a little closer to confronting it

SR: I get that, but I also see the situation where a science reporter today might say, “you need to report the truth of climate science” and a political reporter would say, “I just want to report the debate between the parties”

Jay: political journalists don’t want to go there, and for the most part they have not
because once they wade into those waters, they may get swept up into debates they do not want to have

SR: right. But some of them did begin that debate on their own turf with the Obama birth certificate/Obama’s a Muslim memes

Jay: yes, that’s true
and we have politifact.com, the Washington Post’s fact checker
those are significant developments
but: is political journalism ready for Chris Mooney? No.

SR: right. So to close this — do you see any approaches an editor or writer could take when confronted with a “NASA retiree” story? Seems to me you could start by just asking (and reporting) who organized the thing, which I don’t think the HuffPost story did

Jay: I think an editor or writer should start by asking the usual question:
what happened here
but then….
it’s also important to ask: is this denialism?
In other words, are we in the presence of “verification in reverse.”
And if we ARE…..
then that is itself the news, right
“49 NASA engineers and scientists veered toward climate change denialism yesterday when they released….”