PBS ombudsman explains how NewsHour got its climate change report wrong
“It was not the PBS NewsHour’s finest 10 minutes.”
Those are the first words of PBS ombudsman Michael Getler’s response to the network’s much-derided recent report that provided climate skeptics — including a source with ties to the execrable Heartland Institute — with a platform to argue against established science. Here’s the report. Don’t watch it if you have a history of high blood pressure.
The ombudsman outlines a number of problems with the report, but centers on Anthony Watts, a blogger and retired meteorologist who’s linked to Heartland.
Although global warming strikes me as one of those issues where there is no real balance and it is wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence, there is no harm and some possibility of benefit in inviting skeptics about the human contribution and other factors to speak, but in a setting in which the context of the vast majority of scientific evidence and speakers is also made clear.
What was stunning to me as I watched this program is that the NewsHour and [correspondent Spencer] Michels had picked Watts — who is a meteorologist and commentator — rather than a university-accredited scientist to provide “balance.” I had never heard of Watts before this program and I’m sure most viewers don’t, as part of their routines, read global warming blogs on either side of the issue.
I’m not being judgmental about Watts or anything he said. He undoubtedly is an effective spokesperson. But it seems to me that if you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist.
Seems that way to me, too. But good luck finding a reputable scientist willing to go out as far on the limb as Watts.
Throughout the interview, Michels referred to scientists who warn against global warming and its man-made component as “climate change believers,” a description that offends many and frames the issue, as one viewer wrote, as though this were “faith-based rather than fact-based.”
When Watts said global warming had become a business and whole divisions of universities set-up to study it and so there was a tendency to keep that work going and not really look at what might be different, Michels did point out that “it’s a charge that climate change believers say is totally false.” But other Watts points about polls being manipulated went unchallenged, and the idea that global warming issues were being oversold because they allow for more taxes and regulations was answered by Michels pointing out that “Muller and others think action is exactly what is needed.”
The ombudsman’s post runs thousands (and thousands) of words. It’s robust in its rejection of how the issue was handled. But it also feels very much like too little arriving far too late. Viewers rely on public television for smart, scientifically rigorous programming. This failed that test, by PBS’s own standards — but barring the invention of some Men in Black-style memory zapper that could be broadcast to those who watched the NewsHour report, the damage has been done.