[SEE UPDATE BELOW]
Today, Washington Post reporters Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan have a piece on the alarming decline of Arctic sea ice. In and of itself the story isn’t that surprising: scientists have known for a while that the ice is declining; new data just confirms that it’s happening faster than originally estimated. That’s consistent with all sorts of new observational data on the effects of climate change, which across the board seem to be exceeding scientists’ most pessimistic predictions.
What jumped out at me is this bit, toward the bottom of the piece:
The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979. [my emphasis]
I can’t think of another instance when a news story at a newspaper explicitly called out an op-ed writer in the same paper for lying, by name. It’s pretty extraordinary. I can only imagine that something like this got passed up the editorial food chain, from science editor Nils Bruzelius to national news editor Kevin Merida, and perhaps beyond. (The Post will not talk on record about their editorial process; they “stand behind their reporting” and so forth.) [UPDATE: After I put this post up, science editor Nils Bruzelius gave me a call and was quite collegial and open about the story. It was actually him who had the idea to reference Will, since the, ahem, “data” Will had distributed got so much publicity and was on people’s minds. He said he and the reporters agreed, it was a routine news judgment, nothing about it struck him as unusual, and as far as he knows no one above him questioned or was even aware of it. I don’t know how much of that is feigned innocence — I’ve certainly never heard of a similar case — but it seems there was no big process inside WaPo behind this. Cheers to Bruzelius for the transparency.]
Hard to read it as anything but a rebuke from the news team to Post editor Fred Hiatt and his editorial page’s “multi-layer editing process,” which allowed Will to lie and mislead on climate change three times just in the last few months, even after being corrected, publicly, by multiple sources.
Along the same lines, see this new piece on the Post’s weather blog, by Andrew Freeman: “Will Misleads Readers on Climate Science – Again.”
George Will’s recent columns demonstrate a very troubling pattern of misrepresentation of climate science. They raise some interesting questions about journalism, specifically concerning the editing process. Editors and fact checkers are there to ensure that publications like the Washington Post don’t print factually incorrect information.
In response to the Will controversy, numerous people have made the point that people who work for the Post — the ones who aren’t full of shit — have a responsibility to speak out about their employer’s willingness to mislead readers.
It appears some of them are trying.