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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Howard Friel: Why Joe Romm Should Replace Andrew Revkin as the New York Times’ Climate Blogger

Why Joe Romm Should Replace Andrew Revkin as the Times’ Climate Blogger

November 5, 2011
Source: NYTX
Climate Change
An Interview with Howard Friel by NYTX:

Q. Howard, you have said that you were writing a book about the coverage of climate change by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal when you changed your mind to write a book about Bjorn Lomborg and climate skepticism. What did you find out about the coverage of climate change by the Times and Journal?

A. For one thing, the Times’ coverage of climate change was much better in the 1990s, when the reporter covering the issue back then, William K. Stevens, actually made a genuine attempt to cover climate science. Since then, the person who took the place of Stevens, Andrew Revkin, who blogs for the Times at Dot Earth, this was around year 2000, has deemphasized the climate science and instead has conducted a kind of features column about himself and the people that he emails or talks to.

Revkin was critical of the climate coverage of the Guardian and Independent beginning around 2004 or 2005, when the published climate science shifted, and began to point toward worst-case scenarios pretty much across the board. The Guardian and Independent were following the science to this effect. Revkin referred to this kind of science-based coverage as “climate porn”—probably quoting somebody else to this effect, but adopting the term for himself. Shortly thereafter, with enough high-profile climate skeptics adopting this view, this criticism coincided with an apparent reduction in the climate-based coverage by the Guardian and Independent.

Revkin also psychoanalyzes his readers by claiming that they can’t handle all the bad climate news, and so that’s his official rationale for not reporting it. I hope to write about this more in the future with more detail. As for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the people there who write for that page are all corporate shills and climate deniers, so that’s easy to characterize. Revkin’s performance is more complicated, but it faithfully reflects the Times’ editorial policy.

Q. What do you mean when you say that about Revkin and the Times’ editorial policy?

A. The Times’ editorial policy is to not go out on a limb on any issue; to play it moderately; to be “objective”; to play it cool; to not be a crusading newspaper about any issue; to not permit the Times to be too strongly identified with any point of view on the important and controversial issues of the day. This policy has been articulated and repeated over and over again by the line of Times publishers and top editors over the years, going back to the late nineteenth century, with the Times’ founder Adolph Ochs. However, to not take a position on issues of settled law and science—like the international law prohibition against the threat and use of force, and climate science and what that is telling us—is like a return to the Dark Ages, and is a very reckless and irresponsible position. Likewise, Revkin has avoided taking the view that reflects the very high factual probability and likelihood that the physical science basis of climate change is pointing toward a very serious and probably irreversible problem, which tracks worst-case scenarios, if we don’t act immediately to dramatically cut CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.  Instead, Revkin gravitates toward people like Roger Pielke Jr., who specializes in obfuscation and is an almost classic hot-air type social scientist.

And it’s not just Revkin at the Times who is guilty, it’s nearly the entire group of science writers at theTimes who, as Joe Romm has pointed out in his blog at Climate Progress, have missed the story of the century by failing to sufficiently report the climate science and its implications. In fact, if the Times really wanted to report the facts and the science to its readers with respect to climate change, they would fire Revkin and hire Romm to be their climate blogger. Not only is Romm very appropriately and very obviously far more concerned than Revkin about climate change, but Romm is far more honest in his reporting about the science of climate change. It is possible to have a point of view about an issue and to be honest about the facts pertaining to that issue—to walk and chew gum at the same time. In this instance, to be very concerned about climate change, and to have a position about it, while also retaining the ability to be honest about the climate facts.

And along those lines, I totally reject the idea of so-called journalistic objectivity. For one thing, it’s not possible to avoid taking a position, and thus to be purely objective, unless you’re a robot and not a human being. For another, it’s attempted implementation has proven to be very corrosive and destructive to American journalism, to a free press, and to this country. 
And I would say to the world as well, given that there is no U.S.-based journalistic oversight of the legality, illegality actually, of U.S. foreign policy, which now has cornered the global market for war and threats of war, and climate skepticism and denialism. In my view, it is not surprising that we specialize so heavily in war-making and climate denial, given the catastrophic failure of the news media on both of those counts. This is all we do now. Make war. Spend the country’s wealth on war. Deny or ignore climate change. This is what we’re known for. Now we’re threatening a preemptive military attack against Iran. It doesn’t end. 
And all the while the government and the press ignore climate change, or at best, don’t prioritize it as they should. Terrorism is not more important than climate change; climate change is a far bigger threat. If you could find even one mainstream news reporter or editorial page writer with that position I would be surprised.

I should add that the Times is not the worst news organization in the United States. It’s better than most, in fact. But the core issue still holds that its editorial policy is a failed experiment, and perhaps the Timesshould think about changing it to keep up with what has happened in the world since the time of Adolph Ochs. We didn’t have nuclear weapons and the threat of climate change when the Times’ editorial policy was set in stone by Ochs in 1896. The editorial policy of the Times is outdated, yet it’s still the same policy, more or less, that it was over a hundred years ago.

Q. So why wouldn’t the Times replace Revkin with Romm?

A. Because Romm has a point of view. Revkin distracts and evades. The Times editorial policy is to not take a position. So Revkin is a better fit, although I would certainly be happy to see such a change, assuming that Romm would want to work for the Times. Romm should have been offered a blogging position at theTimes already, given the superior quality of his blog as opposed to Revkin’s. By the way, I don’t know Joe Romm personally.

Q. So how would you rate the Times’ coverage of climate change?

A. The climate coverage at the Times has not kept pace with the climate science, and has failed to enlighten the Times’ readers about the extreme nature of the threat of human-induced climate change. The Timesalso has focused its overall coverage disproportionality in tandem with the policy priorities of the Bush-Cheney administration and the Obama administration; and there’s not much difference there between the two administrations, it turns out. It should be totally within the editorial discretion of a news organization like the New York Times to make indepenent judgments about things like the relative importance of terrorism v. climate change, and configure its news and editorial coverage accordingly. To so loyally follow the policy agenda of the president, whoever it is, forfeits the political independence of a free press. The president waves the baton and the press plays the music. That’s not how it was supposed to work.

Howard Friel is author most recently of The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (Yale Univesity Press, 2010). He is author (with Richard Falk) of The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004) and of Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, 2007).

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