Deliberate Misrepresentation Letter of formal complaint to Clark Hoyt, Esq. Public Editor of NYTimes

By | April 29, 2009

NYT Formal Complaint



    [Illustrations, footnotes and references available in PDF version]  
Clark Hoyt, Esq., Public Editor and Readers’ Representative, The New York Times.

Dear Mr. Hoyt,

Deliberate misrepresentation in a front-page article by Andrew Revkin on Friday, 24 April, 2009

The New York Times guidelines for staff writers on “Journalistic Ethics” begin by stating the principles that all journalists should respect: impartiality and neutrality; integrity; and avoidance of conflicts of interest. Andrew Revkin’s front-page article on Friday, 24 April, 2009, falsely alleging that a coalition of energy corporations had for many years acted like tobacco corporations, misrepresenting advice from its own scientists about the supposed threat of “global warming,” offends grievously against all of these principles.

The article says –

“For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

“The coalition was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others. In 1997, the year an international climate agreement that came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, its budget totaled $1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by environmental groups.

“Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.”

Revkin compares two statements by the coalition of industrial interests, which are also illustrated by a pair of ragouts accompanying his article –
Public statement by the coalition, made in the early 1990s: “‘The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,’ the coalition said in a scientific ‘backgrounder’ provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that ‘scientists differ’ on the issue.
Private advice from the coalition’s own scientists, 1995 (after the coalition had made the public statement that Revkin said conflicted with the scientists’ advice): “‘The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,’ the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.” The New York Times immediately and imprudently rushed to publish the following comment about Revkin’s story –
  • “The Public Message: Climate Uncertainty 
  • “In the early 1990s, the Global Climate Coalition was the leading voice for industries concerned that a prompt push to cut heat-trapping emissions could raise energy costs. It produced a series of “backgrounders” available to the press and policymakers. This flier appears to contradict what the coalition’s science and technology advisers were saying about the basic science pointing to substantial warming from a buildup of such gases.”

On Capitol Hill on the day Revkin’s article was published, I watched Vice-President Al Gore give testimony before the Energy & Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives, during which he said –

  • “The largest corporate carbon polluters in America, 14 years ago, asked their own people to conduct a review of all of this science. And their own people told them, ‘What the international scientific community is saying is correct, there is no legitimate basis for denying it.’
  • “Then these large polluters committed a massive fraud far larger than Bernie Madoff’s fraud. They are the Bernie Madoffs of global warming. They ordered the censoring and removal of the scientific review that they themselves conducted, and like Bernie Madoff, they lied to the people who trusted them in order to make money,” etc., etc.
However, Revkin’s quotation from the coalition’s scientists’ document of 1995 is incomplete. By removing the majority of the paragraph quoted, Revkin fundamentally alters the purport of what the coalition’s scientists were saying. Had Revkin quoted the entire paragraph, he would have had no story. The full paragraph, with the substantial passage omitted by Revkin in bold face, reads –
  • “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied. While, in theory, human activities have the potential to result in net cooling, a concern about 25 years ago, the current balance between greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions of particulates and particulate-formers is such that essentially all of today’s concern is about net warming. However, as will be discussed below, it is still not possible to accurately predict the magnitude (if any), timing or impact of climate change as a result of the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Also, because of the complex, possibly chaotic, nature of the climate system, it may never be possible to accurately predict future climate or to estimate the impact of increased greenhouse gas concentrations.”
In short, the uncertainty is not about whether CO2 can cause “global warming,” but about how much warming it can cause – a distinction that Revkin seldom draws as clearly as he should, though I have done my best to explain it to him.
Indeed, it is not clear to me that Revkin has ever reported the significance of the fact that for almost seven and a half years, since late in 2001, there has been rapid global cooling, rather undermining the notion that anthropogenic emissions of CO2 are the dominant driver of the climate and powerfully suggesting that official estimates of its effect on temperature are exaggerated –
Standing the foregoing, I should be grateful if you would initiate a disciplinary enquiry into Revkin’s conduct, to address the following serious questions –
1. Was Revkin aware of the full quotation from the scientists’ advice that I have set out above? If so, why did he write the story? Or did he lift the incomplete quotation, from another prejudiced campaigner on the imagined threat from “global warming”? If he did lift the quotation, why did he fail to check it by obtaining the full text of the advice given to the coalition by its scientists?
2. Did Revkin fail to comply with the iron rule about “exactness of quotations” that is mentioned in the New York Times’ “Ethical journalism” document? If so, did his truncation of the quotation have the effect of misrepresenting, or even negating, what the scientists said? And was that misrepresentation so serious as to nullify the central point of his front-page story that fossil-fuel interests had made public statements contrary to the scientific advice that they had not yet privately received?
3. Should not the sub-editors of the New York Times have noticed that Revkin’s front-page story was stating that the coalition’s public statement contradicted scientific advice that the coalition had not yet received at the time when it made the statement?
4. Given that Al Gore spent a considerable proportion of his Congressional testimony excoriating with characteristically insouciant disregard for truth or accuracy the fossil-fuel industry for its alleged distortion of its own scientists’ advice, had Revkin – acting in league with Gore rather than independently of any conflict of interest – planted the story precisely so that Gore could refer to it repeatedly during his Congressional testimony on the very morning that the article was published?


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Cover photo of the New York Times building, as designed by Renzo Piano, posted by WallyG on Flickr.