In early 2009, George Will wrote a column, “Dark Green Doomsayers,” in which he challenged climate science by citing a study by the Arctic Climate Research Center that said the opposite of what Will claimed. We know this because the Arctic Climate Research Center stepped forward and said so.
This is not the first time Will has interpreted facts as saying the opposite of what they do. In a 1992 column making the case for Al Gore’s dishonesty, Will provided as evidence a Gallup Poll that said 53 percent of climate scientists “do not believe warming has occurred.” In fact, the poll said 66 percent believed “human-induced global warming was occurring,” with only ten percent disagreeing.
What made the 2009 column different was there was a very organized and motivated pushback demanding that the Washington Post issue a correction (which included this column by Mooney.) By the time it had run its course, many of the Post’s own reporters had disavowed Will’s shameful distortion, but Fred Hiatt refused to back down:
[We] don’t have lax standards for accuracy. [Will] addressed the factual challenges to his column in detail in a later column. In general we do careful fact checking. What people have mostly objected to is not that his data are wrong but that he draws wrong inferences. I would think folks would be eager to engage in the debate, given how sure they are of their case, rather than trying to shut him down.
In other words, yes, the scientists who performed the actual science say the data says one thing, but Will interpreted the data another way – opinions differ. Gallup says majority of climate scientists, Will sees minority, everyone’s entitled to his opinion.
The effort to bring some level of accountability to the column pages failed. As to why Hiatt was so intent on providing a platform for people like Will to interpret facts in whatever way he liked, Matt Yglesias gave the best explanation:
The point of giving columns to Will and Charles Krauthammer and now hiring Bill Kristol is to show that Fred Hiatt and The Washington Post believe that whatever random crap the conservative movement wants to make up on any given day will get a hearing in The Washington Post. They’re not interested in informing their audience, they’re interested in showing that they’ll bend over backwards to be fair to the right wing. Publishing error-free articles by movement icons serves that purpose, but publishing sloppy error-filled ones serves that purpose even better.
A “balanced” media in denial of asymmetry has long struggled with how to present both sides, and yet still do responsible journalism. Since journalists doing journalism aren’t likely to see studies as saying the opposite of what they do, affirmative action is required. Hiatt’s solution was to balance out the work of serious reporters who, if they’re doing their jobs, will get it right no matter who it ticks off.
The problem is that when journalists are responsible, their stories have a liberal bias. To provide balance and maintain standards, the Post would provide column inches conservatives to contradict the paper’s own reporting. Reporters would still be expected to get it right; the fact-free zone would remain confined to the opinion pages.
The “non-partisan” obsessed CNN has adopted a similar approach: to counterbalance reporting, it has made aspiring Breitbart heir Dana Loesch a CNN contributor. It was the most trusted name in news who first gave Glenn Beck his own show, a commentator who turned out to be too extreme for FOX News. (Loesch was one of the few to stand behind Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” line that even Limbaugh has disavowed.)
Niall Ferguson’s latest Newsweek cover shows that wall between journalism and opinion may be crumbling as well. If you’re not up to speed, as evidence Obama lied, Ferguson cited a CBO report showing the ACA would shrink the deficit as saying it added to the deficit. Paul Krugman was quick to call for a correction. Sadly, Newsweek’s executive director Justine Rosenthal’s defense is almost identical to Hiatt’s:
In an in-house interview yesterday, Newsweek executive editor Justine Rosenthal said Ferguson’s controversial and heavily criticized cover story about President Obama was an opinion piece and did not reflect the opinions of Newsweek.
“This is not the opinion of Newsweek, this is the opinion of Niall Ferguson,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal, like Hiatt, seems to want to create a responsibility-free standard for its conservative writers, but Ferguson’s creative interpretation was not on opinion column: it was the cover story. Does Newsweek’s policy regarding campaign cover stories now exempt these conservative “journalists” from journalistic standards as well? Apparently Rosenthal wants it that way.
Newsweek was on the brink of closing its doors when it promoted Rosenthal, but if this is the direction she plans to go, it looks less like a journey back to relevance than it does an undignified death.
It’s no coincidence that CNN, like all “non-partisan” outlets, has also been suffering in the ratings. The compromises of journalism to bring conservatives into the fold have finally taken their toll.
To the FOX viewer, CNN will never be anything more than a poser, but how much can its regular viewers trust CNN when it asks questions like “Obama the Anti-Christ?” There’s only so much kowtowing to the FOX viewers CNN will never get before it alienates the viewers it has.
CNN has also changed leadership to try a new direction. We don’t know yet where that might lead, but “the most trusted name in news” can never be worthy of its slogan if it splits it’s time between reporting and granting free reign to the Loesch’s and Becks of the world.
If they want to reach the viewer turned off by partisan outlets, Glenn Beck is not the way to go. Instead, maybe these suffering outlets should stop thinking about whether what they do is “left” or “right,” but accurate and true?