Following his familiar pattern of distorting newspaper reports in order to construct a picture of alleged liberal bias, nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh falsely charged on his August 26 show that The New York Times had deliberately mischaracterized a climatologist's views to "further the agenda" of those who believe "the Bush administration is not going far enough to find reasons to blame humanity for global warming."
On August 23, the Times reported that Colorado State University atmospheric science professor Roger A. Pielke Sr. recently resigned from a committee of the Bush administration's Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), which is preparing to issue a report on atmospheric temperature trends. But the Times incorrectly described Pielke as "[a] scientist who has long disagreed with the dominant view that global warming stems mainly from human activity."
Beginning with an August 23 post on his Climate Science weblog, Pielke objected to this characterization and explained that he does, in fact, believe that human activities -- including the release of greenhouse gases -- contribute to global warming. On August 25, The Fort Collins Coloradoan accurately reported Pielke's objections to the Times article. The Coloradoan reported that Pielke "left the committee in a disagreement about views presented in a chapter for which he was the lead author." On his weblog, Pielke also cited as reasons for his resignation "an improper narrowing of the focus of the CCSP" committee and "the premature reporting of selected versions from the report to the media and policymakers prior to its actual finalization and public release."
On August 26, Limbaugh read portions of the Coloradoan article on the air, correctly pointing out that it described an error on the part of the Times. But Limbaugh grossly misrepresented the Coloradoan's explanation of the error in the Times story. According to Limbaugh, the Times had falsely claimed that Pielke resigned from the CCSP committee because he believed strongly that humans cause global warming. But as the Coloradoan clearly noted, the Times had actually -- and erroneously -- reported that Pielke was a skeptic of the idea that humans cause global warming -- exactly the opposite of what Limbaugh claimed.
As the Coloradoan article explained, Pielke "took exception to the Times' characterization that, as a scientist, he has 'long disagreed with the dominant view that global warming stems mainly from human activity,' as written in the lead paragraph of the [Times] article." Although Limbaugh read this quote on the air, he went on to insist:
LIMBAUGH: Bottom line is, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago -- The New York Times could lie about this guy [Pielke] and thereby create an impression that the lead guy on Bush's environmental team quit because he disagrees with Bush and because he thinks the Bush administration is not going far enough to find reasons to blame humanity for global warming and that would have been it. This guy could have called The New York Times, demanded a retraction, he would have not gotten it, and that would have been it. The difference today is that when The New York Times or any other news organization lies about someone, there is plenty of opportunity for them to go and correct the record when the original publication that made the error will not touch it anymore. And this is, this is such a great thing.
It is exposing that they have an agenda. It is exposing that they will lie to further the agenda. It is exposing that they will misquote and take out of context to further the agenda.
The Coloradoan article that Limbaugh read also quoted the August 23 post on Pielke's weblog, in which he wrote, "The reference to my perspective and to the reasons I resigned from the Committee are mischaracterized and erroneous in the New York Times article." The Times has since published a correction, which it also attached to the version of the story on its website.
In the same post, Pielke took issue with the Times' assertion that he believed that landscape changes, rather than greenhouse gas emissions, are responsible for global warming. On his weblog, Pielke wrote, "This is a completely bogus statement of my conclusions on climate." He argued that global warming is a complicated issue and that "[l]andscape change is only one of a number of climate forcings." The Coloradoan reprinted this quote in a passage that Limbaugh did not read to his listeners.
Pielke further explained on his weblog that, contrary to the Times' characterization, he indeed believes that human-produced greenhouse gases result in global warming:
The well documented increases of atmospheric concentration of CO2 [carbon dioxide] are due to anthopogenic [sic] emissions of this gas. This comes from vehicles, industry, biomass burning and other sources of combustion. CO2 warms the Earth's climate system radiatively (i.e. it is a global warming effect).
Though Limbaugh claimed that Pielke's success in correcting the record is an example of how the availability of weblogs "is exposing that they [the Times] will lie to further the agenda," Pielke himself does not appear to agree. On August 26, an hour-and-a-half before Limbaugh's broadcast, Pielke posted his response to an email he had received from the author of the Times article, Andrew Revkin. Apparently satisfied with Revkin's email, Pielke suggested that Revkin's errors were the result of a "miscommunication between both of us." He added:
It is clear now that the misrepresentation of my views on climate change in the NY times [sic] article were entirely inadvertent. There was no political or other motive, which needs to be recognized by everyone. The politicizing of the disagreement on other blogs and in the media that has occurred is completely inappropriate.
A continuing pattern of distorted news stories, imagined liberal bias
Limbaugh's misreading of news articles to find supposedly hidden political motives goes well beyond global warming. Recently, he has used this practice to falsely accuse journalists of liberal bias in their coverage of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. On August 12, for example, Limbaugh claimed that the Associated Press had labeled Roberts an anti-Semite. But as Media Matters for America documented, the AP did no such thing.
Similarly, on August 17, Limbaugh blasted The Washington Post for what he said was the paper's accusation that Bush administration lawyers stole a file containing documents written by Roberts during the Reagan administration. After reading the first few sentences of an August 17 article, Limbaugh charged:
LIMBAUGH: So you have four stories in The Washington Post today about what a rotten conservative Roberts is, and what a bunch of sneaks the lawyers are who stole some papers from the Reagan library, which obviously proves the guy's a racist. Because they're about affirmative action.
Limbaugh read, but apparently ignored, a sentence that noted: "Archivists said the lawyers returned the file but it now cannot be located." He did not, however, read three paragraphs in which Post staff writers Jeffrey Smith and Jo Becker reported that archivists were accepting responsibility for losing the file:
Nonetheless, [assistant archivist for presidential libraries Sharon] Fawcett said, "we are quite confident that the records were returned to us." Asked why, she said that while the attendant does not recall seeing the affirmative action file in question put back, the marker was not in the box after the lawyers departed. "It would have been very difficult, given the circumstances in the room," for the lawyers to have retained the file because they were separated from their bags, she said.
Instead, the folder was evidently lost later when all of the Roberts documents were transferred to new, acid-free folders and reorganized in anticipation of their disclosure to the Senate and news media.
It is "very difficult to believe it's anyone other than ourselves responsible for this loss," Fawcett said.
Moreover, Limbaugh's claim that the article insinuated that "the guy's a racist" appears to be based solely on the fact that, as the Post correctly reported, the missing documents pertained to affirmative action. However, the article contained no suggestions or implications about Roberts's personal views on race.