Blog ››› ››› SHAUNA THEEL
Last night, PBS NewsHour turned to meteorologist and climate change contrarian Anthony Watts to "counterbalance" the mainstream scientific opinions presented by the program. This false balance is a disservice to PBS' viewers, made worse by the program's failure to explain Watts' connection to the Heartland Institute, an organization that receives funding from some corporations with a financial interest in confusing the public on climate science.
While PBS mentioned that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that manmade global warming is occurring, it did not reflect this consensus by giving significant airtime to Watts' contrarian views. The segment presented Watts as the counterbalance to scientists that believe in manmade global warming -- every time a statement that reflects the scientific consensus was aired, in came Watts to cast doubt in viewers' minds. As 66 percent of Americans incorrectly think that "there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening," news organizations need to be careful not to contribute to this confusion.
The segment focused on the findings of physicist Richard Muller, who was previously skeptical of climate science, and decided to embark on a study to re-examine the data. Muller's work was partially funded by the Koch Brothers, who fund climate contrarian groups like the Heartland Institute, and he collaborated with Watts to address his concerns about the reliability of the temperature record. Watts stated at the time, "I'm prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." But after Muller reconfirmed the surface temperature record that has been constructed by several scientific groups and is consistent with satellite temperature records, Watts continued to dispute it. Yet in the full interview with Watts that PBS posted online, reporter Spencer Michels did not challenge Watts once, instead asking questions like, "What's the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there's lots of global warming?"
In the online report, Michels revealed that he got in contact with Watts through the Heartland Institute -- which he failed to mention on-air. Segments like this one on PBS are the very goal of groups like the Heartland Institute, as the New York Times' Andrew Revkin explained:
The norm of journalistic balance has been exploited by opponents of emissions curbs. Starting in the late 1990s, big companies whose profits were tied to fossil fuels recognized they could use this journalistic practice to amplify the inherent uncertainties in climate projections and thus potentially delay cuts in emissions from burning those fuels. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this strategy was a long memo written by Joe Walker, who worked in public relations at the American Petroleum Industry, that surfaced in 1998. According to this ''Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,'' first revealed by my colleague John Cushman at the New York Times, ''Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom'' for ''average citizens'' and ''the media'' (Cushman 1998). The action plan called for scientists to be recruited, be given media training, highlight the questions about climate, and downplay evidence pointing to dangers. Since then, industry-funded groups have used the media's tradition of quoting people with competing views to convey a state of confusion even as consensus on warming has built.
In addition to being promoted by Heartland, Watts was paid by the Heartland Institute for his work on temperature stations. Yet PBS left out that fact, even as it aired Watts suggesting that 97 percent of climate scientists are lying in order to be paid by the allegedly lucrative global warming "business":