A Newsletter with an Eye on Political Media from The American Prospect
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‘Both Sides’ Journalism Versus the Truth on Climate Change
Why our leading newspapers still entertain dangerous nonsense on their opinion pages
Mitch Daniels, identified as “a [Washington] Post contributing columnistpresident of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana” on the Post op-ed page, is concerned about academic freedom. He—or someone who works for him—apparently came across an article in Scientific American signed by 12 scientists objecting to the widely publicized views of Steve Koonin. Its authors termed Koonin “a crank who’s only taken seriously by far-right disinformation peddlers hungry for anything they can use to score political points,” and “just another [climate change] denier trying to sell a book,” among other things.

In his Post op-ed, Daniels, who was also formerly director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush, takes up Koonin’s case. Fortunately, he does not profess to be able to referee between the 12 scientists and Koonin, but he is concerned about the state of debate. He allows for the possibility that the 12 scientists may “ultimately prove right” (and therefore we are in terrible danger of making our planet all but uninhabitable), but his real concern is with the spectacle of “someone daring to challenge a prevailing orthodoxy” being confronted by an “anti-intellectual, burn-the-heretic attitude that has infected too much of the academic and policy worlds.”

It would be great if Daniels’s concern indicated that we have identified that rarest of contemporary phenomena: a living, breathing principled conservative. Dream on, dear reader. That same fellow who is so upset to see what he would like to believe to be “the year’s most important book” exposed as a dangerous fraud by 12 of Koonin’s peers in a publication known for its rigorous editorial standards is committed to the very same precepts of conservative cancel culture that appear to arise every time there’s news of a faculty member teaching something he or she doesn’t like. For instance, back in January 2010, this same Washington Post columnist—then governor of Indiana—took the occasion of the death of the left-wing American historian Howard Zinn to demand of his state’s top educational official that he ensure that what Daniels called Zinn’s “truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation [A People’s History of the United States] that misstates American history on every page” not be “in use anywhere in Indiana.” And if it were, he asked, “how do we get rid of it …” (And yes, sadly for its faculty and students, this cancel-culture hypocrite is now president of Purdue University, where his job is to protect the academic freedom of his faculty.)

Climate deniers will latch on to any unavoidable uncertainty in the science or its sources to try to discredit what we (by now) know to be true: that our reliance on fossil fuels is making the Earth unlivable at an ever-increasing pace. Though it makes no sense, given the global nature of the threat and the need, therefore, of a global solution, one right-wing response is xenophobia. Daniels complains, for instance, that one reason he is sympathetic to this particular denier’s case is that “Researchers’ deep financial ties to foreign funding sources raise the specter of compromised security and integrity of results.”

As the 12 scientists note, Koonin’s case has also been advanced by yet another Washington Post opinion writer, the infamous champion of the use of torture, Marc Thiessen. His column, they note, “repeats several points Koonin makes. The first is citing the 2017 National Climate Assessment to downplay rising temperatures—but the report’s very first key finding on the topic says temperatures have risen, rapidly since 1979, and are the warmest in 1,500 years. The second is Thiessen quoting Koonin’s use of an outdated 2014 assessment on hurricanes to downplay climate concerns. But the newer 2017 report finds that human activity has ‘contributed to the observed upward trend in North Atlantic hurricane activity since the 1970s.’” What a shocker to learn that.

Thiessen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow the money, as the saying goes, and we learn from this recent study that “of all the conservative, climate-denying think tanks that get Koch and other industry funding, AEI has gotten the most. It received some $380 million to peddle industry-friendly denial like Koonin’s, much of it through dark money pass-throughs to conceal that it’s coming from conservative and dirty-energy donors.”

It’s not just the Post that is offering its precious space to those who deny reputable science on behalf of conspiracy theories that serve the needs of Republican party funders. Both Daniels’s and Thiessen’s columns were of a piece with the sophisticated denialism that regularly appears on the Times op-ed page under the byline of Bret Stephens. You may recall that the paper’s previous publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chose to sully his more than two decades as publisher of the paper of record in 2017 by lifting Stephens from the swamps of the editorial pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal—where climate denial is as intensely determined a diktat as collectivism was of Stalin’s Communist Party—and give him the most prestigious perch from which to opine in all American journalism. There, in his first column (as I wrote in The Nation at the time), “ignoring the consensus opinion of virtually all qualified climatologists, Stephens wondered about the ‘ideological intentions’ of those who demand that we act before it’s too late. Offering no specific examples, he accused ‘the climate-advocacy community’ of ‘convey[ing] the impression’ that the steps required to avoid catastrophe are ‘not just necessary, but relatively straightforward and affordable.’” Typical of climate deniers, Stephens was dishonest about the numbers. As I wrote back then, “In fact, as a 2011 International Energy Agency report explained, ‘for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.’”

(We note also that the enormous costs involved with even attempting to address the costs of climate change are rarely considered by the denial industry. For instance, the 12 Scientific American scientists note that “a study published recently found that because climate change has caused sea levels to rise, Superstorm Sandy flooded an additional 36,000 homes, impacting 71,000 people who would’ve been safe otherwise, and caused $8 billion in additional damage. How many people are suffering, and paying in health care costs because of fossil fuels isn’t the kind of thing Steve Koonin thinks you should worry about, though.”)

Some Times readers objected when Stephens’s hiring was initially announced. Sulzberger pooh-poohed their concerns, lecturing them that he and then–editorial page editor James Bennet “believe that this kind of debate, by challenging our assumptions and forcing us to think harder about our positions, sharpens all our work and benefits our readers.” Well, yes, that would be great, but the problem, long before Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, is that it has been almost impossible for conservatives to make arguments that adhere both to the truth and to the political precepts of the Republican Party, its base, and its funders. The insistence on privileging a commitment to presenting “both sides” over truth has led us to the precipice of allowing a dangerous, deluded cult to destroy both our planet and our democracy with the imprimatur of our most prestigious media properties. (Bennet, hardly coincidentally, lost his job for allowing the page to publish a flat-out call for fascist state violence.) In doing so, these papers disservice their readers and shame themselves and their papers’ legacies.

Speaking, yet again, of the horrors of conservative culture, I’ve not seen any right-wing champions of free speech complain of the case of Nikole Hannah-Jones. The most recent chapter in this sad case appears to be a cancellation of her speech by the Middlesex School, a private school in Concord, Massachusetts, scheduled in celebration of Black History Month. The school’s head said he was “concerned” that “individuals from outside our community might inadvertently distract from the insights and perspective that she intended to share.” Shorter version: We decided to cave to purposeful intimidation.
If you want to know why this newsletter considers Bruce Springsteen to be not merely the greatest performer in the history of rock ’n’ roll, but among the greatest performers of any task by anyone, ever—a ridiculous assertion, I know, but I’ll stand by it as it is not only unprovable but also un-disprovable—here are five minutes and ten seconds of evidence. The performance took place at the 1979 “No Nukes” show. I was there and I wrote about it (and its literally religious significance) a bit here. Throw in this wonderful performance by James Taylor and Carly Simon from what looks like the same set of shows, and you might come away with the impression that the ’70s did not totally suck. Alas, they totally did, but we can at least thank Altercation comrade Danny Goldberg for the No Nukes movie that preserved these memories. You can show Danny some love by buying his new book, out next week, Bloody Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment, and Resistance to Trump, and also learn a great deal about said topic. (And whatever you do, don’t confuse it with this crazy thing!)
See you next week.
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, an award-winning journalist, and the author of 11 books, most recently Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse (Basic, 2020). Previously, he wrote The Nation’s “Liberal Media” column for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @eric_alterman
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