CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Global Warming Meltdown

Joel Kaplan

September 24, 2012

Nothing has generated as many public complaints as a recent story on NewsHour concerning global warming. A segment on the show headlined "Climate Change Skeptic No Longer Doubts Human Role in Global Warming" focused on the changing position of Richard Muller, a physicist who has long been a climate change skeptic but published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he declared he is now convinced that humans are the cause for global warming. But the complaints primarily centered on an interview with Anthony Watts, a leading global warming skeptic who doubts the role of humans in the global warming process. Mr. Watts is not a physicist. He is a meteorologist.

Mark Chopping, professor of Earth & Environmental Studies at Montclair State University was the first to weigh in:

"I have just witnessed possibly the most disturbing piece of non-journalism by a Thirteen/PBS reporter that I can remember: Spencer Michels' report on climate change, broadcast this evening on The NewsHour. The program is linked here: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/09/why-the-global-warming-crowd-oversells-its-message.html

"I have written to the station via its website Contact form but I doubt I will receive a response -- and I do not know who the editor is -- so I am writing to you. My complaints:

* Why in earth was the language 'climate change believers' used (thereby insulting mainstream scientists en masse, as well as those who agree with them).

* The report was just another 'he said, she said'-style hack piece of the sort that has become endemic in the MSM (mainstream media), making it appear as if there is a debate going on with 50-50 support for each side: nothing could be further from the truth. I had to ask myself: is The NewsHour still concerned with the truth, or at least a close approximation?

* Why was the anti-skeptic blogger Anthony Watts provided with so much space and time to air his views?

* In attempting to cover all the bases, the report largely failed to address any part adequately and ended up giving a distorted message on human accelerated climate change. It was as if Mr. Michels had not done even the most basic research on this topic.

* The URL contains 'why-the-global-warming-crowd-oversells-its-message.html' — why is that?

"I cannot tell you just how truly disappointed I was to watch this report this evening. When even PBS broadcasts reports of such appallingly low standards on such important topics, what hope is there -- for journalism or democracy?"

Another complaint came from Richard Pauli:

"Regarding NewsHour—they seem to be biased in denying global warming.

"I am shocked and bothered by their active cultivation of ignorance shown on their show.

"Please scrutinize their reporting - because in dangerous times, their work amounts to treason on the future of humans. Please yank their funding - and apply it to proper coverage of the most important news story of our civilization"

Still another from Timothy J. DiChiara:

"I must protest PBS giving air time on The NewsHour to global warming denier Anthony Watts. The man is an energy industry shill selling anti-science. To give him the floor would be like running a piece on the health effects of smoking tobacco then giving air time to a tobacco company spokesman who claims that there is no hard evidence that smoking causes cancer and heart disease. To include Watts in the discussion of global warming is not to offer your viewership balance but merely to enable a con artist. It's an embarrassment to your network."

Several of the complaints were from academics, though not necessarily scientists.

Richard Miller, a professor of theology at Creighton University had this to say:

"The NewsHour interview on September 17, 2012 on with climate denier Anthony Watts was irresponsible.

"The most prestigious scientific bodies in the world have all issued public statements that global warming is real and is caused mainly by human beings, including the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, China, India, and Russia.

"According to a peer reviewed analysis of the published peer reviewed scientific literature 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC [Anthropogenic Climate Change] outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"Since 'journalistic balance' is the overarching principle that you are guided by, then I expect that the interview with the denier Anthony Watts will be followed by 97 interviews with actual climate scientists who hold the consensus view that is grounded in evidence; namely, that warming is real and is caused mainly by human beings."

I forwarded these and the other complaints to Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS. Because NewsHour is a PBS program, complaints about the show are handled by Mr. Getler, who informed me that he received hundreds of complaints similar to the ones I received.

Mr. Getler did weigh in the controversy. He included responses from Mr. Michels, Linda Winslow, the executive producer of the NewsHour, and Mr. Watts.

Mr. Getler also included several of the public comments he received.

His report on the controversy can be found here:

http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2012/09/climate_change_creates_a_storm.html

About CPB

CPB promotes the growth and development of public media in communities throughout America.

Programs & Projects

CPB awards grants to stations and independent producers to create programs and services.