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Monday, February 27, 2012

Media Ethics and Climate Change

Our chapter on mass media discusses leaking, a topic that raises serious questions of ethics. A recent leak of documents from the Heartland Institute involved deception, as John Horgan writes at Scientific American:
Last week, Peter Gleick, a global-warming researcher and environmental activist, admitted on Huffington Post that he had been the source of the documents. Gleick confessed that he obtained the documents by approaching the Heartland Institute under a feigned identity.
The incident has exposed a deep fissure not just between global-warming deniers and believers but within the green community. For example, the journalist Andy Revkin, author of the blog Dot Earth, deplored Gleick’s actions, for the following reasons:
“One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others. (Some of the released documents contain information about Heartland employees that has no bearing on the climate fight.) That is his personal tragedy and shame (and I’m sure devastating for his colleagues, friends and family). The broader tragedy is that his decision to go to such extremes in his fight with Heartland has greatly set back any prospects of the country having the ‘rational public debate’ that he wrote—correctly–is so desperately needed.”
Another blogger, Joe Romm of Climate Progress, granted that Gleick “committed a serious lapse of professional judgment and ethics. He is right to regret his actions and make a personal apology.” But Romm went on to demand that Revkin apologize for quoting global-warming sources who, according to Romm, have “been repeatedly debunked, the disinformers and confusionists.” Romm is referring not to deniers but to believers—such as Roger Pielke, a respected scientist–who do not accept the most extreme climate-change scenarios and solutions. To my mind, Romm is faulting Revkin—who is one of the most knowledgeable, conscientious, hard-working journalists I know–for doing his job well.
 The leak also involved outright forgery, as Steven Hayward writes:
In an obvious attempt to inflict a symmetrical Climategate-style scandal on the skeptic community, someone representing himself as a Heartland Institute insider “leaked” internal documents for Heartland’s most recent board of directors meeting to a fringe environmental blog, along with a photocopy of a supposed Heartland “strategy memo” outlining a plan to disseminate a public school curriculum aimed at “dissuading teachers from teaching science.”
This ham-handed phrase (one of many) should have been a tipoff to treat the document dump with some .  .  . skepticism (a trait that has gone missing from much of the climate science community). But more than a few environmental blogs and mainstream news outlets ran with the story of how this “leak” exposed the nefarious “antiscience” Neanderthals of Heartland and their fossil fuel paymasters. But the strategy memo is a fake, probably created because the genuine internal documents are fairly ho-hum.
Ross Kaminsky, an unpaid senior fellow and former Heartland board member now with the American Spectator, noticed something odd in the digital fingerprint of the “strategy memo.” It had been scanned on an Epson printer/scanner on Monday, February 13, on the West Coast (not in the Midwest, where Heartland is located), just one day before the entire document dump appeared online for the first time. Like the famous little detail of when and how Alger Hiss disposed of his old Ford, this date and location will turn out to be a key piece of evidence unraveling the full story, some of which still remains shrouded.