There's no fooling Bryan Walsh

Bryan Walsh of Time lets us know what he thinks of Nisbet's Climate Shift with the title of his post: The Unfair Reception of the Climate Shift Report Shows That Greens Need to Be More Open to New Ideas. He explains why he thinks the reception is unfair in an aside:

So, just to get this straight, a journalism watchdog is applauding a blogger for trying to preemptively keep reporters from reading and writing about a forthcoming report, apparently because we're not smart enough to figure out what might be true or not on our own?

Apparently. Look at Walsh's summary of one of Nisbet's key findings:

Mainstream news coverage--New York Times, Washington Post,, Politico and Wall Street Journal--of climate change in 2009 and 2010 actually represented the general scientific consensus on the issue: that global warming is real and that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are a main driver. The idea that the media has engaged in "false balance" in reporting on climate change is, in Nisbet's view, false.

Compare with Nisbet's own statement of that finding:

In 2009 and 2010, at The New York Times, The Washington Post and, nine out of 10 news and opinion articles reflected the consensus view on the reality and causes of climate change. At Politico, at least seven out of 10 articles portrayed the consensus view.

Did you notice which news source wasn't mentioned? Nisbet's analysis found that the Wall Street Journal did engage in "false balance", but he did not mention this in his key finding. He also downplayed the substantial presence of false balance at Politico.

I was intrigued by some of the other numbers in Nisbet's paper. He found that in the Washington Post in the 11 months before Copenhagen 93% of the articles reflected the scientific consensus, 5% were falsely balanced and just 2% dismissive of the consensus.

This suggests that "false balance" was all but absent from the Washington Post during that period, when in fact the Washington Post was indulging in a pathological version of false balance, deciding that George Will was entitled to his own facts. In the Washington Post a statement from the Polar Research Group can be balanced by a falsehood from George Will about what the Polar Research Group said.

I decided to look at the those articles myself. I selected the sample in the same way as Nisbet, except that I used Factiva rather than LexisNexis, and used all the articles rather than 1 in 4. I found that 110 (76%) reflected the consensus view, 28 (19%) were falsely balanced, and 7 (5%) were dismissive. Falsely balanced articles reporting on the science (like this one) were very rare. Instead, the falsely balanced articles were about politics, with the science being balanced by a statement from Inhofe that it was all a big hoax.

David Roberts has also commented on on Walsh's post:

The most puzzling part of Walsh's post, though, is his umbrage that Joe Romm is trying deliberately to "kill a false narrative." Walsh says, "as a journalist I'm not a huge fan of being told what I should and shouldn't think."

But, but [splutter] ... what is Nisbet's report if not a carefully constructed and packaged narrative designed to tell Walsh and others what they should think? In fact, the entire Breakthrough assault on environmental groups, begun in 2005, has been one of the most adept and skillful constructions of a media narrative I've ever witnessed. They and their acolytes are brilliant at manipulating the professional mores and self-images of journalists. By contrast, love him or hate him (and I'm a lover), Joe Romm is not exactly a slick media spin artist. He doesn't seem to know any way of communicating other than by stating, in the strongest possible terms, what he believes to be correct. He doesn't couch his criticism in the sort of soothing, this-side, that-side, we're-all-reasonable-people throat clearing that attracts the admiration of Serious People. He just blasts away, all guns blazing; he can't help it. Whatever you call that, it's hardly a devious strategy to control Bryan Walsh's mind. It's pretty above board! The guy who really wants to manipulate your narratives, the guy who's good at it, doesn't tell you he's doing it. After all, here's Walsh scolding greens for not meditating on the conclusions of a report based on numbers he admits are dubious. Looks like someone succeeded in capturing the narrative, and it wasn't Romm.

More like this

Journalism folk here in the U.S. like to draw a distinction between editorials-plus-opinion columns, and news articles appearing in the rest of the paper. Only for the latter is any resemblance to reality required.

I'm shooting from the hip, but I suspect that Nisbet drew this distinction (i.e. that he only looked at news articles, whereas Will writes an opinion column.)

By Anna Haynes (not verified) on 30 Apr 2011 #permalink

No, Nisbet included opinion articles. He did break them down into opinion and news articles, but the figure I quote above is the total and should match up with my percentages.

By Tim Lambert (not verified) on 30 Apr 2011 #permalink

Yes and no. At what point should we consider that we may be throwing the bad-faith baby out with the motivated-reasoning bathwater?

What field marks do you use to distinguish between someone acting in bad faith and a Dunning-Kruger afflictee?

By Anna Haynes (not verified) on 02 May 2011 #permalink

(I mean, yes, to Frank's statement, but no, to whether it's always applicable to public climate denial efforts.)

By Anna Haynes (not verified) on 02 May 2011 #permalink


Excellent item and I appreciate your factiva efforts. We should be clear that Nisbet differentiates between opinion pieces and opinion pieces. The Will items fall into the second category. And, of course, we should remember that this is Nisbet's "sampling" (which you mention) and that he has not, to my knowledge, shared that sample with anyone.

[NOTE: Anna, I totally reject the argument that "Only for the [news articles] is any resemblance to reality required." I'd love to see any editor stand up and argue that "reality" is irrelevant to the opinion section of a responsible journalistic institution.]

When it comes to opinion pieces, Nisbet asserts that 96% of his sampling supported consensus. My less rigorously done point was that, to simply balance "The Will Affair", the Washington Post would have had to have published 72 pieces from Jan through Nov 2009 supporting climate consensus. And, well, Nisbet confirmed in correspondence that he would include serial disinformation master Lomborg in the "supports climate science consensus" category showing just how meaningless (and misleading) his analytical structure is.

My post on this from a few weeks ago:…

> I'd love to see any editor stand up and argue that "reality" is irrelevant to the opinion section of a responsible journalistic institution.

IIRC this is commonly done for many US newspapers (I seem to recall the Wall Street Journal being one example) where editorials or opinion pieces are routinely lambasted by experts in the relevant fields as being counter-factual, and the editors either implicitly shrug off the criticism, and (IIRC once more) are even on record explicitly stating so. Don't have time to Google for examples right now, so take my recollections with a grain of salt.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 07 May 2011 #permalink

Re the differentiation, there are clearly different standards -- with opinion writers clearly allowed / enabled to act like 'lawyers' to shape facts / data to fit their (ofttimes distorted) weltaunschauung and arguments. On the other hand, outright defense of factless and false arguments is a step past tacit (or outright) allowing of deceptive pieces. Hiatt, I guess, almost went that far with George Will but, even then, it seemed that he tried to maneuver his way to avoid saying that he was allowing someone to be publishing outright deception and falsehoods.

> On the other hand, outright defense of factless and false arguments is a step past tacit (or outright) allowing of deceptive pieces.


In the US the Republicans would be laughed off the national stage if they weren't allowed to make counter-factual and false arguments ably backed up by various supporters in the media. Most of the headline Republican claims these days, and many of the more minor ones, just do not stand up to scrutiny. And some of them are especially out of touch with reality, but still manage to get on national TV without being met by gales of laughter.

Strange world we live in :-(

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 07 May 2011 #permalink
By Brad Johnson (not verified) on 07 May 2011 #permalink

Also worth noting: there are many, many varieties of terrible media coverage, destructive to the effort to pass climate legislation, that are not simple "climate change doesn't exist." Misinformation about the economics of climate solutions is pervasive and far more influential than simple denialism.