The August 19th edition of the New York Times reported some wonderful news about the environment, but all but the most careful readers were left with the impression that ecological doom is upon us. I believe that the Times is America's greatest newspaper, but its environmental reporting that day was almost 180 degrees away from reality.
The front page story was the now-infamous report that ice had melted at the North Pole, allowing passengers on a boat to see open water. The Times portrayed it as a unique and frightening event, and suggested that we were witnessing the terrible results of global warming.
Ten days later, the Times printed this correction: "A front-page article on Aug. 19 and a brief report on Aug. 20 in The Week in Review about the sighting of open water at the North Pole misstated the normal conditions of the sea ice there. A clear spot has probably opened at the pole before, scientists say, because about 10 percent of the Arctic Ocean is clear of ice in a typical summer. The reports also referred incompletely to the link between the open water and global warming. The lack of ice at the pole is not necessarily related to global warming."
The day before the correction appeared in the Times, Fred Singer, a former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service, debunked the Times story in a superb piece in the Wall Street Journal. The Times had to have been embarrassed -- and we hope chastened -- by the reaction to this episode. The correction inspired David Letterman to create the "Top Ten Signs The New York Times Is Slipping." Number 10: "Instead of 'All The News That's Fit To Print,' slogan is 'Stuff We Heard From A Guy Who Says His Friend Heard About It'."
So what was the good news in the August 19 edition? Well, the polar ice story continued from the front page to page A12, where a more significant story was headlined: "Study Proposes New Strategy to Stem Global Warming." In an absolutely amazing and welcome development for those hoping to save the planet without wrecking our economy, the guru of global warming theorists was now saying that carbon dioxide emissions were not as serious a problem as we once thought.
Dr. James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has been perhaps the most prominent advocate of the theory that man is warming the planet with potentially devastating consequences – and has been frequently quoted by Al Gore in defending the VP's environmental policies -- had announced a new approach to combat potential warming. This was huge news – back there on A12 next to the jump for the ice story.
Hansen and his colleagues now say that methane, chlorofluorocarbons and other emissions may contribute more to warming than carbon dioxide, and have suggested new measures to limit pollution – measures that would be much cheaper and would not require the energy rationing in the US demanded by the proposed Kyoto treaty.
Even within the Hansen story, the Times chose to downplay the significance, emphasizing that many global warming theorists don't want the new Hansen report to be used to weaken the Kyoto agreement. It was an interesting way to respond to the report, as if the goals of the treaty – limiting Americans' energy use and making it more expensive while allowing most of the world to escape regulation – are valuable in and of themselves, without a looming disaster to justify them.
Of course I understand that journalism often thrives on disaster stories, and reporters are often tempted to "juice" their copy to make the story seem more dramatic. But the alleged threat of environmental ruin from global warming has been exhaustively covered by the media. People have heard a great deal about it. I have to believe that a front page story suggesting that we may be able to avoid disaster after all would be highly interesting to readers.
So why does the Times want to accentuate the negative? The New York Times asks a lot of its customers – it's a dry read that takes a long time to digest. In return, the paper is supposed to deliver authoritative reports on the most important stories of the day. And on most days, it's a good trade, but on August 19th, readers got a raw deal.