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WashPost Ombudsman steps up and steps in it … Plus another Will fabrication …

February 28th, 2009 · 12 Comments

Andrew Alexander, The Washington Post’s new Ombudsman, has really stepped into it big time with the mounting Will scandal due to his distortions, deceptions, and dishonesties when it comes to Global Warming columns. Alexander sought, it seems, to calm the raging seas by stepping up with a piece that will appear in tomorrow’ Post but has, it seems clear, simply thrown more oil on the flames. The Heat From a Global Warming Column begins:

Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren’t free to distort them.

The question of whether that happened is at the core of an uproar over a recent George F. Will column and The Post’s fact-checking process.

Well, the record is clear, George Will has distorted facts. Here are two from his second column:

1. Claiming that just one item from his first article was challenged. BEEP! Wrong. Not true. Whether or not he could defend his views, there were multiple items substantively challenged and George Will and The Post editors received a letter detailing three examples.

2. As a small example, Will misrepresented a 1975 New York Times article in a blatant (and, well, rude) attack on The Times’ credibility. (See material below.)

The list, as we are aware by now, goes on and on and, distressingly, on …

Will’s Feb. 15 column, headlined “Dark Green Doomsayers,” ridiculed “eco-pessimists” and cited a string of “predicted planetary calamities” that Will said have never come to pass.

A key paragraph, aimed at those who believe in man-made global warming, asserted: “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

Yes, this is “a key paragraph” but, again, it is far from the only distortion and deception in that column. (Here is a discussion of three examples.) George Will and The Post wish, it seems, to seek to narrow this down to this one specific issue where, while Will was wrong, there is a path to create a case that there was at least some basis (however bad) for his writing what he wrote (as deceptive and wrong-minded as it was).

This becomes a boring battle over a specific scientific fact when the issue is, truly, Will’s serial distortions and deceptions. This is a pattern and habit we’re speaking of, not isolated incident or isolated factual dispute.

The column triggered e-mails to The Post from hundreds of angry environmental activists and a few scientists, many asserting that the center had said exactly the opposite.

Let us be clear, the letters and emails were far from just about this one paragraph, one issue. I, alone, sent Alexander three notes and covered multiple issues, including, but not limited to, the issue of ice extent.

The ruckus grew when I e-mailed readers who had inquired about the editing process for Will’s column. My comments accurately conveyed what I had been told by editorial page editor Fred Hiatt — that multiple editors had checked Will’s sources, including the reference to the Arctic Climate Research Center. Although I didn’t render a judgment, my response was understandably seen as an institutional defense and prompted an orchestrated e-mail campaign in which thousands demanded that The Post correct Will’s “falsehoods.” Like they say when the pro football rookie gets clobbered: “Welcome to the NFL.”

Is that an indication that you got it wrong? What do you mean that you didn’t “render a judgment”? Didn’t sending that out render a judgment of stating that the Post had done its job? How were readers who saw that supposed to judge your work?

The messages, often identical in wording, were soon countered by waves of e-mails defending Will and attacking what many labeled “global warming alarmists” trying to muzzle him.

You have pledged to read all emails. What an insane pledge in today’s world of communication where an email like yours can so easily be swamped by coordinated campaigns. But, Mr Alexander, the real issue is not numbers, but of substance.

And, well, as hard as it seems to be for you and Fred Hiatt to admit, the challenges to George Will are correct as to his serial distortions and twisting of information when it comes to the issues of Global Warming (and, well, many other things).

By mid-week, it was a bit like watching chairs being thrown in a bar fight.

You were watching? Seems to me that is disingenuous, you are a participant.

Responding to the controversy, Will wrote again on Friday and insisted that his first column “accurately reported what the center had reported.”

Of course, that was not true.

As the debate continues, questions linger about The Post’s editing process. And there are separate questions about how The Post reacted once readers began questioning the accuracy of Will’s column.

“Questions linger …” How about questions are mounting in intensity?

First, the editing process. My inquiry shows that there was fact-checking at multiple levels.

It began with Will’s own research assistant, Greg Reed. When the column was submitted on Feb. 12 to The Washington Post Writers Group, which edits and syndicates it, Reed sent an accompanying e-mail that provided roughly 20 Internet reference links in support of key assertions in the column. Richard Aldacushion, editorial production manager at the Writers Group, said he reviewed every link. The column was then edited by editorial director Alan Shearer and managing editor James Hill.

Next, it went to The Post’s op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, who said she also reviewed the sources.

Cool. George Will “provided roughly 20 Internet reference links”. Okay. Please provide them. For some reason, it might be quite interesting to see what George Will and The Washington Post see as legitimate sources for information about Climate Change. The controversy has mounted to the point where such openness makes sense. Warning. There will people who actually fact check those sources.

The editors who checked the Arctic Research Climate Center Web site believe it did not, on balance, run counter to Will’s assertion that global sea ice levels “now equal those of 1979.” I reviewed the same Web citation and reached a different conclusion.

It said that while global sea ice areas are “near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979,” sea ice area in the Northern Hemisphere is “almost one million sq. km below” the levels of late 1979. That’s roughly the size of Texas and California combined. In my mind, it should have triggered a call for clarification to the center.

Yes. Since when does “near or slightly lower” equate to a strong assertion of “now equal”. (Will could have written “nearly equal” but, after all, seeking to be “nearly” accurate to his source would have weakened his truthiness-laden broadside.)

But according to Bill Chapman, a climate scientist with the center, there was no call from Will or Post editors before the column appeared. He added that it wasn’t until last Tuesday — nine days after The Post began receiving demands for a correction — that he heard from an editor at the newspaper. It was Brewington who finally e-mailed, offering Chapman the opportunity to write something that might help clear the air.

Well, even without the phone call, “nearly equal” might have been appropriate.

Now, are you going to mention that Will emphasized “now” when the citation was from several months ago? Would you allow a columnist to speak of former President Bush as if he were still in the Oval Office?

Readers would have been better served if Post editors, and the new ombudsman, had more quickly addressed the claims of falsehoods.

“Claims”? Okay, you are not getting it. Will’s columns are filled with falsehoods and deceptions. Again, that direct falsehood in yesterday’s column that he was only challenged on one issue is, in essence, repeated by inference in your column discussing only that issue.

Editors also missed opportunities to move the debate to washingtonpost.com. Will’s column attracted hundreds of comments online, and the three-day cutoff period for comments could have been extended to allow more. Experts could have been quickly engaged to debate Will’s assertions. Clarifications from the Arctic Climate Research Center could have been posted.

Okay. What is the readership of the printed paper vs the online columns? And, are you going to discuss the issue of distributing this to millions of other people via The Washington Post Writers’ Group or is that complicity beyond the scope of your responsibilities?

There is a disturbing if-you-don’t-agree-with-me-you’re-an-idiot tone to much of the global warming debate. Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute. But that’s where The Post could have helped, and can in the future.

What?

This is an incredible insult to the range and thoughtfulness of the commentaries from scientists, science reporters, media specialists, and others.

And, in terms of stepping into it, what does this say about Alexander’s regard for the Columbia Journalism Review (which published The George Will Affair). (For links to many fantastic discussions, see:

On its news pages, it can recommit to reporting on climate change that is authoritative and deep. On the editorial pages, it can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoints. And online, it can encourage dialogue that is robust, even if it becomes bellicose.

Mr. Alexander. There are real issues as to how the Washington Post is faux and balanced within its reporting, often seeming to require “balancing” with a quote from a skeptic or denier for environmental/climate change reporting.

Second, while the Post could “present a mix”, sadly it doesn’t. And, “Respected and informed” … what about “mis-informed”? And, any readiness/willingness to commit to actually holding those columnists to any reasonable standard of truth?

In all, this column does not truly answer the problems that The Post faces (created) with “The Will Affair”. This situation is not Alexander’s fault but he certainly hasn’t solved it either.

Sometimes comment sections can be quite enlightening. Perhaps mine was useful:

There is a serious issue here: you focus simply on ice extent, when that is only one of many distortions and, yes, falsehoods in Will’s first column.

Why not deal with his misrepresentation of the Global Cooling discussion … and his abuse of cited sources to misrepresent their totality?

What about his claims about Global Warming having stopped for a decade?

And, today’s column?

To start with, the direct falsehood that Will had been challenged on only one assertion when, as per above, I’ve just shown three (and there were others).

And, his misrepresentation of the NYTimes article which he uses to attack the Times.

And …

The list is impressively long for just two columns.

Why do you write as if there is only one item in dispute, when there are a plethora of misrepresentations and inaccuracies?

This is a situation, across much of the web, where climate realists are certainly in the majority. Here, from “imback”, is a comment that I found particularly cogent:

Thank you, Mr Alexander. This column is a start, but I have a few comments.

1) The volume or tone of your email traffic one way or the other is not important. The truth here is what matters.

2) There were other problems with the Will column besides the ice error. At least Will is now fully outed as a propagandist for climate change denialism.

3) The error checking at the Post clearly needs to be better, which you do address obliquely.

4) Online dialogue is NOT the answer. [NOTE: Alexander's piece will appear in Sunday's paper although the responses to it will not.] The signal to noise ratio is too low. The Post needs to get it right first or publish retractions.

Wonder whether Mr. Alexander will read and actually absorb “bellicose” commentaries like these.

And, another Will fabrication …

Well, let us give the excuse for The Washington Post. I think one could employ a fact-checker full-time on George F Will and, even if that hard-working soul person worked 24/7, it is unclear whether they could keep up with all of his mischaracterizations and untruths.

In his most recent second column, he cites a 1975 NYTimes article to say the Times was a fear-mongering on Global Cooling. Here is the article. This is a situation where I will simply cite another’s work. Here is an excellent discussion about this issue from The Way Things Break and George Will and The Washington Post - Reputations gone up in smoke over global warming denialism. From that discussion beginning with a quote from George Will:

Concerning those predictions, the New York Times was — as it is today in a contrary crusade — a megaphone for the alarmed, as when (May 21, 1975) it reported that “a major cooling of the climate” was “widely considered inevitable” because it was “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950.”

Here Will is engaging in obvious, pathetic quote mining. Setting aside that a single article in The New York Times is not itself sufficient evidence today or 20 odd years ago to proclaim the “near certainty” of anything- what does the NY Times article actually say? [following emphases mine]

The very headline of the article directly contradicts Will’s assertion: “Scientists Ask Why World Climate Is Changing; Major Cooling May Be Ahead.”

The opening graph: “The world’s climate is changing. Of that scientists are firmly convinced. But in what direction and why are the subjects of deepening debate.”

Yes, this is the story that Will flatly claimed as a “[prediction] about the near certainty of calamitous global cooling”.

Another fantastic example of how George Will is fabricating and deceiving. What is The Washington Post’s standard for fact-checking Will? Other than, it seems, making him raise his right hand or something (with fingers crossed behind his back) to say that they can publish his material?

NOTE: For a strong, fact-filled indictment of Will’s second column, see Joe Romm’s In a journalistic blunder reminiscent of the Janet Cooke scandal, the senior editors of the Washington Post let George Will reassert several climate falsehoods plus some new ones

NOTE: I am trying to maintain a list of relevant blog posts re “The Will Affair” as an open reference. See Wash-Post Embraces Will-ful Deceit for tens of links. Feel free to add any missing/relevant items in the comments. (It is hard to keep up.)

Tags: Global Warming · climate change · climate delayers · global warming deniers

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David E. Brown // Feb 28, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you for this. It’s sad that The Washington Post has deteriorated so much from the days of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee, who checked, checked, and rechecked, and even then only published when they were sure that they had it clearly right, not just marginally right.

  • 2 Steve Bloom // Feb 28, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen mention of the other Will lies regarding the sea ice, one of which is worse than the one that’s gotten all the attention. Here’s Will’s original passage:

    “As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

    Re the first sentence, Will had to make this claim first in order to justify paying attention to*global* sea ice levels to the exclusion of northern hemisphere ones. I’m pretty sure there is not a single instance of an expert saying such a thing, which is unsurprising since the global figure masks what’s going on at each pole and so lacks climatological significance.

    Re the second sentence, that “however” is a claim that it somehow contradicts concerns abut dropping sea ice levels. In fact, since predictions are for summer sea ice to drop much more quickly than winter levels, that the recovery rate is sharper than in the past simply confirms the trend. Will has turned the meaning of this on its head.

    All the brouhaha has focused on the last sentence, but the first one is clearly the greater lie.

    The foregoing brought this passage to mind (h/t Some are Boojums via Rabett Run):

    _________________

    In Dashiell Hammett’s story The Golden Horseshoe, much of the action takes place in a bar of that name in Tijuana. At one point the narrator, an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, kills a few strategic seconds by studying the decorations:

    I was reading a sign high on the wall behind the bar:

    ONLY GENUINE PRE-WAR AMERICAN AND BRITISH WHISKEYS SERVED HERE

    I was trying to count how many lies could be found in those nine words, and had reached four, with promise of more …

    Sometimes I come across an article, web posting, advertisement or other statement that makes me feel when I read it just as I imagine the Continental Op did in that Tijuana bar.

    How can they possibly pack so much misinformation into such a small space?
    _________________

    How indeed?

  • 3 Steve Bloom // Mar 1, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    I see that Revkin picked up on the other two sea ice points in his most recent post, but there’s little mention of them elsewhere.

  • 4 Philip H. // Mar 2, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    If you follow the link to my blog, I’ve asked/framed a slightly different question - what can we learn from this affair to be ready for the next time?

    By way of a teaser, I’ll say it’s not how to debunk Mr. Will’s facts.

  • 5 Some columnists get it: climate realism in the OPED section // Mar 2, 2009 at 3:11 pm

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  • 8 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review jumps into a pile of … with both feet // Mar 9, 2009 at 12:01 am

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