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WashPost/NY Times: To Subscribe or Unsubscribe, that is the question.

August 2nd, 2010 · 2 Comments

Like composting, newspaper reading was something absorbed while is in the womb. For much of my childhood, the Siegel clan had a morning and afternoon paper along with several local weeklies and national magazines. (Yes, college marketing matters: pa Siegel is still subscribing to Newsweek, come hell and high water, more than 50 years after that first cheap college subscription.)

Thus, the idea of life without a dead-tree edition with the morning coffee is a step yet to be taken despite the richness of the blogosphere and the CO2/environmental/watts of energy implications of tons lbs of paper delivered to the door. While we are approaching the time where some form of flexible web reader might make the dead-tree edition truly superfluous, for the moment my Siegel clan gets its hands dirty with the paper in the morning. And, for the moment, this is The Washington Post … but should it be is a question that we discuss.

Follow after the fold for discussion of how a bad NY Times column promoting climate denial and dissing the blogosphere tips the scales for The Post … for this week, at least.

My household, in the Washington, DC, area has a running background question: has it finally reached the point where we should cross the Rubicon and end our Washington Post subscription and subscribe to The New York Times?

In short, The Post opinion section is dominated by a pantheon of conservatives and (far) too frequently has disinformation and errors when it comes to energy, climate, and other arenas. George Will, of The Washington Post writer’s service, is one of the most aggressive and deceitful columnists when it comes to climate change. And, when he is caught in direct errors (that he repeats), The Washington Post‘s reaction: defend Will rather than truth and truthfulness. While people like Bill McKibben ( get in the occasional OPED, serial anti-science syndrome misinformers like Bjorn Lomborg and Robert Bryce get prominent play as well without mentioning the publication of Sarah “Energy Expert” Palin’s truth-free scribblings.

The problems of ‘faux and balanced’ move well beyond the editorial into the reporting, with too many of the pieces on climate change having to have deniers or deceivers getting quoted: a paragraph for climate science, a paragraph for deceit, a paragraph for … jeez, isn’t it all confusing? The Post‘s problems extend well beyond energy and climate with, for example, a tight relationship with the Petersen Institute leading to misleading reporting on the debt and options to deal with it. Thus, on a day opening the paper in the morning to see the latest Will screed or an article about flooding commenting that it was all nature or …, my better 95+% will react to my groans and irritation with “isn’t it time to switch to The Times”.

The temptation is there but there are reasons to resist. My better 95+% doesn’t care about hometown sports but the kids do — and fight over the paper in the morning to read on the local teams. And, The Post is the ‘hometown’ paper and reports DC as hometown, not something far away. Yet, paying for subscription to a newspaper that seems to put striving to gain ground with the right-wing over requirements to be truthful far too often is painful. The Post seems determined, too often, to be balanced between political sides of an argument rather than focused on truthfulness. As per a question asked of Senator Claire McCaskill:

Why is it such a badge of pride to be caught in the middle between those supported by scientists and real-world events, on one side, and anti-science syndrome sufferers, on the other?

Ah, the temptation is there. The grass is always greener and, all too often, forwarded articles and OPEDs from The Times can generate real interest. Every time, however, when The Times starts to seem appealing they publish a glowing tribute (written by a sports reporter) to a global warming denier or give credence to deception on things like “ClimateGate” or give undue attention (and credence) to serial deceivers like Marc Morano in faux/balanced reporting or put out an item of unbelievable ignorance … as they did this weekend with the publication of Virginia Heffernan’s Unnatural Science which is focused on the “Pepsi War” over at Science Blogs.

While I will discuss some items from the column more directly below, Heffernan moves from language and thinking worth debating and discussing to fostering disinformation and confusion with the following note:

Points of Entry: This Week’s Recommendations

For science that’s accessible but credible, steer clear of polarizing hatefests like atheist or eco-apocalypse blogs. Instead, check out scientific american, and Anthony Watts’s blog, Watts Up With That?

Simply put: WTF?

Recommending Watt’s anti-science blog as “science” that is “accessible but credible” merits little more than: WTF!

And, the ‘liberal rag Times‘ putting Watt’s along side the excellent work of Scientific American and Discover Magazine is certainly an item that will be used by climate deniers to help foster greater confusion.

Heffernan’s literary critique column went up on the web Friday and, well before it made it into people’s homes in hard copy, the science blogosphere had blown up about this (A Blog Around the Clock has links to 15+ commentaries). As Science Pundit put it,

What I found most disturbing about her piece is that after berating the “poor quality” of science blogging over at Scienceblogs, she recommends the AGW denialist blog Watts Up With That as “science that’s accessible but credible”.

I too have enjoyed her columns in the past, but her credibility just took a big hit there as far as I’m concerned.

Heffernan had backed away from her ‘footnote’ before people woke up with the paper Sunday in a response to David Dobbs’ (Neuron Culture) explanation of the Pepsi Wars and critique of Hefferman
. Hefferman’s online comment includes the following:

I have no training in science.

One regret: the Watts blog. Virtually everyone who emailed me pointed out that it’s as axe-grinding as anything out there. I linked to it because has a lively voice; it’s detail-oriented and seemingly not snide; and, above all, it has some beautiful images I’d never seen before. I’m a stranger to the debates on science blogs, so I frankly didn’t recognize the weatherspeak on the blog as “denialist”; I didn’t even know about denialism. I’m don’t endorse the views on the Watts blog, and I’m extremely sorry the recommendation seemed ideological.

Note that Heffernan focuses on Watts in terms of tone (“axe-grinding”) and “ideological” and comments, directly, that she “didn’t even know about denialism” after commenting that she has “no training in science”. As a literary critic, she likes WUTW because it “has a lively voice” and “has some beautiful images”.

Now, to take a pause out, perhaps Hefferman could take some time to do film criticism and look to Peter Sinclair and his devastating dissection of WUWT (that Anthony Watts sought to surpress) as part of his Climate Crock of the Week series:

Readers pay for newspapers, in part, because the amount of information out there is overwhelming and we are paying people to be informed interlocutors to help us (the readers) sift through the grains of sand to find items that merit more attention. In this case, with her “I have no training in science” attraction to WUWT’s fancy graphics, Virginia Hefferman has utterly failed in that duty by giving prominent praise to a truthiness and deceit-laden website.

Now, Heffernan has backed away from her “Always Science” footnote directly recommending the truthiness and deceit at WUWT. Heffernan did this in a footnote to a science bloggers post that might be read by several hundred people (wow, maybe 1000s). This footnote remains online at The New York Times webpage and went into people’s homes yesterday. Which is likely to garner more attention?

About that subscription …

Well, at least for the moment, Virginia Heffernan has solved the household dilemma. The Washington Post subscription will continue and The New Times won’t be showing up on the doorstep.

A quick note about The Pepsi Wars

In brief, Science Blogs emerged over the past four years as an extremely valuable collaboration hosting a large number of high-quality blogs focused on science and scientific issues. Very simply, this has become something of a Good Housekeeping stamp of approval: if someone is writing over at Science Blogs, you might not agree with them and you might challenge some of their work, but the community had ‘sifted through the sands’ for the rest of us to identify people worth learning from and engaging with. Well, a decision was made to allow Pepsi Corporation to pay to have a Science Blog. There was a fundamental problem that sparked outrage:

Someone at PepsiCo came up with a not so bright idea to buy credibility on the venerable ScienceBlogs by posing as a nutrition blogger. …

But instead of a regular blogger, Pepsi hid the fact that the blog, Food Frontier, had a contingency of Pepsi scientists behind it. The dishonest approach of Scienceblogs and Pepsi created an online firestorm in the rarified air of the scientific community.

Yes, Pepsi went with a scientific sockpuppet and SEED/Science Blogs blew it by allowing them to do this … as if, well, it is easy to hide things on the web.

Anyone surprised that this led to strong dissension within the SB “community” with (sadly) a number of SB bloggers stopping blogging there and a quite possible end to what has been a valuable addition to fostering accessible quality scientific discussion?

Hefferman’s column provides her perspective on this War. Personally, I find the column to be shallow and poorly informed but, without the paean to WUWT, not really worthy of much attention. Heffernan’s post provides yet another example of traditional media (‘dead-tree journalism’) broadsides against bloggers as unduly fractious and argumentative, selectively quoting to prove the case without discussing the quite high intellectual quality and substance in the vast majority of the discussions. And, Heffernan also attacks these science bloggers as somehow unduly ethical in a utopian way:

20 or so high-placed science bloggers angrily parted ways with an extremely popular and award-winning online collective called ScienceBlogs because it starting running Food Frontiers, a nutrition blog that PepsiCo paid to have on the site. … In farewell posts, the bloggers charged that the advertorial was deceptive and undermined the purpose of the collective.

Seed Media Group, which oversees ScienceBlogs, eventually killed off the commercial blog, but the staff bloggers kept leaving. Some have predicted that the ScienceBlogs network won’t survive the defections. …

I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”

Let me provide a different perspective, Virginia.

1. Unlike you, the vast majority of those blogging aren’t receiving a penny for their efforts. This isn’t “their job”. They are doing this for a variety of motivations, but this is passion and discussion and interaction and not commercial venture for nearly every blogger.

2. In essence, Heffernan is criticizing these scientists for having a clear sense of their ethics and their ethical lines as opposed to the compromised journalistic ethics that “writers for “legacy” media … see .. an occupational hazard”. Rather than something for criticism, many would see this as something to compliment and praise.

Rather than the shallow discourse that was the column, these two combine (imo) to provide the basis for serious discourse and examination of a meaningful question: Do differing business models between volunteer blogging (even on a site run by a (pseudo) commercial outfit) and “legacy” media enable and foster differing journalistic ethics?

Heffernan focuses on criticizing bloggers for having a liberty to express their passion and views more strongly than one would expect on a ‘dead-tree’ editorial page while also criticizing these scientists for having ethics that she (to keep her salary?) can’t afford to have. As a literary critic, Heffernan focused on the shallowest of examination and discussion of The Pepsi Wars and simply misses what might be the most insightful item for a “legacy” media critic to consider.

Hat-tip to Joe Romm, Climate Progress.

NOTE: Heffernan’s column has and will get a lot of discussion. Again, A Blog Around the Clock seems to be aggregating links to discussions. Here are a few eamples:

Paul Raeburn, Knight Science Journalism Tracker, NY Times: Science bloggers ‘charged with bigotry,’ and ‘class-war claptrap.’

Heffernan sees no important journalism issue here, which puts her at odds with most other journalists. Looks as though she had fun, however, dismissing the entire enterprise of science blogging.

PZ Myers, Pharygnula, Could Virginia Heffernan possibly be more wrong?

this final bit is absurd and discredits her completely: she lists some blogs she favors for her version of ‘science’. … The first two are fine, but seriously: the pretentious weatherman who jiggers the evidence and makes up stuff about climate to deny the facts? If only she would have also mentioned a creationist blog or two, it would have made my day.

NOTE / UPDATE: In my focus on Heffernan, I missed a far worse piece as documented over at Wonkroom, The World Is Burning, And The New York Times Fiddles Inhofe’s Tune.

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Tags: climate delayers · Energy · global warming deniers · journalism

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 The Science Pundit // Aug 2, 2010 at 9:07 am

    As a side note, many of the bloggers who left Scienceblogs have relocated here:

    Thank you. Posted into discussion.

  • 2 Post Watch: Balance and Absence aren’t top-flight journalism … // Dec 1, 2011 at 9:14 am

    […] dirtied and darkened to distortion on critical issues to the point that I (and, well, many others) have to evaluate constantly whether maintaining a WashPost subscription is an intelligent and, well,….   There are several driving factors that have skewed the balance toward a continued […]