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The Rotting Away of a Hero: Andrew Revkin on Peter Gleick

March 21st, 2012 · 2 Comments

For those entranced with the written word and learning, a truly painful life event is seeing the intellectual and ethical withering of someone whose work once had great meaning and merited true respect.  New York Times / Dot Earth journalist Andrew Revkin stands as  one of the more important and notable environmental journalists over the past several decades.  Revkin’s books take us from the burning challenges of environmental activism in the Amazon to the chilly Arctic to a skillful laydown of basic climate science.  He has had a myriad of meaningful articles including, for example, a serious role in making known the Bush-Cheney Administration’s war on science.  Andrew Revkin was, with reason, for a long time a name to be trusted when it came to providing valued and insightful traditional “mainstream” media reporting on environmental issues.  

Regretfully, the reasons for dutiful respect have withered in recent years as he has, amid ‘the climate wars’, seem more interested in balanced — above truthful – reporting.  His piece asserting falsely an equivalency between dutiful climate denier George Will and Vice President Al Gore provides a texbook example of the problem. 

Today, he threw more gasoline on the flames.  Amid flaring discussion of  Mike Daisey and his misrepresentations, Revkin decided to lay down an equivalency between Daisey’s misrepresentations about Apple’s China supply chain and Dr. Peter Gleick’s actions to uncover Heartland Institute plans to undermine America’s educational system.  The relevant section from Revkin’s post:

But Kloor’s post also draws parallels between the Daisey affair and the saga of Peter Gleick, the water analyst and climate communicator who lied to obtain documents from the Heartland Institute, his arch foes in the climate communication wars.

Kloor’s piece closes with a quote from Times reporter David Carr, musing on Daisey and the radio program:

Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.

No.

I agree with Kloor that this comment also applies to climate discourse, although, as I’ve said before, the Gleick affair was not simply a matter of ethics, but also efficacy.

If one’s goal is to build public trust in climate science, and to demand an ethical approach to tending the global commons, demolishing one’s credibility and handing ammunition to foes is probably not a viable strategy.

Note that Revkin’s piece is entitled “Narrative Before Truth”.  While others have more extensively examined the ethical issues with this post, let us play a small game:  this section is 145 words out of a total of 224 words.  Revkin is referencing a Keith Kloor post.  I read Revkin’s post and, before heading to the Kloor post (being at least somewhat aware of Kloor’s perspective on Gleick), felt sure that Kloor had a long diatribe as to Peter Gleick’s actions in regard to Heartland Institute.  In fact, while I think Kloor’s aside misguided, Kloor’s commentary relating Gleick to Daisy is an 11 word parenthetical comment in a 750 word post.  Let’s take a look:

[Daisey] was wrong that embellishing his story would help, that bad behavior in service of a good cause ever does.

That’s one take home lesson (which apologists for Peter Gleick’s recent deceit  seem tone deaf to) for those who champion any cause.

Seriously. I read Revkin before going to Kloor. I had to reread — and then search to confirm — Kloor’s post to make sure that the reference to Gleick was just a parenthetical comment that one can read as relevant for discussion as it comes just after a long extract that ended “he was wrong that embellishing his story would help, that bad behavior in service of a good cause ever does.” If one reads Kloor’s parenthetical statement as referring to that “bad behavior …” phrase, I might disagree with Kloor but this is something about which one can have an honest debate and discussion. (As debate exists over the ethics of Gleick’s actions and whether it would  be ethical for a journalist.)

(While Kloor makes a stronger statement within the comments (”So you don’t see any existing cautionary lessons from the Gleick affair?”), that was in direct response to a commentator. To be clear, Kloor might be quite ready to make a far more direct comparison and attack considering his record of  re Peter Gleick.  Maybe Andrew Revkin is so comfortable with Kloor’s perspective on Gleick that he has read between the lines and is comfortable making the leap from Kloor’s parenthetical statement mid-way through a long post directly to a damning end quote. )

“Narrative before truth” seems to an accurate way to describe Andrew Revkin’s post.

  • Calling Gleick a “water analyst and climate communicator” rather than scientist. 
  • Implying (certainly to this reader) that Keith Kloor had spent significant effort in the post laying how Daisey and Gleick were paralleled. 
  • Yet again asserting that Gleick’s efforts to uncover conspiracy to undermine science education and confuse the public about climate science demolished his credibility. [Note that this is a clear reversal of Revkin's past walking away from that comment, where he said "I will acknowledge that certain phrases, written in haste, were overstated. Gleick’s reputation and credibility are seriously damaged, not necessarily in ruins or destroyed."]
  • And, well, finding that the most important linkage on climate discussions from Daisey (someone who embellished and strayed from factual discussion) was a climate scientist who uncovered information (by methods for which he has apologized for) about efforts to undermine truth rather than focusing on those (including those who Revkin frequently quotes and relies on) who play fast and loose with respect for scientific discourse in their climate disinformation efforts seeking to undermine public understand of the risks of catastrophic climate chaos.

All of these provide examples of someone putting a narrative of balance between activist climate scientists and anti-science syndrome sufferers rather than someone seeking to provide truthful discussion.

Narrative before truth, indeed.

It is painful to have a hero rotting away before one’s eyes …

Note:

For a far more robust discussion of Andrew Revkin’s post, see Joe Romm This American Lie: Is It O.K. For Climate Science Deniers To Lie And For Journalists To Quote Those Lies?

The point of the story is that some sources consistently make up crap in the interest of a larger narrative. That was Mike Daisey. It is also what most climate science deniers do, which is why I prefer to call them disinformers.

The lesson is for journalists is to avoid those folks like the plague since you can’t trust anything they say, quoting them will probably screw up your story, and consistently relying on their perspective may harm your reputation.

Now here is where the story gets weird. Instead of drawing the obvious analogy between what Daisey did and what the disinformers do, Andy Revkin and others are actually trying to compare Daisey to … wait for it … climatologist Peter Gleick! As we will see, this is, ironically, how a desired narrative trumps all plausibility.

Revkin isn’t the only one to tar Gleick with unwarranted linkages. See Lee Fang NYTimes’ Michael Roston Compares Scientist Involved In Heartland Institute Document Leak To James O’Keefe

And, perhaps Revkin should look to NPR and the implications of faux balance for science reporting. (And here and here : “With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of ‘he said, she said’ journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report.”  This, of course, has direct relevance to the Daisey affair and NPR’s handling of it.)

Tags: journalism

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Egan // Mar 22, 2012 at 7:57 am

    Hyperbole, much?

    BTW - Labor is fixing to get totally wiped out in Queensland tomorrow. That follows on a Labor collapse in NSW last year - and a hefty defeat of Labor in Victoria in late 2010.

    Unworkable, climate-driven policies - in the case of federal Labor the carbon tax - continue to contribute to the defeat of progressive governments worldwide. And, of course, you really get great climate policy when you have the Coalition elected in Australia, the Conservatives in Canada, and the Republicans in the U.S.

    Keep up the good work!

  • 2 FishOutofWater // Mar 22, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Australians are slow learners if they haven’t noticed that’s something’s wrong with their climate.

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