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Determination 118: Patrick Michaels, Robert Balling v. Star Tribune

 

NOTE: The Minnesota News Council hears complaints about journalistic ethics. The Council DID NOT make a ruling on the accuracy or integrity of the science of the two climatologists. That question is beyond the purvue of the Council.

Attending the hearing were the complainants, Dr. Patrick Michaels, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, and Dr. Robert Balling, Director, Office of Climatology, Arizona State University. Respondents for the Star Tribune were Susan Albright, Editorial Page editor; Jim Lenfestey, formerly employed at the Star Tribune and writer of the editorial in question; Kate Stanley, current global warming editorial writer; and Eric Ringham, Commentary Page editor.

Bob Provost, a former Council member, took part as a public member in order to ensure a balance of public/media members. About a dozen people observed the proceedings, including Elissa Papirno, reader representative for the Hartford (CT) Courant.

Background:  On May 22, 1997, Ross Gelbspan, author of the book The Heat Is On, came to Minneapolis to speak on issues of global warming. The Star Tribune ran an editorial to inform people of Gelbspan’s public talk and of Gelbspan’s concerns about a “disinformation campaign” being undertaken by some climatologists.

Complaint: Drs. Michaels and Balling complained about the following two and a half paragraphs that mentioned them in the 8-paragraph editorial:

A new book, “The Heat is On,” by journalist Ross Gelbspan, documents both the emergence of the scientific consensus and industry’s political campaign to counter that consensus. He performs a great public service by exposing the handful of contrarian scientists as often in the pay of their fossil fuel supporters. They disseminate unsubstantiated opinions without the review by other scientists required for scientific integrity.

So whenever you read or hear the opinions of skeptics Patrick Michaels, S. Fred Singer and Robert Balling, know that their ideas and opinions have been carefully considered by a host of climate scientists, and found to be without merit.

Gelbspan’s book is particularly timely. Many of the global warming skeptics have received a warm reception on Capitol Hill in spite of their lack of scientific credibility….

They complained that the editorial unfairly characterized their scientific reputations.

A second complaint, that the editorial contained a serious factual error - that the temperature over the Antarctic had risen 20 degrees over the past 20 years - was addressed in a correction that the paper ran a few days later stating that the rise was 4 to 5 degrees. However, the scientists say the correction was itself incorrect. They chose not pursue this complaint further.

Response: The Star Tribune defended its editorial on the grounds that it fell within the proper boundaries of editorial opinion:

“The piece in question is a legitimate expression of editorial opinion. As the institutional viewpoint of the Star Tribune, the editorial takes a side and makes a case. It appropriately reaches beyond the informational mission of a news story to make assessments and state opinions about an important public-policy issue. The editorial took a strong stand while seeking to engage readers in the larger debate about global warming.

“The Star Tribune is not responsible for any harm Prof. Michaels’ reputation may have suffered in regard to global warming. Though Dr. Michaels’ curriculum vitae (CV) shows him to have accomplished much in his field, many knowledgeable people nevertheless consider his views on global warming unfounded. Michaels’ own writings, hearings testimony and speeches - not an editorial in the Star Tribune - have led to highly controversial status in the scientific community. The editorial simply alerted readers to Michaels’ role in downplaying potential dangers of global warming…

“I believe the Star Tribune editorial page is duty-bound to analyze difficult public controversies, to judge all the players, to distinguish between science and certain scientists’ opinions. This is what our May 22 editorial tried to do and succeeded in doing. It alerted readers to an accomplished journalist’s well-supported finding that some in the global-warming debate aren’t the independent, science-guided thinkers they might appear to be. Their ideology is clear in their writings.”

When contacted by the complainants, the Editorial department offered to run a response on the Commentary page, but the professors declined.

Discussion: “Put yourself in the position of a college-educated person who picks up this editorial,” said Michaels. “You would conclude that Pat Michaels and Bob Balling are lowlife scum who lie about science. I find that totally objectionable.”

Dr. Balling challenged the paper’s assertion that he disseminates information that is unsubstantiated and that has not been reviewed by his peers. He pointed out that he has 91 published articles in refereed scientific journals. “I don’t know what more I can do to get peer reviewed. I may be one of the most peer reviewed people in America.” Michaels has published more than 50 articles in peer-reviewed journals. Michaels added, “It’s harder for us to publish (because we do not agree with majority opinion), yet we appear somewhere almost every month.”

The Star Tribune said it did not suggest the professors did not publish in peer reviewed journals, only that they also disseminated information that was not peer reviewed, particularly Michaels, who publishes a monthly newsletter, “World Climate Report,” and maintains a web site. Michaels said the data set he works from and publishes in “World Climate Report” is the same data set that appears in scientific journals.

Balling challenged the editorial’s statement that his scientific views lacked credibility and that he had no scientific integrity. He said he is on the faculty at the sixth largest University, and has been director of its climate program for 10 years. He has 20 times been an invited speaker at major universities. “Evidently someone has decided it’s worth listening to what I have to say.”

Balling has served on U.N. panels examining climate change in dry lands (and co-authored a book by that name), was an author for Working Group #2, and was chosen by National Geographic (as was Michaels) to write an essay on climate issues.

Michaels’ professional accomplishments include being a member of three professional organizations and serving as president of the American Association of State Climatologists. He is a frequent public speaker (more than 300 speaking engagements) and has testified before both the U.S. House and Senate. He is a full professor at the University of Virginia.

Albright said the editorial didn’t attack the professors’ credentials but spoke only about their ideas and opinions.

Media member Maureen Reeder asked Michaels and Balling if they had critics: they said they did. Michaels complained that journalists don’t realize that science is a process of “disagreement and ferment. If it were static, there wouldn’t be any need for scientists.” He asserted that differences of opinion in science don’t mean one side has no merit. Public member Laurisa Sellers noted that this difference of opinion certainly did not seem to have resulted in the two professors being ostracized by the scientific community.

Ringham saw a similarity with the Opinion pages. “You said science is a process of disagreement and ferment. That’s just how we see the Op-Ed page. Op-Ed is the opposite of editorial,” not just physically in the layout of the paper, but also in ideas. He said the paper places a premium on voices that oppose its editorial stance and it would have welcomed an opportunity to publish something from the professors.

Media member Kathleen Stauffer asked Michaels why he didn’t submit a letter to the editor, to which Michaels responded: “I was tarred any way I did it. The editorial told you not to listen to me. [I lacked integrity.]”

Media member Elizabeth Costello asked Lenfestey about the factual error early in the editorial, which set the stage for discrediting the two professors. “It was a tremendous error. There is no excuse. It shouldn’t have happened,” said Lenfestey. The erroneous temperature increase came from the introduction of the book. When the publisher called the next day identifying the error, Lenfestey said, “It was like a knife through my heart.” He admitted that he didn’t check the accuracy of the 20° temperature rise over the Antarctic because he trusted the book.

Lenfestey stood by the accuracy of the correction - a 5° increase - which the professors disputed. Michaels asked for his documentation; Lenfestey did not have most of his material with him but cited an article in Newsweek. Michaels questioned the credibility of a journalistic rather than scientific source for scientific data. He cited satellite data to justify the .5° increase he says has occurred since 1958.

Michaels also questioned the fairness of relying upon Gelbspan’s book, which was not scientifically reviewed and which relied upon information from three people who recently “had their ox gored in Nature magazine” by Michaels.

Public member Bob Provost asked the professors about their industry funding, which was highlighted in the editorial. Balling acknowledged that he had received $408,000 in research funding from the fossil fuel industry over the last decade (of which his University takes 50% for overhead). Balling pointed out that his university promotes joint efforts between academia and industry.

Michaels said 20% of his funding comes from the fossil fuel industry; the remaining 80% from federal or state-tax supporting sources. Both men denied that industry funding had biased the outcome of their scientific research. “That’s like saying 20% of the research is biased one way, and 80% is biased the other,” said Michaels. Balling said reviewers look more critically at his research because of his funding sources. Media member Nancy Conner asked the professors why, if they know that this funding creates the perception of a conflict of interest, they still chooses to accept it? Balling said academics look for funding everywhere they can. Michaels said that his point of view on global warming hasn’t changed in 20 years; it was the same when his research was funded by the State of Virginia as when it was funded by industry.

Public member Craig Shulstad asked the Star Tribune if it was equally suspicious of funding from government sources. Lenfestey said he was not. Commentary editor Eric Ringham said that in the Letters column such information would appear as a tagline at the end of a letter. While it was noteworthy, sources of funding for research don’t necessary impeach the research findings but readers should take that information into account when considering opinions.

Albright said she knows of no other scientist putting out a “propaganda” newsletter that is funded by industry. She said the editorial was meant to encourage skepticism “when you have a scientific judgment accompanied by a policy suggestion … When you find scientists on any side (of a policy issue), they look very unusual in the scientific community, but (these men) come across as authorities in the public.”

“We are not attacking their research,” Albright said. But she stressed that in the view of the Star Tribune these two professors are political advocates, and that Michaels’ newsletter opposes government spending and taxation.

“Responsible editors have a right and a duty to attack these scientists for the propagandists they have become,” she said. “People need to know that global warming is real and is affected by human activity, not just natural fluctuations. We thought we had a duty to put that in the editorial.”

“Why didn’t you say that?” said media member Lee Canning, commenting on the fact that the editorial made no mention of Michaels’ newsletter, web site, or any political advocacy role. He wondered why the Star Tribune felt it necessary to name these two professors when, in his opinion, it wasn’t really necessary. Lenfestey said he believed it was necessary to expose these two men by name because of the prominent role they play in public in debunking the threat of widespread and extreme consequences from global warming.

Media member Zoua Vang asked the professors what they thought to be the purpose of an editorial. Balling said he expects to read a point of view that is accurate and well grounded in fact. “I wouldn’t be here if I thought this (editorial) was based on fact.”

Michaels said he expects editorials to take a stance, to weave a logical web using rhetorical devices, but not to use a broad brush to attack a person.

Deliberation: Reeder said she found the editorial factual. Michaels does publish a newsletter and does maintain a web site, neither of which undergoes peer review, and the professors admitted that they had critics and that they received industry funding.

Costello pointed out the difference between disagreement of opinion between two parties and the leap to saying that those opposing opinions have no merit. She was concerned with that, as well as with the serious factual error. “As a reader, this is all you’re reading. The error was part of the build up to ‘without merit.’” It made the professors’ ideas seem even more at variance with the majority opinion than they really are.

Canning was equally troubled by the error. “[The editorial writer] missed a mistake by 10,000 percent, after telling us he studied this for seven years. What does that tell us about [him] as a source?”

Canning continued: “This (editorial) derides these two men. If you’re going to go that far - and you’re entitled to do that - you had better make sure everything you write is letter perfect. The higher up the ladder you step on the way to derision, the thinner the rungs get.”

Media member Nancy Conner reiterated that while Michaels’ newsletter and web site may not be peer reviewed, he said it contained the same data set published in peer-reviewed journals.

Shulstad had serious concerns with the way the editorial “misrepresented the state of science, and these two scientists in particular. It makes it a black and white issue. That’s what bothers me.” He noted the role of critical exchange in the development of scientific truths, the role of disagreement. Furthermore, “It’s clear from the literature that these two individuals have very strong credentials.”

Sellers found it disingenuous for the editors to say that they questioned the credibility and integrity of the professors’ opinions only on global warming, not other subjects. “That’s who they are. That’s what they do.” To say broadly that those opinions lack integrity, she said, is to say they lack integrity.

Public member Rachel Quenemoen said she appreciated information about the professors’ sources of funding and she applauded the paper for its editorial purpose, but felt “this one went over the line.” Further, she questioned the appropriateness of using the popular press [Newsweek, books] instead of scientific journals as a source for information.

Two media members - Kathleen Stauffer and Jim Pumarlo - expressed concerns that Michaels did not take advantage of the recourse readily available to him through a letter to the editor. “You’re not a naive innocent who’s never published before,” said Stauffer “You are perfectly capable of defending yourself.” They both felt the paper properly exercised its editorial function to disseminate information and to take a strong stand on an issue.

Shulstad disagreed, “The strength of the editorial isn’t the point, the characterization of these two men is.” To which media member Trish Van Pilsum responded: “It seems to me they characterized these two as men who have forayed into the arena of advocacy at some expense to their credibility. I think that’s a fair characterization.”

“But when you say these people aren’t credible, that’s beyond strong,” said Sellers. “That’s over the line.”

Determination: The Council voted to sustain the complaint that the Star Tribune editorial unfairly characterized the scientific reputations of Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling.

Concurring: Canning, Conner, Costello, Neddermeyer, Provost, Quenemoen, Sellers, Shulstad, Vang
Dissenting: Pumarlo, Reeder, Stauffer, Van Pilsum
Recused: Hage, Bauerlein
Presiding: Tomljanovich

Dissenting Opinion: Stauffer, Pumarlo

Maintaining that fairness requires a newspaper editorial writer to temper his or her well-researched opinion misconstrues the vocation and casts a pall upon a venerable American journalistic tradition: the right and responsibility of a newspaper’s editorial board to take a passionate stand in a debate of critical public concern. While a newspaper’s reporters are rightly bound by an objective constant, editorial page editors offer a deliberate and invaluable counterbalance by playing watchdog, feeding on information, forming opinions, ultimately serving the Common Good. To be sure, an editorial board’s writers are as obliged as news reporters to uphold every professional standard of accuracy. Nevertheless, the right to take a strong and spirited position is inherent to an editorial board and ought not to be forfeited for any reason, including inadvertent factual error. That some editorial boards and some publishers might abuse this right is regrettable; at such a point, the question of fairness appropriately comes into play. however, given the willingness of the editorial page editors in this case to surrender space for counterpoint amid an ongoing, heated debate, and given their willingness to do so without hesitation precisely in the interest of fairness, the complainants’ contention that they have been characterized unfairly - particularly in light of the complainants’ refusal to take advantage of the opportunity to respond - is unconvincing.

 

 

 

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