Here’s something that you can bring to the bank: With regard to global warming, the major purveyors of news in the industrialized world will be climbing down from their various versions of frenzied alarmism. Here’s something else that you can bring to your banker: the climb-down will be sneaky. On the other hand, when the series of editorial re-positionings is visible to casual members of the public at all, it will be beyond awkward.
How do I know? Because the process has already begun.
When in 2009 Arianna Huffington approved my piece about the merits of skeptical climate science, the HuffPo was arguably attempting to get a start on its own climb-down. As I had written to Huffington, more than once, and heard back from her personally, more than once, I knew that she had considered my argument that it was not a question of whether the big news dogs would have to eat a little humble pie on climate but rather when. Huffington’s response was to publish “Mr. Gore: Apology Accepted.” It is safe to say that she badly underestimated two things: (1) the amount of traffic that the article would receive and (2) the amount of pressure that would be applied to her for the heretical decision to publish it. As for the former, the piece remains the third-most e-mailed blogger piece in HuffPo history. This, despite the fact that “Apology Accepted” was removed from the front end of the site. (Google searching the story still calls it up.) Within hours of being put up on HuffPo, the article had gone viral. Eventually, the piece wound up being translated into dozens of languages, getting cited by television pundits, and being published in part in The Wall Street Journal and The National Review Online, among many other places.
You could argue that the tempest in a teakettle was representative of the surprise – and in some cases horror – that a solidly left-leaning American media outlet like the HuffPo had betrayed its own principles. You can also see, especially in retrospect, how the global warming alarm industry was rightly perceived as vulnerable, standing, as it were, on quivering legs above the precipice of truth. This was the news in the brief, but red-hot, global response to a lone blog article: maybe the climb-down would happen faster than even the most hopeful skeptics could have imagined.
That’s when the second thing that Huffington underestimated – the storm of protest from her own camp – came into play. Whatever was said to her publicly, and privately, was enough to induce her to disavow knowing anything about me, or having read my piece at all. Again, however, she had already corresponded with me by e-mail more than once by this time. My final e-mail to her, prior to publication, was this:
Hi Arianna. Happy New Year! I have written a 2,000-word piece on why Al Gore is wrong about climate. May it increase your enjoyment of the New Year so much that you feel compelled to publish it!
All the best,
Many thanks, Harold. I’m CCing our blog editor, David Weiner to coordinate. All the best, Arianna.
Three days later, however, Huffington had a sudden change of heart, issuing a statement that included the following:
When Ambler sent his post, I forwarded it to one of our associate blog editors to evaluate, not having read it. I get literally hundreds of posts a week submitted like this and obviously can’t read them all — which is why we have an editorial process in place. The associate blog editor published the post. It was an error in judgment. I would not have posted it. Although HuffPost welcomes a vigorous debate on many subjects, I am a firm believer that there are not two sides to every issue, and that on some issues the jury is no longer out. The climate crisis is one of these issues.
The key word in understanding Huffington’s original acceptance and later misstatements is “coordinate.” If you’re going to take her word for not having read the piece you have to argue that “coordinate” means read and evaluate. This would mean that a busy editor is delegating authority, rather than exercising it, and runs counter to any reasonable reading of Huffington’s message. If she were to delegate authority to an underling for deciding whether to publish what was a potentially scandalous piece, she would not do so in view of the writer. What “coordinate” clearly means, in the context of the warm phrase “many thanks,” is “I have green-lighted this, and the editor I’m cc’ing is going to do be the one to get your piece up and on the site.”
What could get a high-powered editor to move from friendly acceptance to public disavowal in three days’ time? My own theory is that it was the threatened withdrawal of her blog’s funding. (Huffington declined to respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.)
It is highly unlikely that any media outlet will be able to compete with The Huffington Post for awkward climb-downs on climate, after this particular debacle. But, strange as it may seem today, even Huffington’s website will have to honor its master’s flickering epiphany of early 2009, and step away from the global warming cant prevalent during the past two decades. Having been first to the skeptic party among liberal media players, The Huffington Post will now, after its hasty departure, likely be the last to return. So, which publication will be next, and what kind of rhetorical outfit will it put on?
Climate skeptic bloggers like to suggest, in an effort at comedy, that media outlets warning of a global meltdown will casually ease themselves back into the journalistic garb of “a manmade ice age is nigh.” The idea here is that, whenever possible, writers and editors will prefer to skip the skeptics’ ball altogether. If the prognostications of Russian solar physicist Habibullo Abdussamatov and others like him, predicting a solar-driven descent into cooler temperatures during the next few decades, prove to be correct, this seems likely. Pointing to the shift in direction of the global mean temperature and asserting that “it’s mankind’s fault, we were right all along, only it’s going to be dangerously cold,” is likely to be the dress worn by The New York Times, for one. For the Times has been shifting out of warming and cooling scare story gowns for more than a hundred years. Whoever else in the media world has been especially wrong about global warming is likely to put on this same dress, too. A brief list of outlets that have made a name for themselves in global warming alarmism: The Weather Channel, NBC News, CBS News, ABC News, NPR, PBS, the BBC, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time, and, last but not least, my former employer: The New Yorker. This last takes great pride in getting the facts right, and yet has gotten the central fact about Earth’s climate, that it is cyclical and has been cooling since several thousand years ago, wrong.
When The New York Times Magazine published a long about Freeman Dyson last year, it was arguably the start of a down-climb on the part of the newspaper as a whole. Howls of scorn were heard throughout the media world over the piece. It turns out, when it comes to climate, that such agonized sounds are the tell-tale signs that the journalists have gotten something right. Since the piece about Dyson, of course, the Times, led by Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, and Andy Revkin, has returned to the position that if it’s weather and it’s bad, then it was caused by global warming.
If past experience is any guide, when the Times’ climb-down eventually begins in earnest, most people will barely notice. But you will!