‘NewsHour’ Ombudsman: Climate Broadcast ‘Stumbled Badly’

Despite its not being ‘the end of the world,’ PBS’s ombudsman says a recent ‘NewsHour’ segment involving climate contrarian Anthony Watts is far from adequate journalistically …. Missteps dominated, he concludes.

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler may have been understating things a bit when he characterized a recent “NewsHour” controversial segment featuring climate contrarian Anthony Watts as “not the PBS ‘NewsHour’s finest 10 minutes.”

Getler, who previously had for five years been ombudsman for The Washington Post, made up some ground in virtually the next breath, saying “the program stumbled badly.” But he immediately gave back some of that ground with “On the other hand, it was not the end of the world, so to speak.”

Fueled in part by a flood of mostly critical comments and by more than 15,000 petition signatures fueled by Forecast the Facts, Getler was moved to write what he said “may be the longest ombudsman column I’ve ever posted because the subject generates about as much thunder and heat as one of those storms many have experienced lately.”

He characterizing himself as “a layman with no particular expertise in science or climate matters,” and said he is “open-minded and believe[s] strongly in hearing opposing views.” Getler said he does accept scientific assessments on the seriousness of global warming and sees the issue as a “threat to our planet and future generations” and one that “is real and needs to be addressed.” His posting includes a 2010 statement from the National Academy of Sciences supporting his attitudes.

Choice of Watts for ‘Balance’ … ‘Stunning’

Getler quoted or paraphrased elements of the “NewsHour” broadcast by correspondent Spencer Michels that some might think mitigate the thrust of Watts’ controversial remarks. But he next opened a “Downside Dominates” section. In it, he pointed to “the missteps created by the program and committed on the air and online dominate the reasons why this segment is being most widely viewed as falling short of ‘NewsHour’ standards.” Some of his points:

  • The main factor was the choice and appearance of Anthony Watts as someone interviewed on the broadcast and also in an online Q&A of “much greater length.” (Getler said his focus in his ombudsman column is on the broadcast segment and not on the interview. Had he focused also on the interview, it’s hard to imagine his analysis being less critical.)
  • While not necessarily dominating the broadcast piece in terms of air minutes, Watts “seemed to dominate the program,” Getler wrote.
  • Getler said he sees global warming “as one of those issues where there is no real balance, and it is wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence.” But he pointed to “no harm and some possibility of benefit” in appropriately shedding more light on skeptics’ perspectives.
  • “What was stunning to me,” Getler continued, was the selection of a commentator “rather than a university-accredited scientist to provide ‘balance’ … If you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist,” he wrote.
  • Getler also singled-out for criticism correspondent Michel’s not challenging Watts on his widely rejected criticisms of siting of temperature stations; on Watts’ unchallenged criticisms of public opinion polls; and on his use of the term “believers” in reference to those accepting the vast body of scientific evidence. That latter “bad framing,” Getler said in agreeing with one commenter, comes across “as though this were faith-based rather than fact-based.”
  • Getler’s post also addresses Georgia Tech scientist Judith Curry’s complaints that she felt her views too had been poorly characterized in the “NewsHour” broadcast.

In a series of follow-up posts on his own site, Watts has expressed satisfaction with the “fair representation” his views got in the initial broadcast. He has characterized some of the early comments submitted to the “NewsHour” site as “truly bizarre” and as amounting to “hate directed at me.” Watts has since then added to his site a number of other posts on what he at one point refers to as “the PBS debacle.” He has also noted that the publicity, pro and con, accruing to him and his website as a result of the PBS “NewsHour” broadcast and interview has been substantial.

One point on which Watts, the PBS ombudsman, and the Follow the Facts petition signers might all agree on?  The use of Watts’ “debacle” term to characterize the broadcast and companion online interview.

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4 Responses to ‘NewsHour’ Ombudsman: Climate Broadcast ‘Stumbled Badly’

  1. Xchopp says:

    “He [Watts] has also noted that the publicity, pro and con, accruing to him and his website as a result of the PBS “NewsHour” broadcast and interview has been substantial.”

    So in the name of “balance”, will PBS/TNH issue an apology at the front/center of the program any time soon?

  2. RickA says:

    Watts started the project which looked at urban island heat effects on temperature measuring equipment, and his scoring system has been adopted by an official body (I cannot remember the name).

    He published several scientific papers on the topic in science journals.

    so I am not sure you (or the Ombudsman) can say Watts is not a scientist, and he is certainly a recognized expert on the subject that was being discussed on the PBS broadcast.

    I thought Watts did a fine job, and made some very reasonable points, which certainly deserve to be considered.

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    “If you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist”

    That depends on whether the story is about the science, or about the public debate/controversy. Watts isn’t the right person to put forward a sceptical perspective on the science – you’d pick someone like Lindzen or Spencer or McIntyre for that. But if you want to talk about the war between sceptics and believers, and what sceptics say or think, Watts is right at the centre of that.

    TV media very often interview non-scientists, even on issues where science is important. They interview politicians and campaigners, government officials and correspondents. Nobody bothers.

    It’s quite obvious in this case that the fuss isn’t about interviewing a non-scientist, it’s about retaining control of the propaganda machine. TV news grants a certain amount of authority and credibility, which in many cases climate believers control access to. Because only orthodox opinions are presented, viewers take it as true by default without thinking about it. It avoids having to debate it. That’s why the devout believers get so enraged by Fox, or by the few extremely rare documentaries expressing any scepticism that get through. They’re angry because they can’t control the message.

    The ombudsman, as an employee of PBS, has to try to mollify their audience. And he’s a believer too. But in saying “On the other hand, it was not the end of the world, so to speak” he shows that he doesn’t understand why they’re so angry. On the contrary, to the true believers it was the end of the world. If the public were to see climate sceptics given air time for their arguments, how long would their movement survive?