It was the scandal that never was, which was the true scandal. It was one of the most shameful episodes in the annals of climate change denialism, and given the desperate efforts of the corporate interests that profit so mightily off such staggering irresponsibility, that's no mean feat. But so many traditional media outlets have become little more than propaganda arms of their corporate owners that their obscuring, obfuscating and sometimes just plain lying about the scientific facts is just more of the same. It's only the most dangerous crisis humanity has ever faced, but to them that's less important than their rapacious greed. It's time for a bloggers' ethics conference.
The real story was that thieves hacked the private emails of respected climate scientists. That's a crime. That should have been at least part of the focus of the reporting: a false scandal was being concocted by people who were, at face value, criminals. But the larger part of the story was that it was a deliberate effort to distort and distract from the scientific facts. That, too, should have been at least part of the reporting. Instead, so many major media outlets played along, ignoring the criminality, and propagating the distortions and lies exactly as the criminals wanted. Even though the distortions and lies were easily debunked. All it took was intelligence and integrity, rarely found in the major media, although they could be found, elsewhere.
One of the best concise refutations of the false scandal came from our own DarkSyde, one of those lowly blogger types. Brian Angliss of Scholars & Rogues provided one of the best comprehensive refutations, in a series of posts: here, here, here, and here. Another of those bloggers. And a couple weeks back, Salon's Alex Pareene had what should be, but certainly won't be, the false scandal's death knell:
It was obvious to anyone who actually bothered to read the stolen "climategate" emails that they didn't actually contain anything particularly scandalous, and they certainly didn't contain anything at all that remotely called into the question the legitimacy of years of science demonstrating the effect of human activity on climate change.
But once the name "climategate" was affixed to the trumped-up non-scandal and printed in large type in a major newspaper, it didn't matter what the emails said. Not a whit. Emails, scandal, "-gate" -- there must be something to this!
He points to a Newsweek article by Sharon Begley:
A lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on, as Mark Twain said (or “before the truth gets a chance to put its pants on,” in Winston Churchill’s version), and nowhere has that been more true than in "climategate." In that highly orchestrated, manufactured scandal, e-mails hacked from computers at the University of East Anglia’s climate-research group were spread around the Web by activists who deny that human activity is altering the world’s climate in a dangerous way, and spun so as to suggest that the scientists had been lying, cheating, and generally cooking the books.
But not only did British investigators clear the East Anglia scientist at the center of it all, Phil Jones, of scientific impropriety and dishonesty in April, an investigation at Penn State cleared PSU climatologist Michael Mann of “falsifying or suppressing data, intending to delete or conceal e-mails and information, and misusing privileged or confidential information” in February. In perhaps the biggest backpedaling, The Sunday Times of London, which led the media pack in charging that IPCC reports were full of egregious (and probably intentional) errors, retracted its central claim—namely, that the IPCC statement that up to 40 percent of the Amazonian rainforest could be vulnerable to climate change was “unsubstantiated.” The Times also admitted that it had totally twisted the remarks of one forest expert to make it sound as if he agreed that the IPCC had screwed up, when he said no such thing.
And she quotes the retraction:
The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change. . . . A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.
That last section is astonishing, and demands clarification. Who was responsible for that late editing, and to what purpose? At the very least, it sounds like a case of profoundly incompetent journalism. But it seems at least as likely to have been a deliberate attempt to sabotage the truth, to concoct a false narrative, and to undermine efforts to raise the public awareness about climate change that might create the political climate necessary to deal with it. The retraction doesn't come close to going far enough, but it is a start.
The science of the issue long has been overwhelming. The international consensus of scientists leaves no doubt. But that rarely dents public consciousness the way this false scandal did. And the traditional media very much are to blame. The name "Climategate" went viral, whereas those scientific facts are pretty much ignored. Now that the truth is known, and the lies are revealed, will the traditional media begin to pay more attention to those scientific facts? We all know that the question answers itself.
On the most important issue humanity has ever faced, one of the world's best-known newspapers was complicit in promoting lies and obfuscating the truth, becoming the Judith Millers of climate change. Many powerful media outlets played right along. Meanwhile, it was mostly left to lowly bloggers to investigate and report the reality. On this most important of issues, the difference between old media and new could not have been more explicitly delineated. In a word, it's called credibility. And despite its lack of credibility, the power of old media was revealed in Pareene's closing question:
Anyway now that The Times has corrected the record, everyone will agree to do something about carbon emissions, right?
Of course, if new media were as powerful as old, it would be impossible for politicians to avoid that question. Because the public, worldwide, wouldn't allow them to.