This observation, famously made by Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna as the powers debated the fate of the turncoat King of Saxony, reminded the crowned heads of Europe that all of them had at one time or another worked with Napoleon. Talleyrand himself had served the emperor as foreign minister and trusted ally before switching to the other side as Napoleon’s power waned — and his megalomania grew.
These days, it’s The New York Times that is redefining treason. Three weeks ago, anyone who pointed at the lack of public confidence in climate science was aiding and abetting those horrible climate ‘deniers.’ Treason against Planet Earth! You had to be some kind of dread ‘right wing blogger’ or talk radio host to point out that blunders and arrogance had undermined the credibility of climate scientists and ended any short term chance of serious global agreement on urgent measures to stop global warming.
But a story this morning by John Broder gently lets Times readers know that something has gone badly wrong.
WASHINGTON — For months, climate scientists have taken a vicious beating in the media and on the Internet, accused of hiding data, covering up errors and suppressing alternate views. Their response until now has been largely to assert the legitimacy of the vast body of climate science and to mock their critics as cranks and know-nothings.
But the volume of criticism and the depth of doubt have only grown, and many scientists now realize they are facing a crisis of public confidence and have to fight back. Tentatively and grudgingly, they are beginning to engage their critics, admit mistakes, open up their data and reshape the way they conduct their work.
Admit mistakes? Open up their data? Change the way the work? You mean there was something wrong with the way climate science was operating last year? Is the Times telling us that the climate scientists–on the basis of whose work the whole world is debating complex and far-reaching changes in its economic structure and political governance–were using slipshod and careless procedures that need to be fixed?
Gosh, one has to ask, if these terrible things were going on for such a long time, why didn’t the New York Times notice this earlier on? Why didn’t the New York Times break this important story back when it was news, rather than lamely sweeping up at the end of the parade? Could it be that a climate of politically-correct group-think inhibited the editors and reporters at the country’s newspaper of record from recognizing a one of the major stories of the decade? Could the environmental writers at the Times be just a teensy bit too close to their sources?
The Times seems to have forgotten the most important aspect of the news business. For years now ‘skeptic’ has been a dirty word at the Times when the subject of climate change comes up. Excuse me, but reporters are supposed to be skeptics. They are supposed to be cynical, hard bitten people who trust their mothers — but cut the cards. They are supposed to think that scientists are probably too much in love with their data, that issue advocates have hidden agendas, that high-toned rhetoric is often a cover for naked self interest, that bloviating politicians have cynical motives and that heroes, even Nobel Prize laureates, have feet of clay. That is their job; it is why we respect them and why we pay attention to what they write.
Reporters are not supposed to be wide-eyed gee-whiz college kids believing everything they hear and using the news columns of the paper to promote a social agenda. They are wet blankets, not cheerleaders, Eeyores, not Piglets and they can safely leave all the advocacy and flag-waving to the editorial writers and the op-ed pages.
This is not just a question of liberal bias. The same wide-eyed gee-whiz culture shaped much of the reporting on the run-up to the Iraq War. Maybe the word we are looking for when trying to describe what’s wrong with the mainstream press isn’t ‘liberal’ — maybe the term is something like ‘credulous’ or ‘naive.’ The gradual substitution of ‘professional journalists’ for the old hard boiled hacks may have given us a generation of journalists who are used to trusting reputable authority. They honestly think that people with good credentials and good manners don’t lie.
Today’s journalists are much too well-bred and well-connected to stand there in the crowd shouting “The emperor has no clothes!” They’ve worked with the tailors, they have had long background interviews with the tailors, they’ve been present for some of the fittings. Of course the emperor’s new clothes are fantastic; only those rude and uncouth ‘clothing deniers’ still have any doubts.
Meanwhile, over on the aforementioned op-ed pages, our old friend Al Gore is still crying a river of denial, blaming everyone but himself for the abject failure of the world to accept his views without checking the facts for themselves. If the New York Times and its peers had come at this story with more skepticism and rigor from the beginning, climate scientists would have realized long ago that if they hope to convince a skeptical world they need to be ultra-careful, ultra-cautious and even ultra-conservative in their public statements and recommendations. They would have understood long ago that because their science is important, they have to do it more carefully and more publicly than other people. That may be harsh and it may be ‘unfair’ in some sense, but when you are dealing with the interests of billions of people you have to expect a little bit of scrutiny — though not, apparently, from the New York Times.
The very idea that critics would have to use the Freedom of Information Act to pry back-up data from a scientist on a matter of great public importance is insane. That data should have been out there years ago, without anyone having to ask. If it’s considered ‘normal’ in climate science for researchers to keep their raw data under lock and key, and refuse to subject it to skeptical and hostile review, then climate science isn’t science.
The Times and its peers in the mainstream press need to ask themselves why something this obvious, this important, this newsworthy passed them by. If they don’t figure that out and make some wrenching changes, they will continue to watch helplessly as their credibility and readership inexorably shrink.
The meltdown that worries me most in this whole dismal story isn’t the meltdown of the Himalayan glaciers. It’s the evident meltdown of basic journalistic standards among a whole generation of reporters and editors that keeps me up late at night; I don’t just worry about what they missed on this story, or on the Iraq story–I wonder what else they are missing every day.
John Broder’s story this morning is good as far as it goes, but it looks more and more as if our greatest newspaper has been so wholly conquered by the spirit of enlightened upper-middle-class progressivism that it has lost the ability to view its own assumptions with the necessary skepticism. That is terrible news; the world is changing rapidly in ways that simply don’t fit the thought templates that upper-middle-class baby boomers developed over the last twenty years. Increasingly, the mental map that shapes the way the Times looks at the world simply fails to match what is happening out there, yet the Times seems less able than ever to see that.
Before you can report an inconvenient truth you have to be able to recognize it; this is the test that the Times‘ coverage of the ‘climategate’ story has failed.