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How "balanced journalism" helped the climate change deniers

The New York Times has a great article in tomorrow's edition about how an interest group heavily funded by the oil and auto industries called the Global Climate Coalition was able to muddy the waters on manmade global warming, overriding scientists who said proof of this "greenhouse effect" was now beyond any doubt. Just who were these crackpot scientists that the industry-funded group ignored? Its own scientists. That's right -- even scientists who were getting paid by the likes of Exxon-Mobil were telling their funders -- privately, of course -- that denying manmade climate change was a joke.

You shouldn't surprised that the Global Climate Coalition (nice name, by the way) ignored all this and went ahead and used pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to create enough "reasonable doubt" on the issue for the public and our elected pols to put off any tough choices on global warming. What's disturbing (although, again, not all that surprising) is the role that supposed "journalistic ethics" played in spreading this Big Lie, by cluelessly giving these charlatans equal play with the established science on the issue.

The story notes:

Some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain. By questioning the science on global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like the Global Climate Coalition were able to sow enough doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential issue and delay government action.

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

"They didn't have to win the argument to succeed," Mr. Monbiot said, "only to cause as much confusion as possible."

Except this is one case where the "media norms" may prove catastrophic, maybe not for me but for my children and eventual grandchildren. Several media critics -- but most notably journalism guru Jay Rosen from NYU -- have been focusing on the dangers of a kind of mindless "he said, she said" journalism that rules inside-the-Beltway reporting, sometimes to trivial effect but sometimes with great consequence, on topics like the financial crisis. But climate change may be the textbook study here.

Journalists have to weigh many things in striving for the truth -- but the ultimate mile marker must always be objective facts where they exist, and not a juggling act of talking heads, especially when one of the heads doesn't even believe its own baloney it's putting out there.