How low can they go? The ethical limbo dance at the Washington Post sank to impressive new depths this weekend with a column from the newspaper’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander.
He finally weighed in on the George Will debacle and took a decidedly tepid approach to this raging scandal - essentially recounting what had happened and promising no fundamental change.
The Post’s star columnist was caught in a series of egregious errors about his understanding of climate science (or lack thereof).
Specifically, Mr. Will led his readers to believe historical sea ice data indicated that climate change was all a big mistake – that ice coverage was about the same as 1979. In fact the researchers at that National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado said exactly the opposite: that vanishing arctic ice was strong evidence not just of global warming, but that we are edging into dangerous feedbacks involving melting permafrost.
Not only did George Will get it wrong once, he printed a second column reiterating his erroneous claims about the most important issue on Earth. Talk about chutzpah.
Alexander ’s explanation of this mess states Will’s piece was fact-checked by no less than four different individuals – none of whom ever contacted the research center that produced the data Will based his baseless claims on.
It wasn’t till nine days later that the center finally got an email from anyone at the Post – long after the proverbial horse had strolled out the barn and trotted down the road. In the meantime, researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center issued their own blunt clarification:
“We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.”
More disturbing perhaps is how little the Post has apparently learned from their credibility meltdown. Take this bland response from Post editor Fred Hiatt:
“It may well be that Will is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject — so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point. Debate him.”
Ombudsman Alexander chimed in a similar sentiment at the end of his piece: “the Post can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoints”.
What does that mean? That political pundits will continue to hold forth on scientific matters they know nothing about under the guise of “debate”?
To be clear, this is not just about one or two badly researched, or flat out wrong, articles. This is a fundamental issue of ethics and media that has been going on for decades.