In February 2017, the London-based tabloid Daily Mail published an article by David Rose with the headline “Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data.” The piece, which has been shared online nearly 200,000 times, accused the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of breaching “its own rules on scientific integrity” to promote a “flawed report” that purposely “exaggerated global warming and was timed to influence the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.”
The story apparently inspired Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), a climate-change “skeptic” who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, to issue a press release titled “Former NOAA Scientist Confirms Colleagues Manipulated Climate Records.” There and on Twitter, Smith attacked NOAA for playing “fast and loose” with the evidence in order to support the Obama administration’s “costly climate agenda.” Smith wrote to NOAA demanding more documents to determine “whether the science at NOAA is objective and free from political interference.” Based on the fact that it had “cheated and got caught,” he insisted that the American Association for the Advancement of Science “redact” the NOAA study.
The thing is, the Daily Mail article was bullshit. Its single source, retired NOAA scientist John Bates, denied its thesis, which was that NOAA had tampered with its data. His only complaint was with the report’s timing, which he said looked rushed to coincide with the Paris climate summit.
So far, this sounds like so many of the other “he said/she said” stories that we see in our mainstream media, where lies, false equivalences, and pseudo-science trump observable reality.
In England, however, media institutions belong to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, an impartial regulator that accepts complaints about phony stories and follows them up with the alleged offenders. And the IPSO has real power; it creates a record for future researchers and can publicly embarrass reporters. In this case, it forced a lengthy mea culpa: The Daily Mail admitted that its putative exposé “failed to take care over the accuracy of the article” or fix “significantly misleading statements.” It’s not a perfect solution—the correction was shared only about 300 times—but it’s better than nothing.
I put in a call to Smith to see if he was planning to apologize to NOAA and/or everyone else he misled by relying on this now-discredited article. Thea McDonald, the communications director for Smith’s committee, e-mailed to explain: “The facts of the committee’s investigation, which began more than a year before the Daily Mail article was published, remain unchanged.” She added that “At no point in its investigation did the committee rely on Mr. Rose’s characterization of Dr. Bates’ concerns.” She also complained that NOAA continues to ignore the subpoenas that the committee has sent to its scientists—a tactic The Washington Post editorial board has called a “climate-change witch hunt.”
This crusade against NOAA is consistent with Smith’s opposition to funding studies that look into the dangers of lead and asbestos exposure, as well as his bills designed to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from taking advantage of public-health research and to invite industry hacks to replace qualified scholars on scientific boards. Surprise, surprise—that legislation passed the House this past spring. And look: Smith turns out to have received $700,000 from the oil and gas industry since 1989. Here’s another shocker: Smith has no background in science; he has a law degree and was an undergraduate major in American studies. He’s also a Christian Scientist whose first wife passed away after refusing medical treatment, according to the writer Sidney Blumenthal.
At some point in reading the above, sane readers probably started asking themselves—as they’ve been forced to do since about 1978—how the world’s most powerful nation could allow itself to be led by such people. That requires a longer answer than I can provide here. But another question I had was: What is this Independent Press Standards Organisation, and can we please have one here? The first answer is that the IPSO was set up in 2014, after the organization that preceded it, the Press Complaints Commission, failed to take any meaningful action against Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World for its phone-hacking scandal.
And the answer to whether we can have one here is “no.” Murdoch gets away with pretty much everything here, because journalists in the United States are allergic to anything that smacks of official oversight, and because our media corporations are more powerful than our government. Just look at Fox News’s ridiculous lies about the still-unsolved murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Sean Hannity and the lunatics on Fox & Friends—which doubles as the only “intelligence” agency trusted by Donald Trump—mercilessly milked this young man’s tragic death to advance a conspiracy theory in a desperate attempt to clear Russian hackers, WikiLeaks, and, of course, the Trump campaign. Fox News was compelled to retract, but, unlike the Daily Mail, it has remained mum about what exactly it got wrong and why. There have been no apparent consequences for those who promoted the lies, nor has anyone apologized. And yet today, politicians and members of the media both treat Fox as a legitimate news organization. Murdoch’s minions get away with a slightly less egregious version of this behavior all the time—along with sexually harassing and even allegedly raping female guests and employees without repercussion. In the United States, we have lawsuits instead, which have revealed what we know so far about the massive moral and intellectual corruption at the heart of the Murdoch empire. But lawsuits also threaten the ability of our media to speak out on such malfeasance—at least when it’s carried out by people wealthy enough to sue.