The ‘television editor told me “We did. Once.”’ Problem

My 11/8 blog piece recapped six problems seen with a single paragraph written by Ross Gelbspan in a 2005 Mother Jones article, and went on to tell about another of his major narrative derailments. But I mentioned there was one more big problem that needed a separate blog piece to examine it. That’s what this piece will cover.

Again, this concerns the 5th paragraph of his article, but this time it is where he was explaining how media outlets might be eyeing their bottom line instead of delving into the global warming issue (color highlighting mine):

… one television editor told me that his network had been threatened with a withdrawal of oil and automotive advertising after it ran a report suggesting a connection between a massive flood and climate change.

Approximately the same line is seen on pages 79-80 of his 2004 “Boiling Point” book, (online scans here) although he seems to oddly leave himself out of the picture as the person inquiring about the situation:

… a top editor at a major TV network was asked why, given the increasing proportion of news budgets dedicated to weather disasters, the network news broadcasts did not make this connection. The editor said, “We did that. Once. But it triggered a barrage of complaints from the Global Climate Coalition to our top executives at the network.”

Page 223 of “Boiling Points” Notes section says the editor’s quote is from “Author’s private conversation with a news network executive, October 1999.

Gelbspan’s website account of this (full text here**) varies once again on what was supposed to be connected with climate change, but is at least more specific on which network employed the editor: [**12/4/13 Author’s note: Between the time of this 11/18/13 post and yesterday, the ‘CNN editor’ paragraph shown in my prior screencapture link disappeared. You can still read it in full context here, and details about this disappearance are seen at my 12/4/13 blog here. 10/9/14 Author’s note: This ‘missing material’ problem is further updated in my 10/9/14 blog post.]

A few years ago I asked a top editor at CNN why, given the increasing proportion of news budgets dedicated to extreme weather, they did not make this connection. He told me, “We did. Once.”   But it triggered a barrage of complaints from oil companies and automakers..

Two problems arise in his 2006 re-telling of the situation, the first being yet another variation about the ‘connection’, and the second being an irreconcilable difference with his Boiling Point note on page 223:

A few years ago I asked an editor at a major news network why, given the increasing incidence of natural disasters, they did not make this connection. He told me: ‘We did that. Once.’ I think it was a major flood in 2000 in Mozambique. I said, ‘What do you mean, once?’ The editor explained that after a broadcast suggested a possible link to global warming, several auto and gasoline industry representatives threatened to withdraw their advertising from the network if it persisted in making that connection.

See the problem? If he has the date right in his book about talking with the TV editor in October 1999, the situation could not have involved this ‘future’ event….. which was described in, of all places, a CNN March 15, 2000 article having impossible-to-miss photo captions of the Mozambique flood. (online article here).

Devil’s advocates would say the Mozambique flood article was not a TV broadcast, and that Gelbspan himself crowed about the late ’99 / early 2000 breakup of the Global Climate Coalition, thus they would have had no influence over CNN by the time that flood happened. So, let’s try to find other evidence at CNN corroborating a pre-December ’99 timespan. In the first example, astute readers will see its tone – despite its headline – suggests the idea of man-caused global warming was supported by a 1995 IPCC report. In the rest if the examples, it’s hard to overlook the points being made….

These changes could cause strong and more frequent storms and droughts, spur changes in agriculture, imperil many plant and animal species and inundate many coastal communities, the report concluded.

Most climate scientists say that Earth does seem to be heating up.

An increase in temperatures as a result of global warming may lead to significantly higher levels of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. This, in turn, could fuel global warming even more, according to research conducted last summer in the Arctic.

… if predictions of climate change prove true, more erratic weather will bring more frequent droughts, with changing weather patterns bringing more rain to some portions of the world while possibly turning others into deserts.

Many of the world’s leading scientists believe that increased emissions of carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution have led to increased global temperatures and if left unchecked, they threaten to wreak havoc on Earth.

While a single heat wave doesn’t make a worldwide meltdown … , a great many scientists believe that by continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, humans are forcing drastic climate changes.

The intense heat experienced by much of the U.S. this summer should serve as a wake-up call to the dangers of global warming.

El Niño has exhibited some peculiar behavior over the last 20 years, leading one meteorologist to hypothesize that global warming is exacerbating the effects of the weather phenomenon.

I could go on and on, and it is a simple matter for people to rummage through CNN global warming reports from 1999, ’98 or 2000 (in which, ironically a top result is for a March 1 story on the demise of the Global Climate Coalition) and see the manner in which the stories spoke of the situation as a largely settled science. To their credit, at least one report on August 11, 1999 told CNN viewers not to panic about drought conditions.

Ross Gelbspan insinuated that the Global Climate Coalition had enough power to steer a major news outlet’s news content away from connecting extreme weather events with global warming. But two questions immediately arise: where is the evidence among all the CNN reports from ’98 to 2000 that would indicate they were suddenly intimidated into backing off reports where any inkling of worsening weather is somehow connected with global warming? And, how plausible is it that the GCC, “the main industry lobby group against meaningful climate action” (or more directly, “opposing action”), would use its muscle only to dissuade journalists from connecting extreme weather to global warming? Wouldn’t such an “outspoken and confrontational” group threaten to pull its advertising over any kind of mention of the issue as a man-caused problem in need of a solution?

As in the way Al Gore portrayed the situation while doing a book review of Gelbspan’s “Boiling Point”:

He recounts, for example, a conversation with a top television network editor who was reluctant to run stories about global warming because a previous story had ”triggered a barrage of complaints from the Global Climate Coalition” — a fossil fuel industry lobbying group …

That problem gets exponentially worse when anyone looks at what the GCC was actually saying at the time. As is seen in their June 3, 1999 press release, (bold emphasis mine)

U.S. industries in ever-greater numbers are taking serious actions to reduce greenhouse gases, according to a new U.S. Department of Energy report. The findings of DOE’S Energy Information Administration (EIA) were hailed by the Global Climate Coalition today as further evidence that there are voluntary and practical solutions to address concerns about the climate.

Rummage through their other news releases, or the other variety of material collected at Greenpeace’s scans of GCC material, and one begins to wonder why Greenpeace would keep evidence that shows the GCC to be a group that seemingly caves into the idea of man-caused global warming and advocates the same lackluster voluntary approach to solving the problem just like President George W. Bush did.

Gelbspan weaves a fantastic tale of industry corruption in a single 199 word-long six sentence paragraph at Mother Jones. Take substantive time to dig through it, as much of a chore as that is, and you see how none of what he says lines up right.

There’s more: “The ‘television editor told me “We did. Once.”’ Problem, Part II: Which Editor?