Media Skips Details, Creates Narrative in Heartland Case

by Brian McGraw on February 22, 2012

in Blog

Whining about the way in which the media covers climate change stories is probably absolutely a waste of time, but many mainstream media outlets seem to consistently misinterpret (intentionally or unintentionally) the skeptical position on climate change.

This is to be expected from organizations who are well-established as being on the other side of the fence (I will call them climate hawks, which I believe is a neutral term), but one would like to think that the allegedly objective media would make an effort to at least accurately express the views of those they write about (the U.S. is, admittedly, better than many things I’ve read from Europe):

I don’t know every small detail regarding Heartland’s attitude towards climate change, but I’ll work off of Joe Bast’s recent comments to the WSJ.

Where do we start?


The San Francisco Chronicle

Peter Gleick, a MacArthur Foundation fellow and co-founder and president of Oakland’s Pacific Institute, admitted Monday that he had posed as someone else and obtained confidential internal papers from the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group that has questioned the reality of human-caused global warming.

Heartland officials claim at least one of the memos that Gleick fed to bloggers and Internet sites is phony and they are accusing him of theft.

When Heartland is framed as “questioning the reality,” it quickly instructs S.F. readers to toss H.I. into the “crazy reality-denying community” and subsequently align themselves with the reality based community. In the video linked to above, Bast describes Heartland’s position on climate change as generally accepting that the earth has warmed in the past century, but more skeptical towards the rate and costs/benefits of future warming.

I think it would be significantly more charitable to describe that along the lines of “questioning the severity and consequences of climate change” rather than merely stating that H.I. opposes reality. To indulge their personal beliefs, the reporter could even throw in a line that the H.I.’s stance towards the severity and costs/benefits of future climate change is markedly in opposition to professional group x, y, and z.


The New York Times:

While the documents offer a rare glimpse of the internal thinking motivating the campaign against climate science, defenders of science education were preparing for battle even before the leak. Efforts to undermine climate-science instruction are beginning to spread across the country, they said, and they fear a long fight similar to that over the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Heartland did declare one two-page document to be a forgery, although its tone and content closely matched that of other documents that the group did not dispute. In an apparent confirmation that much of the material, more than 100 pages, was authentic, the group apologized to donors whose names became public as a result of the leak.

This was written prior to Peter Gleick admitting that he impersonated a board member in order to obtain H.I. documents. Nonetheless, it is still misleading.

First, we see that H.I. is allegedly waging a campaign against climate change. Again, completely uncharitable, for the same reasons discussed above. If you’re still unconvinced, check out the conferences that the Heartland Institute sponsored in 2011 and years past, including a number of prominent voices who spoke at the conference in favor of significant carbon reductions (check the talks given by Robert Mendelson, and the debate between Scott Denning and Roy Spencer).

You might believe that the H.I. is completely in the wrong with respect to the severity and costs of future climate change (and policy desires), but is it really fair to ascribe their motivations as launching a campaign against climate science when their own conferences invite scientists and economists who disagree with them, especially in what is supposed to be an objective media outlet?

You can also read the “climate strategy memo,” which a strong majority of analysts who oppose H.I.’s climate views believe are fake. I haven’t seen any credible analysts from the climate hawk camp dispute the likelihood of the strategy memo being fake. The content might match what the H.I. is doing, but the tone is different, and the faked memo is specifically worded in a way to make the Heartland Institute look bad, via language that does not align with how the H.I. publicly represents their intentions. The Times asserts that they are one in the same.

From the fake document:

His effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.

A campaign to dissuade teachers from teaching science sounds significantly more pernicious than designing a curriculum in order to provide what H.I. believes is a more balanced approach to the state of climate change science. Now obviously those who are firmly entrenched in the climate-hawk camp, they are one in the same, but is markedly different from the H.I.’s intentions.


An E&E article($):

The conservative Chicago think tank is an active funder of efforts to shed doubt on man-made climate change. It sponsors an annual anti-climate science conference and maintains an active communications operation that, among other things, has promoted the 2009 “Climategate” event, which involves the theft of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

“anti-climate science,” no need to say more.


The Guardian:

However, the statement from Heartland communications director, Jim Lakely, identifies only one of the eight documents posted online on Tuesday night by the DeSmogBlog website as a “total fake”. That document, two pages headlined “Confidential Memo: Heartland Climate Strategy”, largely duplicates information contained in the other documents.

Those documents – containing details on future projects such as a $100,000 campaign to “dissuade teachers from teaching science“, as well as fundraising efforts – have been confirmed, in part, by Heartland itself, corporate donors such as Microsoft, and climate sceptic blogger Anthony Watts, who hoped to benefit from Heartland fundraising this year.

Again, the distinction mentioned above is important, which they leave out to paint a narrative of some evil non-profit group trying to fill your child’s head with lies. The fake document stated that H.I. wanted to “dissuade teachers from teaching science” which is not what the project was about, it was providing a summary of the science as the H.I. sees it. Possibly a wrong view, but certainly not an attempt to keep all talk of climate change out of the conversation.


It is frustrating when allegedly objective media outlets create a nice little David v. Goliath story of heroic climate scientists under siege from evil-think-tank doing the bidding of evil oil companies, while tossing in a dose of “they’re trying to manipulate your children” as an added touch. The media’s siding with the “climate hawks” here is quite similar to the Climategate event of years past, where the media quickly aligned with the “move along, nothing to see here” narrative, which again, seems flatly incorrect (read extensive details, with citations, by Stephen McIntyre on the revelations from Climategate e-mails.)

Brad Plumer of The Washington Post has a more even-handed take on the release of the Heartland Institute documents. A writer for the Post’s Post-Partisan blog has a much less even-handed take (though note that this is from an  opinion/editorial section).



Stew Green February 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm

I should add Team A also proved Team B have minimal funding from big oil while they themselves cheat & lie

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