17 January 2010

The Fourth Estate and Uncomfortable Questions

Today's NY Times has a timely column by its Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, on conflicts of interest among sources used in news stories and who publish on the NY Time op-ed pages. The column details recent instances where financial interests were not disclosed (either to the NYT or to its readers). Hoyt notes:

These examples have resulted in five embarrassing editors’ notes in the last two months — two of them last week — each of them saying readers should have been informed of the undisclosed interest. And on Thursday, the standards editor sent Times journalists a memo urging them to be “constantly alert” to the outside interests of expert sources. The cases raised timeless issues for journalists and sources about what readers have a right to know and whose responsibility it is to find it out or disclose it.

The ideal expert source is entirely independent, with no stake in an outcome. But in reality, the most informed sources often have involvements, which is why they know what they know. Readers are entitled to disclosure so they can decide if there is a conflict that would affect the credibility of the information.

A search of the NYT archives over the past 12 months for -- Rajendra + Pachauri -- results in 677 mentions. I can't find one that discusses or discloses his considerable financial interests as related to his frequent policy advocacy. The atmospheric and environmental sciences are at the frontier with respect to conflicts of interest (as I wrote in 2003 for the NRC, PDF) so it is perhaps not too surprising that these issues are only now emerging.

However, now that Pachauri's conflicts and interests are documented, real and being discussed openly in the media, the US media (not just the NYT) ought to be on this. There is a big, though uncomfortable, story here. If the major media were on it, then it would help the climate science community to clean up its act. Asking uncomfortable questions of those in power is one of the jobs of the Fourth Estate, right?

13 comments:

  1. The real Bernstein, or Woodward, for Patchygate is Richard North of EUreferendum.com. He already posted a message re Pachauri's Big Climate escapades on Dec.12th on his blog. After that he and Booker from The Telegraph published more on Pachauri's businesses.
    In fact this Sunday Telegraph is using North's investment journalism without even crediting him, well that's MSM isn't it.
    North deserves full credit for the demise of a man from whom I wouldn't even buy a, discounted, second hand car.

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  2. The ideological mind meld of government (needing "cover" for policies), science (needing grant money from govt.) and the press (needing heroes, villains, and crisis no matter how contrived) has led us to the borg estate.

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  3. "Asking uncomfortable questions of those in power is one of the jobs of the Fourth Estate, right?"

    Perhaps a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. In contemporary America, uncomfortable questions from the news media are directed only at Republicans (aka those mean-spirited, hate-filled, racist, sexist, homophobic neanderthals who want to rape the planet and exploit workers).

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  4. Roger

    Why not write NYT bringing it to their attention? FOX hasn't picked up it. You would certainly get their attention.

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  5. Why do you limit this dicussion to the NY Times? What about NBC and it parent GE? Look at their environmental coverage and "Green Weeks" calling attention to climate change. Meanwhile, GE stands to gain from emissions capping legislation by selling wind turbines (5 Gegawatts worth for every Gigawatt of coal shut down), gas turbine back ups for when the wind doesn't blow, smart grid technology to handle the intermittent power generation and don't forget GE financial selling you the right to breath. If ever there was an elephant in the room of conflicts of interest in the fourth estate it is NBC and its parent, GE.

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  6. -5-Sean

    "Why do you limit this dicussion to the NY Times?"

    From the main post:

    "he US media (not just the NYT) ought to be on this"

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  7. These are the same people who sat on the John Edwards scandal. Let's not be naive here - there has never been a time when newspapers were not beholden to and protective of special interests. The New York Times has never been an exception.

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  8. It's front page news today in "The Australian," and on the top of their "must read" list. Here's the link:

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/united-nations-blunder-on-glaciers-exposed/story-e6frg6n6-1225820614171

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  9. I recall a story that when Sarah Palin was announced as the VP candidate, the NYT could arrange and afford to send, by charter jet, a team of lawyers and investigative journalists all the way to Alaska to go through her garbage to find the juicy political dirt.

    Funny the NYT has such a policy of selective use of investigative resources.

    Might explain why the NYT is approaching bankruptcy status and the value of their stock has collapsed.

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  10. No one would know who Woodward and Bernstein were if Richard Nixon hadn't already had fairly high negative ratings.

    I.E. Their work confirmed something many people already believed.

    In the history of crooked politicians, Richard Nixon doesn't even finish in the top 100.

    The Fourth Estate asks uncomfortable questions about people who are generally disliked.

    If the Himalaya's story manages to get legs the Fourth Estate will begin to doubt they are being told the truth. Then issues like conflict of interest etc will take hold. The Fourth Estate does not like being lied to.

    At the moment the Fourth Estate in the US is coming to terms with what is going on in Massachusetts.

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  11. This is somewhat related to asking the right questions by the 4th estate.

    Jennifer Marohasy had several articles on the news media and climate change in which she noted that there seemed to be a group think. If the group had bought into a consensus of thought, then stories would be written and more likely be published if those stories supported that thought. As one enviromental reporter put it, its like creating a tapestry. You do stories that support making a clear picture in that tapestry. Given the stories that have come out recently on the shenaigans in the climate science field and from influential people on the IPCC, it seems that the picture in that tapestry has changed. A new thought consensus is emerging that is not as pretty and neat as the old one. Without a clear picture, perhaps more even handed reporting might become the norm until a new image emerges.

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  12. "However, now that Pachauri's conflicts and interests are documented, real and being discussed openly in the media, the US media (not just the NYT) ought to be on this. There is a big, though uncomfortable, story here. If the major media were on it, then it would help the climate science community to clean up its act. Asking uncomfortable questions of those in power is one of the jobs of the Fourth Estate, right? "

    It is actually much WORSE than this. Indeed, most of the "Fourth Estate" members have placed themselves in advocacy positions, most of which are far left of center. So much so that it is becoming comical. It's fun to watch the media sputtering propaganda and becoming completely irrelevant. Watch Massachusetts for proof.

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  13. Surprisingly, there is quite some coverage in the German speaking world:
    Austria's Die Presse has this:

    http://diepresse.com/home/panorama/klimawandel/533682/index.do?

    German's weekly STERN has the following
    http://www.stern.de/wissen/natur/himalaya-gletscherschmelze-weltklimarat-wird-schlampige-recherche-vorgeworfen-1536609.html

    Both are big outlets.

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