For $25K, you can publish climate denial in The Washington Post

Should newspapers profit from spreading factual inaccuracies about deadly threats?

Happy hump day, hot stuff. Some shameless self- and friend-promotion before today’s edition. Last week, I appeared on the podcast Stand Up! with Pete Dominick to talk about the state of climate politics in America. Pete is one of my favorite podcasters for deep-dive conversations into the biggest issues we face, and overall a real stand-up (ayo!) dude. You can listen to our conversation and follow Pete on all his platforms by clicking the button below. My segment starts at about the 1:10 mark.

Listen to Stand Up! with Pete Dominick

Now onto the main event.


How a full page of climate denial ended up in The Post

Lawrence Gelman and I both want to prevent mass death. We just disagree on the threat humans face. I think it’s climate change. Gelman thinks it’s me.

“I think the people who believe they are doing good on [climate change] are actually doing a bad thing,” said Gelman, an anesthesiologist based in Edinburgh, Texas. “I think what they’re doing is going to kill a lot of people.” He thinks this because of “a lot of study” he’s done, none of which includes peer-reviewed science. “I don’t consider Nature, or Scientific American, or the American Medical Association, or the Lancet, or the New England Journal of Medicine legitimate,” he said, adding that climate scientists were “charlatans” who “don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Gelman, in other words, is a climate truther: Someone who believes, without evidence, that climate change is a hoax. It is the editorial policy of most reputable news outlets not to publish the views of climate truthers, because they are fundamentally grounded in falsehoods.

But Gelman has found a way around most news outlets’ editorial policies: the advertising section. When he wants to get published in reputable newspapers, he simply takes his views there. He’s gotten ads containing scientific falsehoods and conspiracy theories published in many small newspapers over the years, including one in April that said COVID-19 was “manufactured” by China.

But last week, Gelman got his biggest get yet: a full-page, 1,421-word screed of unhinged climate trutherism in The Washington Post—the same paper that won the Pulitzer Prize for documenting that climate change has already become “a life-altering reality” and public health crisis across the world.

He says it cost him $25,000, and that it was worth every penny.

A screenshot of the top half of Gelman’s ad in the November 9, 2020 edition of The Washington Post. It claims falsely that greenhouse gases do not trap heat, among other things. Source: Washington Post

“Some of the most egregious misinformation I've seen”

Shani George, the Post’s director of communications, did not confirm the price Gelman paid for the ad. She did, however, confirm that it is in line with the Post’s advertising policies. “We have long accepted individual advocacy ads from readers and they, like other advertisers, are given wide latitude to exercise their First Amendment rights and convey their opinions,” she said in an emailed statement.

But are the claims in Gelman’s ad really “opinions?” George did not respond to that question, but several climate researchers I spoke to for this story don’t think so. “Almost all of the statements in this are not opinion, but are scientific claims,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University. “And they are almost entirely wrong.”

Gelman’s ad is a textbook example of scientific misinformation, said John Cook, an assistant research professor at George Mason University who studies climate misinformation, said it contained “some of the most egregious misinformation I've seen over the last decade and a half that I've been researching climate misinformation.”

The majority of the ad “contains common talking points that have been well debunked, over and over, for decades,” Cook said. Dessler agreed, and pointed to two articles debunking most of them. Dessler said there were “a few crumbs of truth” in the ad, like the fact that H2O is the most important greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. But then, “they are then blended with nonsense to reach very wrong conclusions.” Cook said at least one argument was novel. “Until now, I'd never heard a climate denier argue that carbon dioxide blocks sunlight from warming the Earth,” he said. “That displays woeful ignorance of how the greenhouse effect works.”

“Only someone with zero knowledge about atmospheric sciences could advance arguments like this,” said Dessler. “Even the smallest search through the peer-reviewed literature would lead this person to realize that huge amounts of work on these questions has been done and the conclusions are largely settled.” Ironically, much of that work has been documented by the Washington Post.

Climate denial ads: a product of the fossil fuel industry’s campaign to delay climate action

I climate experts I spoke to didn’t seem too concerned about Post readers being influenced by Gelman’s ad. “I seriously doubt very many people even read this, and fewer changed their view,” said Dessler. “I don't think he got much return for his $25,000.”

Cook agreed, adding that he was far more concerned about more sophisticated, coordinated misinformation efforts. “I'd say a single ad from an individual would have minimal impact compared to the persistent, prolific, and systematic drumbeat of misinformation flowing from conservative think-tanks and amplified by social media, politicians, and mainstream media,” he said.

But are individual and coordinated climate misinformation efforts really that different? Leah Stokes, a climate policy expert with UC Santa Barbara, doesn’t think so. “How can we distinguish individuals acting ‘on their own’ from the fossil fuel industry? … They no doubt got their ideas and talking points from the industry funded denial campaigns,” she said. “If an industry spends billions of dollars over decades, it will affect how some people think.”

Indeed, the fossil fuel industry and its political allies have spent billions to sow public distrust in climate science. From 2003 to 2010, 140 conservative dark money foundations funneled $558 million to almost 100 climate denial organizations. From 2000 to 2016, the fossil fuel industry spent nearly $2 billion in lobbying to prevent climate action. Over the last 30 years, $3.6 billion has been spent by oil companies on advertisements that promote the industry’s public image.

It’s worth asking: would a full page of climate denial in the 6th most circulated newspaper in the country ever have been published without them?

Should newspapers profit from publishing factual inaccuracies about deadly threats?

Ask any newspaper employee, and they’ll tell you there is a firewall between the advertising department and the newsroom. What the advertising team does has no influence on what the reporters do.

That certainly appears to be the case at The Washington Post, which has some of the best climate coverage in the nation. Sure, the Post’s editorial page sometimes publishes questionable climate arguments. But they’re never based on claims as egregiously false as those in Gelman’s ad.

Post climate editors did not respond to questions about whether they would ever publish claims resembling those in Gelman’s ad. But it seems obvious they would not, the reason being the same reason the Post does not publish false claims about the science of coronavirus, or the science of smoking cigarettes. These are all major public health crises with the potential to kill millions—climate change being the “greatest public health challenge of the 21st century,” according to over 100 professional health and medical groups. And misinformation about public health crises harms people.

Seek truth and minimize harm: these are the key principles of ethical journalism. But they’re also the key principles of ethical advertising. Would the Post allow full-page advertisement claiming cigarette smoking doesn’t cause cancer, or that mask-wearing doesn’t help contain coronavirus? If not, then what makes an advertisement containing climate denial any different?

Crickets from the Post

I posed those questions to Shani George, the Post’s director of communications, but received no answer. 

Naomi Oreskes, who teaches the history of science at Harvard University and studies climate disinformation, wishes newspapers were more willing to grapple with these topics.

“In the famous words of Dan Moynihan, we are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts,” she said. “At minimum,” she added, Gelman’s ad represents “a kind of false advertising”—an illegal practice not because of objectionable or reprehensible opinion, but because of outright lies.

If newspapers allow themselves to profit from spreading falsehoods, can the public trust them to be arbiters of truth? It’s a difficult question, but one worth asking, Particularly in this modern era of rampant disinformation.

“I would like to see editors have a serious discussion about this,” Oreskes said. “In private, editors have told me they do see a problem, but I do not know of any public discussion of it.”

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