The editorial boards are failing on climate

A lack of diversity and climate expertise within the Washington Post and New York Times editorial boards is making for dissonant, irresponsible opinion writing.

When a person holds two or more conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors, we often say they are experiencing cognitive dissonance. But I recently learned that description isn’t totally correct. Cognitive dissonance is not the phenomenon of simply holding conflicting beliefs. It’s the phenomenon of being uncomfortable because you hold conflicting beliefs.

I had wanted to start this article by accusing the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post of having cognitive dissonance about climate change. But I’m not sure anyone there is even aware of it, let alone stressed out by it. I can’t imagine they’d continue to let these conflicts persist if they were. These are, after all, two of the most prestigious newspapers in the world. Their editorial boards are staffed by highly educated, award-winning journalists who pride themselves on smart opinion writing.

And yet, two recent editorials—one from the Times, one from the Post—display such bafflingly contradictory logic about climate change that I can’t help but wonder what gives. In each of these editorials, teams of mostly Ivy League-educated writers admit that scientists are correct about global warming; that climate change represents an existential threat to human and animal life; and that the problem must be addressed swiftly. At the same time, they also decry policies aiming to reduce carbon as radical and harmful. They say we must save the world. Then they say it’s unrealistic to save the world.

When I read these pieces, I thought to myself that it seemed like no one on these editorial boards really understands climate change; like they don’t get what it will actually do to society if it gets worse, or understand what solving this problem really requires.

So I decided to take a closer look at the makeup of the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards, and what I found was a concerning lack of climate expertise; a lack of representation from racial and gender groups most affected by climate change; and a history of sympathy for climate science denialism among the top editors of both papers’ editorial pages.

These shortcomings are concerning because the public needs and deserves thoughtful opinion writing on the most existential threat they face. The nation’s most prestigious newspaper editorial boards should be able to give it to them. Instead, they are undermining public trust in the quality reporting being done by the paper’s climate reporters by refusing to grapple with what it means.

But first, the pieces.

The Washington Post says Sanders’s climate plan “could hurt the U.S. economy,” does not mention how climate change could destroy it

The most recent example of contradictory climate logic came on Thursday, when the Post editorial board slammed Senator Bernie Sanders for pledging to declare climate change a national emergency if elected president.

Such a declaration, the Post argued, would ban U.S. crude oil exports and thus “simultaneously harm the U.S. economy and help the dictatorships of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.” The editorial says banning crude oil exports “is not the way to combat climate change,” because other countries would “immediately rush to fill the void.” Instead, the way to solve climate change is by “working with Congress to put a rising price on carbon fuels.”

From a climate perspective, it’s a very poor argument. The most basic reality of climate solutions science is that preventing catastrophe requires rapid divestment from fossil fuel extraction. Research has shown time and again that carbon taxes alone will not be enough to do this. There no attempt to address this in the Post’s piece; just as there is also no attempt to grapple with the fact that climate change itself will simultaneously devastate the U.S. economy and increase the risk of dictatorships. You cannot insist you care about climate change without acknowledging those facts.

The Times fails to ask candidates climate questions, blames the climate crisis on “society.”

The New York Times’ double endorsement of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for the Democratic presidential nomination last month caused a lot of commotion in the climate community—mainly because the Times editorial board deemed Warren a “radical” and Klobuchar a “realist.”

What bothered me, though, was the Times lack of consideration of the climate crisis at all in its endorsement process. The editorial board interviewed nine Democratic presidential candidates for its endorsement process, but only asked questions about climate change to six. Put another way, one third of Democratic presidential candidates interviewed by the Times editorial board were not asked about climate change: Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, or Deval Patrick.

The board noted that it “had hoped to ask” Yang about climate change “but ran out of time.” It did have time, however, to ask Yang about how he planned on qualifying for the next debate; why he wears a pin that says MATH; and what government secret he was most excited to learn about.

Running out of time to talk about climate change was a common theme in the Times’ endorsement process. Out of the six candidates that were asked about climate change, three were told that would not have a lot of time to answer.

While interviewing Pete Buttigieg, Kathleen Kingsbury lamented that they would have to move on from climate, because “we have only a few minutes left and we have a lot of other things we want to get to.”

While interviewing Cory Booker, board members said they wanted to talk about climate change but asked about something else instead three times. (Ex: “I have a climate question, but first I wanted to get you your football question.”)

Bernie Sanders was also not asked about climate change until the very end of his interview. “We’re running out of time, and I want to get to climate,” one board member said.

Later, on Twitter, one editorial board member complained that the candidates did not seem to prioritize climate change in their interviews.

Then, when the actual endorsement came out, climate policy was barely mentioned—except for when the board wrote that Warren “often casts the net far too wide, placing the blame for a host of maladies from climate change to gun violence at the feet of the business community when the onus is on society as a whole.”

Either the New York Times editorial board is unaware of the multi-decade, multi-billion dollar climate disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry and Republicans to prevent climate policy, or they are aware, and still believe the climate crisis is still mostly the fault of you and I. Either position is unacceptable.

The Times and Post editorial boards are very white, very male, and lack climate expertise

The Washington Post has 11 editorial board members. Of those, eight are white; ten are men; and only two—writer Stephen Stromberg and editorial cartoonist Tom Toles—have significant experience reporting on climate.

The New York Times has 14 editorial board members. Of those, 11 are white; eight are male; and only two—writers Jeneen Interlandi and John Broder—have significant climate reporting experience.

Both editorial boards are also led by men with no significant climate reporting experience, and are both known for allowing climate misinformation to be published in the name of spirited debate.

For over 10 years, Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt has been criticized by progressives for publishing columns that contain verifiably false information about climate science. Hiatt has consistently defended his decision to do this, even though he believes climate change represents an existential crisis. In 2014, Hiatt told Media Matters that the debate over climate science is “healthy:”

If you read our editorial pages you would know that we believe that the evidence of climate change is sufficiently alarming to justify major changes in public policy. But, you know what? I think it’s kind of healthy, given how, in so many areas—not just climatology, but medicine, and everything else—there is a tendency on the part of the lay public at times to ascribe certainty to things which are uncertain. I believe, and this me personally speaking, that there is a lot more we don’t know about climatology and there’s a lot more we have to learn in terms of our ability to predict climatological phenomena and how what’s happening in the oceans is going to interact with what’s happening in the atmosphere. And do I think it’s somehow dangerous to have one of our many columnists casting doubt on this consensus? No, I think it’s healthy. And let the other ones come in and slam him, if they think it’s irresponsible. That’s what an opinion page is for.

New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet has said similar things. Indeed, the first decision Bennet made as editor was to hire Bret Stephens as a columnist; and the first thing Stephens published was soft climate denial. The piece, which questioned established climate science, contained only one line containing reference to actual science, and Bennet was forced to correct that line three days later.

These decisions matter more than you might think

Editorial board decisions matter. They affect not only public opinion of candidates, but how reporters cover candidates.

A 2002 paper in the American Political Science Review looked at newspaper coverage of more than 60 Senatorial campaigns across three election years, and found “that information on news pages is slanted in favor of the candidate endorsed on the newspaper's editorial page.” It also found that “voters evaluate endorsed candidates more favorably than candidates who fail to secure an editorial endorsement.”

Editorial board decisions also affect how the public views the papers’ overall credibility. Stephens’ climate column, for example, caused a wave of New York Times subscription cancellations. There is great climate reporting being done at the Times that people are missing now out on because of a lack of strong climate expertise on the editorial page.

The Times itself recognizes the importance of its editorial positions. Times deputy editorial page editor Kathleen Kingsbury recently cited a Columbia Journalism Review explaining the impact of candidate endorsements. “Swaying votes is only one reason for endorsing, and arguably not the most important,” the piece reads. “Every few years, endorsements bring a publication to full stop. They explain to the world what that publication is, what it advocates, how it thinks, what principles it holds dear.”

If a livable planet is one of those principles the Times and the Post hold dear, they owe it to their reporters and their readers to show it.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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