More Liberal Media Bias

by Brian on May 28, 2004

The CNN Report on “The Day After Tomorrow”: has, as its quoted scientific expert, “John Christy”: The same John Christy who has contributed to such balanced pieces of work as “Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths”: Yep, that’s our liberal media.

A few caveats might be in order, if for no other reason than to demonstrate my abiding loyalty to John Kerry.

First, as Al Gore said, the movie is fiction and it’s good and proper to represent it as such.

Second, I’m not advocating that CNN should have gone out and got someone who was associated with the other side of the global warming debate. For the kind of role they wanted for the story, a scientific opinion on the plausibility of the story, they really would have been better served just picking a random climatologist from a respectable university. I’ve got no idea whether Emory or Georgia State have anyone working on global warming, or if they do what their position is, but if they do have someone they are almost bound to be more representative of scientific opinion than Christy. And CNN could have called them up without even dialling long distance. (If the climatologists at Emory and Georgia State have reputations for being extreme global warming pessimists then this all might look fairly silly on my part. Ideally to get a sense of what the scientists are thinking you’d make 6 or 8 phone calls to experts and get a sense of where the consensus opinion is. Or, failing that, the midpoint of the opinions.)

Third, although Christy is a partisan in this dispute, that’s not to say his work isn’t interesting or important. He’s no John Lott, or even Bjorn Lomborg. His work on satellite data at the very least raises hard questions for the orthodox global warming theory, and possibly forces us to adjust our views on exactly what is happening. That’s to say, there are plenty of stories where he’s exactly the kind of person who news sources should be going to, e.g. on the range of scientific opinion on global warming.

(To add a digression to my caveat, it’s worth noting that Christy’s work has been published in “many leading journals”: If the scientific establishment was as insistent on suppressing alternative views as is sometimes claimed, that would not be happening. Of course it’s par for the course in science that interesting work backed up by data that challenges received ideas gets quite a lot of attention, and rightly so.)

Fourth, for all my whinging, Christy’s actual comments here are fairly responsible. He acknowledges that there is some human caused global warming, and although he says he thinks it’s only marginally detectable, notes other scientists disagree on that point. Frankly, if I was asked a similar question on a topic where I’m out of line with my professional colleagues I’m not sure I’d be quite so even-handed. (I’ve got no idea what such a question would be. Maybe in the stories on Shrek they could have asked a metaphysician whether talking donkeys are possible.) So bouquets for Christy, brickbats for CNN.



jdw 05.29.04 at 12:13 am

So… is it possible?

The talking donkeys, I mean.


Ayjay 05.29.04 at 12:14 am

I’m cool with the substance of this post, but what’s with the title and the intro? Surely Brian doesn’t think that one non-liberal expert cited in one story on one network disproves the “liberal media bias” claim (unless, of course, he believes the claim to be that conservatives are completely and without exception banished from non-Fox new outlets, in which case he certainly has disproved it). I think a sample size of one is not quite sufficient to make the point. To question whether Christy is a good representative on this issue is of course highly appropriate; to suggest that that his presence says anything significant about media bias is just silly.


robbo 05.29.04 at 12:51 am

…to suggest that that his presence says anything significant about media bias is just silly.

Just two weeks ago NPR ran a three-part series on global warming, one part of which featured John Christy. And while Christy certainly came off as eccentric — a guy whose favorite hobby is panning for gold, but who’s never found enough to make even a small ignot — NPR’s portrayal was anything but disrespectful.

I have trouble finding the liberal bias at NPR and CNN when both have chosen to give such prominence to a scientist whose views lie at the corporate-friendly fringe of the debate — the guy who says everthing’s fine, no need to upset the status quo. Do you see it differently, ayjay?


Brian Weatherson 05.29.04 at 12:54 am

Nah, I’m not proving anything. I just think the liberal bias thesis is so laughable as to deserve parody whenever as golden an opportunity as this presents itself. If you didn’t already believe this I’d hope a little joke like mine didn’t change your mind.


fyreflye 05.29.04 at 12:55 am

It’s a far more serious issue that the global warming debate is now being pegged to this scientifically absurd piece of prolefeed. But I suppose it really doesn’t matter in the long run. I passed a car dealer’s huge sale today staged on a lot filled almost exclusively with SUV’s. All the science on earth can’t compete with the matchless power of human stupidity.


Brian Weatherson 05.29.04 at 1:01 am

Oh, and the talking donkeys. Sure. Why wouldn’t they be possible? I have a pretty strong default assumption in favour of possibility and nothing in the talking donkeys hypothesis looks like overturning that assumption. But Chris’s colleague Alex Bird might disagree, and he’s thought about this stuff harder than I have so take with requisite lump of salt.


Giles 05.29.04 at 1:23 am

“liberal bias thesis”
In the recent Pew Report only 40% of journalists could name a liberal news organisation.

Now I don’t think there’s a developed country in the world where less than 40% of the public can name a left wing, right wing and centrist media organization.

This post merely seems to confirm that American Liberals don’t get out much.


Ayjay 05.29.04 at 1:25 am

To Robbo: first, thanks for the polite response! Second, I see it somewhat differently. I don’t think the question of whether there a “liberal media bias” exists can profitably be addressed at that level of generality. For instance, I don’t see how anyone could possibly think that NPR’s coverage of the Iraq war even approaches basic honesty, much less fairness — on that issue, it’s about as “fair and balanced” as Fox. Yet we have some anecdotal evidence here to suggest that the story with regard to global warming is different, and it’s worth asking why. (My first guess is that journalists, generally speaking, have a much higher level of political literacy and political concern than scientific literacy and scientific concern — even when the science has political implications. But that’s just a guess.)

To Brian: one can only decree the “liberal bias thesis” “laughable” by taking it as axiomatic that the political commitments of journalists — who are, according to every bit of information we have, significantly more liberal than the population at large, both in the US and the UK (I don’t know about elsewhere) — have no bearing on their reporting. The “liberal bias thesis” may be wrong, but it can only be laughable to people who avoid thinking about it, and I actually don’t think there is any chance that it is wholly wrong — any more than there’s a chance that it’s simply and universally correct.


bob mcmanus 05.29.04 at 1:43 am

You don’t say here how they found and chose Christy. You know who he is, how do the CNN producers know who he is? Who recommended him?

I had heard of Lomborg, I had not heard of Christy.


jdw 05.29.04 at 2:01 am


No wonder they never ask you on CNN.

“Donkeys can talk, but it would undermine the war effort” would get you on Fox though, I think.


robbo 05.29.04 at 2:19 am

Ayjay — thanks also to you for your own civility; it’s refreshing.

In my opinion, the global warming debate is one of the most politically charged scientific issues of the day, and if most climatologists are correct it stands to become the outright leader in this category within our lifetimes. Most large, multinational corporations — especially insurance companies — are starting to seriously investigate the implications of global warming for their industries, albeit quietly so that folks like us don’t get spooked until the time is right.

At any rate, I have little doubt that there was a political calculation involved in NPR seeking out a prominent global warming debunker as one of their interviewees. The fact that CNN found the same guy, with no counterbalancing views presented, suggests that Christy is the right-wing scientist du jour.

Regarding “liberal bias,” you’re undoubtedly aware of FAIR’s recent review of NPR, which found, among other things: “Representatives of think tanks to the right of center outnumbered those to the left of center by more than four to one: 62 appearances to 15. Centrist think tanks provided sources for 56 appearances.”

Also: “Looking at partisan sources—including government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants—Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent). A majority of Republican sources when the GOP controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising, but Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent to 42 percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.”

What would they find if they investigated CNN or any of the other commercial networks? Sure, the reporters may have their left-leanings, but the owners and editors hold their leashes. Eric Alterman wrote an entire book on the topic, but I didn’t read it.

Anyway, what do you offer in support of the notion that American media coverage tends to favor the left?


Brian Weatherson 05.29.04 at 3:38 am

I’ll happily defer to Robbo’s data on media bias. Personally I can’t imagine any explanation of the relative attention paid to the Clinton and Bush scandals that’s consistent with any substantive liberal bias thesis. I mean, by what possible measure (apart from column inches) was Whitewater a more serious scandal than the Plame affair?

In Australian English, or at least the dialect of it I learned, ‘liberal’ means moderate right-winger – as in the ‘small-l liberals’ that used to be prominent in the Victorian Liberal Party. Maybe in that sense there’s liberal media bias. There’s certainly anti-extremism bias but I take it that’s not what’s at issue.

Bob, I had heard of Christy because he was one of the most prominent proponents of the claim that satellite data (which showed moderate or negative warming) was more reliable than other measurement techniques. For a while in the late 1990s that looked to be by far the most serious reason to be sceptical of global warming. This stuff was published in Science and Nature, so I assume it was/is serious stuff, though from memory the rhetoric (on both sides) got pretty heated for a scientific dispute. I _think_ recalibration of the satellite data reduced the discrepancies but I’m really not certain what’s happening now.

So I’m really not competent to assess the current state of play, but I think it’s not unreasonable to think Christy was at least partially right and consideration of this data should cause us to adjust downwards our estimates of how fast the planet is warming. So in the context of a 3 part series like NPR was running it probably was appropriate to run views like Christy’s. I’d hope this was balanced out by people who think the current scientific consensus is too optimistic but when there’s a dispute I don’t think you should just report the common view.


Ayjay 05.29.04 at 3:46 am

Robbo: again, I wouldn’t want to make a statement as comprehensive as “American media coverage tends to favor the left,” not because I don’t think there’s something to it, but because the terms are so large that they defy meaningful employment. “Media,” “coverage,” “left,” and (above all) “favor” would have to be defined to our mutual satisfaction before we could be sure that we’re not talking past each other — which seems to be the norm when this topic arises. I would rather focus in on something much smaller — e.g., has a particular media outlet (NPR, the Guardian, the NYT) provided reasonably accurate coverage of Abu Ghraib? And even that is hard to establish. There’s just not much to be gained from one side saying that “American media coverage tends to favor the left” and the other side replying by saying that such a claim is “laughable.”

(If I were forced to pursue the question as you phrase it, I guess I would start by doing a comparative reading of Alterman’s What Liberal Media? and Goldberg’s Bias. I’d be interested to know if either one of them makes a decent case. Having only read snippets of both, I see fewer non sequiturs and red herrings in Goldberg than in Alterman, but I can’t make firm statements.)

Anyway, my point to Brian was not that there simply is “liberal media bias,” but that his instantaneous dismissal of the very idea is too facile.


lurker 05.29.04 at 4:12 am

Talking donkeys prove liberal bias. If it was truly balanced, there’d be a talking elephant too.


Ayjay 05.29.04 at 4:13 am

Forgot to respond to Robbo’s comment about the FAIR data: it provides numerous illustrations of just the points I was trying to make. For instance: FAIR describes Brookings as a “centrist” think-tank, a description that is probably fair enough as a generality, but the people at Brookings cover a wide range of foreign and domestic issues, and on some of those they tend to lean much further left (whereas I don’t think there are any of their core areas where the fellows collectively lean significantly to the right). And certainly it is dubious to suggest, as FAIR’s report does, that anyone from Brookings who appears on NPR is representing a “centrist” position on whatever issue he or she may have addressed. In short, that kind of data is just meaningless.

Likewise, all FAIR’s data data tells us is what “sorts” of institutions (defined in the vaguest of terms) are cited or allowed to speak on NPR. But that tells us nothing about how those people are presented by the NPR reporters.

Again, I’m not making a claim that “liberal media bias” exists, only that FAIR’s data doesn’t help us much if we want to think seriously about the question.


John Quiggin 05.29.04 at 4:15 am

Recalibration reduced the discrepancies and alternative analyses of the data produce results that are fairly close to the surface-level data, though Christy continues to stick by his numbers. David Appell is a good source.


Andrew Boucher 05.29.04 at 5:58 am

I didn’t realize until this post that global-warming was consisered a liberal-conservative issue. I always thought the dividing line was more philosophical: skepticism vs. credulity.


Lance Boyle 05.29.04 at 8:02 am

“All the science on earth can’t compete with the matchless power of human stupidity.”

The automobile industry is the largest in the US. Throw oil-and-gas in there and you have a match for Leviathan.
Stupidity seems kind of a misnomer. It’s also the lead-off punch for the guilt-shift — get people to blame themselves for the blowback.
Like with smoking. As though three generations of otherwise sensible people, all on their own decided to poison themselves with nicotine addiction, and then, in the space of about ten years, people just woke up to how stupid that was. Right.
No coercion, no seduction, no subliminal brainwash. Just stupidity, and then not.
Same with cars and gasoline. The US burns something on the order of 380+ million gallons a day. Anyone who thinks an economy like that is conducive to free and open discussion of its negative consequences is either a liar or a damned fool.
Inhuman greed. Alien intelligence that counts the continued earthly presence and health of humanity as less important a variable than long-range petroleum reserves, or the daily price of bullion.
Cynical self-interest operating at a degree of intensity that is indistinguishable from the Satanic. I don’t mean that as hyperbole, it’s indistinguishable.
The greatest single cause of death for people under 30 in the US is travel by car.
The larger picture is a grid of statistics that are as anti-life as the devil himself.

I like that, “skepticism or credulity”.
“Grown-ups vs. babies”, pick the one you want to be.
The automobile is a wheelchair most of us willingly surrender our mobility to and the rest of us are forced to, the roads are rivers of poison gas, our neighborhood landscapes are empty of children, our communal spaces are all indoors and mostly virtual. What difference does it make if the climate is shifting?
It is, but what difference does it make as long as we keep living like this?


robbo 05.29.04 at 8:48 am

Fair enough, ayjay. I don’t need to read What Liberal Media? or Bias to know what’s what, from my own perspective. Perched here on the left — particularly on environmental issues — Brookings comes across as a supremely “centrist” Institution to me.

Whatever. We all bring our own philosophy — a form of bias — to bear on every issue. Philosophy filters the steady stream of data, determining what warrants retention and emphasis in our personal mental frameworks. So long as we’re all being intellectually honest (to the extent we can be), I’m pleased to hear other informed viewpoints.

And thanks, lance boyle, for keeping it real. It rings true to me that our collective addiction, greed, and plain old simple-mindedness keep us from gaining proper perspective on the level of damage we’re inflicting on the planet and ourselves.


Erik 05.29.04 at 10:01 am

Talking donkeys are possible, and in fact, there exist an uncountable number of talking donkeys, though they are not spatiotemporally related to us. But other metaphysicians disagree on this point.



Lurker 05.29.04 at 3:46 pm

What’s all the fuss about global warming? It’s a short-term problem at most. Petroleum will run out in 50 years, right? And any alternative fossil fuels 50 years after that.

That’s a total of 200 years of global warming, tops. This is a very short time in climatological terms. Maybe by then, we’ll be over our phobia about nuclear power.


Andrew Boucher 05.29.04 at 4:02 pm

Lance: Grown-ups vs babies indeed. Only I’m not sure which side is which.

Global warming strikes me as analogous to Iraqi WMDs. They serve as the false pretext for policies which have many other reasons behind them. I guess the Bush administration took a copy from the European playbook…

Notice the post of Lance. Rage against the automobile, consumption, the poisoning of the environment. I agree with all of it and accept that these are good reasons to put something like Kyoto into action (although I think the Europeans, as usual, rigged the game in their favor). None of his post, however, connects the automobile with global warming. It’s as if the causal link is irrelevant. But it’s precisely this causal link which strikes me as dubious – and so why it’s wrong-headed to use global warming as a justification to implement policies which we should implement anyway. (OK this would be where the analogy with Iraqi WMDs breaks down.)


Thomas 05.29.04 at 4:22 pm

I’m not sure why brickbats are appropriate for CNN. Is there a scientist somewhere who does think that the movie is plausible? If there’s no division within the profession on the plausibility of the movie’s scenario, then there’s no harm asking anyone in the profession. Further, when asked about for the views of the profession, Christy accurately described them, and then offered his own as a dissenting view.


Will Wilkinson 05.29.04 at 8:26 pm

No talking donkeys! The only possible world is the actual world, and there are no talking donkeys in it.

More flexibly, we don’t know whether there could be a talking donkey, if by ‘talking’ we mean what Eddie Murphy can do, and by ‘donkey’ we mean a member of the relevant biological species. One might plausibly think that any sequence of mutations beginning with a donkey that could lead to capacities for propositional thought and vocal articulation would also lead to speciation, and we would end up with something that could talk, but which was not, strictly speaking, a donkey.


Antoni Jaume 05.29.04 at 8:37 pm

lurker, global warming means that once we’re warm, we remain warm until nature has once again fossilized enough carbon to lower the carbon dioxid present in the athmosphere, and that may imply thousands, if not millions, of years.



robbo 05.29.04 at 9:07 pm

Thomas, it’s fine for John Christy to have contrarian views, and I’m glad he didn’t misrepresent the mainstream view. But my inner cynic starts twitching at the prospect of John Christy becoming mainstream media’s “fair and balanced” voice on the topic of climate change. Because it appears he’s been hand-picked to make people feel good about an issue that most experts in his field don’t feel good about.

It reminds me of the media’s once-beloved foreign policy experts who acknowledged in fall 2002 that our elective Iraq war certainly carried risks, but who nonetheless managed to reassure Americans that war represented the best available response to the situation. It wasn’t, and I don’t think that doing nothing represents our government’s most responsible approach to the prospect of climate change.

CNN could have gotten a well-respected scientist who’s more of a Cassandra about the topic — do you think it’s just by chance that they didn’t?


Lance Boyle 05.29.04 at 9:08 pm

:::wood s lot::: had this pertinent quote/entry from Walker Percy yesterday.
It’s not the responsibility of poets and artists to tell scientifically factual stories. The atomic weights of things are not their identities. The constituent parts of things, however exhaustingly detailed the list, will never be as accurate as a name. Zeno’s grocery list is always incomplete.

Thank you Robbo, Andrew, though Andrew that cynical despair at the end of my anti-car thing should have answered your criticism. The causal relationship? I’m saying it is close to irrelevant.
Like whether a starving junkie has AIDS or not is close to irrelevant.
A couple of things never get acknowledged in the so-called debate about global warming. One is that the news itself has the potential to be so disheartening to the researchers on the front lines, and yet they’re treated by their critics like fans of an opposing soccer team, and shouted down with scorn and ridicule.
Another is the subject, and the science, are beyond the layman entirely. Weather is a complex system whose subtleties and whose timeline are outside most of our perspectives. So we have to take our view from someone we trust, on faith as it were.
So. When I said that:
a. the auto/oil industry is so dominantly a part of the US/global economy it practically is the economy,
b. No reasonable person can expect unrestricted debate, purely on the evidence,
I meant to point toward a change. We have to take the debate out of the agora, because the agora is owned and controlled by the industry we’re examining.
Big Tobacco wasn’t a warm-up to this. It was the Foos-ball® version. The power radiating from the dark nucleus of the auto/oil kombinat sucks everything toward it. It isn’t about the men in the boardrooms or the families in their SUV’s. It’s the whole system. It operates outside the tentative framework of morality and reason. It’s a deity. Divine or Satanic I leave to the reader to decide, based on its attributes and effects.


Xavier 05.30.04 at 12:04 am

The real problem with the media is that reporters tend to begin with a vision of what their story should be and then they look for facts to fit that story. Since journalists tend to have moderate leftist views, their stories often reflect those views, but the ideological slant is less of a problem than the sloppy methodology itself.

In this case, CNN wanted a quote from the most critical climatologist they could find because they were trying to play up the story of scientists criticizing the movie. The media’s bias in favor of sensationalism and controversy always trumps political bias.


Lurker 05.30.04 at 1:02 am


we remain warm until nature has once again fossilized enough carbon to lower the carbon dioxid present in the athmosphere

The carbon doesn’t have to be fossilized; it just has to be sequestered. There are many ways to do this, like the growth of forests and grasslands. Much of this will happen naturally as extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is like fertilizer. Plants will grow faster. Studies have shown that trees grow faster in cities than in the country. The earth’s biosphere is self-regulating to an unexpected degree.

It is possible to help this process. One way is to seed barren areas of the ocean with iron to encourage plankton growth. Another is the resumption of nuclear power development.

Given all this, and the apparent peaking of population growth that is expected this century, complete pessimism is not called for; in fact, there is reason for much hope.


Sandals 05.30.04 at 4:39 am

Considering the plankton blooms we’re experiencing in the oceans currently and the problems those cause, I don’t see plankton seeding as a good solution…

Trees grow faster in the cities because there’s a LOT less trees around! No competition. I mean, i think any growth rate increase is more than cancelled out by the widespread destruction of forests, which have other serious effects, as can be seen in the mudslides in Haiti.

Nuclear power development has its own problems. I’m actually a fan of nuclear power, but on a large scale it does produce several problems- a vast quantity of heated water dumped into rivers and oceans, with unknown effects- and of course waste disposal. The mess at Hanford is apalling as well. Several difficulties need to be worked out…


Lance Boyle 05.30.04 at 8:48 pm

Complete human domination and control of every bio-chemical process on the planet! Now! Quickly!


Lurker 05.31.04 at 3:25 am

That’s right Lance. If you want to deal in totalities, it’ll either be that or totalitarian control of all the people on the planet.

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