Published in the Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT)
Published in the Washington Times
October 08, 2000
Although they happen all the time, major media miscues rarely penetrate very deeply into American popular culture and consciousness. Sure, we have all seen photos of the famous headline, "Dewey Beats Truman," and the media's alleged role in turning American opinion against the war in Vietnam-and mothers against apples sprayed with Alar-remain subjects of continuing controversy. But most media mea culpas remain decidedly parochial affairs in professional self-examination and flagellation, to which average Americans pay scant attention.
But media criticism went "pop" Aug. 30, if only for a moment, when late night television host David Letterman skewered the venerable New York Times for reporting, and later retracting, a story suggesting the polar ice cap was melting, with global warming the likely culprit. Mr. Letterman, who had used the ice cap story in a monologue and presumably felt burned when it melted away on closer examination, took his revenge by listing the "Top 10 Signs the New York Times is Slipping." Among other hoots, they included a change of the paper's famous slogan from "All the News That's Fit to Print" to "Stuff We Heard from a Guy Who Says His Friend Heard About it."
Yet only days later, giving Mr. Letterman's gag disturbing credence, the Times was engaged in yet another major misrepresentation of environmental "news”-in a case even more insidious in possible effect because it never received the critical attention it deserved, much less became fodder for a comedy bit. It also appeared at a critical moment in a roiling national debate, as environmentalists in and out of the Clinton administration were spinning like cyclones to blunt allegations that their anti-logging policies were complicit in the worse Western wildfire season in memory.
On Friday, Sept. 1, when even some hard-core Greens were conceding that chainsaws might be required to keep tens of millions of acres of thick, tinderbox public forests from going up in flames, anti-logging advocates received a huge morale-booster courtesy of the Times, which reported that a Congressional Research Service "report" had found no connection between logging reductions on national forests and the increasing ferocity of wildfires.
If anything, the story noted, heavy logging in the past might actually have increased the risk of fire. The story, picked up and distributed widely by the wires, flatly contradicted the professional judgment of many foresters, seemed to let anti-logging groups and administration land managers off the hot seat, and blunted the arguments of those calling for more aggressive solutions to "de-fueling" forests, including increased timber harvest.
As it turned out, the "report" was actually just a four-page memo, never meant for public distribution, and written by a single CRS analyst, Ross Gorte, whose impartiality has been questioned in some quarters. Within weeks, after certain members of Congress challenged its tone and conclusions and a meeting was held between CRS officials and top congressional staff, a second memo was produced by CRS, amending its earlier conclusions. It admitted that a link between logging and wildfires "cannot be determined from the available data. In another reversal, the second memo acknowledged that responsible logging, rather than heightening a forest's vulnerability to fire, might actually reduce fire risk. "Timber harvesting (with effectives lash disposal) and other treatments remove fuel," said the report. "It is logical and widely accepted that reducing fuels will reduce the severity of wildfires, but no research literature documenting the relationship has been found."
By swallowing Mr. Gorte's first memo whole, Times reporter Timothy Egan had become an unwitting (one hopes) agent in a disinformation campaign orchestrated by the office of Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. Mr. Wyden'sstaff asked that CRS provide a quick answer (in just three days, according to a source) to a very narrow question: Is there any statistical evidence supporting the assertion that a decadelong decline in timber harvesting in the West was related to the wildfires? CRS analyst Mr. Gorte in turn provided a quick and narrow response-no such statistical connection existed-by mixing apples and oranges into a statistical fruit salad. Mr. Gorte fed it back to Mr. Wyden, who, recognizing its spin potential, fed it to the New York Times. Within days it was in dozens of major papers, as the lemming effect seized the media.
As with the polar ice cap case, the Times in this story seemed all too eager to jump to the wrong conclusion, and give deeply flawed analysis credence, so long as it comported with the environmentalist line. Mr. Egan's initial story-titled "Fires not caused by reduced logging, congressional report finds"-ran 17 paragraphs in a weekday paper. The correction, a wire story based on the second memo, got just eight paragraphs, at the bottom of the ninth page of the Saturday paper, which is the least-read of the week. Mr. Wyden's office trumpeted the results of the first memo in a press release; on the second memo it has remained silent. When asked why, Wyden spokeswoman Lisa Finkel said she hadn't even read CRS' corrected version.
In an interview, the Times' Mr. Egan suggested political motives and pressures lay behind the issuance of CRS' correction memo, but discounted the possibility that anything similarly partisan lay behind Mr. Wyden's hurry-up ordering of the first memo and leaking it in the midst of the controversy. Mr. Egan trusted in CRS' flawed first analysis-they are the supposedly objective experts, he told me-but remains wary of its corrected version. "It just seems like the thing's been politicized," said Mr. Egan.
Although Mr. Gorte declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of CRS' communications with members, a source familiar with the case says the analyst and his superiors were surprised by the furor the memo evoked, and feeling a bit burned by the way it was used. "It was written as a memo just for the member, and wasn't supposed to end up in the New York Times," says the source. The narrowness of the senator's request, and the three days that were given to turn it around, probably contributed to an end product that invited manipulation, the source concedes. "It wasn't clear enough in the first memo that the statistical snapshot was just part of a much larger picture," according to the source. "I think, to put it perfectly honestly, that made it easier to twist." And might CRS have gone back to the requestor and asked that the question be broadened to present the issue in a fuller context? They might have, says the source, but didn't.
Was CRS used-and its credibility put on the line-in Sen. Wyden's drive to contradict critics of the administration and bolster the anti-logging position? "We've been used before, and probably will be again," says a CRS official who declined to be named. "Do I feel that we've been used? To some extent that's what we do here, so yeah, probably."
And what of the Grey Lady's role as the handmaiden of environmentalist hokum? By now it's become a running gag, even if David Letterman's audience is just getting the punch line.
Sean Paige is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Copyright © 2000 News World Communications, Inc.