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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Climate and 9/11 'Truth'; Two Tough Crowds

My last two columns dealt with subjects that produce a lot of heat: a PBS NewsHour segment on climate change and a pledge-drive program on Colorado Public Television (CPT12) featuring a new film by "Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth."

About climate change, I said that it is "one of those lose-lose subjects for an ombudsman in which whatever one writes is certain not to satisfy a lot of people." I could have said the same about the new film, called "9/11: Explosive Evidence — Experts Speak Out." I knew it wouldn't satisfy any of those who claim to offer evidence that the three World Trade Center buildings destroyed that awful day when hijacked airliners crashed into two of them were brought down by the controlled demolition of what the "experts" say were "pre-engineered, precisely timed and precisely placed explosives," as one put it, that had somehow been installed in these buildings.

So, this is a lengthy mailbag filled with a fair share of negative comments about what I have written in both cases. The letters posted below are a representative sampling of the mail, which amounted to more than 400 emails about the climate change segment and a few dozen about the 9/11 program.

In Self-Defense

I will make a few explanatory points first before the letters. In both of those columns, as in almost everything I write about, my primary focus is on the performance of PBS in presenting issues rather than the issue itself.

So, in the climate change piece, I said specifically that I was not being judgmental about Anthony Watts, the central figure in the controversy about the segment, other than that he was an effective spokesperson on the air and used his time well to make some strong assertions. Rather, I said what was stunning to me was that the NewsHour had picked Watts — who is a meteorologist and commentator rather than a university-accredited scientist — to represent the critics of man-made global warming. There were other aspects of the segment that I criticized, and others that I supported, but those assessments were based on the performance of the NewsHour reporter.

In the 9/11 column, the main focus was on the fact that PBS had nothing to do with this film, yet it showed up on its most-watched video list because of the local station tie-in and was being described as if it were a PBS-distributed film in several places, and the PBS logo was displayed on the A&E for 9/11 Truth website.

On both subjects — climate and 9/11 — I have personal views that I have expressed before so I felt that it was proper to disclose them again before laying out the comments on all sides and my assessment.

On climate change I said "I do believe in the assessment of the vast majority of climate scientists and U.S. and international scientific organizations that the threat to our planet . . . from global warming and the human contribution to it is real." In the column, I quoted correspondent Spencer Michels' citation of the study reporting that "97 percent of scientists" support the position that global warming and climate change are real. Although widely used in reporting on climate change, several letters below challenge that study. I did not use that particular study to back-up my own sense of this. Rather I cited a report from the National Academies Press that says: "Scientific evidence that the Earth is warming is now overwhelming. There is also a multitude of evidence that this warming results primarily from human activities . . . "

A number of emailers also commented on my use of the sentence, "On the other hand, it's not the end of the world, so to speak" in my introduction to the column on climate change. This was meant as a contrast to my opening point that this "was not the PBS NewsHour's finest 10 minutes." It was an attempt to be clever, but which I agree is open to other interpretations. The intent, as the column went on, was to point out that, aside from what I thought were some serious flaws, there were also some strong challenges and useful information presented by Michels and the NewsHour.

On the new 9/11 "Experts Speak Out" presentation I repeated what I said three years ago that, on a personal level, the idea embedded in the original programs "of a government conspiracy to blow up these buildings to be preposterous and simply beyond belief." The programs are careful to stick to engineering and not publicly blame the government but the implication one can draw from watching is not that some local contractor was hired to do this. Several letters also criticize my use of the "expert" designation in quotes as questioning credentials of those in the film. I did this because that is the language used by the A&E organization in the title of its film and it's not my place to endorse it.

First Comes Climate Change

Your column on the climate-change segment is good, but the damage is done. Is NewsHour going to make any commentary on this misleading segment? I have a 6-year-old daughter, and if we're still confusing people about whether greenhouse gases cause climate change, there is simply not much hope to avoid a great deal of suffering for her. Not the end of the world? Not necessarily. Every poorly reported piece of journalism on this subject can have tragic consequences. I do wish that more news outlets took your approach and examined how language like "believers" (which Michels repeated in his response) can mislead. I appreciate your insight in the column, but as someone who is not a scientist but reads about it enough to lie awake at night worrying, I would like to say that a column isn't good enough.

Mona Blaber, Oak Park, NM

~ ~ ~

After reading and considering your posting "Climate Change Creates Storm," I'm even more convinced than after viewing the original interview that PBS has failed to provide fair coverage of climate change and the "role and rationale" of climate skeptics. The correspondent for the original TV broadcast, Spencer Michels, has allowed climate skeptics to have their cake and eat it too by failing to make clear that while someone like Anthony Watts makes fact-based refutations of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), his expertise and evidence are so lacking an empirical basis that his (and many other climate skeptics) arguments basically rely on a belief system. I will certainly grant that Mr. Watts and ACC deniers in Congress have every right to express their beliefs about the state of the Earth's climate. However, responsible, balanced journalism requires a strong statement to the effect that ACC skeptics essentially are operating without meaningful scientific support AND requires quick and robust questioning of any climate skeptic's claim that in any way relies on evidence, facts, or scientific theories. To fail to take these steps confuses the national dialogue by making it seem as if there are two reasonable sides to the science. The "skeptic" argument could be made on ideological or belief-system grounds, but to allow it to seem to be made on scientific ones is so contrary to painstaking measurements, past climate reconstruction, climate modeling, and basic physics that your TV segment represents a failure to bring the truth, as best as flawed humans can, to light.

Christopher Utman, Pittsford, NY

That '97%,' a 'Falsehood' and 'Fabrication'

Re: "Climate Change Creates a Storm," there are still a couple of faults left to discuss.

1. [Physicist Richard] Muller was never truly a skeptic, thus the entire premise of the original piece is based on a falsehood. If your people had done adequate research they would know that.

2. The often cited "97% of Climate Scientists" poll is also a fabrication. The questions asked in the poll do not differentiate skeptic from CAGW alarmists, so making the claim that 97% of climate scientists believe humans are causing global warming is simply wrong.

The reaction of the CAGW crowd was no surprise. They are afraid to discuss the issues with the poorly done studies that bolster their case, and go into panic mode every time, labeling all skeptics "shills of the oil companies," which they don't bother to provide any evidence for.

Carl Fetterman, Nampa, ID

~ ~ ~

You made a valiant and sincere attempt to sort out whether Mr. Watts provided balance to the PBS segment or a trained scientist should have been selected or whether no "balance" was required. But in your analysis of the situation you have perpetuated a simple myth created by some on the "climate change is a major problem and will be catastrophic" side of the issue. That myth is that the "skeptic community" is opposed to the "97 percent of scientists who say that it [climate change] is real" to use Michel's description. To be very precise, it is 97.5% of climate scientists who answer yes to the question: "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?"

Anthony Watts like many other skeptics believes that human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures because he has written that many times in many contexts. Reading the transcript of the Michels's piece, his abbreviated remarks show him to question how much warming is due to CO2 and how much is due to poor siting of thermometers and urbanization increases around measurement sites. It is plausible that one could interpret Mr. Watts as casting doubt on CO2 being a "significant contributing factor." Knowing what he has written in the past, I do not believe that Mr. Watts doubts that CO2 is a "significant contributing factor" in global warming. I believe "skeptical realists" make up the majority of skeptics despite a handful of vocal outliers and the protestations of those who wish to perpetuate the myth that global warming skeptics are anti-science. It would be nice if you and PBS did not perpetuate this same myth by insinuating that Mr. Watts is unqualified to judge climate science or that Mr. Watts' views contradict the "vast majority of scientific evidence" (your words) because they certainly do not.

Eric Peterson, Front Royal, VA

~ ~ ~

I've just read your response to viewers' complaints about the uncritical inclusion of the claims of Anthony Watts in the recent NewsHour story on climate change. I appreciate that you broadly agree with the complaints, but I think when you say it's "not the end of the world" you make their actions seem misguided but justifiable. I strongly disagree. Their actions were unacceptable.

If they choose to air the views of cranks (non-climate scientists, let alone non-scientists like Anthony Watts) who deny climate change in an attempt to balance the views of legitimate climate scientists, the least they should do is add clear journalistic context, noting that Mr. Watts has been paid by the Heartland Institute, which is funded by fossil fuel interests to make it appear that there is legitimate debate over the facts of climate change, and that therefore any statements by Mr. Watts must be presumed to be biased by his financial interest in challenging the science of climate change. The NewsHour also should have followed Mr. Watts' comments about heat-island effects invalidating climate data with a note that legitimate climate scientists have repeatedly investigated and debunked these claims. In airing Mr. Watts' claims with no disclaimers, they squandered PBS' reputation and turned their story into "he-said, she-said" hype that merely contributes to confirmation bias and fails to inform.

Here's a simple way to test whether such a story is appropriately presented: think about whether, if a smart, attentive person who currently subscribes to the views expressed by Mr. Watts watched the story, they would come away thinking "well, it sounds like some of the experts agree with me and others don't," versus, "wow, it sounds like the only people who agree with me are people who've been paid by fossil fuel interests to make it sound like what the real scientists all agree on isn't true."

Berkeley, CA

Shame on Me

Shame on the PBS Ombudsman. Judy Curry put it best when she wrote in her blog: "The outrage over Watts seems to be not so much what he said, as over his being given any airtime at all." The ombudsman is promoting censorship and PBS is becoming a propaganda arm for its favorite causes. Do you not trust your own readers to make intelligent choices about who and what to believe?

Philip Holberton, Pawleys Island, SC

~ ~ ~

You say: "But it seems to me that if you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist." You did. Anthony Watts is a scientist. Scientist is not a professional title "accredited" by a university — that is decidedly non-scientific reasoning. Rather, "scientist" describes a person who follows the scientific method in his inquiries about the properties of the universe. Anthony Watts does this, and the results of his scientific inquiries have been published in peer reviewed scientific journals. Perhaps you should learn more about the man. And about science.

On the other hand, it seems to me that if you decide you are going to give airtime to someone you call a former sceptic from the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a former sceptic. You didn't. And you told big whopping LIES about it, like this one:

"Physicist Richard Muller had long been among those who denied that climate change was happening, but he made big news last month when he broke with his allies and published an op-ed in the New York Times saying not only was he no longer a skeptic . . ."

That statement is entirely false. Richard Muller has not "long been among those that denied climate change is happening". He has NEVER denied that climate change is happening. He is, was, and always has been a believer in "global warming." This is Muller in 2003: "Let me be clear. My own reading of the literature and study of paleoclimate suggests strongly that carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels will prove to be the greatest pollutant of human history. It is likely to have severe and detrimental effects on global climate." And in 2006: "There is a consensus that global warming is real . . . it's going to get much, much worse."

Richard Muller is not a former sceptic, he is a liar. And PBS repeats and exaggerates his lies. You say he " . . . has long been among those who denied that climate change was happening . . ." The fact of the matter is that he only even pretended to be a sceptic for about 18 months. That is not "long" and it was not real. PBS has a serious problem with journalistic ethics here, but it doesn't have a damn thing to do with Anthony Watts. When can we expect an essay from the Ombudsman about PBS's complicity in Richard Muller's fraud?

Wilsall, MT

(Ombudsman's Note: Here's what Muller had to say in the Times: "Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I'm now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.")

~ ~ ~

You've missed the mark badly in your piece. Whatever warming earth has experienced in the last 300 years (or 50 years, you pick), there are many credible scientists who doubt that global warming is primarily (or at all) due to CO2 or to man-made CO2. If you looked into the origins of your parroted "97% consensus" would convince you it is a badly flawed figure. Besides, the so-called scientific consensus on AGW doesn't prove anything. The majority of scientists were wrong about continental drift and the cause of stomach ulcers (for two examples) for many decades before sufficient and accurate data and research showed those consensi to be wrong. So, too, it could be (and I, for one, believe it is) with global warming. There are many solid, reputable scientists you ought to look into (Richard Lindzen, Khabibullo Abdusamatov, Henrik Svensmark, Roy Spencer for a small handful) to realize that skeptics are not "shills of the energy industry" and that they do have solid science that significantly challenges any AGW conclusion. The hysteria whipped up by some climate scientists (Hansen, Trenberth) is a stain on science. I am not a climate scientist, but I do have a PhD in science, and based on the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours I have spent in the last 7-8 years digging into climate science, I am convinced it is deeply flawed in its facts, conclusions, and in its enterprise. PBS's choice of Watts as an exemplar of AGW skeptics is, I agree, questionable, when there are many solid scientists who could have been interviewed. Still, to give voice to the multitude of shrill and (mostly) badly-informed voices who believe we must "save the planet" does disservice to your role as one who ought to know what balanced coverage looks like.

John Miller, Portola Valley, CA

~ ~ ~

As an "Ombudsman" in an important public position I would have expected you to have checked your sources before publishing any official statement. However, you seem unaware that "97% of Scientists . . ." amounts to 75 individuals out of 3,000+ "scientists who responded to a poorly worded and managed online survey. See here and here. On reading these reports I am sure you will agree that the claim "97% of Scientists agree . . . " is somewhat less impressive than it is intended to sound and will wish to add to your blog post some clarification, so that your readers are not misinformed about this matter.

David Jones, Dunstable, UK

An 'Ad Hominem Attack'

Your publishing of so many of the negative emails regarding Anthony Watts, most of which were filled with inaccuracies, amounts to nothing more than a thinly-veiled Ad hominem attack. It's unfortunate for the global warming believers that one well-spoken critic of their science could damage their extreme position when only given a few minutes of air time. That alone should make you question their conclusions. Also, the fervor with which they attack Mr. Watts should also give a clue to the weakness of their argument. If they were so certain and had such great science backing them, they would welcome someone like Mr. Watts so they could prove him wrong. Instead, their only desire is to quiet him and anyone else who speaks up against their position.

Jason Joice, Pryor, OK

~ ~ ~

You referred to Watts as a "meteorologist." He is not. He never has been. He was a TV weather "personality." Not the same. At all. But you knew that already, because a whole bunch of people told you. Shame on you. Again. Still.

Tom Dayton, Cupertino, CA

~ ~ ~

Thank you, Michael, for the extensive response. The issue will, however, likely not die down for nine or ninety-nine days. I hope PBS doesn't shy away from it.

David Leaton, Kirksville, MO

~ ~ ~

I appreciate the time you have taken over this issue but I do not see any consequences mentioned; instead I see Mr. Michels "doubling down". For example, in his explanation he still promotes the "believer" meme and language: "We included the voice of a strong believer in global warming . . ." If we were offended by this in the broadcast, we are absolutely insulted now.

Mark Chopping, West Orange, NJ

~ ~ ~

Thank you for considering the comments of loyal viewers and supporters of PBS, who were disappointed with, I might say alarmed by, your climate-change segment on Anthony Watts. Mr. Watts' views should have been clearly and strongly framed as coming from the sad fringe of science-avoiders. May I draw your attention to this regrettable section of your response: "I think of myself as open-minded and believe strongly in hearing opposing views. But I do believe in the assessment by the vast majority of climate scientists and U.S. and international scientific organizations that the threat to our planet and future generations from global warming and the human contribution to it is real and needs to be addressed. "Your second 'believe' above is part of the problem! This fuzzy use of a word related to something that one must take 'on faith' helps confuse those whose science-phobia is deeply entwined with their religious upbringing and subsequent fearful view of science. Nobody needs to BELIEVE in the evidence of the vast majority of scientific research on any subject. Science is fact, facts are JUST SO. We accept facts and overwhelming evidence just as we accept that we will all be older tomorrow. Your choice to use that word provides another opening through which the fringe pushes back at the progress of human knowledge. We need science now more than ever, to survive our past ignorance and poor choices.

Deborah Parker, Peekskill NY

Heartland's Billboards

I would seriously question whether you have put this issue to bed for two reasons:

Your extensive recitation of the variety of views presented during the segment ignores the significantly greater face time devoted to the opinions of a non-scientist, and the very attenuated and brief snippets of face interviews of scientists. To perform your job in a manner that reflects real world impacts, you cannot simply ignore the extremely significant difference on how the two disparate treatments are perceived by the viewer.

You did not address at all the serious questions raised by the significant contributions by Chevron and other fossil industry corporations referred to in the NY Times 2008 story that stated: "benevolent corporate underwriting of public television is 'increasingly out of step with the . . . needs of corporations as they don't sponsor public television programs for purely philanthropic reasons."

Your posting states: "As it turned out, Michels, in his blog post on Monday, revealed that Watts had been recommended to him by The Heartland Institute, that he described as 'a conservative, Chicago-based non-profit that is one of the leading groups that doubt that climate change — if it exists — is attributable to human activities.' The Heartland connection, which has included some funding, was not mentioned on the air."

Earlier this year the Heartland Institute drew notoriety for comparing those concerned with climate change to mass murderers. Their billboards were so far beyond any civilized discourse that even ultra-right wing Republicans disowned the organization and many major climate denying corporations pulled their funding after concluding Heartland had gone over the top. There does not appear to be any way that Michels could have not been aware of Heartland's notoriety. For a reporter for PBS to call such an organization for help lining up speakers is simply not something that the NewsHour, with its laser like Fire Chief focus, would ever do...unless something very significant intruded.

Peter Anderson, Madison, WI

(Ombudsman's Note: The Heartland billboards were called attention to by a viewer in the May 4, 2012 ombudsman's mailbag.)

'A&E for 9/11 Truth' Pitches a Shutout Against the Omb

The article "The Disaster That Keeps on Giving" is certainly an interesting position for an "ombudsman" to take. It seems to be largely about how a recent program about 9/11 on CPT12 might have negatively affected PBS' image. The determination that CPT12's presentation of "Experts Speak Out" might have sullied PBS' perception as a bastion of truth, seems to have been based largely on incidental knowledge of the government's presentation of what happened on that day supplemented by a reading a 2005 Popular Science magazine article. Further, "The Disaster . . . Giving" article uses a number of elementary PR tricks to muddy the issue. For example, the article is dismissive of the extensive professional credentials of the people involved with the program, uses an imaginary (and uncomplimentary) strawman story to summarize the supposed beliefs of creators of "Experts Speak Out," and basically ignores the recent popularity of the program as a loud statement of interest from PBS' audience.

All of that is — of course — appropriate for suppressing interest in the story and as an effective way to avoid messy questions raised by the program like, "How does 13% of a building fall and crush the other 87%?" (N.B. Isaac Newton had an answer to this question in 1687 that doesn't fit the official conspiracy theory you stand so firmly behind.) Or, there is also a large statistical probability question, "How do the first three steel frame buildings ever to collapse from failures to meet events they were designed to survive collapse symmetrically into their own footprints on one day?" The article's success at avoiding these and lots of other pertinent questions does a disservice to the notion that PBS actually has an ombudsman and that he is interested in assuring responsible airing of real public questions.

I'd like to suggest that for the reasons given above the story "The Disaster That Keeps On Giving" should be retracted with appropriate apologies as unworthy of a public response from PBS' ombudsman on this issue.

Phillip Michaels, St. Louis, MO

~ ~ ~

You seem to think that scientists, architects, and engineers with advanced degrees and awards, such as Lynn Margulis, are dubious "experts" (your quotes), whereas the authors of the Popular Mechanics article/book (who lack similar credentials) are the real experts. The latter have been debunked every which way — but of course, without the same, big megaphone, so that you are unaware of their non-science (nonsense) when it comes to the WTC buildings.

Your dilemma is a psychological one — as revealed by your finding the ideas in "Blueprint" to be "preposterous and simply beyond belief." Unfortunately you are not alone as a "layman." Those who hide behind lies and propaganda rely on this, but this fact will not prevent qualified scientists and others from speaking out.

Try researching "Operation Northwoods" to see what our military tried to do in the early 1960s, but were stopped by Kennedy and McNamara. You must also be aware by now that the Gulf of Tonkin "incident" was a false flag operation that resulted in 50,000 dead US soldiers and 1 million dead Vietnamese. But war is a big and on-going business, and must be fueled now and again with other false-flag operations such as 9/11. These operations succeed because most citizens are like yourself, unable to judge facts scientifically, and unwilling to consider what genuine scientists have to say. But for 9/11, it doesn't take a degree to see through the many problems with the official story.

John D. Wyndham, PhD (Physics, Cambridge, U.K.), Peterborough, NH
Coordinator for Scientists for 9/11 Truth (www.scientistsfor911truth.org)

~ ~ ~

Regarding your article on PBS's broadcasting of the AE911 truth film "Experts Speak Out" you have made several errors. It is not a conspiracy film. The evidence speaks for itself. The ones who dare to criticize the official story do so at their own risk. You have to look at the evidence and not write it off as beyond the pale. You're simply helping the big lie to stand.

Dan Sutton, Peoria, IL

~ ~ ~

I support my local PBS station because I know that the programming I watch, whether locally produced or not, is true freedom of the press as opposed to the managed news that nearly all other cable networks provide. Your personal opinion ("The new film is a skillfully put-together collection of interviews and sound-bites with dozens of 'experts' supporting the idea that the buildings had to be brought down by pre-wired explosives placed inside.") is just a less-than-fully informed opinion. I would respect your opinion had you not implied that publications such as Popular Mechanics are more credible than professionals in relevant fields of STEM who must earn advanced degrees and have years of experience to get their licenses.

As a professional engineer (retired), I was trained to investigate aircraft crashes, and I have almost certainly reviewed more of the 9/11/2001 evidence more carefully than the PBS Ombudsman has. In my opinion, the "official" investigations of the incidents in New York City on 9/11//2001 were not comprehensive in any respect, and much of what has been presented to the public up to now has been little more than speculation, except for the "interviews and sound-bites" presented by the licensed experts on the AE911Truth video.

As one who has watched dozens of buildings brought down by controlled demolition, I am convinced that the three WTC buildings, in fact, could have been demolished in no other way. It is not rational to believe that buildings designed to withstand the impact of a fully loaded Boeing 707 could be brought down by a less-than-fully loaded Boeing 767, which would impart less kinetic energy under the same circumstances. The main reason airlines fly new planes is to expend less energy (money) per passenger mile. The users of most military aircraft have different priorities (destruction).

Given the space in which I must cram all of my thoughts on the subject, I can appreciate the difficulty faced by the makers of the video in presenting a sufficient amount of factual information in "interviews and sound-bites" to convince couch potatoes and ombudsmen. Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth deserve to be appreciated for simply demanding for an impartial investigation. They are not presenting a "conspiracy theory" and never have done so.

James M. Bruner, Oak Harbor, WA
P.E. (Retired)

~ ~ ~

I need to take exception to several important points you raised in your commentary, "The Disaster that keeps on Giving."

First, by using quotation marks around the word experts in reference to the people in the film Experts Speak Out, you imply that they are somehow not qualified to make a professional analysis. But you give no justification for your disposition, save your trust in the opinion of Popular Mechanics' editors and staff. For example, you cite the late Prof. Lynn Margulis and Lt Col. Robert Bowman. Dr. Margulis was a recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Science and Dr. Bowman holds two PhDs and served as director of the Star Wars program under two US presidents. Why is it, again, that they are not qualified to give an analysis? You never explained that part.

Second, when citing your previous commentary, you accurately repeat the claim made by critics of the Government inquiries when you say, "someone wired these buildings with explosives intending to bring them down in this attack, and this has been covered up by the government, the 9/11 Commission and the mainstream media." But somehow you make the leap that these critics are making the claim that the Government is responsible for wiring the buildings — a blatantly false claim if you listen carefully to what these science and building professionals are saying. All of them are on record in the film and elsewhere that they are not speculating on who did it, but only who is covering it up.

You also express a concern that PBS not be associated with false theories about how and why the three World Trade Center high rises collapsed. I'd like to point out that in 2002, PBS produced a documentary "Why the Towers Fell," which put forth the since proven erroneous claim (along with a slick animation) that the buildings pancaked. On this point, AE911Truth, NIST and even Popular Mechanics all agree that this theory is false, yet to the best of my knowledge, PBS has never issued a public correction to this faulty analysis. What's that saying about glass houses and stones, again?

Mark McKertich, Boston, MA

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