MediaWatch: December 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 12

Janet Cooke Award: Ted Koppel v. The "Flat Earth Society"

On February 24, 1994, ABC’s Ted Koppel devoted a Nightline to Al Gore — not to studying Gore, but to Gore’s opposition research on scientists skeptical of global warming and their alleged funding sources.

He concluded: "There is some irony in the fact that Vice President Gore, one of the most scientifically literate men to sit in the White House in this century, that he is resorting to political means to achieve what should ultimately be resolved on a purely scientific basis...The measure of good science is neither the politics of the scientist nor the people with whom the scientist associates. It is the immersion of hypotheses into the acid of truth. That’s the hard way to do it, but it’s the only way that works."

That’s a nice point, but Koppel has continued to base environmental programs not on science, but on the credibility of global warming skeptics. On December 9, Koppel devoted Nightline to another "ad watch" questioning the accuracy of ads run by business groups. For implying that warming skeptics were deliberate liars and comparable to the "Flat Earth Society," Nightline earned the Janet Cooke Award. The show began:

Koppel: "At the Kyoto summit on global warming, the fate of the Earth is being described in apocalyptic terms."

Al Gore: "More record floods and droughts, crop failures and famines."

Ross Gelbspan: "A slight warming could trigger an explosion of crop-destroying and disease-spreading insects."

Koppel: "But back in Washington, a $13 million ad campaign warns of an apocalypse of a different sort."

Woman in ad: "A proposed United Nations climate treaty could put me out of business by raising the cost of gasoline, natural gas, and electricity by 25 to 50 percent."

Carl Pope, Sierra Club: "Their ads are lies, and they know their ads are lies."

Koppel: "But have they worked?"

Ben Goddard, ad maker: "I think the campaign has worked very well."

Koppel: "Tonight, the ad campaign aimed at movers and shakers but designed to affect your future."

After leaving the impression that the ad makers intentionally lied, Koppel then joked that global warming might not be amusing like the Letterman or Leno shows, but what about the prospect of gas rationing, the loss of 650,000 jobs, or a treaty that will cost the American economy $350 billion a year? "I’d love to have your company, but I’m not sure we can vouch for the accuracy of any of those doomsday predictions."

He declared the ad campaign seems to charge "the Clinton administration is on the verge of giving away the farm at the global warming conference currently under way in Kyoto, Japan. It is not the conference that has seized our attention tonight, nor for that matter what may or may not be achieved there. It’s the Chicken Little, sky-is-falling approach being adopted by both sides in the debate."

Despite Koppel’s feigned balance, ABC reporter Chris Bury’s set- up piece focused its heat only on warming skeptics: "The people running the ads call themselves the Global Climate Information Project, special interests from car manufacturers to oil companies to coal miners. Their $13 million dollar commercial campaign glosses over the science of the global warming debate to focus on two things: fairness and fear." Bury noted the ad’s energy-cost estimates came from a study by Charles River Associates that was paid for by auto and utility companies: "Ross Gelbspan, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, says the model is an extreme scenario." But Candace Crandall of the Science and Environmental Policy Project told MediaWatch: "The Pulitzer Prize board does not list him as a winner for any year or at any newspaper. We contacted Ross Gelbspan by phone and asked if he could fax a copy of his Pulitzer Prize citation. He admitted he has none."

Bury noted only six percent of Americans remembered seeing the ads, "but the ads were never really aimed at the American public." Pope charged industries were threatening politicians with putting up ads against them in the 1998 elections. Bury noted the Sierra Club "has tried to fight back with ads like this, but its ad budget is a measly $100,000." He did not note that the supposedly cash-poor Sierra Club spent an estimated $7.5 million in the 1996 elections to defeat Republican candidates.

Koppel’s interview segment gave a larger megaphone to warming skeptics, matching liberal Environmental Defense Fund activist Michael Oppenheimer with skeptic Karen Kerrigan of the Small Business Survival Committee. But while Koppel posed very vague questions to Oppenheimer, he asked some tough questions of Kerrigan.

For example, he asked whether she believed the ads’ estimates since "it seems all speculative and there is no agreement yet." He raised a liberal point in suggesting "fairness" would mean the U.S. should bear much of the burden: "One of the interesting notions that is raised by critics of U.S. policy as it has been in the past is that we represent one-twentieth of the world’s population and we’re using one-quarter of the world’s fossil fuel ...Should there be such a thing, Ms. Kerrigan, as a certain amount of global fairness?"

Kerrigan told MediaWatch the show was not what she was led to expect: "We were told we were going to look at both sides’ ad campaigns. Both would be asked to comment on the other. So either we would rip at each other’s campaigns or each explain what we were trying to do." But Kerrigan said once she heard the show’s introduction, "I knew ‘I’m starting in a major hole.’"

But Koppel displayed his bias most distinctly by lashing out at Kerrigan’s claim that many scientists were skeptical of warming: "I was just going to make the observation that there are still some people who believe in the Flat Earth Society, too, but that doesn’t mean they’re right." Kerrigan told MediaWatch: "It was a major insult."

Citizens for a Sound Economy recently commissioned a poll of state climatologists found that, by a 44 to 17 percent margin, they believe "recent global warming is a largely natural phenomenon." Nine out of ten agreed that "scientific evidence indicates variations in global temperatures are likely to be naturally occurring and cyclical over very long periods of time." Only 19 percent said "weather events over the last 25 years have been more severe or frequent than other periods" in their states’ history, and less than a third of that small percentage attributed such weather to global warming.

ABC directed MediaWatch to Nightline spokesperson Sue Lin Chang, who promised she would find out who was that night’s senior producer. She did not call back. The networks present themselves as objective referees of public debates. But on this issue, Koppel’s show suggested that the fate of the planet is too important for a scientific debate, and skeptics would best serve the public by shutting up.