Friday, October 18, 2013

Happy birthday, A.J. Liebling

You could almost set your watch by these guys. Barely a day after a minor decision at the opinion pages of a West Coast paper caught the ire of the wackosphere, it's a top story at the Fair 'n' Balanced homepage! Since it's presented in the form of real news, let's have a look:

The Los Angeles Times is giving the cold shoulder to global warming skeptics.

Paul Thornton, editor of the paper’s letters section, recently wrote a letter of his own, stating flatly that he won't publish some letters from those skeptical of man’s role in our planet’s warming climate. In Thornton’s eyes, those people are often wrong -- and he doesn’t print obviously wrong statements.

Not to put words in Paul Thornton's mouth or anything,* but I'm not sure "often wrong" is the point here. I think his problem is with shrill, deranged and dishonest, but let's continue:

What amounts to a ban on discourse about climate change stirred outrage among scientists who have written exactly that sort of letter.

Sigh. Telling one particular set of loonies that you won't print their every screed doesn't "amount to a ban on discourse." Hang on a few grafs for "exactly that sort of letter," but first this:

"In a word, the LA Times should be ashamed of itself," William Happer, a physics professor at Princeton, told

"There was an effective embargo on alternative opinions, so making it official really does not change things," said Jan Breslow, head of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism at The Rockefeller University in New York.

Hey, did you guys know it's A.J. Liebling's birthday? As in "freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one"? If your favorite paranoid fictions aren't getting the worshipful treatment they deserve in the local paper, the traditional remedy is to start your own paper -- or, in this case, put your fingers in your ears until you reach the haven of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, which is happy to share your tastes worldwide.

What about that "effective embargo on alternative opinions"? Well, some of us might want to stick to biochemical genetics and leave mass communication to people who actually read the stuff -- say, the AP article a few years back that contacted 10 (count 'em, 10) "outside climate experts" before daring to write about a possible association between weather extremes and climate change. Here in the evidence-based world, it's hard to see a lot of concern for a monopoly of opinion.

“The free press in the U.S. is trying to move the likelihood of presenting evidence on this issue from very low to impossible,” J. Scott Armstrong, co-founder of the Journal of Forecasting and a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told

Are we at risk of repeating ourselves here? The point of a "free press" is not that it gives equal weight to the views of every shrill maniac who stumbles into the newsroom. The point is that it makes its own decisions without being told what to do. Why do you hate America, Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

Happer, Breslow and Armstrong are among 38 climate scientists that wrote a widely discussed letter titled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming,” which was published in The Wall Street Journal in Jan. 2012.

The letter argued that there was no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to “decarbonize” the world's economy. It generated such extensive public debate about man’s role in global warming that the Journal published a second letter from the group a few weeks later.

A claim that there is "no compelling scientific argument for drastic action," of course, is not at all the same as claiming that there's no evidence at all. It's an argument about evidence, not a lie about the evidence itself. Which sort of gets us back to the point.

The LA Times hasn't barred climate liars from news stories. It won't stop them from leaving comments on articles. It hasn't told them not to write op-eds. What it's said is that it won't use its dead pine trees to print letters from people who start from a particular fundamentally dishonest premise, which -- in case you hadn't noticed -- is readily available at many other stalls in our little marketplace of ideas.

It'd be remiss to end without noting this delightful paragraph:

The Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburgh, Fl., took quizzical note of the policy in a post on its website on Wednesday. But editors for the school's website did not acknowledge questions about the ethics of such a policy, and Thornton himself did not respond to in time for this article.

Poynter isn't a "journalism school," the town is called St. Petersburg, and if Thornton didn't respond "in time for this article," how come it has four paragraphs of response from him? But the fun point is trying to figure out why a network that's so fond of running made-up stuff in its news columns is suddenly confused about the "ethics" of declining to run made-up stuff in your letters.

* Though you're all encouraged to buy him a round next time you see him.

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