February 24, 2012

NYTimes’ Michael Roston Compares Scientist Involved In Heartland Institute Document Leak To James O’Keefe

Last week, ThinkProgress and DeSmogBlog published internal documents from the Heartland Institute. The files contained information about Heartland donors, as well as plans to develop a school curriculum for children that denied dangers of pollution and global warming. While the Heartland Institute advertises itself as a “free market” think tank, the documents suggest that the group functions as a fee-for-service corporate front group – its philosophy and policy views appear to be influenced by the wishes and interests of donors .

After sifting through the files, Republic Report found other examples of corporate puppetry, including information that showed that the Heartland Institute worked with Comcast lobbyists to develop pro-telecom industry policy, as well as evidence that the group accepted money from a major health insurer while denouncing consumer safeguards, like the ban on discrimination against those with preexisting conditions.

The leak has sent shockwaves; and now Heartland is deploying an agressive public relations campaign to influence media coverage of the scandal.

On Tuesday, a scientist named Peter Gleick admitted that he had received a Heartland document from an anonymous source, and later used a fake name to authenticate the files with Heartland before leaking them to science bloggers. While authenticating the files, he also solicited additional documents relating to the original leak. Heartland is now pointing to the use of a fake name in an effort to bully the media into backing away from the story.

While bending this story away from a focus on Heartland’s M.O. and onto Gleick’s methods might seem like an impossible task, it seems as if the media is taking the hook firmly in its mouth. On Tuesday the Times’ home page producer tweeted with Republic Report’s Zaid Jilani, arguing that Gleick’s actions were equivalent to those of James O’Keefe, a conservative activist who dressed up as a pimp, secretly filmed conversations with ACORN staff members and then released selectively edited clips:

NYTimes' Michael Roston Compares Scientist Involved In Heartland Institute Document Leak To James O'Keefe

We don’t know the full extent of what transpired between Gleick and Heartland, but based on what is known now, the equivalence between Gleick and O’Keefe and News of the World does not hold water. O’Keefe selectively edited his ACORN tapes, so much so that he twisted the meaning of his recorded victims. Unlike Gleick, who forwarded all of the documents he received to reporters, O’Keefe suppressed hidden camera videos that contrasted with the message he was attempting to convey. News of the World hacked the phones of celebrities and missing children to make money publishing tabloid stories. There’s no suggestion that Gleick did he what he did for profit. He says he acted out of “frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved.”

The Times’ top climate reporter, Andy Revkin, chimed in with a blog post also arguing that Gleick’s “deception in pursuit of his cause…destroyed his credibility and harmed others.” Revkin added that Gleick unnecessarily exposed Heartland employees who have “no bearing on the climate fight.”

While questions surround one single document — a summary page with slightly different formatting than the seven other files — Heartland has implicitly confirmed the authenticity of all of the other documents. Moreover, the important details from the questionable summary page are repeated elsewhere in the confirmed files.

So the facts that Gleick unearthed are still relevant. The only aspect up for debate are the tactics he used to confirm the documents he received and to solicit additional information.

Revkin’s and Roston’s position that any covert journalism is condemnable — a “tragedy and shame,” as Revkin refers to it — seems to contradict the Times’ organizational position on such matters. Its ethics guidelines state that “undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information” can be used only when “traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” And in some situations, Times reporters have used fake identities to report on stories.

So the question becomes whether or not unearthing how Heartland does what it does is vital to the public interest. It’s a question, as such questions are, that’s open to interpretation.

The sustained assault on the solid science about global climate change is a topic vital to the public interest. After all, the fossil fuel industry has effectively shut down US action on global warming for more than 20 years, in part by manipulating public perception of the problem, and in part by providing politicians cover – often in the form of phony or weak science — for opposing CO2 reductions.

Influential U.S. Senators like Jim Inhofe (R-OK) have helped blocked meaningful action on climate policy because of the Heartland’s briefings. And, as CNN reported last year: “Americans’ perceptions of the issue of global warming appear to be cooling.”

So the truth about places like Heartland Institute are important not only for clarifying the public debate, but for understanding the history of the policy debates that determine the air we breathe and the stability of the climate (world) we live in.

The real question the media should be considering is not how Gleick got his hands on a few documents, but how to cover Heartland — both how it has covered it in the past and how it will in the future.

For instance, many past Times articles refer to the Heartland Institute without mentioning that the group is essentially a front for the industries that fund it. Will that change now? Will they correct the former record? Or will the coverage continue to focus on Gleick and not the larger scandal here? Republic Report will be eagerly watching.