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THE 90 PERCENT CONUNDRUM! How sure is the IPCC about warming? The Post and the Times still aren’t sure: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, APRIL 9, 2007

LITTLE LIES CONTINUE: Finally, a major columnist starts to explain the shape of our politics in the past fifteen years. Unsurprisingly, that scribe is Paul Krugman, in today’s Times—but alas, he makes a halting start. After discussing the Bush Admin’s “Big Lies”—the big lies which took us to war with Iraq—Krugman discusses the “Little Lies” that have driven our wider political discourse. He takes things back to 1992—to the start of a fake, phony era:
KRUGMAN (4/9/07): Before 9/11, however, the right-wing noise machine mainly relied on little lies. And now it has returned to its roots.

The Clinton years were a parade of fake scandals: Whitewater, Troopergate, Travelgate, Filegate, Christmas-card-gate. At the end, there were false claims that Clinton staff members trashed the White House on their way out.

Each pseudoscandal got headlines, air time and finger-wagging from the talking heads. The eventual discovery in each case that there was no there there, if reported at all, received far less attention. The effect was to make an administration that was, in fact, pretty honest and well run—especially compared with its successor—seem mired in scandal.
So true! And Krugman says this “little lie” technique has re-emerged in the trashing of Nancy Pelosi. He closes with an important summary of the past fifteen years:
KRUGMAN: The G.O.P.'s reversion to the Little Lie technique is a symptom of political weakness, of a party reduced to trivial smears because it has nothing else to offer. But the technique will remain effective—and the U.S. political scene will remain ugly—as long as many people in the news media keep playing along.
“A symptom of political weakness?” Indeed! In Campaign 2000, for instance, it was necessary to invent a million “little lies” about Candidate Gore because voters agreed with him on virtually every issue. But this brings us to the two major weaknesses with this Krugman column.

First problem: It’s always sad to see histories of this type omit Campaign 2000 altogether. “The Clinton years were a parade of fake scandals?” Absolutely true. But that fakery reached its zenith with a two-year parade of fake scandals about Gore. Krugman has written about the disgrace reporting of Campaign 2000 before (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/26/06). It’s sad to see him write this history of the Clinton years—and omit its history-changing last chapter.

Yep! If it weren’t for two years of “little lies” about Gore, we wouldn’t have heard those “Big Lies” on Iraq! Will we ever reach the point where we decide to tell voters this history?

Second problem: Where did all those “little lies” come from? Krugman tends to misstate the source of our problem in these past fifteen years. Let’s reprint his summary:
KRUGMAN: Before 9/11, however, the right-wing noise machine mainly relied on little lies. And now it has returned to its roots.

The Clinton years were a parade of fake scandals: Whitewater, Troopergate, Travelgate, Filegate, Christmas-card-gate...

Each pseudoscandal got headlines, air time and finger-wagging from the talking heads. The eventual discovery in each case that there was no there there, if reported at all, received far less attention.
Somewhat vaguely, Krugman attributes these “little lies”—these “pseudo-scandals”—to the “right-wing noise machine.” And yes, that formulation warms the hearts of fiery liberals everywhere. But Whitewater—the pseudo-scandal which gave this era its name—got its start at Krugman’s own New York Times, before the Fox News Channel even existed! Could a reader guess, from today’s column, at the role that was played by “mainstream” news orgs in the endless war against Clinton and Gore? Krugman takes the easy way out on this matter today—as he’s done more and more lately.

Indeed, Krugman uses the Pelosi case to facilitate this easy exit. Who should we blame for these “little lies?” If we want to understand our political era, this passage is deeply misleading:
KRUGMAN: Fox News, which is a partisan operation in all but name, plays a crucial role in the Little Lie strategy—which is why there is growing pressure on Democratic politicians not to do anything, like participating in Fox-hosted debates, that helps Fox impersonate a legitimate news organization.

But Fox has had plenty of help. Even Time's Joe Klein, a media insider if anyone is, wrote of the Pelosi trip that ''the media coverage of this on CNN and elsewhere has been abysmal.'' For example, CNN ran a segment about Ms. Pelosi's trip titled ''Talking to Terrorists.''
Fox “plays a crucial role,” Krugman says—but other news orgs, like CNN, help. But there was no Fox News in 1992, when Whitewater got its start on page one of the New York Times. And the Times played a much bigger role in the War Against Gore than Fox News ever dreamed of playing. Indeed, let’s repeat that startling fact: The New York Times played a much bigger role in the War Against Gore than Fox News did. In fact, it was the “mainstream noise machine” which went after Gore, and Clinton before him. Sorry—it just wasn’t Fox!

Let’s be fair to a real press corps hero: When it comes to discussing these matters, Krugman has long been massively better than Quiet Liberal Pundits like E. J. Dionne. (Dionne has no plan—no intention—to tell you the truth about your era. Simply put, he’s never going to tell you about the forces that have changed all our lives.) But the New York Times has played a much bigger role than Fox in the “fake scandal” era which Krugman discusses. Of course, it’s always easy to hand good liberals the pleasing head of vile, disgraced Fox. Omigod! We luvv that story! But uh-oh! When our good shepherds engage in this practice, can you hear what they’re actually saying? Can’t you hear their secret message? Can’t you just hear them? Hey, rubes!

PASTY-FACED WEAKLING GONE VILE: Regarding the Pelosi coverage, we thank Jamison Foser for recording these moments, brought to us by CNN:
WOLF BLITZER (3/30/07): Congress heads out on spring break, and to hear the White House tell it, you'd think that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had gone wild.

TOM FOREMAN (later that evening, 3/30/07): Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Girls Gone Wild, D.C. style. She's making a Middle East swing and chatting with Syria.

GLENN BECK (4/2/07): Nancy Pelosi is spending her spring break in Syria. It's Congress gone wild.
Just consider that astonishing comment by Foreman. Can anyone tell us why this weak, insulting, pasty-faced boy is still on CNN’s air?

We expect to address this a bit more tomorrow, when we review Don Imus’ recent insults. But over the past three months, astonishing types of gender-based insults have been aimed at Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. It’s amazing to see our weakling boy pundits say such things—and to see the liberal web sit and stare. Off in space. Hugely silent.

Special report: The 90 percent conundrum!


PART 1—GOLDBERG’S LAW: Can our most famous papers get any fact right? For us, that question came to mind again when the Washington Post and the New York Times tried to describe the crucial report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Part 1 of this important report was released on February 2. (Part 2 was issued last Friday. Part 3 will appear on May 4.)

Yes, the IPCC released “Part 1" on Friday, February 2. The next day, Juliet Eilperin summarized thusly on page one of the Washington Post. It was the paper’s lead story:
EILPERIN (2/3/07): An international panel of climate scientists said yesterday that there is an overwhelming probability that human activities are warming the planet at a dangerous rate, with consequences that could soon take decades or centuries to reverse.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of hundreds of scientists from 113 countries, said that based on new research over the last six years, it is 90 percent certain that human-generated greenhouse gases account for most of the global rise in temperatures over the past half-century.
The IPCC was “90 percent certain,” Eilperin said. But uh-oh! Munching casually on a blueberry bagel, we then perused the front-page, lead report in that day’s New York Times. And omigod! Elisabeth Rosenthal and Andrew Revkin were saying something different:
ROSENTHAL/REVKIN (2/3/07): The report is the panel's fourth assessment since 1990 on the causes and consequences of climate change, but it is the first in which the group asserts with near certainty—more than 90 percent confidence—that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities have been the main causes of warming in the past half century.
You’re right. As our analysts told us after carefully checking, “90 percent” is not the same thing as “more than 90 percent!” The Post had reported one level of certainty. The Times had said something different.

Some of you are going to say that a difference that small doesn’t matter. Before we address your desire to settle, we’ll remind you of what came to our mind that day—our favorite old joke, Goldberg’s Law:
GOLDBERG’S LAW: The man with one watch always knows the time. The man with two watches is never quite sure.
And so it goes with our famous newspapers. You think you know the simplest facts—unless you read two papers.

For what it’s worth, one of these papers was right this day—and one of these papers was clearly wrong. And no, the difference wasn’t gigantic; by way of contrast, the Washington Times was soon reporting the IPCC’s certainty level in a way which was massively wrong. (You can guess which way their “error” tilted.) But omigod! The Post and the Times have continued to bollix this basic part of the IPCC’s report. How certain is the IPCC when it says that humans are causing the bulk of current warming? That is a very basic question. But by now, each of these very-famous newspapers have answered it three different ways.

Some of you will say this doesn’t matter. For ourselves, we’ll say something different. Our question: What does it mean when our biggest newspapers can’t even get basic facts like this right? What does it say about modern press culture? Most important: What does it tell us about the people who are in charge of our discourse? They’ve been hit by a 90 percent conundrum. Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve been spitting out bagel every darn step of the way.

TOMORROW—PART 2: One of these papers was right on this fact. One of them was just flat wrong.