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AN INSTINCT FOR ERROR! The AP made that UN report very clear. But a string of big papers still bungled: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 11, 2007

THE NEW YORK TIMES GETS IT RIGHT: This morning, in our local bagel joint, this striking photograph stared up at us from atop the fold of the Baltimore Sun. Right next to it, the same AP photo topped the fold of the Washington Post. And a similar photo—of the same five women—topped the New York Times’ front page. Meanwhile, the Times presented a top-notch editorial. This morning, the Times gets it right:
NEW YORK TIMES (4/11/07): It is hard to imagine a better commentary on Don Imus's disgraceful behavior than the appearance yesterday by the very women he verbally assaulted, the Rutgers basketball team. Mr. Imus's comments were racist and sexist, aimed at young athletes who deserved high praise, not such low treatment. The students were dignified, suitably angry and hurt, and the class act of the moment.

Each player who spoke at the news conference on the Rutgers campus in Piscataway, N.J., yesterday lamented the way Mr. Imus's casual racism—calling them ''[insult deleted]”—turned what should have been a moment of unalloyed celebration (making it to the N.C.A.A. championship) into a media event of an entirely different kind. The 10 players came forth to give their views about Mr. Imus after days of understandably avoiding the cameras.

Their measured responses, wit and maturity were the ultimate condemnation of the behavior of their elders in the Imus shop who claim they thought, at least at the time, that such abuse was funny. The team members—who have agreed to meet with Mr. Imus privately—offered a better example to all the politicians, commentators and reporters who have spent the last two days dissecting Mr. Imus's behavior.

Essence Carson, the team's captain, was particularly eloquent in her remarks and in her responses to questions. At one point, she said that ''you don't get too many opportunities to finally stand up for what you know is right.'' Ms. Carson and her teammates made maximum use of theirs.
We don’t agree with every word; for our money, “verbally assaulted” is a bit overwrought, and it tends to minimize what happens to people when they actually do get “assaulted.” And we aren’t sure if the third paragraph contains a typo; we would have said that these young women “offered a better example than all the politicians, commentators and reporters who have spent the last two days dissecting Mr. Imus's behavior.” But we think the Times has the right focus here. These young women were much, much smarter and much more decent than most of the adult commentary which has swirled around them this week. We thought their coach was outstanding too. Ditto for that superb Rutgers president, who told these young women that he and their school “have their back.”

We’ll offer further pensees tomorrow. For today, we were ruefully struck by the headline atop a Post op-ed on this subject: “Let the Idiocy Be Heard.” The column itself, by Michael Meyers, makes some semi-valid points about (snore) the need for free speech. But what a perfect heaqdline! In fact, the Imus team’s stupid comments are part and parcel of the full-bore idiocy which has virtually defined our national discourse for the past fifteen years. (People, Mars is warming!) But readers, have you ever seen this history-changing problem discussed on the Post’s op-ed page? You probably haven’t (though you’ve seen plenty of the idiocy there). And it seems you never will.

Yesterday, the Post offered this editorial about the Imus matter; reading paragraph one, we mordantly chuckled at the way the editors summarized Imus’ targets. We’ll touch on the their blinkered vision tomorrow; much, much more does need to be said. But today, we were glad to see that striking photo sitting atop those three major papers. What a shame—that young people as smart and decent as these live in a world where a gang of blithering “idiots” set the tone and write the scripts for their nation’s discourse. And no, that doesn’t mean Imus alone. It also means the Post’s blinkered editors—and the worthless, store-bought pseudo-liberals who fill the paper’s op-ed page, while simply refusing to discuss what has happened to our national discourse. People, if you lower tax rates, you increase federal revenues!

At the Times, five bright faces were on page one—and Maureen Dowd was returned from vacance. Today, the purring throwback savant writes about “the Daddy Party” and, of course, “the Mommy Camp.” What on earth did those young women do to deserve a juvenile culture like this? A culture where addled Antoinettes yuck it up with Don—and define their nation’s broken discourse?

BY THE WAY: By the way, one more thing is true, and worth noting. Along with his non-stop clueless idiocy, Imus has done a major ton of good things in the world.

Special report: The 90 percent conundrum!


PART 2—AN INSTINCT FOR ERROR: Oh, what the heck—we’ll take the bait! Just what did the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say about human causation of warming? As we saw on Monday, the IPCC released Part 1 of its current, three-part report on February 2, and it became the next day’s top story. On February 3, our two greatest newspapers tackled the topic in their front-page, lead stories. For the most part, they agreed on what the IPCC had said. But uh-oh! They didn’t agree on the level of certainty with which the panel had said it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/9/07).

According to the Washington Post, the IPCC had said that human-generated greenhouse gases “account for most of the global rise in temperatures over the past half-century.” The Times presented a formulation which was virtually identical (though slightly inexact). But uh-oh! The Post said that the IPCC was “90 percent certain” of this seminal claim; the Times said the panel’s level of certainty was more than 90 percent! And when our analysts checked with experts, they came back with a troubling report. “90 percent” is not the same thing as “more than 90,” they said.

Some of you are going to say this difference isn’t worth pursuing. Incomparably, though, we plowed ahead, determined to see who was right.

That much said, let’s not be coy; the Post was wrong and the Times was right on this basic matter. In fact, the IPCC had said it was more than 90 percent certain that human activity had caused most warming in the past half-century. Here’s the panel’s specific language. You can find it on page 10 of the 21-page report:
IPCC REPORT (page 10): Most of the observed increases in globally averaged temperature since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.
The words “very likely” appear in italics; an earlier footnote (footnote 6; page 4) explains the meaning given that term, and other terms like it. In this report, the term virtually certain means “more than 99 percent probability of occurrence;” extremely likely means “more than 95 percent;” and very likely means “more than 90 percent.” The Times had correctly reported the panel’s stated level of certainty. But uh-oh! Right there at the top of page one, the Washington Post had it wrong.

And yes, this point was very basic; it was one of the panel’s most significant judgments, and the meaning of the term “very likely” was spelled out nice and clear. But make no mistake—as we’ve shown you in the past, our major news orgs have an uncanny knack for getting even basic facts wrong. For the record, how easy was it to get this right? On February 2, the AP’s Seth Borenstein sent out several reports which stated this basic matter quite clearly. Here was an early-morning dispatch, sent out before the IPCC’s report had been officially released:
BORENSTEIN, ASSOCIATED PRESS (3/2/07): The world's leading climate scientists said global warming has begun, is "very likely" caused by man, and will be unstoppable for centuries, according to a report obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

The scientists using their strongest language yet on the issue said now that the world has begun to warm, hotter temperatures and rises in sea level "would continue for centuries," no matter how much humans control their pollution....

The phrase "very likely" translates to a more than 90 percent certainty that global warming is caused by man's burning of fossil fuels. That was the strongest conclusion to date, making it nearly impossible to say natural forces are to blame.
It’s hard to make it simpler than that—but a few hours later, Borenstein did. The official report had now been released. Borenstein posted another dispatch. It included this easy-reader:
BORENSTEIN (2/2/07): The scientists said global warming was "very likely" caused by human activity, a phrase that translates to a more than 90 percent certainty that it is caused by man's burning of fossil fuels. That was the strongest conclusion to date, making it nearly impossible to say natural forces are to blame.
Now it was all in one sentence! But as we’ve said, your biggest news orgs have an instinct for error. Yes, the Post got it wrong the next day. But then, so did the Chicago Tribune, in a report by William Neikirk:
NEIKIRK (2/3/07): Global warming is "very likely" a human-caused problem that will last for centuries and require concerted international action to reduce its potentially devastating impacts, a United Nations panel of climate experts declared Friday in a landmark report...

The scientists from 113 countries said they are now 90 percent confident that global warming is caused by humans, in contrast with a 2001 report in which they said they were 60 percent to 90 percent confident.
Darn! That undershot the actual value. But then, readers of the Houston Chronicle were handed some bad dope too:
UNSIGNED REPORT, HOUSTON CHRONICLE (2/3/07): U.S. corporate leaders increasingly accept the premise that industrial activities are responsible for observed planetary warming during the past two centuries. A small but vocal group of skeptics, including academics funded by special interest groups, have waged a quixotic and ingenuous campaign to discredit the theory.

The U.N. report should effectively settle that dispute, with findings that human activities are "very likely" the primary cause of global warming. It quantified those words as a 90 percent probability.
Dag! But then, several other major papers joined the Post, the Tribune and the Chronicle in using the lesser (and inaccurate) “90 percent.” The Philadelphia Inquirer got it wrong; so did the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. And omigod! The Los Angeles Times came up with a third construction—a construction we haven’t shown you yet! This construction was very close, but still wrong. Soon, though, the Post would adopt it!

We’ll check on that matter another day. But let’s get back to our basic question: Does it matter if our major news orgs can’t even get such a basic fact right? We’ll tell you one thing; for purposes of political argument, it’s a whole lot better if you can say that the certainty is more than 90 percent. When it comes to political argument, it’s almost malpractice to say “90 percent” when the stated value is “more than” that. By this Friday, we’ll show you what Big Major Democrats said as they pushed this major report.

But uh-oh! Did we even have to tell you? One famous paper put the level of certainty much, much lower than 90 percent! That brilliant rag was the Washington Times, whose readers got chumped once again!

TOMORROW—PART 3: Newsflash! WashTimes readers turned to rubes as Dale dials the number way back!