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The Heat From a Global Warming Column

By Ombudsman
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them.

The question of whether that happened is at the core of an uproar over a recent George F. Will column and The Post's fact-checking process.

Will's Feb. 15 column, headlined "Dark Green Doomsayers," ridiculed "eco-pessimists" and cited a string of "predicted planetary calamities" that Will said have never come to pass.

A key paragraph, aimed at those who believe in man-made global warming, asserted: "According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

The column triggered e-mails to The Post from hundreds of angry environmental activists and a few scientists, many asserting that the center had said exactly the opposite.

The ruckus grew when I e-mailed readers who had inquired about the editing process for Will's column. My comments accurately conveyed what I had been told by editorial page editor Fred Hiatt -- that multiple editors had checked Will's sources, including the reference to the Arctic Climate Research Center. Although I didn't render a judgment, my response was understandably seen as an institutional defense and prompted an orchestrated e-mail campaign in which thousands demanded that The Post correct Will's "falsehoods." Like they say when the pro football rookie gets clobbered: "Welcome to the NFL."

The messages, often identical in wording, were soon countered by waves of e-mails defending Will and attacking what many labeled "global warming alarmists" trying to muzzle him.

By mid-week, it was a bit like watching chairs being thrown in a bar fight.

Responding to the controversy, Will wrote again on Friday and insisted that his first column "accurately reported what the center had reported."

As the debate continues, questions linger about The Post's editing process. And there are separate questions about how The Post reacted once readers began questioning the accuracy of Will's column.

First, the editing process. My inquiry shows that there was fact-checking at multiple levels.

It began with Will's own research assistant, Greg Reed. When the column was submitted on Feb. 12 to The Washington Post Writers Group, which edits and syndicates it, Reed sent an accompanying e-mail that provided roughly 20 Internet reference links in support of key assertions in the column. Richard Aldacushion, editorial production manager at the Writers Group, said he reviewed every link. The column was then edited by editorial director Alan Shearer and managing editor James Hill.

Next, it went to The Post's op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, who said she also reviewed the sources.

The editors who checked the Arctic Research Climate Center Web site believe it did not, on balance, run counter to Will's assertion that global sea ice levels "now equal those of 1979." I reviewed the same Web citation and reached a different conclusion.

It said that while global sea ice areas are "near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979," sea ice area in the Northern Hemisphere is "almost one million sq. km below" the levels of late 1979. That's roughly the size of Texas and California combined. In my mind, it should have triggered a call for clarification to the center.

But according to Bill Chapman, a climate scientist with the center, there was no call from Will or Post editors before the column appeared. He added that it wasn't until last Tuesday -- nine days after The Post began receiving demands for a correction -- that he heard from an editor at the newspaper. It was Brewington who finally e-mailed, offering Chapman the opportunity to write something that might help clear the air.

Readers would have been better served if Post editors, and the new ombudsman, had more quickly addressed the claims of falsehoods.

Editors also missed opportunities to move the debate to washingtonpost.com. Will's column attracted hundreds of comments online, and the three-day cutoff period for comments could have been extended to allow more. Experts could have been quickly engaged to debate Will's assertions. Clarifications from the Arctic Climate Research Center could have been posted.

There is a disturbing if-you-don't-agree-with-me-you're-an-idiot tone to much of the global warming debate. Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute. But that's where The Post could have helped, and can in the future.

On its news pages, it can recommit to reporting on climate change that is authoritative and deep. On the editorial pages, it can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoints. And online, it can encourage dialogue that is robust, even if it becomes bellicose.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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