Ombudsman -- George Will's Column on Global Warming
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.