Climate change denier leads panel

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President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Climate threat doubter is leading effort to advise Trump


Associated Press

Thursday, February 21

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is exploring the idea of forming a special committee to look at climate change and security risks, with the effort being coordinated by a 79-year-old physicist who rejects mainstream climate science.

A “discussion paper” obtained by The Associated Press asks federal officials from an array of government agencies to weigh in on a proposed executive order that President Donald Trump would sign establishing the “Presidential Committee on Climate Security.”

A memo to those federal officials asks them to direct any questions to William Happer, a member of Trump’s National Security Council and a well-known critic of mainstream climate science findings.

“Happer would be a fringe figure even for climate skeptics,” said retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, now a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University.

Several climate scientists agreed with Titley, including Georgia Tech’s Kim Cobb, who said Happer’s “false, unscientific notions about climate change represent a danger to the American people.”

Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes, who wrote the book “Merchants of Doubt” on climate denial, pointed to instances when Happer has claimed that carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas from the burning of coal, oil and gas, is good for humans and that carbon emissions have been demonized like “the poor Jews under Hitler.”

Happer’s bio at Princeton University, where he previously taught, describes him as a pioneer in the field of optically polarized atoms. It notes that he served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush as the director of energy research at the Department of Energy, where he oversaw a basic research budget of roughly $3 billion.

The National Security Council advises the president on security and foreign policy issues. According to the discussion paper, the council would fund and oversee the committee. Among the committee’s responsibilities would be to “address existing United States Government reports on climate for scientific accuracy and advise on the national security implications of climate change.”

The committee would be composed of 12 members, according to a draft of the executive order. Members would include experts in national security and climate science. The panel would advise the president on how climate “might change in the future under natural and human influences.”

A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment.

The Washington Post first reported on the proposed executive order establishing the climate security committee.

Trump once tweeted that climate change was a “Chinese hoax.” More recently, he used a cold snap that hit much of the nation last month to again cast doubts. “People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming (sic)? Please come back fast, we need you!” he tweeted.

Both the Pentagon and the president’s intelligence team have mentioned climate change as a national security threat, and a 2018 National Climate Assessment detailed drastic effects of global warming.

Over about a dozen years, government scientists, military leaders and intelligence experts have repeatedly highlighted climate change as a major national security risk, said Titley, who founded one such study team in the Navy.

Titley said these studies have come to the same conclusions under three presidents, including two Republicans. He said there are “a surprising number of documents from the Pentagon and intelligence community after January 2017 (when Trump took office) that talk about climate and security risk.”

“For the Pentagon, it’s about readiness,” Titley said. “For the intelligence community, it’s about risks. We see the risks are accelerating.”

Climate change can “push a marginally stable area into chaos,” Titley said, mentioning Syria, which suffered a record drought at the same time as a civil war that triggered a migration of a million people.

Francesco “Frank” Femia, chief executive of a think tank that reviews systemic risk to national and international security, expressed concern that the proposed panel was meant to poke holes in future government reports and studies.

“I would welcome a serious study commissioned by the White House on the security implications on climate change that include climate scientists and national security experts, but this is not that,” said Femia, the CEO of The Council on Strategic Risks.

A place like the National Academy of Sciences was set up just for that type of study, said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth, which monitors global temperatures.

“The ice doesn’t care what this administration thinks,” Titley said. “It’s just going to keep melting and obeying the laws of physics, whatever Will Happer wants.”

Justice Thomas calls for re-examining landmark libel case


Associated Press

Tuesday, February 19

WASHINGTON (AP) — Justice Clarence Thomas says the Supreme Court should consider overturning a 55-year-old landmark ruling that makes it hard for public figures to win libel suits, writing in a case involving a woman who says Bill Cosby raped her.

Thomas took aim at New York Times v. Sullivan and similar cases that followed it, calling them “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law.”

“We should not continue to reflexively apply this policy-driven approach to the Constitution,” Thomas wrote in a 14-page opinion that no other justice joined.

The opinion comes against the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s repeated calls to make it easier to sue for libel. Last weekend, Trump reacted to a Saturday Night Live skit by asking on Twitter, “How do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into.”

On Tuesday, the high court rejected an appeal from actress Kathrine McKee, who said Cosby raped her in 1974. McKee sued Cosby for damaging her reputation after a lawyer for the comedian allegedly leaked a letter attacking McKee. Two lower courts ruled against her and dismissed the case, based largely on McKee’s role as a public figure.

The Sullivan case set a very high bar for public officials to win a libel suit and hefty money awards over published false statements that damaged their reputations. The high court extended the 1964 decision in the ensuing decades to make it tough for celebrities, politicians and other public figures to win defamation cases.

Thomas is the justice who most often calls for jettisoning Supreme Court rulings that he says do not comport with the meaning of the Constitution at the time it was adopted.

“The states are perfectly capable of striking an acceptable balance between encouraging robust public discourse and providing a meaningful remedy for reputational harm,” he wrote.

He is not the first justice to criticize the 1964 case, though he appears to be the first to issue a call for its reconsideration in a Supreme Court opinion. The late Justice Antonin Scalia took a similarly dim view of the Sullivan ruling, once saying in a televised interview that he abhorred it.

The Conversation

The revolving door between media and government spins again with CNN’s hiring of Sarah Isgur Flores

February 20, 2019

Author: Michael J. Socolow, Associate Professor, Communication and Journalism, University of Maine

Disclosure statement: Michael J. Socolow receives funding from the Fulbright Scholar Program. He is currently a Fulbright Scholar at the News & Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra (Australia).

A common practice in American journalism has, once again, sparked outrage.

CNN recently announced the hiring of Sarah Isgur Flores to be “one of several editors” who will help “coordinate [political] coverage across TV and digital.”

Though a CNN spokesman explained to news site Splinter that Isgur “is not leading, overseeing, or running CNN’s political coverage,” the new hire will undoubtedly influence the cable network’s coverage of the 2020 presidential election.

Isgur has no professional journalism experience. But she’s been active politically, which may have qualified her for the job.

Isgur most recently worked as the spokesperson for the Department of Justice, where she disseminated information about the department’s new policies under President Trump and Attorney General Sessions in order to inform and influence journalistic coverage.

With a Harvard law degree, and jobs at the Republican National Committee and on numerous Republican campaigns, she was a reliable purveyor of administration spin.

CNN’s hiring of Isgur immediately provoked criticism.

“Elevating an unabashed partisan to a nonpartisan role is an obvious disservice to viewers at home, who count on the network’s independence,” wrote attorney and GQ columnist Jay Willis.

Media history shows that CNN is simply repeating a time-honored journalistic hiring practice. The revolving door from the White House to mainstream journalism, and from mainstream journalism to the White House, has been used so regularly that we often forget just how common it was – and remains.

Prominent figures

The long list of political operatives who transitioned into journalism includes such well-known figures as Bill Moyers, William Safire, Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos.

Perhaps the most illuminating example of this transition is Moyers. While working as a special assistant and press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, Moyers proved to be one of the administration’s most antagonistic tacticians in dealing with the media.

In a memo he wrote about Vietnam War coverage, Moyers decried “the irresponsible and prejudiced coverage of men like Peter Arnett and Morley Safer, men who are not American and who do not have the basic American interest at heart.” Arnett was from New Zealand and Safer from Canada.

Safer, the legendary CBS News reporter, never forgave Moyers for helping the Johnson administration smear him as a Communist.

FOIA records later revealed that Moyers helped hunt for homosexuals serving in the Johnson administration in order to protect the White House from embarrassing disclosures. Moyers has disputed that characterization.

Yet, for all of Moyers’ partisan political behavior, he would transition straight from the White House to become publisher of the Long Island newspaper Newsday in 1967. He joined CBS News in 1976.

Following in Moyers’ footsteps were several Republican political appointees.

Diane Sawyer easily moved from working for Richard Nixon to a job at CBS News without much criticism. William Safire’s hiring by The New York Times as an opinion columnist in 1973 sparked a firestorm of controversy both in the newsroom and from critics.

Safire had composed the most memorable phrases uttered by Spiro Agnew in that vice president’s famous attacks on the press. Just a few years later, he would win journalism’s highest honor – the Pulitzer Prize for his commentary on the Carter administration.

But not all the revolving-door examples would be as famous as Moyers, Sawyer or Safire.

In 1997, for example, David Shipley left a position as special assistant to President Clinton to join The New York Times as deputy op-ed page editor. Roger Colloff, who served in the Federal Office of Energy under President Carter, left the administration in 1979 to join CBS, where he would become a CBS News vice president with supervisory authority over all public affairs broadcasts, including “60 Minutes.”

Journalistic independence questioned

Isgur won’t simply be a columnist (like Safire) or reporter (like Moyers or Sawyer). Both Shipley and Colloff had previous journalistic experience; Isgur doesn’t.

The danger critics identify is that Isgur, as an editor, could supervise and shape coverage in ways that might allow her evident political biases to go unchecked. CNN characterized her authority as limited, specifically noting that Isgur “”is helping to coordinate coverage across TV and Digital – she is one of several editors.”.“

Yet there are historical precedents for granting far more authority to former political appointees than Isgur will have.

Colloff went from the Carter administration to supervising all public affairs coverage at CBS, including the celebrated investigations of “60 Minutes.”

In 1961, James C. Hagerty moved from his position as President Eisenhower’s press secretary to vice president of news, special events and public affairs for ABC. There’s little evidence that Hagerty’s ABC News management led to significantly more favorable coverage of Republicans, when compared to CBS News and NBC News, in this period.

Do these historical examples demonstrating the smooth interplay between American politics and political journalism apply in the Isgur case?

Today’s context is different. Isgur comes from an administration that has vilified the press to an unmatched degree. President Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the media, which have led to several violent and criminal acts, this line of thinking goes, should therefore disqualify administration appointees from working in journalism.

There’s some truth to the idea that President Trump is uniquely antagonistic towards the media. But he’s not the first high-level politician to be that way.

After more than four decades, it’s easy to forget the power and influence of vice president Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the media during the Nixon administration. And, even before that, at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco, the “right-wing rage” directed toward the media shocked journalists.

Just as Safire’s defection from the Nixon administration to The New York Times raised the issue of hypocrisy, Flores’ parallel move incites many of the same questions.

Why would a Trump administration appointee even be interested in working for CNN, a journalistic outlet the president has accused of purveying “fake news”? Is the move an implicit recognition that the attacks on the media are exploitative, done primarily to rile a political base?

Questioning the coziness

There’s always been a close relationship between American political coverage and American political journalism – but to acknowledge it neither endorses nor excuses it.

The First Amendment guarantee of an independent press is philosophically grounded in the ideal of journalistic independence. When the revolving door is utilized, it’s healthy to criticize its use. Noting that political operatives might bring their biases to their coverage, critics can pressure these novice journalists to be more circumspect about their work.

Perhaps ironically, CNN’s public announcement of Isgur’s hiring provides a remedy for the network’s critics of the hiring. Drawing attention to the move will help the CNN audience evaluate her work.

The audience plays an important role in safeguarding journalistic ethics in a democracy. If viewers watch CNN with a more skeptical and critical perspective throughout the 2020 presidential election, the network will be forced to respond.

Should coverage become detectably more in favor of the Trump administration, criticism spawned by vigilance will likely hurt CNN’s reputation for independence, its credibility and its ratings.

That’s a lesson liberals in the United States might learn from conservatives, who have complained about liberal bias for decades. Pressure often works.

In fact, it’s quite possible that such criticism ultimately elevated a person with no journalism experience to one of the most important and coveted jobs in the industry.


Gigi Marino: Lest we forget that when William Safire worked for Spiro Agnew, Safire referred to the media as “nattering nabobs of negativity.”

James Wittebols, Professor of Political Science, University of Windsor: There was a Bush cousin helping to make calls on state votes in the 2000 campaign and had influence in making the Florida call for Bush. Probably the most consequential example of a political hack influencing journalism.

President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Donald Trump speaks as he meets with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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