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Killing a false narrative before it takes hold

COMMENTARY | April 18, 2011

Busting an embargo, ClimateProgress.com's Joe Romm blisteringly dismantles an upcoming academic report on climate change advocacy in hopes no reporters will be taken in.

(Reposted from ClimateProgress.org. Also see Nisbet's response.)

By Joseph Romm

Prof. Matthew Nisbet of American University has written an error-riddled, self-contradictory, demonstrably false report, Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate [big PDF here]. The 99-page report’s two central, but ridiculous, claims are:

  1. The environmental movement outspent opponents during the climate bill debate.
  2. Media coverage of climate change has become balanced and was not a factor in the defeat of the cap-and-trade bill.

The report makes these untenable claims in order to shift the blame for the bill’s failure to climate scientists, environmentalists, foundations, and most especially Al Gore.

None of the report’s major conclusions can stand the light of day, particularly those two. Climate Shift is not a revisionist history. It is a counterfactual history.

Now I don’t think progressives have tried hard enough to explain why the climate bill failed — including what we and our allies did wrong — leaving the door open for bogus analysis. So in a series of posts, I will not merely refute every aspect of Nisbet’s paper, I will try to explain what in fact did go wrong (and right) — and why. This post will serve as an overview of the paper’s myriad flaws.

The bombshell is that Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University had his name pulled off the report’s list of expert paid reviewers late last week when he finally saw the whole finished report — and he returned Nisbet’s check. In an exclusive series of interviews, Brulle, whom the NYT called “an expert on environmental communications, explained to me that “I think it is really bad and I don’t want to be associated with it.”

Brulle told me the study has “many flaws,” and “selectively used the literature.” Indeed, Brulle, who is past chair of the Environment and Technology section of the American Sociological Association, says “I gave him refereed articles that countered his thesis and he ignored them.”


  • Nisbet in the Executive Summary: “The national environmental groups working on climate change have closed the financial gap with their longstanding opponents among conservative think tanks, groups and industry associations.”
  • Brulle: “I say ‘no’ and Nisbet’s own data contradicts that statement.”

Brulle took me through Nisbet’s financial analysis — the report’s big ‘news hook’ — to explain how Nisbet’s own data proves the exact opposite of his main conclusion. Nisbet’s own data proves environmentalists were outspent at least 4-to-1 on advertising and beaten10-to-1 on election spending.

Brulle pointed out one “extremely dubious assumption” that will make your head explode. Nisbet counted the entire lobbying budget on all issues from major corporations like BP, Bank of America, GE, and ConocoPhillips, in the total of what was “representative of the capacity for power and influence” that the environmentalists supposedly had to bring to bear on the climate bill debate. Lobbying experts I spoke to said it was a “complete joke” to think companies like BP spent any signficant amount of its lobbying budget pushing for the climate bill.

Even with this assumption, Nisbet’s numbers show that opponents held a spending edge in lobbying. But absent this absurd assumption, Nisbet’s own numbers would suggest opponents of the bill had more than 10 times the lobbying muscle of environmentalists.

Nisbet asserts, “The analysis of lobbying expenditures is based on data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.” Yet, last August, Open Secrets blog, which investigates money in politics, published “Pro-Environment Groups Outmatched, Outspent in Battle Over Climate Change Legislation,” which concluded, “the Boykoff on “Exaggerating Denialism). Both he and Brulle believe the impact of the disinformation campaign and media miscoverage can’t be dismissed. Many other experts ignored by Nisbet agree.

Amazingly, Nisbet, who doesn’t do any analysis of his own on the impact of Fox News, repeatedly asserts that watching Fox News has no net impact on viewers since but merely reinforces the views of those who choose to watch it (p. 66):

… the use of conservative media outlets such as Fox News and focusing events such as Climategate tend to reinforce existing views about climate change rather than altering them.

The problem for Nisbet is that both of the major papers he cites on the subject come to a different conclusion. In particular, he cites a study led by Jon Krosnick of Stanford, “Frequent Viewers of Fox News Are Less Likely to Accept Scientists’ Views of Global Warming.” Nisbet claims this is an accurate reading of the paper (p. 67):

Krosnick attributes the findings to motivated reasoning. Conservative-leaning individuals who already hold stronger doubts about climate change are more likely to view Fox News, and this viewing reinforces these doubts.

But that isn’t what Krosnick concludes, as anyone can see. Krosnick notes that his “Figure 1 shows how more exposure to Fox News was associated with less endorsement of the views of mainstream scientists about global warming,” and says while he can’t know for sure whether people were persuaded by Fox or selectively chose Fox:

We therefore suspect that the relations documented in Figure 1 are likely to result from a combination of persuasion by Fox News coverage and of selective exposure by Republicans and conservative viewers to Fox News.

Nisbet himself correctly notes that the second study he cites, “Climate on Cable: The Effects of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC on Global Warming Beliefs and Perceptions,” led by Feldman found that “the views of Republicans on climate change may be less solidified than Democrats, thereby making them more easily influenced by the content of cable news,” specifically Fox News. In fact, Feldman’s study itself explicitly says its findings are “suggestive of direct persuasion, whereby the views of conservative-Republicans are reflective of the cable news outlet they watch.”

So the two key papers Nisbet cites find that the viewers of Fox News’ biased climate coverage are less likely to accept scientists’ views of global warming — and that direct persuasion appears to have played a role in shifting their views. So much for his Exec Sum assertion “The era of false balance in news coverage of climate science has come to an end.” For more background on why Nisbet’s claim is absurd, see “Foxgate: Leaked email reveals Fox News boss Bill Sammon ordered staff to cast doubt on climate science.”

Also, you have to wait until page 57 for Nisbet to briefly mention journalists Eric Pooley’s devastating analysis of how the U.S media miscovered the economic debate over climate change in 2007 and 2008. Nisbet notes, “Pooley strongly criticized his colleagues for balancing the assessment provided by academic economists and nonpartisan agencies with the exaggerated economic impacts claimed by many conservative organizations and Republican leaders.” Indeed, as I reported, Pooley concluded, The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress. He found, “The press misrepresented the economic debate over cap and trade” and “The press allowed opponents of climate action to replicate the false debate over climate science in the realm of climate economics.”

There are many other biases in coverage that Nisbet’s 99-page report ignores entirely, which I’ll cover in a separate post. One of the most obvious is simply the overall collapse in coverage of the story of the century (see, for instance, the work of both Brulle and Boykoff cited in Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010).


Nisbet writes head-exploding stuff about Al Gore:

  • Nisbet in Exec Sum: “Gore has consistently sought to mobilize progressives politically, pairing his messages about climate science with attacks on Republicans.”
  • Boykoff: “I don’t agree with that statement.”
  • Brulle: “His claim about the role of Vice President Gore has no valid empirical data behind it.”

Another counterfactual. Gore reached out to Republicans in his famous WE campaign — remember Gingrich and Pelosi on the couch. Many major Republicans, including Gingrich in 2007, supported cap-and-trade before flip-flopping in 2009, suggesting it was something other than Gore’s advocacy to blaim (see Tim Pawlenty: “Every one of us” running for president has flip-flopped on climate change).

The discussion of Al Gore ignores basic scholarship on the climate denial efforts, and supports an ideological position that is not grounded in an empirical analysis,” as Brulle put it to me. In a later post on Gore, I’ll show how Nisbet ignores facts and mis-cites scholarship on this subject to make his case. Nisebet’s counterfactual report should be retitled Blame Shift.

In the report, Nisbet actually calls the Nobel-Prize winning former VP ‘the Goracle’ — “the media widely speculated as to whether the Goracle would run for president” (p. 65) — which Brulle considers “totally unprofessional.”

Later Nisbet writes of “Gore’s divorce and news stories alleging sexual misconduct” and how it “contributed to a 14 percent drop in his favorability (see Figure 4.2)”! Seriously. For the record, Gore is separated, one of countless small, but telling mistakes that accompanying the large blunders in Nisbet’s report.

The ideology Nisbet is pushing is The Breakthrough Institute’s, as we’ll see in a later post. And like TBI, we have someone who seems to be an environmentalist launching a trumped up attack on the role of environmentalists and Gore in the climate bill — with a report and major media briefing right before Earth Day to maximize media coverage and media sensationalism.


Consider what happened when Nisbet sent out the embargoed report to the media (not CP, though) along with a press advisory. NY Times opinion blogger Andy Revkin immediately ran the press advisory on his Tumblr page (his headline):

13th April 2011

Greens Far Outspent Fossil Fans in Cap-Trade Fight

Most intriguing press advisory of the day (same was true with California climate-bill ballot initiative):

For Immediate Release
In Cap and Trade Fight, Environmentalists Held Spending Edge Over Opponents, New Report Finds

American University Study is First to Compare Funding, Media Coverage and Strategy of Green Groups and Industry-Linked Organizations

Web Media Briefing April 19, 2011, 2:00pm ET….

Washington, D.C. – New research counters the commonly-held view that cap and trade legislation failed because of the spending advantages of opponents and false balance in news coverage.

The report, Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate, will be released April 19 by American University Professor Matthew Nisbet, Ph.D.

Nisbet will host a web-based media briefing on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 2:00 p.m.

The study is the first to systematically analyze the financial resources, strategies, communication activities and impacts of those advocating for action on climate change and to draw comparisons to those opposing action among conservative groups and industry….

As you can see, the claim in the release — “New research counters the commonly-held view that cap and trade legislation failed because of the spending advantages of opponents and false balance in news coverage” — is disputed by two of the five original reviewers, is eviscerated by the data in the report, and is inconsistent with a number of studies that Nisbet cites (and miscites).

The headlines of the press advisory and of Revkin’s reposting tell you what the news hook for this study is — the financial (mis)analysis.

And these quotes on the shifting characterizations of the funding “gap’ between environmental groups and the opposition tell you all you need to know about how this study is being over spun to the media and how it might be wildly overspun by the media:

  • Full Report (p. 1): “As the analysis indicates, the environmental movement has made sizable gains in closing the spending gap with their conservative and industry opponents.”
  • Exec Sum (p. 2): “The national environmental groups working on climate change have closed the financial gap with their longstanding opponents among conservative think tanks, groups and industry associations.”
  • Press Release headline: “In Cap and Trade Fight, Environmentalists Held Spending Edge over Opponents, New Report Finds.”
  • Revkin’s headline for Tumblr: “Greens Far Outspent Fossil Fans in Cap-Trade Fight.”

Yet Revkin routinely accuses others of exaggerating the findings of reports or being too quick to jump on one single new study without checking it with independent experts or other studies!

Final Note: In the original embargoed report [big PDF here], on the very first page, we can see Nisbet trying to give his treatise the veneer of scholarship by assembling an expert panel of paid “formal reviewers,” which he states was done “to make sure that the report meets the highest standards for rigor, evidence and accuracy.” Brulle withdrew his name in part because he does not believe the report meets any of those standards. Nisbet later revised this section, but the veneer remains. I was sent the (slightly) revised report [big PDF here].

As an important aside, normally I would not break be the first to break an embargo, even for a report that was sent to me by a third-party. But once it became clear how the analysis was being misrepresented to the media, and how the media itself might further misrepresent the supposed findings, I realized that if I waited until the report was released, there was a good chance that extremely erroneous stories would be written.

I have no doubt the right wing media, whose impact Nisbet discounts, will take up his misinformation unquestioningly. I hope the traditional media dig harder.

[Editor's note: Nisbet responds here.]

Joseph Romm is the editor of Climate Progress and a Senior Fellow at the American Progress. In 2009, Time magazine named him one of the “Heroes of the Environment″ and “The Web’s most influential climate-change blogger.”


A Biased Watchdog Barks in the Dark
Posted by Richard Ryfe
05/02/2011, 11:59 PM

It is an unfortunate indication of bias at the Nieman Watchdog Foundation for Journalism that they invented the title of this article:
"Killing a False Narrative before it takes hold." Said invention puts Watchdog and its editorial staff tight in the arms of Joe Romm, a "progressive" global warming blogger.

It was our understanding that Nieman Watchdog portrays itself as an organization given "To promote and elevate the standards of journalism ... and educate persons deemed specially qualified for journalism."

Claiming a 100 page peer-reviewed study by a respected professor at American University to be "a false narrative" (Nieman's words not Romm's) - prejudges the report suggesting the entire study is false.

However if you read Nesbit's cogent response to Romm's histrionic blog you get a clear and balanced picture of the report's methodology, authoritative sources, and review process.

Nieman claims to be a watchdog which demands an unbiased view of both journalists and the content of their writing. By republishing Romm's blog with its own sensational headline and sub-head (Romm "blisteringly dismantles...") Nieman’s claim to Watchdog status and balanced journalism is lost.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.