Climate ‘Censorship’ Raised in Disinformation Fracas

August 24, 2022
White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy in August 2020, during a visit to Argonne National Laboratory. Photo: Argonne National Laboratory, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

WatchDog Opinion: Climate ‘Censorship’ Raised in Disinformation Fracas

By Joseph A. Davis

House Republicans accused White House climate czar Gina McCarthy of “censorship” in August. It was a classic GOP effort at censorship.

The move came in an August 2 letter to McCarthy demanding any communications with social media companies. Almost a month earlier, McCarthy had called on social media giants to do more to filter out climate disinformation.

The letter was from Reps. James Comer (R-Ky.), ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, and Yvette Herrell (R-N.M.), ranking member of that panel’s Subcommittee on Environment. While any Congress member can ask for information from the executive branch, minority parties by themselves lack the power to subpoena the information. In 2023, however, things could change.

Dems on that committee in the past year have been holding hearings on “exposing Big Oil’s disinformation campaign to prevent climate action.” Chair Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) called oil company execs before the panel to explain themselves. One recent study found that fossil fuel companies spent close to a billion dollars on climate disinformation in less than 10 years.


Facts in danger

Environmental journalists today work in a world where climate denial, disinformation and trash talk are commonplace. Five years ago, the word “lie” was almost never used in polite journalism. Today it’s in many of the headlines. Worse yet, some of the headlines themselves are lies.

The problems of journalism are changing and the big question is not just how we adapt to them but whether we can deal with them at all. Journalism is about facts and facts are in danger of becoming completely obsolete.


One of the worst consequences

of today’s mediasphere is that truth

itself is considered just one point of view.


One of the worst consequences of today’s mediasphere is that truth itself is considered just one point of view — and that from my perch some journalists (especially at the big networks) take very little responsibility for figuring out what the truth is.

We sometimes think of censorship as suppression of the facts. But today, the attack is on the idea that facts exist, the proposition that science can know things and on the motives of people trying to find the truth.

Today we also see systematic public attacks on the media (reported by the media) as they try to sort out facts and lies. It is a dangerous situation for journalists. Even more dangerous for democracy.


Using the fairness impulse against us

The biggest censorship on the environmental beat is still about climate change; it has been so for decades. The history of climate change denial and disinformation is too long to recount here. It continues to this day, thanks to billions in funding from fossil fuel industries.

But, yes, climate denial and disinformation are very real and very prevalent in the mediasphere (although today there is a subtler form of disinformation — greenwashing).

It was news in 2005 when then-New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin reported (may require subscription) that an oil lobbyist had been editing Bush White House reports on climate change to tone down the consensus of scientists.


One big problem is that the climate denialists and

others exploit journalists’ impulse and effort to be

fair — using their own values against them.


One big problem is that the climate denialists and others exploit journalists’ impulse and effort to be fair — using their own values against them. The result is “both-sides-ism.” In extreme form, it tries to demand that falsehood be given equal time, and equal weight, as truth.

Most journalists (at least those practicing the “evidence-based” variety of the craft) have a bias in favor of openness and transparency. Except they wouldn’t call it a bias. Open government is critical for doing their job of getting at the facts. Instead, let’s call it a professional standard.


The ‘secret science’ charade

Republicans and others have been making an art of hijacking and perverting journalists’ antipathy to censorship. Some of us remember their “secret science” charade regarding pollution. That too is a long story.

The “secret science” name itself was engineered to elicit a knee-jerk reaction from journalists, the public and others who care about openness and truth.

Republicans have been trying to use the “secret science” ploy since at least 2014. In essence, it would have forbidden the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from rulemaking on the basis of science for which not all the underlying data was not publicly available.

This would have strangled health-based EPA air pollution rules because the names of individual patients were kept confidential.

The “secret science” rule was pushed by Republicans when they controlled the House Science Committee and then again by administrators at the Trump EPA. There was much conflict over it, but eventually a court threw it out.

So the current cries of “censorship” by House Oversight GOPers are only an echo of mostly failed efforts by Republicans and the polluting industries they represent to weaponize, well, not really transparency itself, but the idea of transparency. Except that they are not at all transparent about it.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 30 Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: