Feb
24
2009

Post Responds on Will's Inaccuracies

Paper's explanation makes matters worse

George Will's February 22 column in the Washington Post began: "A simple apology would have sufficed." Alas, this was not a reference to Will's error-filled column on climate change the week before (FAIR Action Alert, 2/18/09). But the paper's new ombud did email a response to some of Will's critics, which managed to reveal how Will easily gets away with such falsehoods.

Will's original column included three significant problems: He misrepresented scientific research in the 1970s by claiming that cooling was the prevailing concern, he misrepresented University of Illinois research on sea ice, and he claimed that U.N. climate researchers have found "no recorded global warming for more than a decade."

Post ombud Andy Alexander took up only the sea ice issue, explaining:

George Will's column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors. The University of Illinois center that Will cited has now said it doesn't agree with his conclusion, but earlier this year it put out a statement that was among several sources for this column and that notes in part that "observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979."

This is a bizarre citation, since the University of Illinois statement was written specifically to refute an analysis similar to Will's--which had argued, as Will did, that the climate center's finding suggested the loss of sea ice was not as severe as some had thought, and that by extension climate change was not such a big deal. The center's response pointed out that global sea ice is not the most relevant measure for understanding the effects of climate change (Political Animal, 2/20/09), and that this had long been known to climate researchers. So the Post is offering an expert refutation of Will's argument as evidence that he was correct.

Alexander's response was seconded by Washington Post Writers Group editorial director Alan Shearer (ThinkProgress, 2/19/09): "We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn't have enough to send in a correction." This is perhaps even more bizarre than Alexander's take-- the group whose research Will is misrepresenting has said his column is inaccurate; wouldn't their views about their own research carry more weight than other "references" that back up Will?

Alexander's full response is below. For those who wish to respond to his message--perhaps asking if he could find out how Will got away with the other two errors--Alexander can be reached at ombudsman@washpost.com. Please post your letters to Alexander in the comments section on the FAIR Blog.

***

Thank you for your e-mail. The Post's ombudsman typically deals with issues involving the news pages. But I understand the point you and many e-mailers are making, and for that reason I sought clarification from the editorial page editors. Basically, I was told that the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will's column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors. The University of Illinois center that Will cited has now said it doesn't agree with his conclusion, but earlier this year it put out a statement that was among several sources for this column and that notes in part that "Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979."

Best wishes,

Andy Alexander

Washington Post Ombudsman