BROOKE GLADSTONE: Among the issues that plague him, global warming is close to the top of the list. According to the 2001 National Academies of Science Report on Climate Change, quote, "Greenhouse gasses are accumulating in the earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities," and, it continues, "Global warming could well have serious adverse societal and ecological impacts by the end of this century." That's what most scientists think, but there are some scientists who think differently, and they're often cited to keep news reports balanced. Here's Larry Kudlow from CNBC's Kudlow & Company.
LARRY KUDLOW (tape): Insofar as your policy discussions with the president and others in the cabinet and so forth, where are we on the so-called science of global warming, because people are arguing, and there doesn't seem to be a unanimity of opinion in the scientific community, and…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We spoke to former Washington Post writer Ross Gelbspan when his book came out about global warming called Boiling Point. Like Rennie, he's not a fan of that kind of journalistic balance. In fact, he says that when covering extreme weather events, reporters ought to make explicit reference to global warming.
ROSS GELBSPAN: It's very similar to cigarettes and lung cancer. You can't attribute any one case of lung cancer to cigarette smoking, but epidemiologically, there's no question that smoking definitely contributes to lung cancer. So that if, in covering these extreme weather events, the press were to do a proper job, it would simply insert a line that says "Scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We've talked a lot on this program about how the journalistic convention that requires reporters to give equal weight to both sides, regardless of the evidence, can give the news consumer the impression that both sides are equally valid. Now, you make the same argument with regard to climate change, and you call this "stealing our reality." What do you mean?
ROSS GELBSPAN: In the very early 90s, when the science was still uncertain, that kind of reporting was appropriate. In 1995, this Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - and this includes more than 2,000 scientists from a hundred countries in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history - said global warming is definitely happening due to human activities. This is a fact. And yet, the press continues to treat the story as though there were two sides to it. Public relations specialists of big coal and big oil really have exploited the ethic of journalistic balance.
JOHN STOSSEL: I don't know what world he's living in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Stossel is an ABC news correspondent and a co-host of 20/20 who is a skeptic when it comes to the dangers posed by global warming.
JOHN STOSSEL: Big oil has [LAUGHS] persuaded reporters to talk about this as if there are two sides? All I hear is "It's absolutely true, and the polar bears are going to die and Antarctica is melting," and I also dispute his characterization of the way the 2,000 scientists are reported. The ones who talk and who are interviewed tend to be the ones who are the most alarmist, and they get the most coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that scientists are just another interest group, representing their benefactors, or is there a point at which a scientific consensus is something incontrovertible?
JOHN STOSSEL: Well, [LAUGHS] incontrovertible is a big word, but a scientific consensus is what I think reporters should go with, absolutely. But, what I've tried to point out in Give Me a Break is that, when I started reporting, I just took the scientists at their word. I didn't realize that, while they tend to believe in what they say, they're also subconsciously aware that they're not going to get another big grant, or they're not going to get interviewed by Good Morning America if they don't find a problem. And I routinely found scientists finding big problems, big worries from dioxin to pesticide residues when good scientists said, you know, it's not that risky.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you don't believe that there is an international scientific consensus that global warming poses a danger.
JOHN STOSSEL: Well, anything can pose "a danger." The question is how big a danger? Is it the crisis that I keep hearing about? And the scientists that I talk to say we don't know that that's true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The scientists that you talk to say that you don't know that's true, but the vast majority of scientists that have been convened on these international panels, who have won Nobel Prizes, believe that it is true - that global warming poses a serious danger and requires some action.
JOHN STOSSEL: The vast majority have agreed with that? I do not believe that is the case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't believe that is the case. The consensus seems to be clear. Why don't you believe it?
JOHN STOSSEL: Because scientists tell me that the people writing the alarmist reports do not reflect the majority of scientists who really understand it; that the way you characterize it is not the way I've heard good scientists characterize it; and that the idea and the tone of voice you use is very telling - it's saying "Yes, there's a crisis. How can you refute that? You're such a jerk."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] I'm sorry if my tone conveyed that. According to the scientists that you've spoken to, there is no immediate danger posed by global warming that requires action.
JOHN STOSSEL: Correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In December, you featured novelist Michael Crichton on 20/20, and you praised him for contradicting something most people believe and fear. You went on to say that environmental organizations are fomenting false fears in order to promote agendas and raise money. Why use a fiction writer to refute the scientific community?
JOHN STOSSEL: Because he's famous, and he's interesting, and he's smart, and he writes books that lots of people read, and I could interview the scientists for 20/20, but more people will pay attention when this particular smart fiction writer says it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Stossel is an ABC correspondent and co-host of 20/20. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a little box that hears everything you hear, and why life is better in Philadelphia, high speed internet connections for all. This is On the Media, from NPR.