Peter Gleick, The Heartland Revelations and Situational Journalism

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Peter Gleick, renowned scientist, great guy, crappy journalist.

First, let me catch you up. On Valentine’s Day, there was a release of documents from the Heartland Institute documenting their budget and the status of their fund raising, as well as their strategy for protecting corporate interests in light of overwhelming evidence that Anthropogenic Global Warming and other climate change requires us to alter our global energy strategy. Heartland has been involved in science denialsm for some time. They are one of the groups that worked to deny evidence of the negative health effects of smoking, among other things. Heartland, a Libertarian “think” tank is a relatively small player in the overall climate discussion, and the documents indicate that the annual balance of their budget has been diminishing owing to reductions in contributions. Nonetheless, the documents painted a picture of systematic dishonesty. In particular, the documents seemed to indicate that Heartland was launching a bought and paid for effort to interfere with the teaching of good science in our K-12 educational system, replacing honest science with the willful misdirection we know of as science denialism.

One of the documents, a “strategy memo,” was, Sesame Street style, “Different from the others” and seemed not to belong. It was a photocopy or fax, while the others were word processor documents, it seemed to have been written in a different style, and had a different look and feel. This led Heartland-sympathizers to claim that it was faked.

Late yesterday, climate scientist Peter Gleick publicly took responsibly for the release of the documents. Peter is a well respected scientist and spokesperson, MacArthur award winner, and by all accounts an all-round nice guy. He had recently been invited to the board of the National Center for Science Education, and had already embarked on a renewed effort to fold climate science denialism into the broader and troubling movement of science denialims we have known of for years as Creationism.

In his piece in the Huffington Post, Peter told us that he had obtained the “strategy memo” and felt compelled to verify the startling contents of this document. He did so by requesting documents that were being distributed to Heartland board members from the Institute, and they complied by sending them to him. He indicated in his blog post that he had used a false identity to do this, but it is important to note that we know nothing about that identity as of this writing (I’ll get back to that in a moment).

One outcome of this revelation is that the outstanding questions about the authenticity of the strategy memo have now vaporized. It still could be a fake, but there is no specific reason to believe it is. The documents Peter obtained seem to authenticate it at several points.

As you might expect, science denialists and pro-industry shills are now crying foul. Somewhat less expected is that some science writers, bloggers and journalists seem quick to throw Peter under the bus, declaring that what he did was clearly unethical. The incident which served initially to expose the seemingly nefarious workings of an anti-science non-profit has now become a distraction in the important discussion of what we need to do to mitigate against the ill effects of our inefficient and thoughtless energy technology and concomitant policies.

In a recent tweet, Bora Zivkovic notes “… trying to figure out where Gleick fits in the media ecosystem, trying to clarify for myself (and others) his role, ethics.” And that is what I want to talk about for a moment.

Clearly there has been an evolution of the media ecosystem, and it is ongoing. In the old days, there were Journalists and then there was everyone else. Then the blogosphere was born. A couple of years back, I remember being rather annoyed at the prospect that bloggers would automatically be considered “journalists” because, well, we weren’t. Journalists were people who went to journalism school and learned journalism methods, ethics, strategies, and so on. I felt (and I still feel this is true in many cases) that “blogging” was not a thing in and of itself for most people who were blogging. Scientists could blog, but they were still scientists. Who blogged. If a journalist blogged, they were a journalist. Blogging. A cook could blog about recipes, but that did not make him or her a journalist, or even a blogger. And so on.

Underscoring this point was a key difference between scientists (who might be blogging or otherwise writing) and journalists, in how sources were handled. A journalist could use an unnamed source to make a point. A scientist would normally use citations or personal communications, identified. A journalist (according to many journalists that covered my own scientific work) would be wrong to run pre-published copy by a source (who is, say, a scientists whose work is being covered by the journalist) to check for accuracy. This was somehow a violation of journalistic rules, because the journalist is to be independent and is not to share information among sources prior to publication. A scientist writing about some scientific issue would normally cross check statements with the appropriate sources in order to get it all scientifically right. Overall, I saw the role, methods, and ethics of journalists as different from, and sometimes in conflict with, the role, methods and ethics of scientists. At some level, ethics are ethics, but at many other levels, ethics are agreed upon rules of conduct that make sense only in a certain well defined situation. A scientist making a claim by reference to “an unnamed source at a major research laboratory” would be doing something wrong. A journalist reporting a claim by “an unnamed source at a major research laboratory” is protecting a source and may well be doing a great job, as a journalist.

Having said all that, I agree with Bora’s overall theme (developed in much of his writing) that the media ecosystem is not what is used to be, and that it is changing in ways that are mostly positive. So, when Peter Gleick, scientist, starts writing blog posts at HuffPo or elsewhere, it is not at all clear that he is a scientist writing, or a scientist moonlighting as a journalist, or some new thing. Well, actually, it is clear: He is a new thing. But with novelty and evolution of a traditional system comes ambiguity.

Over the last several hours, I’ve had conversations with numerous well respected professional journalists about this, and I learned some interesting things. (Despite being a blogger, I did not osmotically absorb Journalism School!) We all know of famous journalists who obtained secret documents using various methods and in so doing revealed things that needed to be revealed, and thus changed history. From long before the Pentagon Papers through Wikileaks to the present, there have been many moments where someone doing either journalism or whistle-blowing, or something in between, caused the release of secrets that we are now glad to have been apprised of. Wasn’t Peter Gleick also such a laudable conduit of truth? That may well be, and I’m not going to judge him or what he did at this point of time. But it turns out to not be a very simple question to answer.

It turns out that among Journalists, it is not considered ethical to falsify an identity, especially a specific individual’s identity, or an identity of authority over a person who is being fooled, to obtain information. It is, however, considered valid and normal to be thought of as someone one is not. As I understand it, the difference can be exemplified in the following comparison.

Scenario A: The scene is a public lobby of Acme Corporation with a receptionist at a desk. Members of the Acme Board of Directors have been told to stop by at the receptionist desk and pick up the information packet for the upcoming board meeting. Mary Smith, board member, goes up to the receptionist and says “I’m board member Mary, please give me one of those packets” and the receptionist complies. Board member Joe does the same thing. Then, reporter Alice Stravinsky goes up to the receptionist and says “I’m board member Harry’s assistant, he’s in the coffee shop and wants me to bring him his packet for today’s meeting” and the receptionist complies. Reporter Alice absconds with the package and writes up a story about their content.

That was a violation of journalistic ethics. Alice is fired.

Scenario B: Same setting, same circumstances as Scenario A. However, in this case, reporter Alice is simply standing in line behind Mary and Joe. When Alice gets up to the reception desk, she simply puts out her hand, the receptionist figures she’s supposed to get a packet, and hands it to her. Alice takes the package back to the newsroom, writes up a revealing front page story on the nefarious activities of Acme Inc, and eventually gets a Pulitzer Prize for her excellent investigative reporting.

I’m sure many will have problems with this false set of scenarios, others will agree. The point is: If a reporter pretends to be someone she or he is not, that’s bad. If a person thinks the reporter is just some person and says something to the reporter quite innocently, or the reporter without falsifying an identity somehow comes to be in the possession of some document, that’s OK.

Peter Gleick may or may not have followed either of these two scenarios, but it may not matter for two reasons. The first reason, is that even though he blogs, Peter is not a journalist. It is not fair or reasonable to hold him to journalistic standards. As I noted above, journalistic standards are in part situational, and can differ from other perspectives. In addition to that, it is not necessarily fair or appropriate to decide that on Monday, the media ecosystem is evolving and it is not any longer true that the old school is the only school, but on Tuesday, decide that traditional journalistic rules apply as they always have even to people who are not journalist.

The second reason that while the comparison of methods for obtaining information is interesting, it may not apply in this case is the simple fact that Peter Gleick may have decided that falling on his sword for a greater good is what he had to do. Also, putting it a bit differently, he may have thought (as many have) that in an effort to release and publicize the inner workings of an institution that seems to be acting against the interest of all future generations, one does what one has to do. It may be the case that Peter was acting as an inspired and well meaning citizen, rushing past the fire fighters to put out the grease fire, but doing it wrong, because he didn’t know the rules and proscriptions.

We are also seeing, as this drama unfolds, two other Internet-exacerbated phenomena. We are seeing the Watch the Monkey strategy taking hold, both before and after Peter’s revelation, and we are seeing in commentary about Peter’s activities, the Damning and Execution effect.

The first of these is obvious. We have developed, as a species, a technology for doing much of what we do that has the unintended consequence of changing the way the planet’s climate system works. Another outcome of that technology is the rise of a well embedded class of one-percenters who are convinced that they will remain comfortable and in power only if we don’t change that technology, and they have employed all manner of strategy to derail the scientific and political discussion of climate change and energy policy. One method that is used to good (meaning bad) effect is to develop any available means to distract the discussion away from good science and thoughtful policy. It is Johnnie Cochran all over again.

The second and somewhat more disturbing pattern is the all too common human tendency to push our way in the front of the line to throw rotten tomatoes, or worse, stones, at anyone we see as having made a mistake. The reason we have a criminal justice system, and a civil law system, is to thwart this tendency. We have all heard of the not-too-apocryphal societies with vengeance systems. You do something bad to me, so I get to kill you (or a relative). When human reactions are allowed to transform unchecked into social action, hands are cut off for stealing loaves of bread and women who are found in the company of men to whom they are not married are executed. All crimes lead to the maximum punishment. In civilized society, we have learned to mete out punishment in proportion to the crime, and in some cases, maybe a bit less so, to err on the side of reason. But in the blogosphere there is no such regulation of our instincts. If you say or do something wrong you are pounced upon and vilified. Peter is to be vilified for his efforts, no matter what the exact methods he used and no matter what is reasons were. Indeed, we have come to equate as though it was really true appearance with reality when it comes to possible impropriety. This is wrong. Fortunately, it is also often short lived. By next week or next month, the realities of Heartland’s anti-science and anti-education strategies will be an enduring truth while the vilification of specific actors in this drama will have lost its impetus and unsavory luster.

My respect for Peter Gleick is unmoved. He is a great scientist, an excellent communicator, a brave guy and a crappy journalist. Oh well.

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41 thoughts on “Peter Gleick, The Heartland Revelations and Situational Journalism

  1. It’s not so obvious to me who is or is not engaging in journalism. I wasn’t clear about what your test was, just that it was hard to say. If you want to protect a source here, I would defend that.
    If I had a clear answer, I’d give it.

  2. Wow, Greg. While I support efforts to expose week arguments by climate change deniers, I do not support the use of fraud in those efforts.

    Your attempt to locate an ethical defence for Mr. Gleick strike as grasping and desperate. He is not a journalist. Even if he was, his actions did not comport with the ethical standards of good journalism.

    Without ethical behaviour in pursuit of ethical goals, mistrust and cynicism erode the underpinnings of civil discourse. The ends, I’m afraid, did not justify the means.

  3. Mark, you have explicitly stated that this was fraud. Is there something you know that I don’t know?

    My post is not an ethical defense of Dr. Gleick. You might have noticed the part where I said he is not a journalist.

    I really would appreciate it if you would direct your comments on a particular blog post to the contents of that blog post. Or did you just read the title? Seriously.

  4. Greg –

    I don’t think your pair of “Alice” examples accurately capture the journalistic norms of the many communities I’ve worked in over three decades as a journalist in the United States. I don’t consider it “valid and normal” to do what Alice did in the second case. I don’t work for the New York Times, but their ethics policy nicely captures the norm:

    “Staff members and others on assignment for us should disclose their identity to people they cover, though they need not always announce their occupation when seeking information normally available to the public. Those working for us as journalists may not pose as anyone they are not – for example, police officers or lawyers.”

    In your case, the packet of documents Alice picked up wouldn’t meet the test of “normally available to the public.” It’s only available to those who the receptionist believes to be members of the board heading into the meeting.

  5. Do note that I put the reporter in a line of people lined up at a public location in a public space.

    Regarding your last sentence: Supposedly, but that assumes that the underlying reason for the ethic dictates the ethic. In journalism, it does not in many cases.

    As I said in the post, some will agree and some will disagree. The scenario I provide here matches that given to me by highly reputable and experienced reporters. The point here is not go give a clear cut textbook case of how to do it. It is to point out activities at the margin.

    Remembering, again, that Peter is not a trained Journalist, at least as far as I know. I am somewhat annoyed that some actual journalists are out there claiming that he is. I could be wrong about that but I’m pretty sure he didn’t go to journalism school, and as I say in the post, I question the validity of adding the “journalist” able to people who are not trained in journalism.

    Also, my point is meant to be broader than this case. As I say in the post, I do not know the circumstances of Peter’s actual activity. I’m not saying what he did nor did not do.

    I do agree with you that this is tricky, but perhaps we don’t agree with what ” they need not always announce their occupation when seeking information normally available to the public” means. I’m quite certain real journalists bend their rules now and then. At least, that’s what I hear, but I’m not giving a source!

  6. I’ll leave the question of the strategy memo’s authenticity at this: it’s extremely dubious.

    As for Gleick’s behavior, it was, as he has already admitted, unequivocally unethical. Pointing out that “he’s not a journalist” is as about as much of a defense as pointing out that Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t a chef. Gleick didn’t just lie to obtain the documents — which would be bad enough — he committed identity theft. He assumed the identity of a living, breathing person who might have suffered serious professional harm if Gleick hadn’t been discovered so easily. That’s not even a question of journalistic ethics, that’s a question of ethics ethics.

    Climate scientists have the evidence on their side, they don’t need to stoop to subterfuge. Just talk about the evidence! Please. Thank you.

  7. Greg – I don’t think the resolution of the Alice case has much bearing on the larger arguments here, and it’s probably not worth an extended discussion. But in watching the debate unfold over the last 12 hours, I have been frustrated by the way journalistic norms have been characterized. I’ve been a working newspaper reporter in the United States for 30 years, and I can unequivocally state that your second Alice example falls outside the norms of the communities I’ve been a part of. It’s not a close call. Count me as one (I hope) “highly reputable and experienced reporter” who would have answered very differently if you had asked me about my profession’s norms.

  8. John, it may well be the case. I tried to craft it to be on the line, and I still think it is.

    This post is doing a lot of different kinds of work. I’m not claiming here, and this should be clear, anything at all about Peter’s act, it’s validity, ethics, or anything. One reason I’m not making a claim is that, unlike some commenters, I do not in fact know what happened. For all I know, Peter impersonated the Chairman of the Board. For all I know, he wrote an email from a fictional made up name that said “Oh, please send the latest board meeting package to me.” It is not possible to distinguish from his post on this, and the difference in those two things is immense. And, I am told, that something like the latter may not exactly be beyond the pale, while the former would be.

    (Also, pardon me if I’m a bit cynical about journalism and it’s ethics. The term “situational” in the title of this post is a not so subtle dig)

    Having said that it may be the case that Peter acted in what would be considered journalistically an unethical way. Well, he’s not a journalist. And I’ve made the point here (so far unchallenged) that it is not possible to make the a priori argument that Ethic X in journalism is something that makes sense to extend to other professions. As a scientist, if I followed certain journalistic ethics, I’d be unethical, and visa versa.

    Finally, having said THAT, it is quite possible that Peter did something that everyone would regard as unethical, that he knew was unethical, and that he did anyway. Maybe he felt he needed to do it. Maybe Peter is the Bradley Manning of climate change (scaled way down). Maybe he’s falling on his sword.

    1. Greg – As I said, I don’t think your Alice example has much bearing on the Gleick case, given a) that Gleick seems to have acknowledged behavior that seems to match your first Alice example, and b) I agree when you say “that it is not possible to make the a priori argument that Ethic X in journalism is something that makes sense to extend to other professions.” I don’t expect Gleick to be judged by the norms of my profession.

      But I do expect a discussion of the underlying question to accurately characterize the norms of my profession, and I don’t think you have.

  9. Gleick as much as admits he posed as a member of the HI (which would be an actual person, yes, even if for understandable reasons no one has reported the specific name):

    “Given the potential impact however, I attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document. In an effort to do so, and in a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else’s name.

    The HI institute goes into more detail:

    The stolen documents were obtained by an unknown person who fraudulently assumed the identity of a Heartland board member and persuaded a staff member here to “re-send” board materials to a new email address.”

    I don’t see Gleick contesting their allegation.

  10. My point is that, yeah, I could possibly know that he committed identity theft because he already admitted to it. Wow.

  11. You’re awfully patronizing for a guy who won’t even respond to plainly factual statements, Laden. I won’t say you’re the one wearing blinders, though. I think you just shut down whatever part of your brain you use for skepticism when your eyes encounter a contradictory fact. Good luck with that.

  12. Are people really so upset that an organization whose job it is to peddle lies and misinformation was lied to?

    Climate change deniers have spent the last decade impugning the motives and competence of working scientists, throwing around accusations and conspiracy theories, and generally doing everything in their power to make it hard to be a climate scientist, but when someone fibs in order to confirm the accuracy of actual evidence that these people know they’re full of shit, it prompts deep ethical discussion?

    Peter Gleick popped one shot off at the guys who have been lobbing grenades his way for years. And now the deniers have us chasing our tails in worry about the ethics of it, so we won’t notice Gleick actually hit his target.

  13. There’s two different questions here — the ethics (sketchy) and the validity of the documents (not so much). This isn’t a courtroom proceeding; fundamentally it’s a scientific question. Please don’t conflate them.

  14. Cmon, first, again, and for the last time, this post is not about the correctness or lack thereof of what Peter did or did not do. Please do scroll up and read it before you comment first.

    However, you do keep insisting that you know what happened, and you adduce as evidence the statement from an organization that is paying someone to lie to students in K-12 classrooms. As I said, it may well be that Peter claimed to be the Chairman of the Board. But his statement is not clear on that and Heartland’s statement is irrelevant.

    Itzac, I know, really!

    BrianX, those are two issues at hand generally, but those are not the issues I addressed in the post.

  15. Is the data true or not, if real then act on it. if not what is heartland squalking about.
    I don’t remember this much concern when the Ipcc emails were stolen, then misrepresented

  16. I see your point, blogging has meant the whole world can voice an opinion but if a journalist made an ethical mistake then they would be punished, so if that’s the case do you feel Gleick should? Journalists are faced with ethical dilemas everyday, if everyone was to follow Gleick’s path then we would have nothing but Murdoch style journalism and who wants that?
    I agree that the information obtained was of public interest but then where do you draw the line at obtaining this information? Is it okay to tap peoples phones?, hack peoples computers?, falsify your identity? What Gleick doesn’t realise is that these kind of actions will only place further restrictions on ‘real’ journalists trying to their job. Granted the information he uncovered was interesting, its certainly caused a media storm but now the attention will be taken away from the evidence itself as yet again ethics and journalism become the focus.

  17. Apparently ethics are something that simply pop out of the mist the moment the Good Guys have an advantage, and disappear just as quickly.

  18. I said this over at Greg’s other blog, but I think it was ethically justified. He had credible evidence of a conspiracy to commit child abuse (teaching lies as facts to children) by an organization that had done so in the past (downplaying second hand smoke effects on children).

    It isn’t a close call to me. You conspire to abuse children, and you lose your right to privacy.

  19. Are people really so upset that an organization whose job it is to peddle lies and misinformation was lied to?

    Yeah, it’s kinda like the Saturday Morning Cartoons where we’re assured that taking a genocidal lunatic out of the world is JUST LIKE being a genocidal lunatic yourself. (Do they still literally use the phrase “if you kill him you’ll be no better than him?”)

  20. Somewhat less expected is that some science writers, bloggers and journalists seem quick to throw Peter under the bus, declaring that what he did was clearly unethical.

    Social dynamics of bullying. The bullied are not supposed to hit back, and when they do, their behaviour elicits far more criticism than the behaviour of the bullies they are hitting back against, even (sometimes especially) from other victims. It’s basic primate politics.

  21. Greg,
    I agree with you. These Heartland scumbags don’t deserve ethical treatment. I can understand how someone in Peter Gleick’s position would become frustrated enough to take extreme measures. These deniers do everything they can to discredit scientific work. I know how pissed I’d be if some asshole was lying in public about my life’s work that I spent years developing.
    This is not just a policy disagreement about income taxes. Continued inaction could prove disasterous for millions of people. And these rich fucks are doing nothing less than protecting themselves at the expense of the rest of us. Peter Gleick may well have taken one for the team. If so, he showed a hell of a lot more courage that these right-wing pricks who are managing to prevent us from doing anything before time runs out.

  22. Don’t get me wrong I think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, I don’t think a ‘Climategate’ film staring Robert Redford as Gleick is to hit our movie screens any time soon! I just think that blog after blog, paper after paper is now talking about this very, ‘ethical’ debate rather than climate change itself. There is more discussion about Gleick being a hero or a villain over any discussions surrounding Climate Change.

    Gleick isn’t a journalist, he’s a scientist, here is where the problem arises. Scientists are renowned for being logical, transparent and rigorous. So if a tabloid journalist uncovered this story we would now be discussing Climate change and not the journalist and their actions.

    I read an article a few back that discussed how our arrogance towards Climate change is one we must change:

    Personally I’d have a fully bearded Joaquin Phoneix playing Gleick but hey-ho!

  23. I just listened to a live radio interview with Joe Bast. He directly and overtly stated that Peter Gleick created a near identical email address to that of one of its board members, and then began collecting board documentation over a 2 week period.

    He also directly stated that the Gleick or a colleague forged the critical path “strategy memo” after illegally obtaining all of the board documentation data. Mr. Bast stated his opinion that the forged memo was created following the realization by Gleick that there was no smoking gun data or documentation in what he illegally obtained by fraud.

    Your scenarios “A” and “B” aren’t even quality ancillary scenarios, much less being quality direct illustrations. Your “Scenario A” should have been an investigative journalist working with an inside corporate source, and as a result of obtaining data, wins a Pulitzer. Your “Scenario B” should be what Gleick did…a journalist fakes a deceptively similar email address to a corporate insider, claims to be a corporate insider, requests documentation as a corporate insider, and as a result of NOT finding any damning information, causes a ridiculous forgery to be propounded as an authentic corporate document.

    Gleick is a criminal, and I hope he gets prosecuted for corporate espionage.

    Way to go in trying to coin new vernacular – “science denialism”, and bringing christians, as well as other subscribers to the belief in intelligent design (“creationists”) into the mix. One can never prove nor deny by scientific method an evolutionary origin of species. This is also true for the theories of the origin of the universe. Just give it a rest and stick to your topic of the day.

  24. You know what Greg, that’s a simpleton’s caricature of my comments. I don’t care about sounding correct when I speak, nor about cleverly writing such that I influence opinions by it.

    Your comment back to me is nothing more than an indicment of what you wrote. Look again at the comments you incited from “daedalus2u” and “Rich S”. You’re obviously checking responses to your article; how can you legitimately believe that those comments do not deserve a moderating reply?…yet, mine do?

  25. Anthony, first you make a specific claim that a colleagueof mine is lying, and the basis of your claim is that someone else, who has strong and opposing interests in this dispute, said so very strongly. Now, you are giving me a reading assignment.

    You are dismissed.

  26. Just a bit of disclosure — while technical not one right now, I am a trained professional journalist, with a degree in the art, and was for several decades a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. I’ve written some minor award-winning stories way back in the past. I’ve been intimately involved in the securing and leaking of documents to keep identities of informants unknown, and while staffing Congress, I worked closely with Senate investigators in several areas producing what I consider great public service.

    The first rule of journalism, really, is “be accurate.” Joseph Pulitzer once, or a thousand times, said famously, “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!” The second rule of journalism is “get the story.”

    There are other rules. There are ethical considerations, though nothing quite so involved as the legal professional canons lawyers deal with. That is not to say journalists are any less ethical.

    Gleick was accurate, and he got the story.

    If a rule of journalism were “be sure you don’t tick anyone off,” I’d say he failed.

    Just sayin’, I’m not sure “crappy journalist” applies, or is accurate.

    Nice write up, though, with lots of explanation. Thanks.

  27. Climate change is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years. It may be a change in average weather conditions, or in the distribution of weather around the average conditions (i.e., more or fewer extreme weather events). Climate change is caused by factors that include oceanic processes (such as oceanic circulation), biotic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, plate tectonics and volcanic eruptions, and human-induced alterations of the natural world.*

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