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News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism
This item was posted on October 13, 2009, and it was categorized as Al Gore, Arctic sea ice, Climate Change, climate skeptics.
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That's me, asking Al Gore a question that he easily parried. (Photo: Anne Minard)

I was the second reporter in line to ask Al Gore a question at the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting in Madison, Wisconsin Friday. The first guy, Phelim McAleer, is a climate change skeptic best described as a Michael Moore of The Right, and he has touched off something of a cybercascade of patent silliness on conservative blogs and talk shows.

A rather ineffectual practitioner of political theater, McAleer got into a pointless, non-journalistic tiff with Gore over polar bears. His goal was clearly to catch some video of Gore in an embarrassing moment so he could include it in an ongoing documentary called “Not Evil, Just Wrong.” The entire episode has been raked over well in other blogs, including this excellent summary at the Columbia Journalism Review. So I’ll just quickly give you my perspective, since I played a small bit role in this Grade B drama.

Despite McAleer’s claims to the contrary , the SEJ gave him his chance to ask his “tough” question. It turned out to be a silly question of a kind that any politician could (and most certainly would) parry. McAleer asked Gore if he accepted a British High Court’s 2007 ruling that “An Inconvenient Truth” contained nine significant errors, and given that it has been shown to children, whether he accepted those errors.

With that, McAleer violated three guidelines for effective interviewing, showing that his interest wasn’t really in journalism.

  • The first guideline is to ask one question at a time. If you ask a two-part question, your source will more likely than not forget the first part and answer just the second. (Or he might answer the easier part of the question, escaping from the clever trap you thought you had set.)
  • The second guideline is that unless you specifically need a yes or no answer (say, to confirm a piece of information), it’s usually better to ask a more open ended question because it is more likely to elicit a revealing response. (It’s very easy for a source simply to say, “No,” and then point to the next questioner at the news conference.)
  • The third guideline is be succinct, and definitely do not make speeches. Well, in this case, McAleer didn’t quite make a speech. But close enough. rather than ask a follow up question he simply badgered Gore with a provably incorrect assertion, saying over and over again — without scientific merit — that polar bear populations are increasing. His implication was that global warming is bunk. Gore shot back, “You don’t think they’re endangered, do you?” So oddly enough, it was Gore who was asking the questions in this exchange, not McAleer.

McAleer claims the SEJ prevented him from “speaking truth to power.” And since then, the tiff has been touted by conservatives as evidence that environmental journalists are nothing more than liberal lapdogs who worship at Gore’s feet. But I was there, and what I saw was something of a clown making a scene and hogging the microphone from about a dozen other journalists who were waiting to ask their own tough questions. Including me.

What question did I ask? Well, Gore had said in his address that the cap-and-trade legislation currently wending its way through Congress was not what he would have written. So I asked him just what he would have written.

Of course he evaded it. I should have asked how he would improve the current legislation. In retrospect, I can see that this one would have been likelier to elicit a meaningful response. But that’s just it — I was interested in a meaningful response, not just political theater.

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This thing has 8 Comments

  1. Fiona
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    This isn’t to you personally but to all the environmental journalists that were at that meeting with Al Gore.

    The UK government is currently running a most revolting advert in an attempt to persuade AGW sceptics to change their mind about global warming. It won’t work. It won’t work for the same reason your attitude to McAleer v Gore won’t sway the public to your side.

    The advert is a lie. It sets out to shock and in doing so it descends into fiction. The public are already wondering where reality stops and fiction takes over and each time someone puts CO2 spin on a story we become a little more cynical. Eventually we will stop listening altogether. Do you want that?

    You have to start getting to the truth, the whole truth and the inconvenient truth. Even if that truth delays people from acting on CO2. Because lies, half lies and exaggerations get found out and then they make the rest of the science look crooked.

    Mr McAleer asked a very good question. Does Al Gore accept those errors in his movie and has he done anything to correct them? They’re huge. For every person who is swayed by watching it you get another who is furious to find out that some of the key facts are wrong. Winning them back is going to be really, really hard. Now if Al’s movie was fiction it doesn’t matter, nobody expects a correction to The Day After Tomorrow, but if it’s meant to show reality, it should be amended.

    What kind of journalists are you to let a POLITICIAN get away without answering important questions? Did he answer any tough questions? Or as I suspect, did you give him an easy ride because you believe in his cause? When journalists stop asking inconvenient questions or stop demanding the answers you become pointless. What’s a journalist with no impact? A blogger… a poor blogger.

    If you truly believe, that the science proves conclusively that man made CO2 is going to severely damage the planet, you will have to raise your game to convince the rest of us. Start portraying the science on both sides of the picture. Ask tough questions and demand answers from the scientists, the politicians, the celebs, the sceptics and even yourself. Stop sensationalising stories that don’t merit the drama. In other words, be a good journalist not a good fiction writer.

    As a start, here’s a tough question that I’d like answered – when are the glitterati of AGW going to start living the life they espouse? When are they going to cut their CO2 to the sorts of levels we would all have to adopt if AGW is genuine? 2 tons? Heck, I’d be satisfied of they matched my measly 4 tons. And don’t give me any trash about offsets. The sooner we ALL reduce our footprints the better (no?) and using your wealth to get by that limit is obscene. Time to take the lead and show us how it’s done!

  2. Posted October 14, 2009 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Fiona, let me offer a few brief responses:

    * I’m sorry, but McAleer did not ask a very good question. As I said in my post, he asked a silly yes or no question that any politician could wriggle out of with no difficulty. If he had been interested in substance instead of making a scene, he might have said something like this:

    “A judge in the UK has determined that there are nine errors in your documentary, an Inconvenient Truth. In one case, for example, you asserted that a rise in sea level of up to 20 feet from melting ice sheets could occur “in the near future”. The science is clear that this is a exaggeration. So what do you say to your critics who contend that exaggerations such as these undermine the case you have made for urgent action to curb greenhouse gas emissions?”

    As I tell my journalism students, a directed open-ended question like this one is more likely to elicit a meaningful response than a simple yes or no question.

    * But McAleer was not actually interested in getting a meaningful response. He was there to create political theater. That may be an appropriate role for a person like Michael Moore on the left, and Phelim McAleer on the right, but it most definitely is NOT the role of a journalist. And he had no business playing that role at a journalism conference.

    * You asked, “What kind of journalists are you to let a POLITICIAN get away without answering important questions?” I’m not exactly sure where you got the idea that members of the SEJ are not interested in getting politicians and others in positions of power to answer important questions. Have you ever been at an SEJ meeting? If not, how do you know for sure what goes on there? If your answer is that you saw it in McAleer’s Youtube video, or that you read all about us idiot environmental journalists in a blog, then I all I can do is encourage you to get out of the echo chamber. You might learn something interesting. (And if you are saying that I let Gore get away without answering an important question, I will thank you for thinking my question important, and simply add that I respected the ground rules of the Q&A session, as well as my dozen other colleagues who were waiting to ask their questions.)

    * My apologies if I am reading too much into your response, but there is an implication that you believe environmental journalists are all tree huggers and shills for environmental activists. If that is the case, then why did the SEJ host Marc Morano at its 2006 meeting? And why did we visit both with environmentalists critical of mountaintop removal and industry representatives alike? And why did a panel about environmental toxicology include a representative from the American Chemistry Council?

    * Lastly, I would like to quote my colleague Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review (find the full post here.):

    “As I reported from its 2007 meeting, this is an organization that has worked hard to uphold the distinction between environmental journalism and environmentalism, and I have watched its members produce countless instances of fair, impartial, and incisive reporting.

    “True, in this increasingly fractured media landscape, that kind of journalism is becoming endangered, so it is worth bearing some of McAleer’s concerns in mind. But his criticism of the Society of Environmental Journalists was self-serving and wrong.”

    To which I would like to add that it was nothing more than a stunt to promote his new movie. And there is absolutely no reason why ANY organization, liberal or conservative, activist or journalistic, should have to put up with that kind of nonsense.

  3. john
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Nice try. Gore would not answer the original question and it was Gore who changed the topic to polar bears. And, when Gore was quizzed on the topic HE brought up he couldn’t answer that question either. The problem is that McAleer is right, polar bears, supposedly a canary in the global warming mine shaft, are increasing in numbers. The court decision that Gore AVOIDED commenting on can be found here, http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2007/2288.html

  4. Posted October 14, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    John: That’s right, Gore evaded the question. You are absolutely correct. And that’s because McAleer asked an ineffective yes or no question. Don’t you agree that the question I proposed above (in my response to Fiona) would have produced a much more substantive response? But no matter. McAleer wasn’t interested in securing a substantive response. He was only interested in making a scene, capturing it on video, and drumming up publicity for his film — at our expense. So you will please forgive me for not thinking very highly of him.

    As for polar bears, no one can say with assurance whether their populations have risen, fallen, or stayed about the same since the 1960s or 1970s. Here’s why: The claim that their populations have increased is based on the assertion that 5,000 polar bears existed in the 1960s, and that more than 20,000 exist today. The truth is that the 5,000 number was never anything more than a WAG. (Scientific jargon for “wild-assed guess.”)

    Don’t take my word for it. My colleague Peter Dykstra actually did some reporting on this topic, including interviews with a number of experts actively engaged in polar bear research. If you’re interested, you can see what he learned here.

    With this issue, the truth is in the gray areas — which doesn’t make for very good political advocacy. And this is why I suspect activists on both side of the policy debate will ignore the complexity and say whatever they please to argue their case.

  5. john
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    No I’m sorry I don’t agree. There would have been no answer to your question either, just the same amount of spinning. If someone is not willing to give you a yes/no to a question as simple as the original then you know that they have no intention of giving you a straight answer. It’s not believable that Gore could possibly think that his “documentary” was in any way vindicated by the British court’s ruling, but every journalist in the room let him off.

    As far as the polar bears go, someone who has studied them very closely for the last 30 years says otherwise.

  6. john
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    One other question. Polar bears have been around for about 200,000 years, so just how did they manage to survive all the interglacial periods during this time frame, including the Holocene maximum, the warmest period of our current interglacial ?

  7. Fiona
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for replying.

    I didn’t say he asked the question in a good way and I’m fairly sure that Mr Gore would have avoided answering, no matter how it was couched. It doesn’t seem to matter to you (or many other journalists) that The Inconvenient Truth stands as one of the best known sales pitches to convince people of the importance of global warming and it doesn’t do a good job. But perhaps I’m wrong and you can point me to articles where you express concern about the inaccuracies? Perhaps you’re even a sceptic? No?

    You don’t seem to care that Mr Gore is a very poor choice for champion of a cause that will demand austerity and hardship. Are you more concerned with McAleer’s rudeness and poor technique or with the substance of his question? It shouldn’t be Mr McAleer or Mark Morano giving Al Gore a hard time, it should be YOU. It is not enough to just say you care about the environment, you have to start living like you mean it. You should be hammering the climatologists for their data, so that you can show that everything is accurate, open and honest. You should be castigating anyone who jumps on the AGW band wagon who doesn’t actually live like they believe it and that includes the scientists and the people at the IPCC.

    Was Mr McAleer there to make a fuss and get his movie noticed? Sure, why not? It’s not as if you were going to urge the public to go see it. However, it may be a poor documentary (I’ve not seen it) and I would not expect you to promote a bad movie Oopse, back to The Inconvenient Truth again, sorry.

    Do I think that you are all environmental activist shills and tree huggers? Nah, I think you’re like most committed people, too involved in your cause to see that you’ve stopped making progress in convincing doubters and have started creating enemies. No, I’m not talking about the oil company types, I mean the oil consumers, which includes just about everyone. The public aren’t totally stupid. We can see the gaping holes in the science. We can see that many of the proposed solutions are atrocious. We know that changing light bulbs and insulating the loft isn’t going to cut energy usage very far. We can even see the environment being damaged in clumsy attempts to save us all from CO2.

    I don’t see a lot of mainstream articles condemning the current state of AGW science and policy (unless it’s urging more of the same). Now maybe your organisation has been doing a lot to redress the balance? If you have, it’s not getting enough coverage. The lack of balanced reporting allows the sceptics to gain credibility and plant doubts.

    Why have I voiced an opinion? I’m a global warming agnostic, I don’t know what to think. I do know that if we have to make the CO2 cuts that AGW science demands then we all have to be on board. If you can’t see that the way the AGW community is presenting itself is counter productive, we really are in trouble.

    Please take a new look at environmental journalism and ask yourself some hard questions.

    1) Are we giving a truly balanced picture of the science or are we letting our concerns for the planet bias our reporting? Is the bias showing?

    2) Do we know enough science and math to be asking tough questions and understanding the answers?

    3) Do we really understand what we are asking of the public?

    4) Do we live like we believe it and do we understand how our lives will change if we fully adopt CO2 cutting measures? This is a good question to ask a journalist because it is one profession that would change beyond recognition. eg The meeting with Mr Gore could have easily been done by webinar, think how much easier it would have been to cut off Mr McAleer ;-) Journalism may even disappear to be replaced by millions of mobile phone users, tweeters and bloggers. Hmm, better make sure you offer something superior.

    Or don’t bother and resign yourself to a warming planet.

  8. Posted October 14, 2009 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Fiona: Thank you so much for taking the time to respond in such detail. I appreciate it. At the moment I don’t have time to respond at equal length (it’s family time here in Niwot, Colorado), but let me just say a few things.

    First, I don’t believe that most journalists I know who cover this issue here in the United States see it as a “cause.” You may think me disingenuous, or naive, but I sincerely believe that most of the journalists I know are doing the best that they can to evaluate the evidence and report on it accurately. In fact, my dear friend Andy Revkin has been bitterly attacked — and even called “evil” by one climate scientist — for covering the nuances, the uncertainties, and the shades of gray of this issue. I think he, and many other journalists, struggle to get the story right. The fact that they are frequently excoriated by people on both sides of the policy debate suggests that they are not taking sides.

    Second, I am not a skeptic. For the record, here are my personal beliefs: I believe the balance of the evidence suggests that the risk of very significant impacts from unrestrained emissions of carbon dioxide is quite high. But I also am not naive: Reducing those risks will not come cheap, as some activists like Joe Romm suggest, and it will take many decades of sustained effort that will have to include major investments in new energy technologies. (That latter point, by the way, is one that many skeptics and climate activists could probably agree on.) But I also think that the looming ET era (Energy Technology) will reward those countries that embrace it as an economic opportunity. China is doing that. Alas, the United States has not been so sure — another sign perhaps of this country’s decline.

    Third, individual action to reduce our carbon footprints is all well and good, but the stark reality is that even if the United States shut off all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, and India and China kept growing and emitting at ever increasing rates, we’d still face significant risks from climate change. So while I try to do my best, I am under no illusion that if I forgo that one trip by airplane that it will really make any difference. (Actually, I don’t travel too much by aircraft anymore. I prefer to stick close to home to hang out with my family.) We need concerted, global action that includes much more effort on energy technology.

    Lastly, if you’re interested to read a more detailed take on Al Gore and journalists, see this CEJournal post from last spring. In it, I use a significant gaffe by Al Gore, and an absurd column by George Will, as a jumping off point to get into many of the issues you raise here. (And if you read nothing else of it, please make sure to check out the last few paragraphs.)

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