“Hoax” is a potent accusation, a four-letter grenade of a word.

In the public discussion of anthropogenic climate change, prominent conservatives such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and radio commentator Rush Limbaugh have used it to convey profound suspicion about the motives of those who say manmade global warming is happening and worthy of action.

Newsweek Aug 13 07 Cover

It was jarring, then, to glance at the cover of Newsweek‘s Aug. 13 edition. Against a blazingly red-orange sun, in white, was this declaration: “Global Warming Is A Hoax.*”

The asterisk was all-important, however, leading to smaller words that summed up the article by veteran and respected science writer Sharon Begley: “*Or so claim well-funded naysayers who still reject the overwhelming evidence of climate change. Inside the denial machine.”

Aug 31 07 Newsweek Cover Note

Begley rejoined Newsweek in March after five years writing The Wall Street Journal‘s “Science Journal” column. Her article, which included reporting by four other Newsweek staffers, was perhaps the most comprehensive and prominent examination of what the magazine labeled the “denial machine” yet in the mainstream media.

Another Mainstream Media Milestone?

As such, it was another important step in major news institutions’ recent movement away from a years-long tendency to cover the global warming story largely as a he said/she said scientific debate. (Remember Time‘s none-too-subtle cover headline on April 3, 2006, magazine’s “Be Worried. Be VERY Worried” promoting its special report on global warming?)

In focusing instead on the “well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry [that] has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change,” Newsweek drew a spirited response from readers, and sometimes-furious retorts also from figures in government, business, media and, of course, the blogosphere. Judging from their reactions, many evidently want the issue to remain framed as a debate about unsettled science, … and regardless of whether most climate scientists consider certain issues settled or not.

“In a real sense, this was not a science story,” Begley told the Yale Forum, “but a history.”

The article was intended, she said in a phone interview, as “a litany of facts and events,” with the current “weight of evidence” in climatology sprinkled throughout – an effort to explain why polls show many Americans still unwilling to accept, or support action against, manmade global warming, even after Hurricane Katrina, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” and a barrage of high-powered scientific findings.

The “denial machine,” after gearing up in the 1980s, is “continuing to shape both government policy and public opinion,” Begley wrote in her article. In an online chat with Newsweek readers, she added: “Today’s deniers – I’ll even call them by their preferred ‘skeptics’ – are arguably more pernicious, however, because as the scientific case has become stronger, they have gotten only shriller, more desperate, and more illogical.”

Critics of the article pulled no punches, either:

A “one-sided editorial, masquerading as a ‘news article,’” wrote sharp-tongued Marc Morano, an aide to Oklahoma Republican Inhofe who worked for Limbaugh in the 1990s. (Morano organized Inhofe’s attacks on prominent journalists’ climate reporting last year. He is well known as early disseminator, while working for the conservative Cybercast News Service, of swift boat veterans’ allegations against 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.)

A blogger for the National Association of Manufacturers lumped Newsweek with other “global-warming radicals,” specifically including NASA scientist James Hansen. The article was “driven by a leftist agenda,” charged a writer for the conservative American Spectator.

(On the liberal side, the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, FAIR, tepidly praised the article as “better late than never.”)

Fire from Below … Make that from Within

Some of those trashing Begley’s story used ammunition from what might seem an unlikely arsenal ñ a staff column published in Newsweek itself shortly after Begley’s cover story was published.

Prominent business and economics columnist Robert Samuelson, writing in the August 20-27 combined issue, said the article was “fundamentally misleading” because it focused on the “peripheral” actions of the “denial machine” instead of the intractability of man-made warming.

Having already declared (preemptively?) in the August 13 issue that Begley’s article was “not a piece of lefty cant,” Newsweek editor Jon Meacham wrote in the Aug. 20-27 edition that Samuelson’s column simply showed Newsweek “often resembles a family of smart people who sharply disagree.” He did reject some of Samuelson’s sweeping criticisms. In the September 3 issue, the magazine printed 14 letters on the Begley article out of more than 250 it received.

Sharon Begley
Newsweek‘s Sharon Begley

In the interview with the Yale Forum, the seemingly unflappable Begley said she was not surprised by the reaction to the story. “I know how high passions run on both sides.”

Much of the “torrent of reader mail” represented variations on one theme, she said: “You idiots are left-wing communists who want to redistribute wealth.” Few scientists contacted the magazine about the article, she said, observing that many tend to be “naive” about how to communicate with journalists.

In her online chat, one reader asked Begley how “the responsible media [can] best meet their ‘fairness/accuracy/balance’ responsibilities in dealing with climate change deniers.” She allowed that journalists “haven’t figured that out,” adding, “Me, I don’t do he said/she said, but delve into the arguments and see which has empirical merit. It’s not that hard.

So, does Begley then think journalists should adopt more of an interpretive or analytical approach in reporting on climate change and other scientific issues?

“It depends,” she said. “When you cover the history of the space program, you don’t quote the percentage of Americans who think the moon landings took place on a stage in Arizona.”

The he said/she said approach was less relevant to the “denial machine” story, basically an historical account, than it is to science stories per se, she added.

“It’s incumbent on science journalists to present the weight of evidence,” she said. As an illustration, she pointed to a story she co-wrote for the July 2 issue, which examined natural variability and increased solar output in explaining the 90-plus percent certainty expressed this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that most of the climate warming since 1950 was human-caused.

She said Samuelson’s sharp criticism surprised her only in that it essentially rehashed arguments in a column he had published several months earlier. “I could only infer that something about the cover story got him really riled up. Other than that, let a thousand flowers bloom.”

Looking ahead, Begley believes the “denial machine” and others critical of large-scale action against climate change will increasingly take a new tack ñ asserting that anthropogenic warming warrants adaptation, rather than preventive policies.

“‘Let’s accept that the world is warming’ – that’s where the argument is going,” she said. “I don’t dismiss that reaction. That’s a debate societies need to have.”

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer...