It’s not the pitch itself that makes this newsworthy.

Nor are the “pitchees” here what deserves comment. Reporters get pitches all the time. Daily, hourly even.

Pitches are, after all, a reporter’s bread and butter, notwithstanding their complaints about getting so many of them. So keep them coming, they’ll acknowledge, and expect reporters to keep fussing about them … and to separate the voluminous chaff from the sparse wheat on their own.

What’s newsworthy here is the pitcher. It’s not every day, after all, that Chicago Tribune environmental and science/medicine reporters get a story pitch from the business editor of the cross-town rival Sun-Times. Nor for that matter that the same editor sends the same pitch to some 200 other reporters nationwide.

News Analysis

It’s pretty unusual stuff.

“Wow!,” Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger wrote in his “SciGuy” blog. “As a journalist, I can say the last person I would expect to receive such a package from is another journalist.”

But that’s what happened. Chicago Sun-Times Business Editor Dan Miller sent about 200 journalism colleagues a “Dear [name here]” form letter pointing to climate change as “one of the most controversial issues journalists have to address.” Enclosing a package put together and funded by a free-market activist group, the Heartland Institute, Miller wrote, “I urge you to keep an open mind on this important topic.”

Background on the Heartland/Miller Mailing

Under a “Dan Miller, Business Editor, Chicago Sun-Times” letterhead, Miller provided DVDs of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and of the British TV piece “The Great Global Warming Swindle.” His cover letter suggested that reporters receiving the mailing watch both and then pass them on to “friends and colleagues.” Heartland, a vocal foe of the so-called “consensus” science and of action on controlling greenhouse gases, paid for the package, the postage, and the handling.

Miller noted that Gore’s movie had won an Academy Award but did not mention that Gore just a week earlier had been named, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He said the “Swindle” TV piece was produced by a “respected” film maker and aired on British TV.

With some saying “the debate is over” on climate change, Miller wrote, “we hear a chorus of dissent from scientists and economists, many of them quite distinguished, saying the debate has only begun.” (He elaborated in a phone interview that he did not mean to imply that some “distinguished” scientists and economists are saying the debate over the economics of climate change impacts and management is over, nor that scientists say all of the scientific uncertainties are settled. Miller said he was referring specifically to questions about whether the Earth is warming and whether humans are substantially responsible for that warming. He said in the phone interview that he could not name specific “distinguished scientists and economists” he was referring to but that there are many.)

Miller did not mention in his letter to reporters that he had worked at Heartland in 1998 and 1999 before joining the Sun-Times or that he remains personally close to Heartland President Joseph Bast. Miller described Heartland not as an interest group on the climate change issue but as “a 23-year-old national nonprofit organization based in Chicago.”

He wrote that Bast had told him “no corporate funds were used to purchase or package these DVDs, in case that matters to you. [Emphasis added.] I think it speaks highly of an organization that it is willing to present both sides of an issue.” Asked in the December 12 phone interview if he thinks journalists should be interested in who funds such an effort, Miller said “Not really.”

Asked why he undertook the Heartland mailing, Miller pointed to the then-upcoming Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony for Gore and the U.N. Bali climate talks. He said he was not paid or compensated for his involvement with the mailing.

In September 1998, Miller had written as a Heartland employee that he had taken the position of publisher of its periodicals, including its “Environment News.” Now named “Environment & Climate News,” the newsletter advocates what Heartland calls “common-sense environmentalism” and, like the Heartland web site, it is extremely skeptical of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and many climate scientists now consider “settled” science on climate change.

Tribune Media Columnist Reacts

On getting the Miller letters, Tribune media columnist Phil Rosenthal wrote that Miller “apparently believes this paper doesn’t have enough editors to guide its staff.” He quoted Tom Swiss, Heartland’s public affairs director, as defending the distribution of the Gore movie – “the alarmist or kind of an extreme example” – and the British “Swindle” broadcast.

“The idea is there’s a lot of hyperbole surrounding this and we want people to make an educated choice,” Swiss told Rosenthal. “If it came from just ourselves, it would look like an advertisement and just get lost …. A letter from someone in their industry makes it stand out.”

In his column, the Tribune‘s Rosenthal quoted Poynter Institute ethics scholar Bob Steele as saying, “When we become activists, we at least raise the perception that we are not independent. And if we are activists in the way it appears [Miller] is, then it’s more than just a perception.”

According to Steele, in the Tribune column, Miller “is actively urging a particular examination, and I would suggest a point of view, on a substantive public policy issue. He’s also pitching it in a problematic way to other journalists, using his journalistic connections in doing so.” Steele said the mailing “raises serious ethical concerns.”

Miller’s, Heartland’s Take on the Mailing

Miller clearly disagrees. In the phone interview with The Yale Forum, Miller defended the mailing and his role in it. He said he sees nothing wrong with asking reporters to keep an “open mind” on an important issue. He said his mailing generated about a half-dozen responses to him directly from reporters he had sent the package to, only one of them critical (from a Detroit Free Press reporter, see below).

Asked if he would again do such a mailing, Miller said he next time would send such materials not to beat reporters, but rather to columnists, “who would be much more likely to take an analytical and in-depth look at the two DVDs.” Miller said there has been no mention of the mailing in his own newspaper or on its blogs, and he said he knows of no management dissatisfaction with his having done it.

Heartland’s Bast also was having none of it.

In a “From the desk of …” memo, Bast referred to Rosenthal’s “highly unprofessional column” and labeled the widely recognized Steele a “self-described ‘ethics scholar.’”

“All Dan Miller did” was send the Gore and the Martin Durkin DVDs to “some of his journalist colleagues,” Bast objected. He said the combined DVD set “fairly represents both sides of the debate and encourages viewers to make up their own minds.”

Identifying Miller as a Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame honoree “widely known for his rock-solid integrity and character,” he suggested that any violation of journalism ethics would lie with Poynter’s Steele and with the Tribune “for not spiking a potentially libelous story.”

Bast encouraged people to contact Rosenthal and Steele by e-mail and “let them know what you think.” According to Rosenthal, that request generated a dozen or so e-mails to him.

Tribune editors rejected Bast’s request that they retract the Rosenthal column, so Bast wrote a letter to the editor. Published November 29, Bast’s letter said Rosenthal had “stooped low to attack” Miller, whom Bast praised lavishly.

“Miller’s cover letter was a model of neutrality and professionalism,” he said, quoting extensively from it. Bast said he had discussed the issue with Poynter’s Steele and had asked “Can it really be unethical for one journalist to ask another to keep an open mind?”

“‘Yes,’ he replied.

“You can’t possibly be serious, I said. But he was.”

Bast in mid-December followed-up with a note to Heartland backers and planned a website posting he titled “Is ‘Journalistic Ethics’ an Oxymoron?” Criticizing reporters who found the Heartland/Miller mailing inappropriate, he called the situation “one of the saddest things I’ve observed in 23 years as the head of a ‘think tank.’” He repeated points made in his letter to the Tribune and invoked the Founding Fathers in decrying journalists who find the mailing questionable. His mailing asked Heartland backers to “share your thoughts with some of the journalists who have attacked Miller” and provided their e-mail addresses.

Mainstream Reporters Express Criticisms

Steele has company among working reporters in questioning the Heartland/Miller letters.

Jeremy Manier, a Tribune science and medical reporter who received the early November mailing, said in an e-mail that he was most troubled by the Heartland public relations staffer’s comment that “If it came from just ourselves, it would look like an advertisement and just get lost.”

“I think it can be a problem when a journalist lends his name and credibility to an outside group for that purpose,” Manier wrote.

“The whole pitch was quite odd, weighting the two [films] as being somehow equal,” Detroit Free Press environmental reporter Tina Lam said in a phone interview.

“Just the idea of a business editor sending this out to other newspaper people is so strange. It’s pretty obvious that Miller has a point of view, and to somehow think reporters could be persuaded …. Dan Miller is obviously on one side of this issue.”

Lam said she had been familiar with the British “Swindle” film and that she had found it widely criticized by responsible scientific interests.

Lam said she was frustrated that Miller’s letter contained no return address or contact information, although the mailing envelopes did contain his Sun-Times address. She said she would have considered returning the DVDs, acceptance of which she feared might violate Free Press rules against reporters accepting gifts.

“For me to keep those could violate my paper’s ethics policy,” said Lam, who also teaches press law and ethics at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Andy Revkin, who covers climate extensively for The New York Times was one of several Times reporters to get the Heartland/Miller mailing.

“It did not raise my respect for the source (who I don’t know),” Revkin said in response to an e-mail question. “If it was someone doing a story on contrarians and asking for reactions, that’s legitimate. But this was clearly framed as an advocacy ‘pitch’ akin to what I get from Edelman [public relations firm] or the like. That is not the role of any journalist, unless it’s someone writing in a column on an opinion page.”

St. Petersburg Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman wrote in his blog of Miller’s using “smoke and mirrors to question global warming” by providing content “dictated by a right-wing group called the Heartland Institute that has relentlessly questioned the existence of global warming.”

Pittman too was critical of the “Swindle” film, writing that it “has been promoted by oil companies and debunked by scientists.”

Pittman and the Chronicle‘s Berger, in their blogs, both speculated that such a letter-writing effort could lead to a newspaper’s taking disciplinary actions.

Berger concluded his blog by writing, “Oh, and I already have an open mind about global warming, think you very much. I’d love nothing more than for the whole thing to be proven a pile of rubbish. Now that would make for a great story.”

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...