Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Chicago Sun-Times business editor shills for denialists

A minor journalism scandal is brewing here in Chicago over the decision by Chicago Sun-Times editor Dan Miller to write a cover letter urging an "open mind" over global warming. The cover letter is part of a package sent out by right-wing "think" tank The Heartland Institute. (Hat tip to Inel for alerting me to this.)

Phil Rosenthal over at the Chicago Tribune saw some of his fellow reporters get the package and wrote about it first:
Chicago Sun-Times Business Editor Dan Miller apparently believes this paper doesn't have enough editors to guide its staff. Two Chicago Tribune reporters received a letter under his name urging them to "keep an open mind" on global warming.
Heartland Institute spokesman Tom Swiss was maybe a little too honest in explaining The Plan: "If it came from just ourselves, it would look like an advertisement and just get lost." And its not just reporters who are getting this package:
The letters went to others in the media, Swiss said. Others whom Swiss declined to name signed cover letters that accompanied packages for those in other fields.
What is it about denialists and their packages? If you get one of these, let me know.

Who is Miller and why would he do this? Rosenthal tells us all we need to know:
Miller, who oversaw Heartland publications in 1998 and 1999 before joining the Sun-Times, is friends with Heartland President and Chief Executive Joseph Bast.
Is he in trouble? Maybe:
Efforts to reach Miller by phone and e-mail for comment Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful. Sun-Times Editor in Chief Michael Cooke indicated Thursday that he did not know about the Heartland packages and wanted to talk to Miller, a 2006 Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame inductee.
Rosenthal quotes Poynter Institute for media studies ethics scholar Bob Steele:
Most news organizations discourage staffers from being activists, particularly on issues that touch on what they cover or edit, Steele said. "It would be exceptionally hard to argue that global warming doesn't fall somewhere in the sphere of business," he said. "At least based on the cards I see on the table, it raises serious ethical concerns."

Jon Coifman over at the National Resource Defense Council doesn't think Rosenthal went far enough:
Still not convinced that this is a deep breach of journalistic ethics?

Try replaying the same scenario, but substitute “Hillary Clinton” or “Rudy Giuliani” for “global warming.” If the business editor for a leading metropolitan daily had sent a letter nakedly encouraging fellow reporters to take a second look at one of the presidential candidates, he would fast be looking for a new job.

Here, he has done essentially the same thing by throwing himself into one of the most important political debates today.

(For comparison's sake, note that *former* ABC News correspondent Carole Simpson yesterday had to offer up her resignation from the journalism program at Emerson College for publicly endorsing Hilary Clinton for President.)

To be clear: It would have been perfectly legitimate for Miller to raise this sort of question in a column, under the cold hard light of day. Or to assign a reporter to a news story examining the issue.

But it is *not* OK for him to be using his name and that of the paper as part of a one-sided, behind-the-scenes sales pitch from an organization with an expressly unbalanced view of a critical public issue. (It wouldn’t be any more appropriate for him to stick his name on something from us, for the same reason.)

Heartland President Joseph Bast apparently didn't like Rosenthal's piece calling it "libelous" in an email sent to his list which was reprinted in the blog of one of the package's recipients, Houston Chronicle reporter Eric Berger. In a typical bullying tactic of denialists, he included the emails of Rosenthal and his interviewee Steele in the letter and encouraged his minions to "let them know what you think". I hope Rosenthal publishes some of those thoughtful, intelligent letters!

Update: St. Petersburg Times got the package and are unimpressed.

Update 2: Former reporter Richard Littlemore weighs in over at desmogblog. Read all the way to the end for his spot-on put down of Miller and lawyer-baiting of Heartland.