I really wanted to get a post into last week’s newsletter regarding the George Will flap, but deadlines being what they are, it didn’t happen. Happily, the controversy continues to sputter along, so it’s not to late for me to get my word in. Or rather, it’s not too late for you to get your word in.
In a nutshell: recently George Will wrote a column packed full of stale lies about climate change. In the ensuing kerfuffle, the Washington Post ran a series of mealymouthed investigatory pieces in which they mainly talked about how great it was that Will had given us all the opportunity to have this interesting, exciting conversation.
Normally the way I deal with stuff like this is to beat my head against my desk for five minutes. But there is a more constructive outlet: write a letter.
How does letter-writing help? A few ways. Within a large organization, there exist interest groups — individuals, departments, whatever — who are already sympathetic to your point of view. And more likely than not the main obstacle these groups face is utter indifference. A well-written letter gives them some leverage to press their case.
Another way a good letter can help is to keep people on their toes the next time a similar situation arises. George Will is actually recycling a lot of similar lies that he’s passed along in previous columns. Presumably this will become more difficult for him and other Post columnists to do if enough people point out that newspapers generally shouldn’t be in the business of publishing things that aren’t true.
The main trick to crafting an effective letter is to keep in mind that an actual human being is reading what you write. Express cogent points in a respectful way. Angry rants or insults will provoke defensiveness, or just get you ignored. Imagine that you’re trying to convince your poorly informed, opinionated, but well-meaning uncle of what you’re saying. Make a real case.
Here’s my go at it, in real time:
> In response to the controversy over George Will’s repetition of long-debunked falsehoods about global warming, the Washington Post ombudsman writes: “Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute. But that’s where The Post could have helped, and can in the future.”
> Sadly, I am forced to conclude otherwise. The Post can’t foster thoughtful discourse when it reprints known falsehoods about basic scientific research. By now, you are no doubt well aware of the substantial errors of fact and inference contained in Will’s column. That these falsehoods made it through the Post’s “multi-layer editing process” raises fundamental concerns about that process, not about the state of climate change discourse.
> More broadly, the Post fails in its most basic mission when it prints these misstatements. Will is, of course, entitled to his opinion about the proper response to climate change. He is not entitled to use the pages of your newspaper to mislead the public.
> Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt has dismissed the controversy: “If you’re concerned that readers of The Washington Post don’t get a sense that most of the world thinks climate change is real, I think that’s a misplaced concern.” Unfortunately, it is Hiatt’s confidence in his readers that is misplaced. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that “forty-four percent (44%) of U.S. voters now say long-term planetary trends are the cause of global warming, compared to 41% who blame it on human activity.”
> Hiatt challenges us to debate George Will if we disagree with his conclusions. More likely, people will choose simply to ignore media outlets that have lost sight of their obligations to the truth. The Post could make some small headway toward repairing the damage done by printing a full correction of Will’s column and using more care in the future.
I’m not totally in love with this — it could be shorter and less shrill. But it gets the point across. I sent it here. Go write your own. It will take less time than it took to read this post.
Seriously. Go do it. Steal from mine, or write your own and then post it below for others to draw from.
**Update:** if you want more background info on the factual errors in Will’s column, the interwebs is your friend. See, for example:
* Center for American Progress (pdf)
* George Monbiot
* The Sierra Club
* Discover Magazine