Fact-Checking The Washington Post's Claims About Its Role in Unearthing the 2006 NASA Censorship Scandal

A report by the NASA inspector general released earlier this week acknowledged that political appointees in the NASA press office censored climate scientists from 2004 to 2006. That would have been interesting news... about two years ago. Yawn.

What caught my eye, though, were these claims in an article by The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin:

The probe came at the request of 14 senators after The Washington Post and other news outlets reported in 2006 that Bush administration officials had monitored and impeded communications between NASA climate scientists and reporters.

James E. Hansen, who directs NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and has campaigned publicly for more stringent limits on greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, told The Post and the New York Times in September 2006 that he had been censored by NASA press officers, and several other agency climate scientists reported similar experiences. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are two of the government's lead agencies on climate change issues.

(Emphasis added.)

The Washington Post has a nifty feature called "The Fact Checker", in which Michael Dobbs evaluates dubious statements made by various presidential candidates. At the end of each post, he scores the claim using "The Pinocchio Test" (explained here), rating the claims with anywhere from One Pinocchio for "Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods." to Four Pinocchios for "whoppers". Or, if the claims are completely factual, they are awarded "The Geppetto Checkmark".

Let's see how these claims from The Washington Post stack up.

The Facts

To Eilperin's (and The Post's) credit, she actually reported James Hansen's claims of censorship at NASA as early as 2005. However, the first in depth report of this censorship--outlining in detail the abuses by Bush Administration political appointees at NASA--came from Andrew Revkin of The New York Times on January 29, 2006. Most importantly, it was Revkin's article that sparked the outcry leading to various hearings, significant structural changes at NASA, and a general airing of the broad charges of political interference in science by the Bush Administration.

On that same day, Eilperin also had an article about global warming in The Post. Her article did mention the allegations of censorship, but they were buried deep in the article, and she did not go into near as much detail as Revkin. In fact, she wasn't any more detailed about this censorship than she was a year earlier. Whether Revkin and The Times were deliberately taking a bolder path here--or whether they just did more research--is unclear to me. Regardless, they certainly developed the story much more fully than Eilperin and The Post. As an illustration of this, just compare the two headlines. The Times: "Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him." The Post: "Debate on Climate Shifts to Issue of Irreparable Change."

Moving on to the second paragraph quoted above, I'm not sure what conversations were occurring in September 2006, but by that point this would have all been old news. By June 2006, even NASA had acknowledged that censorship had occurred. Could it be possible that this is a typo, and The Post means that these conversations occurred in September 2005? Possibly. More likely, Eilperin means January 2006, since she mentioned conversations with Hansen taking place then in an article about a related censorship scandal at NOAA, published on February 11, 2006. Either way, this is largely irrelevant, given that The Times was actually the first to lay out the full story.

The Pinocchio Test

I want to give Eilperin and The Post the benefit of the doubt here, given that their coverage of these scandals has in general not been bad. And, what looks like a mix-up of dates doesn't bother me too much. Eilperin's article never claims that she or The Post broke the big story alone. However, she does appear to be trying to piggyback on the accomplishments of others by implying that The Post was among a variety of outlets breaking this story, when it is really Revkin at The Times who deserves the largest share of the credit. Considering that there is some personal interest at stake here, I'm going to give Eilperin and The Washington Post Two Pinocchios for "Significant omissions and/or exaggerations."

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