Editorials are supposed to convey the opinions of a publication’s editorial board.
But they aren't supposed to distort the facts and mislead the public.
Anybody who has read the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal knows the newspaper's opinions on the environment and climate change. Sometimes the nation’s biggest -- and perhaps most influential -- newspaper reads like a house organ for the fossil fuel industry and other big polluters.
An interesting new study by the media watchdog group MediaMatters shows this is nothing new.
MediaMatters researchers looked at 40 years of editorial coverage in the Journal on issues such as the ozone layer, acid rain and climate change.
Here's their conclusion: When it comes to the environment, the Journal has consistently distorted or ignored the facts.
Back in the 1970s, MediaMatters reminds us, the Journal editorial pages tried to convince us that scientific research showing that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were damaging our ozone layer was "only a theory." Journal opinion writers also tried to tell us that efforts to reduce CFCs were about politics, not science, and that doing anything about it would be too costly for our country.
Back in the 1980s, MediaMatters found, the Journal's editorials would lead you to believe that there wasn't a connection between acid rain and the sulfur dioxide emissions that come from burning coal. Journal opinion writers tried to tell us the issue of acid raid was about politics, not science, and that doing anything about it would be too costly for our country.
The Journal uses the same types of arguments with climate change today. Even though 97 percent of climate scientists today agree that human activity is causing global warming, the Journal's editorial pages would have you believe that the science is unclear, that climate change is about politics, and that doing anything about it would be too costly for our country.
Remember: the nation’s actions on acid rain and ozone depletion are resounding successes that have improved our environment, our health and our way of life. But if lawmakers had listened to the Journal, protections from acid rain and CFCs would have never happened.
By parroting the talking points of the fossil fuel industry and other big polluters, the Journal’s opinion writers remind us of the people who told us cigarette smoking wasn’t really bad for our health, or that installing seat belts in our cars was an assault on our freedom that would bankrupt the auto industry.
I spent more than 20 years in daily journalism. I know editorials are opinion. But there’s a difference in opinion and fact. And when you run one the most influential publications in the country, you have a responsibility to write the truth and convey the facts - not just spin them or ignore them to support your opinion.
Some of the nation’s respected journalists and journalism professors agree, according to interviews included in a blog by MediaMatters' Joe Strupp.
"The Wall Street Journal editorials come across my desk and what I've seen has been, to put it mildly, disingenuous," Bill Allen, assistant professor of science journalism at the University of Missouri and a longtime environmental reporter for the St. Louis Dispatch, told MediaMatters.
Ellen Ruppel Shell, co-director of the Center for Science & Medical Journalism at Boston University says the Journal's pattern of skewing data to fit an opinion is not "responsible journalism,” according to Strupp’s blog.
And Dan Fagin, director of Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University told Media Matters that the Journal editorial page is "extremely selective" with environmental data.
Extremely selective. Not responsible. Disingenuous.
Vermont Royster, the legendary opinion editor of the Journal, would be turning in his grave if he heard such descriptions about the institution that he helped turn into one of the world’s most respected publications.
Royster once wrote that even though the nation’s founding fathers believed dearly in the freedom of the press, they “did not envision a press of very nearly unrestrained license.”
Let’s hope the Journal’s opinion editors remember that, and also remember they have a responsibility -- to readers, to the public, and to the truth.
Follow Bob Keefe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bkeefee2