The New York Times is making quite a meal of the WikiLeaks documents.
As others have observed, they refused to print Climategate emails involving senior IPCC Lead Authors, Coordinating Lead Authors. While their hypocrisy on this score was rightly criticized last year, it is being revisited this year in light of WikiLeaks. And rightly so.
While criticism has focused on Andy Revkin – for whom, as CA readers know, I have considerable personal respect, attention should really be directed to the policies of the New York Times itself, as articulated by editor Clarke Hoyt on Dec 6, 2009 last year.
Andrew Revkin of the New York Times was one of the first reporters to cover Climategate, with his first story on the matter only a few hours after realclimate’s blog post (both on Nov 20.) His story entitled Private climate conversations on display, in which he stated:
The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won’t be posted here.
Given the New York Times’ past history, Revkin was sharply criticized in many quarters for this position. [Update 5.50 pm : Revkin observes that, notwithstanding this statement, he did include a link to the emails in his post and did subsequently discuss the contents of some emails.]
My more serious concern is with the position taken by the New York Times itself on December 6, 2009, over two weeks later after some initial questions had been cleared up, as stated by Clarke Hoyt, the “public” editor of the New York Times, who considered the apparent hypocrisy distinguishing between “leaked government information” and “email between private individuals”:
Others wondered why The Times did not make the e-mail available on its Web site, and scoffed at an explanation by Revkin in a blog post that they contain “private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye.” What about the Pentagon Papers? they asked.
As for not posting the e-mail, Revkin said he should have used better language in his blog, Dot Earth, to explain the decision, which was driven by advice from a Times attorney. The lawyer, George Freeman, told me that there is a large legal distinction between government documents like the Pentagon Papers, which The Times published over the objections of the Nixon administration, and e-mail between private individuals, even if they may receive some government money for their work. He said the Constitution protects the publication of leaked government information, as long as it is newsworthy and the media did not obtain it illegally. But the purloined e-mail, he said, was covered by copyright law in the United States and Britain.
The policy was thus one taken by the New York Times, rather than Revkin personally, though there’s no evidence that Revkin contested the advice.
Now let’s dial forward to arguments by the University of East Anglia in refusing FOI requests – recently reiterated but originally set out in 2008. The position of the university was that the emails in question were emails from IPCC authors and were thus emails from IPCC as an organization (thus qualifying for the international organization exemption):
given the nature of the IPCC structure, information received from convening authors and authors of the Working Group, in effect, is communication received from the IPCC as an organisation.
In our letter of 18 July 2008 to you, we relied upon section 27(2) and 27(3) of the FOIA insofar that we felt that the correspondence from either other IPCC authors or from any arm of the IPCC mentioned in the original request was confidential information obtained from an international organisation as defined by subsection (3).
Interest arose in the Climategate emails precisely because they involved senior members of an international organization (IPCC). Jones, Briffa and Osborn were Coordinating Lead Author or Lead Authors of AR4 and Mann a Lead Author of AR3 and reviewer of AR4. The New York Times said that “the Constitution protects the publication of leaked government information, as long as it is newsworthy and the media did not obtain it illegally.” While the IPCC is not an international organization rather than a “government”, I do not believe for a minute that this distinction would stand up.
That the New York Times should characterize Climategate correspondents as “private individuals” rather than senior IPCC authors is the type of wilful obtuseness that has characterized far too much disinformation on Climategate, not just by the New York Times, but by Nature, Science and institutions that far too often seem to confuse the narrowest interest of climate scientists with the interest of the public.
[Nov. 29, 3:41 p.m. In the last couple of days, some conservative commentators have compared the treatment of the East Anglia climate files in this post with the dissemination of Wikileaks files by The Times and charged that a gross double standard exists.
I’ll note two things about my coverage of the unauthorized distribution of the climate files:
First, while I initially did not publish the contents of the climate files and e-mails (at the request of Times lawyers, considering the uncertain provenance and authenticity of the materials at the time), I did (from the start) provide links to the caches of material set up elsewhere on the Web.
Secon, in the rush on the day the files were distributed across the Web, I called them “private” when, in fact, I should have said their senders had presumed they were private. As I’ve said off and on since then, given that much of the research discussed in the exchanges was done using taxpayers’ money, any expectation of privacy wasn’t justified.]
Andy Revkin also observed in his own defence that he linked to the site with the emails and did in fact discuss the emails. The position of the New York Times and of Revkin personally are not necessarily the same.