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Houston Chronicle: Former Environmental Writer Documents Origins of Left/Alarmist Bias at the Paper

“The [Houston Chronicle's] editorial positions have moved in a decidedly liberal and environmentalist direction since its parent, the Hearst Corporation, installed new management in 2002.”

- Bill Dawson, Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, December 3, 2007.

“One factor [in the industry retrenchment] could be the fate of climate change legislation in Congress, which could add costs to oil and gas producers, refiners, chemical makers and other parts of the energy sector, forcing them to cut jobs. Susan Combs, Texas comptroller of public accounts said: “I think there’s a big bull’s-eye painted on Houston.”

- Brett Clanton, “Big Oil’s Lean Look Fuels Area Jobs Fear,” Houston Chronicle, November 8, 2009.

Cap-and-trade, even in a watered down beginning, isn’t good for Houston. But the Houston Chronicle has been at the forefront of advocating for such open-ended regulation–even rejecting a sober cost-benefit analysis of the issue. And even not having second thoughts about alarmist science that its own science writer Eric Berger (see below) has grown to have.

Why such a crusade at the nation’s 7th leading paper?

Looking for an answer, I stumbled upon a piece on the web by former Houston Chronicle environmental writer Bill Dawson.  Dawson now teaches at Rice University on media issues and the environment.

His post fills in some gaps about why Houston’s paper (the Houston Post folded and merged into the Chronicle in 1995) became such an organ for climate alarmism–even tramping to the Left of the New York Times at times. It also explains the large circulation declines, given that the Houston audience is more free market, conservative, libertarian, and non-alarmist than the Chronicle’s editorial writers and reporters. And the Houston energy industry, as Brett Clanton reported in a front page article in Sunday’s Chronicle, will be a big loser under cap-and-trade. 

The latest circulation news for the Houston Chronicle is rather grim–a year-to-year decline of 13%. One comment on the circulation report said much about the alienated audience:

If you would give any indication you were fair, we would start buying your paper again. I know this isn’t going to happen but I wish it would because I truly believe you folks in the media are the common man’s eye’s and ears, our checks and balances.

As of late, your profession has failed terribly.

Bill Dawson Documents the Bias

Mr. Dawson’s blog brings some very interesting things to light.

First, he documents the decision by the parent of the Houston Chronicle to go Left, which has undoubtedly resulted in a circulation loss for the paper.  This begs the question: Is this a case of “‘principle’ over profits” in that most of the paper’s readership was offended? I would invite Mr. Dawson to correct me if I am wrong on this point–could be I just know the infuriated who have canceled their subscriptions.

Second, he documents how the the Chronicle gave a hero’s welcome to uber-climate alarmist and Al Gore mentor James Hansen in October 2007. “Hansen Happy in Houston? Go Figure?,” Dawson wrote.

Will such a welcome be repeated when Dr. Hansen returns to Houston this December 7th? Will Houston Mayor Bill White, who introduced Hansen, do so again as a Senate candidate? (I doubt it!) After all, as Chronicle science writer Eric Berger has documented, the science and politics of climate alarmism is in some trouble–and maybe a lot of it.  Wrote Berger:

For a long time now, science reporters have been confidently told the science is settled…. But I am confused [by recent developments]. Four years ago this all seemed like a fait accompli. Humans were unquestionably warming the climate and changing the planet forever through their emissions of carbon dioxide.

A decade of temperature quiet, and the rise and fall of the anthropogenic hurricane scare, has put the alarmists on the defensive.

Dawson’s Yale Forum Piece

Here is the Dawson piece in its entirety.

As the nation’s oil capital and home to the first President Bush, Houston might seem to outsiders an unlikely place for Hansen to receive such a positive media reception. He is, after all, an outspoken critic of the current Bush administration’s response to climate change science and an advocate of urgent action to address global warming.

The state’s politics, however, provided a more ambiguous context for his Houston speech than someone focusing only on Texas’s energy-industry, red-state reputation might assume.

The Houston Chronicle editorial on his visit, for example, was consistent with its other recent pronouncements on environmental issues. The newspaper’s editorial positions have moved in a decidedly liberal and environmentalist direction since its parent, the Hearst Corporation, installed new management in 2002.

Houston Mayor Bill White, a favorite of the Chronicle’s editorial board, is a Democrat who has launched a number of environmental initiatives including climate-related efforts to boost energy conservation. Other Texas mayors, including those in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio, are also taking actions aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

White, who praised Hansen when he introduced him to his Oct. 24 Progressive Forum audience, was at that moment days away from an easy third-term re-election victory on Nov. 6, which he won with 86 percent of the vote. He is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for statewide office.

By contrast, Texas’ Republican Gov. Rick Perry drew national attention – and the ridicule of an Austin American-Statesmancolumnist, who said he was being “goobernatorial” – for comments on global warming that he delivered to California Republicans in September.

“Virtually every day another scientist leaves the global warming bandwagon,” Perry said at the time, adding that “you won’t read about that in the press because they have already invested in one side of the story.”

Those sentiments notwithstanding, Perry in October also announced a $10-billion, public-private initiative to expand wind power in Texas. The press release issued by his office cited the plan’s ability to help cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas, as one of its key benefits.

That was at least a part of the climate-related political backdrop in Texas when the Chronicle, Houston’s sole surviving daily and the producer of one of American newspapering’s most blog-heavy web sites, responded to Hansen’s message with an article, editorial, blog and podcast. 

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Bill Dawson Biography

Bill Dawson from 1984 to 2001 covered environmental issues for The Houston Chronicle. He now freelances and teaches at Rice University.

Mr. Dawson’s long bio is provided here:

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist and writer who has specialized in coverage of environmental issues for most of his career. He is the founding editor of Texas Climate News, an online magazine about climate change and sustainability issues, which was launched in late 2008 and is published by HARC.

In addition to his journalistic work, Dawson is a lecturer at Rice University. Beginning in 2005, he has taught an undergraduate class that he developed for the Center for the Study of Environment and Society at Rice, which focuses on Houston and its region as a microcosm for examining important environmental issues. He has also taught in Rice’s Master of Liberal Studies Program.

He is a regular contributor to the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media and writes two regular columns as assistant editor of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ quarterly magazine, SEJournal. His writing as an independent journalist has also appeared in publications including the New York Times and Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine.

From 2001-03, Dawson was senior writer for environmental issues on the staff of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to investigative reporting in the public interest. His work there included reports on an abandoned regulatory initiative to enhance industrial chemical safety and on lobbying efforts to prevent regulations aimed at fighting climate change.

From 1984-2001, he was the environment writer of the Houston Chronicle, producing numerous investigative and explanatory projects. They presented in-depth examinations of subjects including Houston’s air quality problems, the impact of global warming on Texas, the loss of wetlands in Texas, biodiversity and species conservation issues in Texas, threats to Galveston Bay, tropical deforestation, cancer incidence along the Texas coast, and increased pediatric asthma.

Before joining the Chronicle, he worked as a reporter and editor for newspapers in Memphis and Little Rock.  Dawson earned an MA in journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and a BA in history and behavioral science from Rice.

3 comments

1 Jeff { 11.12.09 at 4:44 pm }

Wait, so the paper leans left but Clanton comes out against cap-and-trade in a front page Sunday edition? A little contradictory, isn’t it? Also, Libertarians are one of two things: money-grubbing p—–or conservatives too stupid to understand what Libertarian really means.

2 Robert Bradley Jr. { 11.12.09 at 9:33 pm }

The front page article was matter-of-fact (job losses in industries fearing a cap), while the editorials are very climate alarmist. Houston is a regulatory loser under cap-and-trade, and the Houston paper preaches the gospel of climate fear–and much more so than its own science writer seems to believe–at least by the blog entry I linked.

I do know that 1) the general public is not buying the global warming hype and 2) the Chronicle readership is not buying it either. The polls and subscription numbers do not suggest otherwise in my opinion.

3 Joe Guyton { 11.13.09 at 8:10 pm }

AGW is a quaint little theory that has had nearly two centuries to produce proof of its validity. That its proponents during that lengthy period have failed to offer anything beyond anecdotes and computer forecasts which collapse is off-set in turn by Lindzen’s proofs that the earth’s energy budget and sub-tropical mid-tropospheric temperatures do things it could not do while the theory’s atmospheric CO2 continuously rises. “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Albert Einstein.

AGW has been proven wrong by the empirical facts, and the propagandists at the Chronicle cannot counter the science. Their jihad to capture our freedoms by hoax will ultimately fail as events make a mockery of their efforts.

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