Reuters Reporter Fairly Explains Bush Administration Side of Environmentalist Dispute--Headline Editor Has To Disagree

Reuters’ environment correspondent, Deborah Zabarenko, debunks the idea that there is a “scientific censorship” by the Bush Administration about global warming, although that isn’t what the headline, “’Don’t discuss polar bears’: memo to scientists,” indicates. Just another example of a headline not reflecting the content of an article. The March 8 article explains the disagreement in perception between the environmentalists and the Bush Admnistration policy that restricts some American scientists engaging in meetings abroad from discussing certain topics, from polar bears to polar ice, that have to do with the environment and global climate change:

Environmental activists called this scientific censorship, which they said was in line with the Bush administration's history of muzzling dissent over global climate change.

But H. Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said this policy was a long-standing one, meant to honor international protocols for meetings where the topics of discussion are negotiated in advance.

The matter came to light in e-mails from the Fish and Wildlife Service that were distributed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, both environmental groups.

Listed as a "new requirement" for foreign travelers on U.S. government business, the memo says that requests for foreign travel "involving or potentially involving climate change, sea ice, and/or polar bears" require special handling, including notice of who will be the official spokesman for the trip.

The Fish and Wildlife Service top officials need assurance that the spokesman, "the one responding to questions on these issues, particularly polar bears" understands the administration's position on these topics.

Two accompanying memos were offered as examples of these kinds of assurance. Both included the line that the traveler "understands the administration's position on climate change, polar bears, and sea ice and will not be speaking on or responding to these issues."

Hall defends the policy in the memo, explaining that it is to prevent a scientist’s comment from disrupting international negotiations and relations and uses polar bears to illustrate his point. Environmentalists want to classify those deadly, but fluffy and loveable, carnivores as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Hall elaborates on the repercussions of reclassifying the bears and describes a meeting that was about “human and polar bear interface” to explain why scientists are “muzzled”:

Hall said a decision is expected in January 2008. A "threatened" listing would bar the government from taking any action that jeopardizes the animal's existence, and might spur debate about tougher measures to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming.

Hall defended the policy laid out in the memos, saying it was meant to keep scientists from straying from a set agenda at meetings in countries like Russia, Norway and Canada.

For example, he said, one meeting was about "human and polar bear interface." Receding Arctic sea ice where polar bears live and the global climate change that likely played a role in the melting were not proper discussion topics, he said.

"That's not a climate change discussion," Hall said at a telephone briefing. "That's a management, on-the-ground type discussion."

Hall says this ban only applies to public, formal situations and not to the private scientific discussion out of the public eye and media attention, but that does not satisfy Eben Burnham-Snyder of the Natural Resources Defense Council who says that the Bush Administration “has a long history of censoring speech and science on global warming,” and when they see “an instance of the Bush administration restricting speech on global warming, it sends up a huge red flag that their commitment to the issue does not reflect their rhetoric.”

Good for Reuters for presenting the White House’s reasoning behind this policy. The reporter who wrote it either needs to have a chat with the headline editor or tell that person to actually read the article next time.

Update: The NRDC has a campaign to lobby the Bush Administration to "protect polar bears and their critical habitat." Since the debate about polar bears and their "critical habitat" is part of the story and mentioned in the first few pararaphs, doesn't it make sense to mention this? Here is part of the "Polar Bear SOS" alert:

Polar bears are completely dependent on Arctic sea ice to survive, but
80 percent of that ice could be gone in 20 years and all of it by 2040.
Polar bears are already suffering the effects: birth rates are falling,
fewer cubs are surviving, and more bears are drowning. The Bush
Administration's proposal to list the polar bear as "threatened" under
the Endangered Species Act is a crucial first step toward ensuring a
future for these magnificent Arctic creatures. Yet the administration's
proposal does not designate "critical habitat" for protection, even
though melting habitat from global warming is the main threat to the
polar bear's survival.

Environment Reuters Journalistic Issues