SEJ Accused of Protecting Gore

Filmmaker’s criticism is self-serving and wrong, however

An independent filmmaker accused the Society of Environmental Journalists of “protecting” Al Gore on Friday after the filmmaker’s mic was cut while challenging the former vice president to acknowledge alleged errors in the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Phelim McAleer, the co-director/producer of an independent film entitled Not Evil, Just Wrong, which purports to explain “the true cost of global warming hysteria,” asked Gore if he accepted a British High Court’s 2007 ruling that the film contained nine significant errors, and whether or not he had done anything to correct them. The question followed Gore’s keynote address to an audience of a few hundred people at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.

In response to McAleer’s question, Gore said that he wasn’t going to “go through” all of the alleged errors and pointed out that the case in question had, in fact, upheld the showing of An Inconvenient Truth in British schools (although the judge ruled that the screenings should come with guidance notes to balance Gore’s “one-sided” political views). Gore and McAleer then fell into a short but pointless exchange about polar bears until two people from the Society of Environmental Journalists stood up and asked McAleer to take his seat. When McAleer refused, his mic was cut off and he finally sat. Watch the video here:

Conservative blogs are already trying to cast the event as proof that environmental journalists are nothing but “homers” and treehuggers who won’t challenge their sources or report critically on environmental issues. Those assessments are shortsighted and wrong. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, but so is McAleer.)

Tim Wheeler, a board member and former president of the society who is also a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, posted a good recap of the commotion on the society’s conference blog. Wheeler had been “stationed” in the room to see that the ground rules for the Q&A were followed, and asked McAleer to sit down when he saw that about a dozen journalists were waiting to ask Gore a question.

“Later, in the foyer, I spoke to McAleer, wanting to be sure he understood why he’d been cut off,” Wheeler wrote. “He accused me and SEJ of censoring a journalist, and observed that we were shielding our speaker from tough questions. I responded that he had been free to ask his question and even got a chance to follow it up, but that he didn’t have a right to monopolize the Q&A.”

New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin, the event’s moderator, posted an entry on his Facebook page saying that he was “Amazed at the chutzpah (and promotional skill) of a filmmaker who claims the Society of Environmental Journalists cut off his microphone during Al Gore Q&A ‘to protect a politician.’ As the moderator of this talk, it was clear to me organizers did so to protect the rights of journalists (those standing in line still waiting to ask a single question, as he did).” (In a video produced by the MacIver Institute, McAleer had singled out Revkin for stifling his question.)

Such egotistical stunts are, of course, not uncommon during Q&A sessions at conferences, panels, and speeches. Given McAleer’s upcoming film, however, this seems like an especially obvious ploy to gain publicity. In a video documenting the event, he claimed that he was asking Gore “tough” questions that environmental journalists wouldn’t. But the fact that An Inconvenient Truth contains inaccuracies is nothing new. The errors are minor and the film is broadly accurate; well-respected scientists and other critics have been saying as much since it debuted. The British High Court was absolutely right that teachers should present additional information to provide context, especially where political matters are concerned. That should be true of any subject.

Nonetheless, critics assert, the Society of Environmental Journalists’ bias toward environmentalism goes beyond Gore’s keynote address. Blog posts have cherry-picked events from the group’s conference agenda in an attempt to demonstrate that its members are “unwilling to think or report critically about environmental issues.”

“What I would like of environmental journalists like myself is that you treat big environment the same way as you treat big politics and big government and big business,” McAleer told the MacIver Institute. “Where’s the money come from? Who’s channeling it? Is that report independent? Where’s the independent verification of those claims? But they don’t. If an environmental organization says something, it’s accepted as gospel.”

Fair enough. But lest we forget, it was the Society of Environmental Journalists that invited Marc Morano, one of the blogosphere’s preeminent climate skeptics, then working for Senator James Inhofe, to its 2006 meeting in Vermont. At last year’s conference in Virginia, I participated in a tour about mountaintop removal and strip mining for coal. It included visits with environmentalists and mining industry officials alike. Moreover, that balanced perspective is not limited to climate and energy issues. A panel about Bisphenol A, phthalates, and environmental toxicology included a representative of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, for instance.

The presence of those critical voices is one of things I (and I’m sure other journalists) enjoy most about the society’s meetings. As I reported from its 2007 meeting, this is an organization that has worked hard to uphold the distinction between environmental journalism and environmentalism, and I have watched its members produce countless instances of fair, impartial, and incisive reporting.

True, in this increasingly fractured media landscape, that kind of journalism is becoming endangered, so it is worth bearing some of McAleer’s concerns in mind. But his criticism of the Society of Environmental Journalists was self-serving and wrong.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Phelim McAleer as Philip. We regret the error.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.