The dust-up over George Will’s global warming denial column has morphed into a classic example of newspaper institutionalist failure. In its own small way, it shows why – on top of the Internet-driven collapse of media business models – many people are losing confidence in newspapers and other traditional media outlets.

After Will’s column calling global warming a media-driven fad, the Washington Post has declined to correct its errors and misrepresentations. The new ombudsman, Andy Alexander, sent out a note to those who wrote in complaining about the column, saying that the piece had undergone a thorough editing/fact checking process and that Will had committed no errors.

Hilzoy shows the superficiality and ultimate spuriousness of Alexander’s claim. Will’s principal disputed factoid has been contested by the source, the University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center. Alexander resorts to a semantic defense, saying that Will’s claim – that “global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979″ can be reconciled with the ACRC’s statement that polar ice levels are “near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979.” Obviously, “equal” is not the same as “near or slightly lower than,” especially when we’re dealing with scientific evidence. So the semantic defense itself is weak.

But even if you call that one for Will, the ACRC takes pains to note what’s really going on: the measured declines in northern ice are partially made up for by increases in southern ice, a phenomenon that is itself linked to climate change. In other words, Will’s statement, which stretches the data, also misrepresents the underlying science, which tells a more complex story that doesn’t fit his thesis.

The Post editorial page and ombudsman get a lot of interest group-driven complaints, and the liberal blogosphere has been all over this one. But this isn’t just another firestorm on “the left” that can be safely dismissed as such. The Post, its editorial and op-ed pages included, has an obligation to present science correctly and not to distort it for ideological purposes. To dismiss these serious concerns with a semantic fig-leaf is irresponsible.

There’s a forest-for-the-trees absurdity here: The Washington Post has, apparently to avoid conceding error to critics it dislikes, closed ranks behind a piece denying what is a nearly universally-accepted scientific fact — one that is a very grave threat to humanity — and all-but explicitly backed the distortion of science. It’s crazy. Andy Alexander is new on the job. If he’s smart, he’ll take a second look at this one.

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