A conservative group that has used public records requests in an attempt to publicize emails written by climate scientists has turned its attention to reporters who cover the environment.
The American Tradition Institute (ATI), which has garnered attention for seeking emails written by climate scientist Michael Mann when he worked at the University of Virginia, is making similar Freedom of Information Act requests concerning email exchanges between scientists and reporters. The aim is to illustrate what the group describes as "collusion" between the "media and environmentalist establishments."
The top target so far is New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, who covers environmental science for the paper.
Chris Horner, director of litigation at ATI, said he decided to investigate Gillis after the Times published a story in April on how climate skeptics are, as Gillis wrote, relying on the argument "that clouds will save us."
The story examined the role of leading skeptic Richard Lindzen, a meteorology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who maintains that predictions of catastrophic climate change are overstated in part because clouds can counter the effects.
Among those quoted is clouds expert Andrew Dessler, a researcher at Texas A&M University, a public institution subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
Horner filed a request with the university and subsequently received emails written by Gillis, which he described as "quite remarkable, disappointing, if I admit not all that surprising."
In an article summarizing the emails, which was published in the Washington Examiner, Horner said Gillis told Dessler it was "unavoidable" that he would have to speak to Lindzen in order to write the story.
Gillis asked for comprehensive information on the relevant published science on clouds so that he would be fully prepared to counter Lindzen's arguments.
The reporter, Horner wrote, "comes off as an activist posing as a journalist."
Gillis declined to comment, saying that he and his Times colleagues would "let our published work speak for itself."
Gillis was "doing his job," Dessler said, by preparing for his interview with Lindzen by "getting from me the mainstream view of climate change."
Dessler also noted his own incentive to be friendly to reporters, saying it was a coup for him and his institution to have his work mentioned in The New York Times.
"I'm nice to reporters because part of my job is to get my research out," he added.
Gillis is not the only one whose work is being scrutinized by ATI. Others include Suzanne Goldenberg, a U.S.-based reporter with the U.K. Guardian newspaper, who wrote a story on the issue earlier this week.
Horner's latest move has attracted criticism both from scientists and environmental groups, who say it's another way for ATI to achieve its goal of chilling speech among scientists.
"Any unguarded comment mailed in what a scientist thought was a private communication can be found and fed into the right-wing echo chamber," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "It, in essence, is forcing scientists to behave as if they are public figures without having made a decision to enter public prominence."
Mann, now a researcher at Pennsylvania State University, said journalists will now face the same pressures that scientists have experienced due to the "rampant threats of retribution and intimidation by those doing the bidding of vested interests who fund the attacks against climate science."
Horner defended his focus on journalists, pointing out the fact that reporters generally benefit from freedom of information laws.
He pointed to a Washington Post editorial that criticized his group as evidence of double standards.
"We apply the laws in the same way as journalists and green pressure groups have been using them," he said.
Reporter Paul Voosen contributed.