For months, daily news emails sent from the House Science Committee majority to members and staff have included links to outlets with a strong history of climate denial, such as Breitbart and the Daily Mail, as well as Koch-affiliated outlets like the Washington Free Beacon and the Daily Caller, ThinkProgress has learned.
The emails, which are not publicly available, fit into a pattern of the Republican-led House Science Committee embracing unscientific and highly partisan information. And, according to some experts, at least one email might have violated House ethics rules.
The daily emails are compiled not by House Science staff, but by an outside media monitoring company called Synoptos. According to its president, Andrew Einhon, emails are compiled by an editorial team that collects related news clips based on unique parameters for each client. The emails go through several rounds of editing, and are then sent to a few points of contact on the House committee to distribute internally.
Einhorn said they work to avoid including “anything that reeks of politics” or “anything coming directly coming from political parties or direct op-eds.”
But there seemed to be more leeway in terms of ideological bent. “In some cases, it is important to represent viewpoints,” Einhorn said in response to inclusion of links from sites like Breitbart or the Daily Caller. “It’s tough these days, especially when you have a well-read publication that has a certain bent and bias, but can you completely ignore it when it has a particular readership?”
The emails rarely feature articles from left-of-center publications, however. On December 1, ThinkProgress published a story about the House Science Committee’s official Twitter account sharing a misleading article from Breitbart News; that article was not mentioned in the following day’s email. On January 31, Rebecca Leber published a story for Mother Jones titled “House Science Committee takes a page from the Inquisition.” A link to that article did not appear in the February 1 news email. Mother Jones also published a story on March 29 detailing a House Science Committee hearing on climate science; the article did not appear in the March 30 news email. On May 18, ThinkProgress published a piece about House Science Committee Democrats writing a letter to President Donald Trump, in response to reports that his staff had been feeding him fake news about climate change. That story was not included in the May 19 press email (though a similar story published by Quartz was included).
The House Science Committee has used Synoptos to compile its daily news email for 14 years; during that time, Einhorn said that the committee has “never tried to direct our editorial selections and have remained non-partisan in the news coverage they seek.”
The House Science Committee did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ request for clarification on whether the committee ever edits the news email— including deleting particular links or sources — before they are sent from the committee’s official account.
The vast majority of links included in the daily emails come from mainstream media sources like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Still, particular emails sent from the committee’s official email — even if compiled by an outside firm — include links to partisan websites with a history of climate misinformation or denial. In addition to Breitbart News, the Daily Mail, the Washington Free Beacon, and the Daily Caller, archives of the daily email accessed by ThinkProgress reveal links to articles published on sites like Russia Today and Before It’s News.
Breitbart, an alt-right news site with a track record of white nationalism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism, has a long history of publishing climate science denial and misinformation. The Daily Mail, a conservative British tabloid, also has a history of publishing climate misinformation; in February, the tabloid targeted NOAA researchers for their work looking into a so-called global warming “hiatus.”
Both the Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon are conservative outlets which regularly publish articles questioning the scientific consensus on climate change. Both outlets have either financial or personnel ties to petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have funded climate misinformation campaigns for years.
Russia Today is the international news arm of the Kremlin, an entity that the Christian Science Monitor described as a “propaganda machine.”
And Before It’s News bills itself as news community where “anyone can join” and “anyone can contribute.” Its front page currently features a story claiming that official NASA documents show that the agency is planning a massive culling of the population.
On June 1, the day Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, the House Science Committee’s email featured a press release from the Friends of Science Society. The press release argued that NASA’s web page on the scientific consensus on climate change, which explains that 97 percent of actively-publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is both occurring and a result of human activity, should be updated to show wider debate within the scientific community.
In reality, an incredibly small minority of scientists debate that climate change is both occurring and a result of human activity; to elevate such a small minority would constitute false balance. Friends of Science is a Canadian non-profit group that receives a third of its funding from the oil industry. Its official position is that the sun is the primary driver of climate change.
And while spreading misinformation merely runs afoul of the House Science Committee’s general mission, one email may have actually violated House ethics rules by using official resources for political purposes. On Wednesday, the day after Trump’s speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the leading link in the email was to a pro-Trump press release created by the Republican National Committee (RNC). House ethics rules expressly prohibit using official resources for campaign or political purposes.
“To me, it would violate the rule, as it is partisan politics and encouraging partisan politics, and using taxpayer resources to do so,” Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, told ThinkProgress.
According to Holman, while the link to the RNC webpage constitutes a violation of the House ethics rules, it’s not unprecedented, and would be unlikely to trigger any official investigation from the House Ethics Committee.
“The ethics committee has not stepped in and intervened and prohibited this type of activity, which means they are defining the rule very, very loosely,” Holman said.
According to Synoptos’ Einhorn, the RNC link was included in error and was not caught through the editing process.
Since taking over chairmanship of the Science committee in 2013, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has often used the committee as a means of furthering his own views on climate science. At a Heartland Institute conference on climate change held in March of 2017, Smith told the crowd that he feels the scientific method has been “repeatedly ignored by the so-called self-professed climate scientists.”
Smith was an early supporter of Donald Trump’s bid for the White House; Smith’s campaign committee donated $2,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign in late May of 2016, making him one of the first members of Congress to support Trump. During a speech on the House floor in January, Smith said that Americans should get their news “directly from the president,” rather than the “national liberal media.” Trump, like Smith, does not accept the mainstream consensus on climate change.
Under Smith’s leadership, the House Science Committee has regularly held hearings aimed at undermining the scientific consensus on climate change, or challenging scientific methods used by federal agencies or outside scientists. Smith, a prominent climate science denier, has used hearing after hearing to question the scientific consensus on climate change, often stacking witnesses sympathetic to his viewpoint to create the appearance of a lack of scientific consensus on climate change.
In March, Smith held a hearing that featured three scientists who reject the mainstream consensus on climate change, while inviting just one witness who accepted climate science. That witness was Dr. Michael Mann — director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and recent recipient of the Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communications, awarded each year by the Commonwealth Club of California, the nation’s oldest public affairs forum.
Mann has been an outspoken critic of Lamar’s chairmanship, charging him with intimidating climate scientists and spreading climate misinformation.
“Smith has a long-established history now of abusing his office to by promoting fake news and untruthful claims, engaging in smears against honest scientists, and serving as a mouthpiece for the polluting interests that fund him,” Mann told ThinkProgress.
Smith has also used his power as chairman of the House Science Committee to subpoena groups involved with climate science or climate-related investigations. In 2015, Smith issued a subpoena to the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, asking for all internal notes, emails, and correspondence concerning a NOAA study which challenged the notion of a “global warming hiatus.” Smith also accused NOAA scientists of manipulating data to “advance [the Obama administration’s] extreme climate agenda.”
In 2016, Smith issued subpoenas to the Massachusetts and New York attorneys general, as well as the SEC, asking for documents related to their investigation of ExxonMobil. He also issued subpoenas to eight nonprofit environmental groups requesting all communications with attorneys general and other nonprofits “related to the issue of climate change.”
But, recently, the committee’s anti-science campaign has spilled from its chambers into its official communication channels. In December, the committee’s official Twitter account made headlines when it tweeted an article from Breitbart News claiming that a 1ºF (0.6ºC) drop in land temperatures disproved the concept of global warming. Land temperatures alone are not an accurate proxy for global temperature rise, as they ignore other sources, like the ocean, which has absorbed much of the planet’s warming.
Scientists were quick to publicly criticize the tweet, and the committee’s Twitter account has since featured more mainstream sources for its links.
Shielded from public view, however, the committee has continued to allow the inclusion of links from climate-denying sources in its daily press email.
“It’s disappointing that the Science Committee leadership seems to be more focused on discrediting and dismissing the overwhelming majority of the scientific community rather than mitigating the effects of climate change or supporting the research and development of innovative technologies,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), a member of the House Science Committee, told ThinkProgress in a statement. “I’ve long urged the Committee majority to stop tweeting Breitbart articles and start reading substantive, respected news reports.”