Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh suggested this week that perhaps climate change reporter Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times should take his own life to reduce carbon emissions, if he felt it was so important to the planet's future to reduce them.
"If he really thinks that human beings, in their natural existence, are going to cause the extinction of life on Earth," Limbaugh asked, "Mr. Revkin, why don't you just go kill yourself, and help the planet by dying?"
Limbaugh accused Revkin of being part of a radical environmentalist fringe. But those who know Revkin say he's a scrupulous journalist who's somewhat revolutionary in an altogether different aspect: the way he reports the news.
Part old-school newspaper reporter, part frenetic blogger, Revkin is curating information on the question of how the world can grow to a projected population of 9 billion people over the next 40 years with as little damage as possible.
"My way is to say, 'What do we know? What don't we know? What can we learn? What's essentially unknowable?' And then, 'What does society do with that body of information that's left?' " Revkin says.
Revkin's first long article on climate change appeared in Discover magazine 21 years ago. His blog, Dot Earth, is just two years old, an outgrowth of earlier online reports he filed while on extended reporting trips to the North Pole and Greenland.
On the blog, Revkin posts early versions of his own reporting, excerpts of stories from other news outlets, links to government documents and scientific journal articles, corporate presentations and blog postings. Revkin often solicits and publishes the opinions of readers — relying on them for tips and insight, while simultaneously helping them sift through the flood of information coming their way.
It's a new role for someone who had been a fairly conventional, though distinguished, print reporter.
"It's more like being a mountain guide after an avalanche, than being the old-style, 'Here's the news, take it or leave it, thank you very much, goodnight,' " Revkin says.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen says Revkin's work on Dot Earth represents an important step toward a new model for how the news business will work.
"One day, I think all beat reporting will be done this way," Rosen says. "The pressures to be in the paper regularly, to be on the front page have kept traditional reporters from really exploring what the Web — the two-way Web, the read-write, back-and-forth nature of the Web — can do for their reporting."
Revkin says editors have urged him to write more frequently for the paper. Despite all the growth and promise of the Times Web site, the print edition pays most of the bills and attracts far more readers.
But Revkin says that productivity has arrived with a tangible cost. He says he has had an unusual level of errors. (A database search found six corrections for stories on which he was a lead reporter in 2009. For what it's worth, that's more than in the preceding years but the same number as in 2005. It is hard to tell precisely how many errors are attributable directly to his work because he collaborated on many articles with other reporters.)
Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, says the missteps are a source of concern. But Ward says he would hate to choose between reading Revkin solely in print or solely online.
The Times reporter plays an influential role among his peers and among those in the environmental sciences.
"If Andy's reporting attributes reliability confidence to a particular set of scientific findings, that certainly has carried a lot of weight within the journalism community," Ward says. "It's a tough, tough issue. It's not the kind of issue any general assignment reporter can pick up from Day 1."
And Ward says Revkin's profile has grown in recent years, as there are "fewer reporters covering fewer stories for a smaller audience in a smaller news hole."
The Times is not immune from the larger financial scene. The newspaper's top editor, Bill Keller, announced earlier this week that the paper would reduce the size of its newsroom by 100 staffers, to 1,150. That came as particularly bad news because it followed last year's cut of 100 jobs and a 5 percent pay reduction earlier this year intended to stave off any additional staff reductions. Revkin says a lot of money for that globe-hopping travel has dried up — understandably, as the Times already has correspondents in far-flung locales.
Even after all these years, the sensitive nature of the climate change debate can lead Revkin to wade into controversial areas. Sometimes he gets slapped by environmental advocates who take issue with Revkin's reporting. Former Clinton administration energy official Joe Romm, who writes the Climate Progress Blog for the left-of-center Center for American Progress, is a frequent critic.
But more often, Revkin finds himself attacked from the right. Such was the case after a recent public forum held by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Revkin spoke long distance by Internet videophone to the group.
He says his remarks were intended to indicate skepticism toward the push for governments to grant financial credits for reducing carbon emissions. "Probably the single most concrete and substantive thing an American, a young American, could do to lower their carbon footprint is not turning off the lights or driving a Prius — it's having fewer kids," Revkin said.
If the country pursues carbon-centric policies, Revkin asked, should there be financial rewards for families that have one child rather than two or three?
He told the audience, "Obviously it's just a thought experiment, but it raises some interesting questions."
By Revkin's account, those statements reverberated around the Internet — and were quickly distorted.
"In this case, I was asking a question about population and carbon — and it got conflated with those who make strong statements about depopulating the world and that kind of thing," Revkin says.
The conservative editorial page of Investors' Business Daily ran a critical piece. Then the nation's top-rated radio talk show host spoke up. Limbaugh invoked the much maligned Chinese government's "one child" policy — and made pointed comparisons to jihadists and Palestinian suicide bombers.
Called for comment Wednesday afternoon, Limbaugh's producer, Kit Carson, said the host was not available.
Revkin has received angry hate mail and telephone messages. He wants Limbaugh to apologize to the rest of his family — especially his older son, a regular Limbaugh listener who is, Revkin says, currently serving in the Israeli military.