NOAA Scientist Disagrees with Networks’ Claim of ‘Historic’ California Drought

Wednesday's Example of Media Bias   —   Posted on March 26, 2014

This winter the networks have seized on all sorts of extreme weather, making it appear new, exciting or unusual. In the case of the California drought the broadcast networks have…claimed it is “historic.”

ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows hyped the California drought, describing it as unprecedented and the “worst drought on record.” But Dr. Martin Hoerling, a federal climate researcher with the NOAA*, disagrees with that assessment. He said that the drought was consistent with previous California droughts. [*The NOAA is a scientific agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce focused on the conditions of the oceans and the atmosphere.]

During 2014, the broadcast networks aired 53 stories on the California drought during their evening news programming. More than 60 percent of the time (32 stories) ABC, CBS and NBC emphasized how “historic” or record-breaking the California drought was. The word “historic” was used 15 times since Jan. 1. They falsely described the drought as unprecedented and worse than any California drought in memory, ignoring the mid-1970s drought.

Hoerling, who works for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], slammed the notion that the drought was unprecedented in a March 8 New York Times editorial. He said the current drought “resembles the droughts that afflicted the state in 1976 and 1977. Those years were at least as dry as the last two years have been.”

In that Times editorial, he also said that “the scientific evidence does not support an argument that the drought there is appreciably linked to human-induced climate change,” even though he accepts the case for global warming, according to a 2011 interview with NPR.

Yet, on March 1, ABC correspondent David Wright told said “California is still in its worst drought in more than a century.” California-based CBS reporter Anne Makovec made a similar statement on Feb. 9’s “Evening News.” She called it “the worst drought on record.”

NBC even brought on a UCLA ecology professor to hype the historic nature of the latest California drought. Dr. Glenn MacDonald said on the Jan. 31, “Nightly News” that “in California we are experiencing a drought that no living person in this state or in this country has experienced before.”

The networks’ obsession with the “historic” nature of the drought ignored the 1970s, which Hoerling says were comparable or even worse.

Even The New York Times, while hyping climate change, admitted that “experts say this [drought] bears a notable resemblance to [previous ones], including a crippling drought in 1976 and 1977.”

Hoerling told the MRC’s Business and Media Institute, “I don’t think it’s unprecedented” and cited the “collective amnesia” of a public that has forgotten previous severe droughts. He also expressed optimism over recent California rains, saying California was “pulled out of the depths of the hole.”

Since the rain season has not ended, Hoerling said there were “a lot of premature rankings going on” that exaggerate the current drought.