So what, in Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s judgment, would make a “three-alarm story”?  In his evaluation of the New York Times’ coverage of the Climategate scandal, he offers this example (via Jazz Shaw):

Why didn’t The Times put the e-mail on its Web site? And, most important, is The Times being cavalier about a story that could change our understanding of global warming? Or, as The Times’s John Broder, who covers environmental issues in Washington, put it, “When does a story rise to three-alarm coverage?” …

The biggest question is what the messages amount to — an embarrassing revelation that scientists can be petty and defensive and even cheat around the edges, or a major scandal that undercuts the scientific premise for global warming. The former is a story. The latter is a huge story. And the answer is tied up in complex science that is difficult even for experts to understand, and in politics in which passionate sides have been taken, sometimes regardless of the facts.

Hmmm.  Hoyt argues that this qualified as a normal story, not the “three-alarm” variety.  He reached that conclusion even though (a) the University of East Anglia CRU destroyed its raw data, discuss at length how to destroy evidence for a Freedom of Information request, and dishonestly hid numbers that contradicted their insistence that temperatures were constantly rising.  Even Hoyt acknowledges the latter in his missive, even though the New York Times didn’t bother to report on the first two aspects of the story.  Hoyt seems to argue here that these do not undercut the scientific premise for anthropogenic global warming (AGW), a term which he doesn’t even clearly specify.

Do scientists routinely get “petty and defensive”?  Probably.  Do they routinely “cheat around the edges” and still maintain credibility?  I would consider that a strange argument.  If science cheats, it ceases being science.  And in this case, it was hardly “cheating around the edges.”  It was a full-bore effort to professionally ruin anyone who challenged their imposed orthodoxy while conspiring to hide contradictory data and flat-out make up numbers to artificially support their case.  And the CRU destroyed their raw data, which for any scientific endeavor isn’t at the “edges” of their work, but is the central core to their work.

Even by Hoyt’s standards, that’s a three-alarm story.

Hoyt doesn’t fare much better when it comes to the question of publishing the e-mails.  Reporter Andrew Rivkin hilariously asserted last week that the Times refused to publish them because they were never intended for public scrutiny:

The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won’t be posted here.

Hoyt tries rescuing that statement:

As for not posting the e-mail, Revkin said he should have used better language in his blog, Dot Earth, to explain the decision, which was driven by advice from a Times attorney. The lawyer, George Freeman, told me that there is a large legal distinction between government documents like the Pentagon Papers, which The Times published over the objections of the Nixon administration, and e-mail between private individuals, even if they may receive some government money for their work. He said the Constitution protects the publication of leaked government information, as long as it is newsworthy and the media did not obtain it illegally. But the purloined e-mail, he said, was covered by copyright law in the United States and Britain.

That’s a rationalization on two fronts.  First, the University of East Anglia is a public university, not a private university.  Next, copyright law has a fair-use exception which newspapers and other media have used for decades.  No one questioned why the Times didn’t print every last e-mail in the set.  But they could have published the more substantial e-mails that showed the fraud and deception in order to better inform its readers, especially since other outlets showed more courage than the Times and had already exposed the internal messages.

The entire Hoyt article is nothing more than a series of rationalizations in this vein.  Rather than assign the story to a more objective reporter who hadn’t marinated himself in AGW hysteria, Hoyt defended the assignment of Revkin to the Climategate story — even though Revkin had at least a tangential connection to the story (which, in Revkin’s defense, he disclosed).  Rather than report that the UEA-CRU had destroyed its own data sets and conspired to blok FoI requests, the Times chose to run stories about how the AGW debate was mainly “settled.” As far as I know, the Times still has not reported on those aspects of the story, nor about how the UK’s Met Office has decided that they will have to rebuild the data the CRU destroyed before they continue to support the conclusions based on the CRU and the IPCC, to which the CRU was a major contributor.

There were a lot more than three alarm bells ringing over this story for the last two weeks.  The NYT chose not to listen, and Hoyt does nothing more than provide some weak rationalizations for those decisions.