When a member of the baby boomer generation like myself sees someone describe environmentalist author Ross Gelbspan as the “Columbo of climate change,” it’s a bit sad that the description is basically lost on the younger generations who probably have no idea who Lieutenant Columbo was. I loved that old ’70s-’80s television series, where viewers routinely saw the guest star’s character commit the “perfect crime,” only to be caught in the sights of homicide detective Columbo, played by Peter Falk. He would always begin asking ordinary questions as a matter of standard police inquiry, but ultimately pestered the criminal with unrelenting sporadic follow-up questions until the crime was exposed. It was priceless to see the pained look on the criminal’s face every time Columbo’s unexpected appearance was followed by his trademark “I don’t mean to bother you, but there’s just one more thing…”
I’m also a bit troubled by the uncontested claim that Gelbspan is any kind of Lt. Columbo. Yes, the book accompanying Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” movie said Gelbspan was “a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who discovered a 1991 coal industry internal memo” with a phrase sounding like a top-down directive for skeptic scientists to deliberately portray global warming as unsettled science. Gelbspan is highly praised in viral form across the internet for his 1997 The Heat is On book, in which this “discovery” supposedly frames skeptic scientists as hopelessly corrupt.
The problem is, literally anyone who undertakes a search at the Pulitzer organization’s web site will soon discover Gelbspan is not listed as a Pulitzer winner.
Kind of makes you want to knock on Gelbspan’s door and say, “Excuse me, sir, sorry to bother you, but about Gore’s claim that you are a Pulitzer winner. It does say that right here in the sleeve of your 1997 book’s dust jacket, and here on the front of your 2004 hardcover book. Were those printing errors?”
The 1991 “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact” memo phrase, shown in red letters full screen in Gore’s movie, got one of the two biggest applause responses when the audience saw the next screen comparing it to prior tobacco industry campaigns’ attempts to say the science was unclear about the harmful effects of smoking. A very convincing one-two punch.
However, a problem arises when anyone does a reasonably good internet search of that phrase. We see in short order (ignoring results from my own recent articles and blogs) that Gelbspan is widely credited with making the phrase famous in his 1997 book, but it is also plain to see he did this after the phrase was published in a 1994 book by Curtis Moore and Alan Miller, and after several newspaper and magazine articles authored by others in 1991, most notably the NY Times.
“Oh, Mr. Gelbspan, I’m glad I found you here today. Forgive me for the intrusion, I know you are a busy man. Just a couple more things are bothering me. I’m trying to make sense of this idea that so many people say you discovered this memo.”