When prominent people die, the press publishes “obituaries,” reports of their deaths and a summary of their lives. I recently read a New York Times obituary that accidentally summarized the last years of The New York Times, a once great newspaper.
The Times obit was meant to be about Dr. S. Fred Singer, a noted scientist, prolific writer (including at American Thinker), and prominent critic of popular climate change models that contend that man has heated up the Earth.
The entire N.Y. Times report — including a snooty and biased headline — was not a factual account, but an ideological argument meant to discredit the life and work of Fred Singer, once the chief atmospheric scientist at NASA and a man who had penned a book of more than 1,000 pages critiquing popular climate theory.
“A leading climate change contrarian.” That is how The Times headline describes Singer. The article never mentions that Singer was chief atmospheric scientist for NASA, a science-based organization not known for employing quacks. In fact, the article never mentions NASA or quotes anyone from NASA who knew Singer.
One positive statement about Singer is offered from a person described as a “climate change denialist” and a member of the administration of Donald Trump. This is meant to signal the Times reader to be awake and to be “woke” and to discount anything positive about Dr. Singer.
Written by John Schwartz, “a reporter on the climate desk,” the obituary calls Singer a “physicist.” That is true but misleading. It is intended to belittle Singer’s knowledge of climate matters. Had the Times climate desk writer lived in the Middle Ages and recorded the death of Galileo, he might have called him a “contrarian star watcher” who “tried to peddle the idea that the sun revolves around man.”
No, Singer was not Galileo, but the jury is still out as to whether The Times’ view of climate change is more accurate than the medieval beliefs condemning Galileo and asserting that the sun revolves around man.
Since I know something about Dr. Singer and also about The New York Times and some of the people who used to write obituaries at The New York Times, I would like to publish my own Times “obit” and my own correction — a correction that The New York Times would never publish but which would have brought a smile to the lips of Fred Singer.
A long, long time ago, I was a reporter at The New York Times, where reporters knew how to write a straight new story. This was especially important when crafting an “obit” because a N.Y. Times “obit” was the last word. It became a kind of public tombstone, the ultimate record of a person’s life, and that dead person would never be able to write a letter to the editor complaining about mistreatment.
Reporters at The New York Times who wrote obits understood they had a sensitive and even sacred duty to record the important elements of a person’s life without being mean and without being fawning. This was true of obit specialists like Albin Krebs and Bob Thomas (whose official byline was Robert McG Thomas), but it was also true of occasional obit writers like rewrite men Robert McFadden, Mike Kauffman, and Larry Van Gelder.
Some of these obits were such gems that they were collected into books. Bob Thomas’s book of obits was called “52 McG’s,” and The New York Times even nominated him for a Pulitzer Prize.
”Every week, readers write to The New York Times to say they were moved to tears,” The Times wrote in its nomination of Thomas for a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, but today’s Times writers bring tears to our eyes for a different reason.
The Times obit of Fred Singer does not relay any substance from Singer’s analysis or data. It cites opinions mostly from those who support popular theories of man-made climate change. The article conveys the impression that Singer did not recognize climate change. That is not so. Singer believed that climate change had occurred many times over history but that it was a complicated and largely self-correcting process.
Singer’s work and research are not addressed in the Times’ obit, perhaps because that would have required reading some of Singer’s work, discussing his views on the carbon cycle, on photosynthesis, on atmospheric transitions, on temperature gradients in sea water, etc. In short, a fair discussion of a man’s life’s work requires more than a few clichés, quoting those who opposed him or reading the latest account in Wikipedia.
Fred Singer was old enough to have survived the Holocaust in his native Austria to come to the U.S. and become an important scientist and an important part the U.S. space program.
Dr. Singer was completely unafraid of tackling tough questions, but he did so with a sense of humor, with a twinkle in his eye and a piece of chocolate in his hand or in his pocket.
If Fred Singer were asked to offer his view today of the various baleful models of climate change or the various models predicting insurmountable death tolls from the coronavirus, he would not be swept away by premonitions of doom. I think he would say what he once said to me when we discussed the intractable problems of the Arab-Israeli conflict:
“Michael, have a piece of chocolate. The world always looks better after a little chocolate.”
Dr. Michael Widlanski taught political communication for two decades at The Hebrew University, Bar Ilan University and as a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis in 2007–8 and at the University of California, Irvine in 2014. Earlier he was a reporter at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers, Israeli Army Radio, and Israel Television.