A U.S. Senate committee hearing considering the media's handling of climate change was told Wednesday that media bias on global warming was an "inconvenient truth," although participating experts disagreed sharply over which side of the debate receives preferential media treatment.

"Journalists who have pledged to be neutral long ago gave up their watchdog role to become lapdogs for one position," Dan Gainor, director of the Business and Media Institute (BMI), told the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.

The "alarmist" press behaves "as if at any moment, everything could go over the edge," Gainor said.

He cited as an example the fact that Matt Lauer, host of NBC's "Today Show," had "lent his status to a Sci Fi Channel program that listed global warming among potential threats to our species, including asteroids, aliens and evil robots."

"Scientists who dare question the almost-religious belief in climate change - and yes, they do exist - are ignored or undermined in news reports, as are policymakers and pundits who take similar views," Gainor added.

The BMI is a division of the Media Research Center, which is the parent organization of Cybercast News Service.

Gainor said the press had a poor record when it came to predicting climate change.

"In more than 100 years, the major media have warned us of at least four separate climate cataclysms - an ice age, warming, another ice age and another bout of warming," he added. "Even by their count, they're 0 for 3."

Gainor quoted from a New York Times editorial in which the newspaper had acknowledged: "Cooling, warming - we never get it right."

"That's the inconvenient truth," Gainor added, invoking the title of a movie on climate change produced by former Vice President Al Gore.

Contrary to Gainor's assertion that global warming skeptics are "ignored or undermined," Naomi Oreskes, director of the science studies program at the University of California San Diego, told the committee the press had in fact "bent over backwards to give space to a very small number of people in the scientific community."

Oreskes described the skeptics as "a few people out on the edges" who she conceded "should be listened to."

Oreskes argued that there was "a consensus" within the scientific community on the issue of man-made climate change.

Global warming was not "just a fad or fashion," she said. Lawmakers should be guided by the "overwhelming evidence" pointing to the need for "immediate action to reverse the trend of mounting greenhouse gas emissions."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, the ranking Democrat on the committee, questioned the usefulness of "attacking the media" on its coverage of the issue, saying that doing so "won't change the truth."

To support her stance on climate change, Boxer quoted from articles in a number of newspapers and business journals that stressed the need for the U.S. to take the lead in dealing with global warming.

But noting that none of the quotes she cited gave differing views on the issue, Gainor thanked the California Democrat "for making my point for me."

Boxer clashed with Gainor when she noted that both of them are former newspaper reporters - she for the Pacific Sun in San Francisco and he with the Washington Times. "How can you be against a free press?" she asked. "This is a free country, and we treasure a free press."

"I'm a firm believer in the First Amendment," Gainor responded. "I just want to see journalists do a better job when they cover this issue."

Several times during the hearing, Boxer - who will become the committee chairman when the Democrats take control of Congress in January - expressed her support for the media, at one point telling members of the press covering the hearing, "say whatever you want," before qualifying, "keep the editorials on the editorial page."

'Scare stories'

A large part of the hearing also dealt with the actual science of global warming.

During that discussion, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) asked: "If there's a fire in a house, do you have to figure out just how hot it's going to get and how much damage it's going to do before you tell the people inside to get out?"

Lautenberg also referred to a statement once made by the committee chairman, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who wondered whether man-made global warming was "a hoax" being perpetrated on the American people.

Lautenberg then asked the panel of experts whether they considered man-made climate change to be some kind of "bad joke."

David Deming, an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis, replied that he didn't agree with the term "hoax," because that word implied deliberate deception.

Deming preferred the phrase "mass delusion" about "something that doesn't really exist," he said, adding that the delusion was caused by "scare stories" - like "those about houses burning down."

Noting Deming's response, Daniel Schrag, professor of geochemistry in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University, said that he was himself among the ranks of "the deluded," because he believed "the evidence on global warming is absolutely clear."

Robert Carter, a research professor at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, told the hearing that he agreed with the use of the word "hoax." Some agencies and institutions were "deliberately spreading misinformation" for monetary or ideological gain, he charged.

Oreskes said she considered skeptics' response to global warming a sign of "denial." While there's "always some uncertainty" in scientific endeavors, "human activity has changed the chemistry of the atmosphere," she said.

During his opening remarks, Inhofe accused the media of "hyping scientifically unfounded climate alarmism."

Even believers in man-made global warming had criticized the media for presenting "a quasi-religious register of doom, death [and] judgment," Inhofe said.

The panelists did agree on at least one point regarding the media and how it handles climate change. All of the experts criticized the 2004 movie "The Day After Tomorrow," which depicts global warming causing a sudden new ice age in North America.

"The 'science' in that movie is just preposterous," Schrag said.