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How the status quo media failed on climate change

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"How the status quo media failed on climate change"

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The Washington Post has one of the best, short analyses of the climate bill’s death that I’ve seen in the status quo media.  In the print edition, it’s titled “How Washington failed on climate change.”

The author, Stephen Stromberg, gets two thirds of the main blame about right.  First, he notes, “With few exceptions, Republicans have behaved shamefully on climate issues in this Congress, opposing policies that their party embraced in the 1990s (think cap-and-trade). Yet none of them will pay a price in November, and many GOP challengers will benefit.”  Second, he makes a good case that “The president had the political capital and the numbers in Congress to pass something big. He chose health care” over climate.

The irony is that Stomborg is “Deputy opinions editor of washingtonpost.com,” and he is strangely silent on the role of the media, which I think deserves much more blame than Obama (but less than the GOP).  The dreadful media coverage simply creates little space for rational public discourse.  The media has for a long time downplayed the importance of the issue, miscovered key aspects of the debate, given equal time to pro-pollution disinformers, and generally failed to inform the public.  And the Washington Post itself is worse than most, which is why it won the 2009 “Citizen Kane” award for non-excellence in climate journalism.

Even Eric Pooley, author of the must-read political history of how we got into this mess, The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, leaves out the media in his listing of Murderer’s Row for the climate bill’s homicide at Yale e360:

  1. The Professional Deniers
  2. Senate Republicans
  3. Senate Democrats
  4. The Green Group
  5. The Power Barons: When the eleventh-hour search for a compromise began, the utilities got too greedy
  6. The President:  Barack Obama chose not to lead on this issue. His decision to address health care reform before energy and climate change doomed the latter.

What’s strange about this omission is that Pooley’s book certainly takes the press to task, and in fact, Pooley wrote the must-read (again) Harvard study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics “” “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.” He analyzed the 2008 media coverage of the Senate debate over the bipartisan Warner-Lieberman climate bill and concluded:

  • The press misrepresented the economic debate over cap and trade. It failed to recognize the emerging consensus “¦ that cap and trade would have a marginal effect on economic growth and gave doomsday forecasts coequal status with nonpartisan ones”¦. The press allowed opponents of climate action to replicate the false debate over climate science in the realm of climate economics.
  • The press failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate. The argument centered on the short-term costs of taking action-i.e., higher electricity and gasoline prices-and sometimes assumed that doing nothing about climate change carried no cost.
  • Editors failed to devote sufficient resources to the climate story. In general, global warming is still being shoved into the “environment” pigeonhole, along with the spotted owls and delta smelt, when it is clearly to society’s detriment to think about the subject that way. It is time for editors to treat climate policy as a permanent, important beat: tracking a mobilization for the moral equivalent of war.
  • Sound familiar?

    During a crucial time period for the debate, valuable print real estate and TV time was devoted to grossly imbalanced and inaccurate coverage of the stolen e-mails and the like, rather than simply explaining the science:

    We have seen again and again the media skew the debate and misrepresent our increasing understanding of how dire the climate situation according to the latest science:

    Often, it simply fails to inform the public at all about the likely connection between human-caused global warming and serious impacts we are seeing now:

    And since this piece started with an op-ed from a deputy opinions editor at washingtonpost.com, let’s remember that the WashPost is basically the paper of record for inside the Beltway conventional wisdom.  On the climate issue, the Washington Post editors shamefully abandoned journalism in 2009:

    The media coverage is so bad it is an open question as to whether even a great speechmaker like president Obama could have broken through with a strong, repeated public message on the urgent need for passing a climate bill.  The media would have felt a need to balance that message with bad economics and scientific disinformation from the Republicans and pro-pollution disinformers.  And they would quickly have tired of presenting the message, just as they I’m tired of reporting on the basics of climate science and the countless studies that have come out in recent years that make clear urgent action is both necessary and affordable.  Unfortunately, we’ll never know because Obama wimped out.

    But there is no question that most of the traditional, status quo media simply doesn’t get the dire nature of the climate situation that our latest understanding of science makes clear.  And that media reaches vastly more people than President Obama.  If the media won’t stand up to the well-funded, poll-tested disinformation campaign, then the public’s view of climate his unlikely to change dramatically until we have a series of unambiguous signals aka mini-catastrophes aka climate Pearl Harbors?

    Of course, that would still require the media to explain them to the public, or even make any connection between them and global warming whatsoever, so perhaps these are going to have to be medium-sized catastrophes.  More on that shortly.

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    34 Responses to How the status quo media failed on climate change

    1. Peter Mizla says:

      The Media is still in denial of global warming-

      The time when the media chooses to treat climate change as a secondary news item- and when it begins to occupy daily News as a primary story is not far in the future.

    2. Like no other time, the Internet permits a solidification of history. Broadcast news used to just disappear, newspapers used to crumble. But now we can track the relentless campaign of disinformation.

      It is much easier to name, shame and blame.

      Both stupid and irresponsible of any media organization to act that way.

    3. SecularAnimist says:

      Joe wrote: “… If the media won’t stand up to the well-funded, poll-tested disinformation campaign …”

      Of course “the media” won’t stand up to it — because “the media” (ie. the half-dozen giant corporations who own virtually all of the newspapers, radio & TV stations and networks, and major news websites from which most Americans get most of their information) is an INTEGRAL PART of the “well-funded, poll-tested disinformation campaign”.

      The problem is that all too many “liberals” have the quaint notion that “the media” is engaged in “journalism” when in reality it is nothing more or less than a giant corporate propaganda mill.

      And with regard to AGW, the corporate media’s top priority has been to protect the fossil fuel corporations’ ONE BILLION DOLLARS PER DAY in profit against the urgent public interest in rapidly phasing out their products.

      And as such, “the media” has not “failed” — it has succeeded.

    4. mike roddy says:

      I’m glad you’re reporting on the atrocious performance of our media, but am mystified that you are practically the only one doing it. Whatever happened to CJR and SEJ, or have they been intimidated too? Is there anyone at all besides you, Gelbspan, and Littlemore?

    5. Jeff Huggins says:

      The Monumental Media Failure

      The media have failed because of one or both of two reasons (most likely both):

      * They have completely lost sight of the meaning of “the public good” and their immensely important role in helping the public achieve “the public good”.

      * They don’t really understand the science or the stakes. In other words, they don’t “get it”.

      And/or, there is the distinct possibility that most of the media’s leaders and chief editors are basically incompetent.

      Months ago, I wrote to Andy Revkin and a few others about these things — a seventy page analysis, essay, and responses to some of his comments on Dot Earth.

      I’ve also sent notes to Curtis Brainard and commented, fairly frequently, on The Observatory.

      And of course, I tried, fairly frequently, sending messages and leaving voicemail messages with the office of “The Public Editor”, at the Times.

      I’ve also written to the deans of many of the leading schools of journalism.

      But stay tuned: Andy has indicated that he would write an open letter to the media and journalism community covering his own assessment of the news media’s performance on the climate change and energy issues, and also covering his suggestions for what needs to be improved, if anything. He asked for a reminder at the end of the month, which is right about now. So, I’m hoping that Andy will “tell it like it is” — or at least that he will certainly “tell it as he sees it”, which will tell us a lot, either way.

      One “nice” thing about the media’s failure looking back (although I DO, deeply, hope they get their act together going forward, for the sake of all of us!) is this: The media create a record of the facts of their coverage. In other words, for example, the daily issues of The New York Times are available for all to see, for historians, for students of journalism, and for everyone. The articles that were run, the articles that weren’t run, the placements, the often misleading titles, and all the details — including the reporters’ names on each article — for all to see. So, there’s no covering up the facts. The scene of the crime is, in essence, available, and for years to come. That’s one reason that it makes no sense whatsoever for people to hide behind excuses. In the end, the excuses look silly and will look silly.

      So we’ll see.

      Jeff

    6. paulm says:

      You could argue to a big extent that the public doesn’t want to know and so the media obliges.

      The tail wags the dog.

    7. Peter Smith says:

      Taxes on energy will not change the climate. People are not that stupid.

    8. Will they take up this one? At least it was in the Independent: 40% decrease in ocean’s phytoplankton, major disruption of marine food web, caused by global warming: http://bit.ly/Phyt40

    9. Ben Lieberman says:

      For some in the media global warming is no longer ‘news’ because they already wrote a story years ago. Whenever I criticize coverage by the Boston Globe I’m told by staff that they published a series of articles on the local effects of climate change–this series ran in 2007. Since then their coverage has increasingly covered global warming as a ‘controversy.’

    10. Lindsey says:

      On a positive note, a type of media we can rely on are blogs. Citizen publishing is allowing us to disperse news without the annoyance of getting through to news outlets that can be more worried about their ratings and advertising. In fact, I just read on Renewable Power News the other day that Google recently decided to purchase wind power for the next two decades to provide clean energy to its data centers. If companies like Google are getting on the clean energy band wagon, then maybe the rest of the world won’t be too far behind.

    11. SecularAnimist says:

      Peter Smith wrote: “Taxes on energy will not change the climate. People are not that stupid.”

      But just how stupid do YOU have to be to post such an idiotic comment?

    12. john atcheson says:

      #2 Secular Animist:

      You are so right — Bernie Sanders laid out the ownership/control corporations have over media here:

      http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0615-03.htm

      It’s quite illuminating. If Sanders is right, then it’s not so much that the media doesn’t understand the consequences of climate change, rather it’s that they can’t countenance the nature of the solutions.

    13. mike roddy says:

      Secular Animist, I don’t disagree, but that’s a way of giving up in despair.

      Corporate control of media and government are not going away anytime soon. The battle for truth in reporting may be winnable, though, and is certainly worth fighting.

    14. PSU Grad says:

      “For some in the media global warming is no longer ‘news’ because they already wrote a story years ago.”

      I’m not sure that’s the entire story. I recently found out that a TV newsperson who sometimes reported on the activities of a government agency is now a “spokesperson” for that same agency. In other words, as the newspaper and other media businesses continue to implode, how many of these people are looking for ways out, and don’t want to antagonize potential future employers?

    15. cervantes says:

      from my own blog:

      Composition of the moon: Rock or green cheese? CNN borrows its report of the latest international report on climate change from a Financial Times reporter. After duly reciting the findings of a group led by NOAA, she writes:

      Some scientists hailed the study as a refutation of the claims made by climate skeptics during the “Climategate” saga. Those scandals involved accusations — some since proven correct — of flaws in the IPCC’s landmark 2007 report, and the release of hundreds of emails from climate scientists that appeared to show them distorting certain data.

      What she doesn’t bother to tell us is that the flaws “since proven correct” were trivial, inconsequential errors of attribution and one or two narrow substantive errors which did not bear in any way on the overall conclusions, out of thousands of pages; and that the e-mails that “appeared to show them distorting certain data” actually did no such thing. She then goes on to quote a who’s who of crank climate change deniers — mostly from oil industry-funded think tanks — heaping scorn on the report by making assertions which are simply false.

      The corporate media will continue to cover the story in this way for as long as they are, well, corporate.

    16. A Siegel says:

      Joe — thank you for this piece. My immediate reaction, on reading this, ‘but the Post is a blame-free zone’ in terms of its own activities and responsibilities.

    17. Dave E says:

      #7 “Taxes on energy will not change the climate. People are not that stupid.”–I assume you mean taxes on CO2. How about taxes on cigarettes–have they helped reduce smoking?

    18. Sasparilla says:

      A very good article. Talking about the climate “Pearl Harbors” after what we saw over these last several years (in Washington) has made me reassess what I was thinking regarding those “Pearl Harbors”. Just my opinion on this, of course.

      At this point, I don’t think the “Pearl Harbors” listed from that page would changed anything, politically, here in the U.S. (except for the megadrought in the SW if it turned into a true dust bowl). The “Pearl Harbors” listed would definitely scare the heck out of us, who are watching for them and know what they’d mean. But I doubt an Ice Free Arctic (the most visible short to mid term reminder of changes happening) would change a thing for the Republican party, their funding or most of their party faithful. For the most part, IMHO, it just doesn’t matter if it happens somewhere else for alot of americans and the Republican party faithful in particular on this issue.

      For real change on the right, we’ll have to have “Pearl Harbors” happen here in the U.S. where it affects the Republican faithful, is painful to a large number of people, something the press can’t ignore, is sustained and can’t be dismissed as a product of anything but global warming (i.e. big hurricanes won’t do it). The deniers won’t stop fighting or funding their fight and whatever happens will have to be “loud” enough to overwhelm the deniers message to the Republican faithful (i.e. displace that message on Fox, the Wall Street Journal etc. to the point where they have to admit they were wrong and we need to do something) and make the issue “urgent”. This is a very high wall any climate “Pearl Harbor” will have to jump over – for effectiveness in the US.

      A true dust bowl that wipes out a big chunk of U.S. food production and blows dust through much of the middle of the US (so people see it happen several times), might be enough, but it might not. Actual sea level rise flooding of our sea ports over several years would definitely do it, but the melting isn’t happening on that time scale (many decades away).

      As others have said, in the mean time (which could be a long time), we have to redouble our efforts at the state and local level and make sure enough democrats in Washington don’t cross over with the Republicans and give away the EPA greenhouse gas regulating authority – which the CO2 industries will want (after their victory in killing the climate bill for a very long time). This seems to be the hand we’ve been dealt at this point, however unsavory it is.

    19. SecularAnimist says:

      mike roddy wrote: “… that’s a way of giving up in despair.”

      I am in favor of NOT giving up, in spite of the despair.

      mike roddy wrote: “Corporate control of media and government are not going away anytime soon.”

      Which is exactly why it is futile to hope or expect that the corporate-owned media will eventually start “getting it right”.

      It’s not the job of the corporate-owned media to “get it right”. They are not “failing” as a result of incompetence, laziness or confusion; they are in fact succeeding by being very competent, diligent and clear about doing their actual job, which is to propagandize the American people in furtherance of the corporate agenda.

      And unfortunately, at present, that agenda is dominated by the fossil fuel corporations’ relentless, rapacious, reckless greed for the trillions of dollars in profit that continued business-as-usual consumption of their products will bring.

      What is urgently needed is to bypass the corporate-owned media, and communicate directly with the American people.

      This website is one way of doing that.

    20. Berbalang says:

      What might do it is if a Climatic Pearl Harbor event were to hit Washington D.C. during congressional testimony about Climatic Pearl Harbor events being caused by Global Warming. It would have to be pretty dramatic, like having ocean waves lapping at the steps of Congress.

    21. Michael Tucker says:

      I think you are right about newspapers. The quality of science reporting in newspapers has been declining for years and most have recently dumped their long time science reporters, as well as other experienced journalists, in a desperate attempt to cut expenses. The newspapers are dying because no one is buying or even reading for free. Since the papers are in desperate need to attract readers it is only natural that they would jump at any controversy; enter the science denial machine. Both newspapers and TV news organizations claim their goal is to inform the public but they are really about making money first and actual informing may or may not happen at all. We should demand that the media do a better job.

      We need the truth to be told and again I think you are right: Obama should have come out with a strong, repeated public message on the urgent need for passing a climate bill. He should have used Holdren and Chu as well. I feel I should here that message just as often as I hear from the Ethanol Poets.

      That said I suggest that the public already knows but chooses to make no demands. We have many polls that confirm:
      “…overwhelming support for comprehensive clean energy legislation that includes carbon pollution reductions.”

      So what is the problem? If the polls say the public is ready why the delay? We have evidence of “overwhelming support” but no demand for action. Sadly I think much has to do with President Obama’s priorities and his lack of leadership on a climate bill. He put other issues first. He decided to make the big effort on health care.

    22. Peter Mizla says:

      What Joe has said in this post is troubling to us here- but most of the public is either uniformed or disengaged regarding the significant risks we face.

      We have a public that understands little of the dynamics of climate change, with a media that is sleepwalking..

      Unfortunately it will take climatic catastrophes that begin to fall like dominoes- in a cascade of death, crop failures, famines, relentless heat and drought, water shortages, endless wildfires, flooding of coastal cities & Mega cyclones hitting the American coast before the media links CO2 emissions with climate change- by then its over.

      The medias cowardice on this issue is tragic and criminal.

    23. SecularAnimist says:

      Michael Tucker wrote: “So what is the problem? If the polls say the public is ready why the delay?”

      Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s basically because too many US Senators are bought-and-paid-for corporate stooges who don’t give a hoot what “the public” thinks or wants.

      Remember — the House passed a decent (not great, but decent) climate bill last year. It’s the Senate that is the problem. And the problem with the Senate is that too many of them answer to the corporations who fund their multi-million dollar election campaigns, not to the voters.

      Thus we have the spectacle of Kerry and Lieberman putting forward a so-called “climate” bill with a section entitled “Ensuring A Future For Coal”, and this being rejected by the Republicans and so-called “moderate” Democrats as too burdensome on the coal industry.

    24. fj2 says:

      Supposedly, Conde Naste including The New Yorker with write Elizabeth Kolbert (not to be mistaken for New York Magazine with has always been awful) is changing its business model with its main source of revenues to come from subscribers rather than advertisers (auto, oil, insurance, financial, etc. industries).

      It would be interesting should this work and the quality of climate change news coverage as say opposed to The Atlantic, NY Times etc., and most other media dependent on special interest subsidies.

      It has been reported that Conde Naste considers revenue from advertisers (perhaps, aka special interests) as high risk and that people would be willing to pay extra for accurate reporting.

      This could also be a response to unstable financial times and or both.

    25. Prokaryotes says:

      A Wrong Turn on Climate Change So what went wrong on the road to controlling global warming and getting closer to energy independence?
      http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/07/a-wrong-turn-on-climate-change/60598/

    26. Bob Lang says:

      What post after post on this topic fails to address is: Why is this only happening in America.

      According to Bill Maher: Because Americans are stupid.

      According to Gore Vidal: Because America has the worst-educated population of any First-World country.

    27. Michael Tucker says:

      I wouldn’t disagree. I think Canada and Australia are still struggling with climate legislation but, even though it is difficult to admit, the American voter is dumber and that encourages the election of very stupid legislators. Then those legislators ensure the public stays stupid by interfering in their education.

    28. Leif says:

      Great posts one and almost all. Thank you.

      I think it can be said that the Democratic Party itself is under the control of Big Money and Wall Street. (Evidenced by their weak response to the GOBP onslaught. One might think that they want to lose.) Sort of GOBP Lite.

      The Military is controlled as well, in a different sense. The Military is just starting to grapple with this changing roll as the protecters of the people of the USA. If memory serves me correct, that is from both internal and external threats. The Military, recently, almost quietly, acknowledging global climatic disruption as being a National Security Issue. How do they play their hand? On the one hand, do they protect the people? That requires Sustainability and a re-evaluation of the Holy GDP base line? On the other, does the Military protect the Government representing the obvious Corporate threat to those same people? Biting the capitalistic system that feeds them will lead to less funding for the Military.

      To confuse the issue even more. The only solution has almost no Military, (bang bang), component. Logistically and command and control obvious exceptions. Others as well with more thoughtful input. As if the Military cares, I would embrace sustainability and down size the “Bang” part.
      It could save the Nation money, secure a place for themselves into the future, save the Nation strategically, which is their job, and will be required to get the Tin Hats and corporate Big Bellies to see the light.

      So far it looks like science is our only ally. And a lot of smart people. About the best I can say is that the lines are getting some edge to them.

    29. CW says:

      If the media has become a business and not a public service, and if as a result it has made a commodity of information, then I suggest we “buy” good news more often – a lot more often. Look for it, link to it, blog, vlog and tweet about it and just generally give it prominence. It might just be a round-about way of creating more of it.

      I mean, maybe the more we all focus on good news, the more it will grow in media coverage. Maybe the more good news stories make headlines, the more people of all kinds who want to make headlines will steer their efforts in this direction.

      Regardless, I would highly recommend trying it for a while. And I mean really actively and creatively trying it. Get on news lists, make lists of your own, set a bit of time aside where you refuse to read bad news and instead scan headlines or search only for good news. With time you’ll find places where it tends to pop up and how to reach it more often than not. After personal experience, I can confidently say that even in the field of climate change, there is a LOT more good news out there than most of you think.

      A list of the biggest climate-related good news stories or trends right now surely includes:
      -> The trends in new electricity installations: In the US and the EU, the past couple of years have seen a turning point. More NEW electricity installations are renewable electricity than all other forms combined.
      -> The trends in electrification and efficiency of personal transport
      -> The actions by municipalities and some states to reduce emissions
      -> The plans and actions of some leading nations to get off oil (Sweden) or to make their energy carbon-neutral (Germany)
      -> The actions of a lot of big companies to lighten their carbon footprint
      -> The actions of China. Yes China. We all benefit to an extent as they green. Their wind policies are stuff of advocates’ dreams and as a result that sector has doubled year over year for over 4 years in China and will be the world leader in a couple more. Recently there’s even been a report that they might be getting into cap and trade.

      If you don’t believe some random post by someone, then check out reports by the OECD’s International Energy Agency and the WorldWatch institute pointing to the technological tipping point being here (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6481 and http://iea.org/Textbase/npsum/ETP200SUM.pdf)

      One of the advantages that this has brought to me personally – after having done it for a few years – has been a greater level of optimism. I’m not always cheery, that’s for sure, and I certainly don’t deny that negative futures, even dystopian ones, are fully possible. But I am now more convinced than before that progress has a fighting chance. Something one most often does not feel after having sat passively and watched a typical “news” broadcast.

    30. Richard Miller says:

      Dear Jeff,

      I would be interested in your seventy page media analysis.

      Also, we also have a record of the publication of major scientific papers that are crucial for the public to know about, which means they should be on the front page of our major papers.

      Like today we have this. (Seth Borenstein for AP wrote on this, but where did it appear, not in places of prominence as far as I could tell.)

      http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7306/pdf/nature09268.pdf

      Global phytoplankton decline over the past century
      Daniel G. Boyce, Marlon R. Lewis & Boris Worm

      In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic
      matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested
      decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends.
      Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time
      dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899. We observe declines in eight out of ten
      ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal
      interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly
      correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface
      temperatures. We conclude that global phytoplankton concentration has declined over the past century; this decline will
      need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries.

      Vol 466
      29 July 2010
      doi:10.1038/nature09268
      pp 591-596

      See this link for interviews with the authors:

    31. thingsbreak says:

      Joe,

      Here’s another stunning example, courtesy of The Financial Times and CNN.

      [JR: That is a stunning embarrassment!]

    32. Clive in Oz says:

      Bob 25 and Michael 26 I think you do Americans a disservice. As an English born former Canadian now living in Australia, my observation is that there are several reasons why coverage in the US and the public response is apparently less well informed than in many other countries:
      * Many countries have a publicly funded broadcast network with a reasonable audience share not (entirely) dependent on paid advertising. This at least partly reduced the strength of influence of major corporate interests
      * I think both the US press and government are more influenced by corporate power, but I hasten to add that the other countries I know are far from immune either. This arises from a combination of culture, history and constitutional differences and may not be easily changed.
      * Arguably unions have maintained a stronger countervailing influence in debate in other countries, (though not always constructive either, but at least a different perspective).

      If I have any criticism of “Americans” it may be that – generally – they seem to be more inward looking and self sufficient (and self satisfied) than most other nations. That is understandable given their high level of self sufficiency and economic success until later in the twentieth century. I sense that may be starting to change. This change must come from within. Good luck to you all and keep pushing.

      The rest of the world need the USA to succeed, but as a partner and a friend as much as anything.

    33. Eric says:

      Very interesting article. I randomly happened upon your site when I was in the process of doing some research with the internet. Felt the urge to let you know I like this site and to keep on doing what you’re doin. And don’t forget, enjoy the journey, don’t focus too much on the end result. Take care, Eric