Must read Newsweek stunner: Why the “status quo” establishment media’s coverage of global warming is so fatally useless, Part 1

Averting catastrophic global warming requires completely overturning the status quo, changing every aspect of how we use energy — and doing so in under four decades (see “The full global warming solution“). Failure to do so means humanity’s self-destruction, Hell and High Water.

Media coverage of the problem and the solution has been dreadful (see “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress” and here). But why?

In his new cover story on Paul Krugman, Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas unintentionally provides the answer — the shocking, unstated truth about the media elite: They have “a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are.”

Assuming we don’t spend the mere 0.11% of GDP per year needed to avert catastrophe, future generations who are puzzled about our fatal myopia need look no further for explanation than Thomas’s full remarks. He begins with the amazing admission, “If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am),” and continues with words that should be emblazoned across journalism schools around the country and read out loud at every Ivy league college graduation:

By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking. The in crowd of any age can be deceived by self-confidence….

Thomas was writing about the current economic crisis, but his words apply far better to the global Ponzi scheme. Indeed, his words could not more ironically apply to the catastrophic global warming that he and his establishment buddies are all but blind to:

the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking.

This might just be an epitaph for modern human civilization (see Two trillion tons of land ice lost since 2003, rate of Greenland summer ice loss triples 2007 record and WMO confirms “Overall [Arctic] ice volume was less than that in any other year” and Startling new sea level rise research: “Most likely” 0.8 to 2.0 meters by 2100).

Glenn Greenwald’s column in Salon, “Newsweek‘s unintentionally revealed, central truth,” put me on to this story. He notes that it is not just Thomas, but “also most of his media-star colleagues,” who are “of the establishment persuasion.” He concludes:

One day in the near future, Thomas should have a luncheon or perhaps a nice Sunday brunch at his home, invite over all of his journalist friends who work in the media divisions of our largest corporations, and they should spend 15 minutes or so assembling these sentences together, and then examine what these facts mean for the actual role played by establishment journalists, the functions they fulfill, whose interests they serve, and the vast, vast disparities between (a) those answers and (b) the pretenses about their profession and themselves which they continue, ludicrously, to maintain.… To make the discussion less strenuous on the guests’ brains, Thomas, as a good host, could provide visual illustrations such as this and this.

Also, in the name of consumer protection, television news shows and the largest newspapers ought to place that above-excerpted paragraph by Thomas as a warning at the top of every product they produce.

Hear! Hear!

In Part 2, I’ll look at the dean of DC establishment media, David Broder.

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21 Responses to Must read Newsweek stunner: Why the “status quo” establishment media’s coverage of global warming is so fatally useless, Part 1

  1. paulm says:

    Yeah, in the states. Why isn’t the main media there like the Guardian and The Independent in the UK.

    Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason has a good go at explaining this.

  2. Thomas says:

    Saul Alinsky in his book Reveille for Radicals had a good point about this related to unions. Basically the point was that once unions were established, big and formalized, the union bosses had a vested interest in the status quo. So, they weren’t interested in the radical original demands of the workers. They were more interested in bargaining with the companies to keep their position.

    But this kind of thing is always the case. I think it’s worth pointing out that even the “good guys” can be subject to this syndrome. For example, if convincing evidence starts coming out indicating that we are wrong about global climate change, climate bloggers and activists will probably be among the last to accept the evidence or new reality. It’s a shame, but it’s probably the case.

  3. Colleagues working in commercial news media all seem to get the same rude message of the cold reality:

    “The news organization is here to deliver eyeballs to paid advertising, If you can’t bring in the viewers/readers so we can sell the ads, then clear out” So news organizations – like any entity must serve the master.

    When this a long term plundering of the news consumer is complete – it is because the consumer is crushed and bled dry.

    The new lesson for any news organization is to learn how to protect and nurture its own source of revenue. (Gosh, that applies to any business – enlightened capitalism anyone?)

  4. paulm says:

    The point of no return
    Nicholas Stern argues that the time for debate on climate change is well and truly over
    … the noise made by deniers continues to be loud, in relation both to their modest numbers and the poverty of their thinking. Why do they make their case at such volume, and why do they have an audience, given that their case is so weak?

    The answers are largely political. Some on the right, such as those attached to free-market think-tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, see environmental causes as a trojan horse used by those who would like to regulate and control the economy. Others on the left – in some developing countries such as India, for example – see the issue as an elitist hobby-horse of the middle and upper classes who are diverting attention from more pressing issues such as poverty and redistribution.

  5. DB says:

    Joe wrote “Assuming we don’t spend the mere 0.11% of GDP per year needed to avert catastrophe…”

    Joe, how does this relatively small number (~$16 billion for the US) square up with the statement that a WW2-type effort is needed? WW2 cost the US some $300 billion in 1940s money (some $1 trillion a year today).

    [JR: This is total net cost. I’ll blog it it soon.]

  6. Ronald says:

    We’re all corruptible. Given enough bribes, money, political power or honor. Given enough blackmail, unemployment, destitute and poverty. We mostly don’t care about the screams of future generations, we can’t hear them. It’s all about now. Now, baby, Now

  7. russ says:

    Don’t see climate change on TV or in the news? Do you read or watch or just sit around whining. I see it all the time!

    Krugman got his wittle prize by bitching – no way he is going to shut-up now.

    When I was in India I used to ask people if you gave away 1 billion dollars, what would be best to do. Give one dollar to everyone in the country or give the billion to an industrialist who would build plants and make progress.

    My answer is give it to the one guy – he will skim 10% and invest the rest. Give it to the government there and they will skim 100%/

  8. Ronald says:

    Just a question on that 0.11 percent of GDP. Shouldn’t that be 1.1 percent of GNP?

    McKinsey and Company has it at 0.6 to 1.4 percent of GNP.


    [JR: I use the IPCC number for total cost of 450 ppm. Go back and check exactly what McKinsey said.]

  9. Yelena says:

    Thomas said; “if convincing evidence starts coming out indicating that we are wrong about global climate change, climate bloggers and activists will probably be among the last to accept the evidence or new reality”.

    You think? I’m pretty sure any good news on the climate front would be embraced by climate activists. After all, it’s progressives who have been most receptive to the science, with conservatives generally held back by ideology. Why would it be any different if bad news turned to good?

  10. hapa says:

    good news is good, bad news is bad — this ain’t no “no-spin zone”

  11. JR,
    For the latest atrocity of brain-dead pseudo-journalism, check out the weather blog post at your hometown “news”paper that falsely equates Dyson with Hansen, then gives equal weight to your Dyson post and Watts’.

    BTW, the Cato anti-science ad was 1/3 of today’s Business section in the dead-tree edition of WaPo.

  12. Pangolin says:

    Who knew that the western newspapers and broadcast media were almost entirely supported by car and travel ads? Apparently nobody actually watching television every day since they have long since learned to tune it out.

    Disconnect your cable for a few months, then turn the television back on and the US looks like a bunch of prescription medicine addicts, that drive giant SUVs on roads completely empty of other cars. Then they take weekends in Cancun, Bali, and summer cruises.

    A media whose customers are NOT viewers but advertisers isn’t going to push a worldview that advocates elimination of the customers product. While this has been patently obvious for years the complete lack of self-criticism in the media has made it a subject more taboo than obscure sex acts.

    You can’t fix it if you can’t even talk about it.

  13. Pangolin says:

    While we’re commenting on bad climate journalism I would like to point out that complete rubbish is published by nominal or even outright greens as well as browns.

    Two articles of note: James Lovelock goes completely nimby-nutters about wind power in the Guardian. Also George Monbiot builds a giant strawman with which he attacks biochar and gets his fingers burned for his efforts.

    All in good fun.

  14. Jim Beacon says:

    The reason the media does such a poor job of reporting what’s going on with climate change — and why so many people are ready and willing to believe the deniers with their unceasing misinterpretation, misreporting and flat out lies about the scientific data is simple:

    Everyone *wants* global warming to not be our fault.

    This is why Gore titled his film “An Inconvenient Truth”. Most people, whether well-off or impoverished, perceive themselves as having a hard enough time getting by with their lives and lifestyles. If someone tells them, “Hey, this great big scary hard-to-solve problem is not really our fault” that is very comforting for them to believe. It’s very convenient. It means they can go on as they have and will not really be condemning their children and grand children to hell on earth. The deniers give us absolution and freedom from responsibility. People like that.

    Because of this basic fact of human nature, it would probably be more productive if everyone who does recognize we are a big part of the problem and must do something about it were to change our own PR approach. Perhaps we will get more bees with the media honey of emphasizing not how bad things will be if we don’t act, but how *good* things will be if we do act in a big way. All this change will cost a lot of money, yes, but in the end it will make people far more money than it costs, so we really need to be pushing that idea.

    It’s probably time to stop trying to make people very afraid of global warming and try to get them enthusiastic and excited about what we can do about it.

  15. Greg Robie says:

    I have been off line and in Maine for the last couple of weeks. One of the things I did while there was go walking on a still frozen lake. The surface was getting granular, and soon it will be unsafe to do what I did. Already vehicles and ice houses are gone from the lake. I mention this for ice cracks as it freezes and expands. If you don’t hear it cracking under you, that is no big deal. This is because cracking means it is getting thicker. When it thaws, it warms through the change of phase heat gain and then disintegrates, quietly, completely.

    In the higher latitudes, the kind of cracking that is referenced in the referenced article would occur at the early part of the winter when a lake catches. By definition, a status quo is not analogous to an early winter freeze up. A status quo would be when you do drive your cars, trucks, and snowmobiles out on the ice to your ice houses . . . and keep doing it even though the longer days means that spring thaw is coming. And if it wasn’t for stiff fines for losing a vehicle through the ice I might have still seen vehicles on the lake on this trip. Isn’t it the cyclical nature of things that a status quo is challenged to accept the truth of? Surely we can get another week or two of fishing in . . ..

    I have posted comments here before about the role motivated reasoning plays in informing our irrational thinking and behavior. Without intending to discount the points that have been made about journalists of the establishment persuasion (BTW, and as noted above, such journalism is endemic to our for-profit approach to news), motivated reasoning plays a major role in blinding one to the outside changes that rationally should be adjusted for. Isn’t it more enjoyable to ________ (fill in the blank with what is enjoyable)?

    Consider what Andy Ridley, Earth Hour executive director, said about Saturday’s event, “Earth Hour has always been a positive campaign; it’s always around street parties, not street protests, it’s the idea of hope, not despair” This was the third year of what is, relative to the change getting to

  16. Greg Robie says:

    rest of that above post (I used the less than symbole–a no-no):

    less than 350 encompasses that is its own version of “pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails” as the ice and methane hydrates are thawing all around us.

    The newly favored NY Times columnist at this blog, in an earlier piece about a trip to Greenland, wrote of having his whiskey chilled with 5000 year old ice in deference to keeping despairing news appealing to an audience; to preserve eyeballs for the marketing that pays for the press. The science referenced in this weekend’s column conveniently skipped what came out of the ISCC this month and referenced earlier stuff from February and January from a more isolated sources, and did so without mentioning a number like 350.

    Even this blog’s hard working owner still references the now understated IPCC’s economic numbers and time line when make assertions about the cost of mitigating AGW (and I would still like to see discussed here how these numbers play out now given the economy of today, not what was predicted in 2005-2007 when the assumptions for these predictions were made).

    Motivated reasoning is our nemesis. All of us. We need one another to help us not fall into it. Pointing out the “others” proclivity for it–and calling it something else– is, of course, more fun.

  17. amazingdrx says:

    This cuts one way, it supports global climate change action. It explains why establishment media has soft soaped the climate change story.

    But it cuts another way, right at the heart of cap and trade. The status quo establishment is still protecting their beloved hedge funds that still hold their beloved key to their ruling class status, their money.

    Regulate trading and there goes their hedge funds and their money with it. trust carbon permit trading to corrupt hedge fund manipulated markets and we get bundled carbon permit “imstruments” and ‘derivatives’,complete with ‘carbon credit default swaps’.

    The Geithner plan is to allow all those practices to continue, but design some sort of “regulation’ to make global kleptocracy publicly palatable. Where is Tim’s money? In a hedge fund? After all that prevents charges of insider trading, riiight?

  18. jorleh says:

    There was some Thomas there. The same guy as wrote the unhappy article in question? Unbelievable. What is the price to us to keep such fellows going on. Extinction?

  19. Thomas says:

    Not the same Thomas.

  20. Barry says:

    The “bigger” the life the bigger the climate stomping footprint.

    As professor Pacala of stabilization wedges fame showed, the wealthiest 8% of humanity are responsible for 50% of the carbon emissions. That’s us folks. Meanwhile half of humanity emits less that a tonne per person per year.

    The vast majority of people who work for the big newspapers, buy the fancy products, fly to far-flung vacations, fill the halls of government, hold the levers of capital…lead big lives that require big carbon to keep going.

    A picture as always is worth a thousand words. So here is my favourite on this topic: the cover of my alma mater’s alumni magazine. The cover story was an excellent article on methane release in thawing Siberia. Yet despite the frightening science the story ended with an oddly upbeat “not to worry”. The back cover completes the picture.

    We need to make luxury carbon and big-life carbon socially and morally unacceptable if we want any chance of getting the lever pullers to do anything meaningful in either newsprint or laws.