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The Media #FAIL On Climate Change

October 1, 2013

I’ve long thought that if Dr. Evil, or an alien race, or Al Qaeda, threatened to slowly warm the planet, acidify the oceans, intensify extreme weather events, wipe out or alter countless species and habitats, and flood low-lying countries, the global media, and the US media in particular, would treat it as the greatest threat to humanity since fascism. Headlines would scream. Editorials would scathe. News article after news article would detail the latest evolution of the threat and its implications. The media would go into full war-footing mode and treat an existential threat like a, well, existential threat. Which is to say it would be given the prominence that it truly deserves.

But if we–humans–are doing it to ourselves, not so much. As the full impact of climate change accelerates and makes itself felt, how the media handled climate change in our era will be a perfect case study in failure to report and communicate the most important news. And it will look all the worse to future generations of media scholars in contrast to the infotainment and twerking obsessions that instead dominate the media.

It may be understandable that the public–endlessly poking away at its smartphones in search of the latest meaningless distraction–gives the media a free pass on the epic climate change fail. But thinkers and leaders don’t get the same pass on not calling out the media. So it is nice to see Al Gore speaking plainly:

Gore, the former vice president who should have been president but instead used Powerpoint to put climate change on a lot of regular folks’ radars, is not shy about using his outsized soapbox. He was blunt in sharing his reflections Friday during a talk at the Brookings Institution. Here are some choice quotes, as transcribed by The Hill:

“Here in the U.S., the news media has been intimidated, frightened, and not only frightened, they are vulnerable to distorted news judgments because the line separating news and entertainment has long since been crossed, and ratings have a big influence on the selection of stories that are put on the news.”

“And the deniers of the climate crisis, quite a few of them paid by the large fossil fuel polluters — really it is like a family with an alcoholic father who flies into a rage if anyone mentions alcohol, and so the rest of the family decides to keep the peace by never mentioning the elephant in the room. And many in the news media are exactly in that position.”

“They get swarmed by these deniers online and in letters and pickets and all that if they even mention the word climate, and so they very timidly, they get frightened and they are afraid to mention the word climate.”

“Their purpose is to condition thinking and to prevent the consideration of a price on carbon. It’s just that simple.”

I think this is right, but there is a feedback loop that intensifies the problem. As Gore notes, the media these days (especially cable TV) is much more about entertainment than it is about truth-telling or reporting inconvenient truths. But I think the media’s reluctance to really report climate change is less about being intimidated by the drunk fathers of climate denialism than it is about a craven effort to throw before the public anything and everything that will get attention, or go viral, or get page views. And downer news about how we are destroying our own planet with lifestyles driven by materialism and self-gratification, is just not…popular (though dramatic superstorm reporting is). At the same time, if you are going to subject your audience to a grim reality it’s vastly more entertaining to put the drunk uncle in the mix, and let him rant against reality, than it is to tell your audience that the drunk uncle is crazy and needs to be ignored.

And that, in turn, creates the impression that the facts are murky, there are two sides to the debate, and that sacrifice or a deep re-thinking of the destructive culture we have perfected over the past 50 years is simply unwarranted.

But, hey, even Al Gore can make climate reality entertaining:

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