US Press Coverage: A Damning Betrayal of Public Trust
U.S. Press Coverage of the Climate Crisis:
A Damning Betrayal of Public Trust
By Ross Gelbspan
I'm a reporter -- not an environmentalist -- so I came to this subject from a very peculiar angle. After I retired from The Boston Globe and was working on my second consecutive unpublished novel, there came to me Dr. Paul Epstein, of Harvard Medical School, with a series of articles he had published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, on climate change and the spread of infectious disease.
Since the work struck me as important, we collaborated on a piece for the Outlook section of The Washington Post. While I was writing the piece, I became very alarmed about the larger issue of climate change and began to consider writing a book on the subject.
But after the piece ran in the Post, I received several letters from readers who said that, the disease information notwithstanding, they didn't believe the climate was changing and they referred me to the work of a few scientists.
So I read books and articles by Pat Michaels, Robert Balling, Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen – all prominent climate skeptics.
They persuaded me that global warming was a non-issue. And emotionally, I was very relieved not to have to deal with such a heavy issue. But I had scheduled interviews with four other scientists, and, just as a courtesy, I decided to keep those interviews.
Those scientists completely turned my head around. They showed me how Singer, Michaels and the others were manipulating data and misrepresenting the situation. That made me quite angry. Not because I love trees -- but because I had spent 31 years in a career predicated on the belief that in a democracy we need honest information on which to base our decisions. What these few scientists were doing was stealing our reality.
(Coincidentally, I learned later that the letters I’d received after that Washington Post piece were part of a coordinated campaign – and not responses from ordinary readers.)
It was also strange that none of the mainstream scientists I interviewed knew where the skeptics’ money was coming from.
With a bit of digging, I soon learned that Singer, Michaels and Balling had received about a million dollars from the coal industry in a three-year period which had never publicly been disclosed.
(Parenthetically, the issue of disclosure is very important. Industry-funded research is neutral – it can be good or bad. But disclosure is critical so that the work in question can be reviewed with an eye to commercial bias. If a medical researcher' work is funded by a pharmaceutical company, that funding must be declared in the tagline as a condition of publication. Unfortunately, those same guidelines do not apply to climate science.)
So after learning about the secret coal-industry payoffs, I said to myself, “If there’s this cover-up going on, what are they covering up?” And that's when I began to learn the science, the politics and many other aspects of the climate issue.
Thinking about the issue, it quickly became clear that the coal and oil industries constitute one of the biggest commercial enterprises in history – and that their very survival is threatened by the imperatives of climate change. The science is unambiguous on one point: climate stabilization requires that humanity cut its consumption of carbon fuels by about 80 percent. The motivation behind the disinformation campaign was very clear – as was the reporting imperative. In this case, it was also the path into an amazing drama – a once-in-a-lifetime story -- that, unfortunately, has largely unfolded outside the spotlit arena of public awareness.
There are a number of reasons for this – none of them, given the magnitude of the story, justifiable.
Let me run through a few.
On a somewhat superficial level, the career path to the top at news outlets normally lies in following the track of political reporting. Top editors tend to see all issues through a political lens.
For instance, while climate change, until recently, has been the focus of a number of feature stories (and buried reports of scientific findings), the only times it has gained real news prominence is when it has played a role in the country’s politics. In the run-up to the 1992 election, the first President Bush slapped the label of “ozone man” on Al Gore because of his book, “Earth in the Balance.” (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Gore totally ran away from the climate issue during the 2000 presidential campaign.)
The issue again received prominent coverage in 1997 when the Senate voted overwhelmingly not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol – not because of the substance but because it signaled a political setback for the Clinton White House at the hands of a recalcitrant Congress.
The issue surfaced again when President Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto process. That coverage focused not on climate change but on resulting diplomatic tensions between the US and EU.
Prior to his withdrawal from Kyoto, President Bush declared he would not accept the findings of the IPCC – because they represented “foreign science” (even though about half of the 2,000 scientists, who contribute work to the IPCC reports are American.) Instead, Bush called for a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences which would provide “American science.”
Here’s what I found astounding. Even as the Washington press corps reported this story, not one reporter that I read bothered to check the position of the NAS. Had they done so, they would have found that as early as 1992, three years before the IPCC determined that that humans are changing the climate, the NAS urged strong measures to minimize climate impacts.
Most recently, of course, the coverage of the collapse of the Copenhagen Conference has focused on the divide between the industrial and developing countries – rather than on the urgency of the climate crisis. And the fight in Congress over the climate bills has been primarily treated by the press as a political story – for example, whether Lindsay Graham is in or out, depending on whether the immigration bill takes precedence over climate legislation -- rather than as a critical issue involving a potentially catastrophic future.
With its blindered focus on the politics, the press has – during this same period of time -- basically ignored several significant findings just in the past couple of months: that the acidity of the oceans has risen 30 percent in the last 200 years, that a once-in-a-century drought in southwestern China has left $3.5 billion in agricultural losses and at least 24 million people short of water, that, globally, the month of March was the warmest such month on record by a significant margin, and that the Koch energy empire and ExxonMobil spent more than $30 million over the previous three years to discredit climate science. None of those facts were reflected in any of the Washington press corps’ pieces I’ve read about the fight for new climate legislation. (Koch Industries, coincidentally, is now bankrolling a swarm of lawsuits against Cape Wind – another fact which has received scant coverage.)
So that’s just a quick nod to the culture of journalism – which is, basically, a political culture which is not particularly hospitable – in fact, institutionally arrogant -- toward non-political areas of coverage.
The next reason has to do with this campaign of disinformation launched by the coal industry and most recently carried forward by ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, which are now the major funder of the greenhouse skeptics. As I mentioned, the fossil fuel lobby paid a tiny handful of scientists – many of whom had no standing in the mainstream scientific community – to dismiss the reality of climate change.
(Parenthetically, we had some fun a few years back with Fred Singer, who was at the time the most visible of the greenhouse skeptics. Singer declared in a letter to the Washington Post, that he had not received any money from the oil industry for at least 20 years – when he had done some consulting for an oil company. Shortly thereafter, we published the fact that Singer had recently received thousands of dollars from ExxonMobil. Lest you think this was a great feat of investigative reporting, the information happened to be on the ExxonMobil website.)
David Roberts, of Grist, provided some other examples of the press’ dismal performance in the last few months.
The lead of a Reuters story on Jan 8 read: “President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech could indicate how badly he wants a global warming bill, which opponents say will cost U.S. jobs and raise prices – a scary prospect for politicians trying to ride out a horrible economy in an election year.”
Roberts pointed out that sentence says nothing about the threat of global warming – nor even about the potential for a surge of economic growth through a transition to clean energy. The lead indicates only that there will be political opposition -- without a nod to its possible consequences.
He cited another story which reported that a modest national renewable energy standard would create more than a quarter of a million jobs by 2025. It followed numerous similar reports
by economists. Yet the press continues to parrot opponents’ concerns that addressing global warming will bankrupt us.
Similarly, the Pentagon has issued at least four reports in the last four years about major threats to our national security from an increasingly unstable climate. But no reporter I’ve read has asked Congressional opponents of climate legislation to address the Pentagon’s concerns.
But while the disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel lobby has been profoundly dishonest, it has also been extremely successful. One proof of the success of that campaign is reflected by several polls.
Last fall, ExxonMobil and one of its front groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the activities of anti-climate action groups in the run-up to the Copenhagen conference. Exxon, along with Peabody coal, relentlessly trumpeted the message that real action on the climate front will result in massive job losses and frequent blackouts.
The result of that extensive campaign is striking: According to BBC News the number of British people who are skeptical about climate change increased significantly. Prior to the latest blitz of disinformation, 85 percent of people surveyed thought global warming was happening. By January, that number had fallen to 75 percent.
Today, according to the BBC survey, only 26% of those surveyed think "climate change is happening and is largely man-made" -- only 1% more than those who think there is no global warming at all.
In the US, the Pew Research Center found that in 2008, 44 percent of those polled saw warming as a very serious problem. Following the latest disinformation campaign, that number dropped from 44 to 35 percent. Similarly, while 47 percent thought at the end of 2008 that human activities are pushing global temperatures upwards, that number dropped to 36 percent at the end of 2009. Do understand that these polls were taken before the recent “climategate” revelations.
The disinformation campaign has also had a profound effect on journalists.
For one thing, it has elevated the climate issue from a relatively obscure scientific debate into an ideological flashpoint --- not unlike the highly charged issues of abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage.
For another, it has allowed the right-wing media to have a field day with the “climategate” e-mail exchange between two IPCC scientists. What’s amazing is that, even attributing the most sinister motives to those researchers, every credible scientific journal agrees that the scandal (if there really is one) in no way discredits the huge body of peer-reviewed climate science that has accumulated over the past 15 years.
But that message was buried or actively ignored in much of the coverage of “climategate.”
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial, for example, proclaimed that Climategate “raises doubts about how much our current warming is man-made as opposed to merely another of the natural climate shifts that have taken place over the centuries.”
From the time this issue first surfaced in the late 1980s, the strategy of the public relations specialists for big coal and big oil has been to maintain a constant drumbeat of doubt. One key way they did this was by conning the press into a false application of journalistic balance.
For the longest time, the press accorded the same weight to the " skeptics" as it did to mainstream scientists. This was done in the name of journalistic balance. In fact it was journalistic laziness.
The ethic of journalistic balance comes into play when there is a story involving opinion: should abortion be legal? Should we withdraw our troops from Iraq? Should we bail out the nation’s banks? At that point, a journalist is obligated to give each competing view its most articulate presentation– and at roughly equal length.
But when it’s a question of fact, it’s up to a reporter to get off her or his ass and find out what the facts are. The issue of balance is not relevant when the focus of a story is factual.
In the case of the climate issue, the founding head of the IPCC, Dr. Bert Bolin, stated as early as 1997 that there is no debate among any statured scientists working on this issue about the larger trends of what is happening to the climate. That is something you would never know from the press coverage.
Granted there have been a few credentialed scientists – although only Dick Lindzen comes to mind -- who have published in the peer-reviewed literature – and who minimize climate change as relatively inconsequential.
In that case, if balance is required, I would think that would suggest that a reporter spend a little time reviewing the literature, talking to some scientists on background, learning where the weight of scientific opinion lies -- and reflecting that balance in his or her reporting. Were that to have happened, the mainstream scientists would get 95 percent of the story -- and the skeptics a couple of paragraphs at the end.
Last February, there was a front-page New York Times story headlined: “Skeptics Find Fault with UN Panel.” Well, since that’s been going on for at least 18 years, I was curious to see what was the news value of this page-one story.
The second graf of the story tells us: “Dr. Pachauri and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are now under intense scrutiny, facing accusations of scientific sloppiness and potential financial conflicts of interest from climate skeptics, right-leaning politicians and even some mainstream scientists. Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, called for Dr. Pachauri’s resignation last week.”
There’s nothing new about Wyoming Republicans taking issue with climate change. Just check out Dick Cheney’s record on the subject. Wyoming is, after all, is now the coal capitol of the country.
But when you read through the whole story, there’s absolutely nothing to impeach Pachauri’s credibility or reputation. While Pachauri, himself, receives $65,000 a year in personal income, he makes substantial money consulting for various companies. But it turns out, he gives all his consulting money to non-profit organizations in India. Finally, the Times quotes, among others, an obscure skeptic named Christopher Monckton whose website claims he has proved climate change does not exist – and that solar and wind energy create as much warming as burning coal and oil. To people in the climate community, Monckton has long been regarded as a clown – a grade C skeptic. But, for some reason, the Times saw fit to quite him as an authority.
Separate from the issue of balance is the responsibility of reporters to make subject matter understandable to the public. One of the first impacts of climatic instability is an increase in weather extremes – longer droughts, more heat waves, more severe storms and the fact that we get much more of our rain and snow in intense, severe downpours.
That is reflected in the fact that extreme weather events constitute a much larger portion of news budgets than they did 20 years ago.
Given the dramatic increase of extreme weather events – you would think that journalists, in covering these stories, would include the line: "Scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming." They don’t.
A few years ago I asked a top editor at CNN why, given the increasing proportion of news budgets dedicated to extreme weather, they did not make this connection. He told me, "We did. Once." But it triggered a barrage of complaints from oil companies and automakers who threatened to withdraw all their ads from CNN if the network continued to connect weather extremes to global warming. Basically the industry intimidated CNN into dropping the one connection to which the average viewer could most easily relate.
There is one more phenomenon that has severely undermined press coverage of the climate crisis – and that’s the conglomeratization of the news media. Until about 15 years ago, most newspapers were owned by companies that were truly committed to the mission of providing news – and were content to reap a seven or eight percent profit margin. But as huge media corporations began gobbling up many of the country’s newspapers, investors became major drivers of press policy. In short, Wall Street became the tail that wagged the dog. To increase circulation, many papers have substituted more celebrity coverage, more self-help articles and more trivial medical news for investigative reporting of complex topics.
At the same time, again to meet Wall Street’s demands for cost-cutting, many newspapers have cut reporting staffs – so that there are very few papers that have the luxury of retaining full-time environmental reporters who actually know the detailed backgrounds of their beat. In far too many cases, marketing strategy has replaced news judgment.
But I think there's a deeper betrayal of trust here by the media. By now most reporters and editors have heard enough from environmentalists to know that global warming could, at least, have potentially catastrophic consequences. Given that reality, I think it is profoundly irresponsible for an editor or reporter to pass along the story with some counterposing quotes without doing enough digging to satisfy herself or himself as to the bottom line gravity of the situation. Their assessment needn't be the same as mine. But simply to treat the story like any other -- without taking the time to reach an informed judgment about its potential gravity -- is a fundamental violation of the trust of readers and viewers who assume a modicum of informed interpretation from their news providers.
One result of the negligence of the mainstream press is that the public is totally unaware that a growing number of scientific findings are focusing on the increased likelihood of abrupt and catastrophic changes. The press is, by omission, putting the general public at increasing risk of being blindsided by some very serious hits.
Finally, over and above the campaign of manufactured denial by the fossil fuel public relations specialists, there is a natural human tendency toward denial of this issue. When one is confronted by a truly overwhelming problem – and one does not see an apparent solution – the most natural human reaction is not to want to know about it. And that applies to editors and reporters just as much as readers.
For that reason, I have spent a lot of time in the last few years promoting a set of policies that we believe would achieve the 80 percent cuts required by nature, even as they would create huge numbers of jobs and economic growth – especially in developing countries.
There is a strategic reason for that focus. It’s only when a person sees an intellectually credible solution that he will let the bad news in on himself. Absent that realization, I think you will continue to see either a complete denial of the reality, or a more sophisticated form of denial which acknowledges warming as a distant problem and minimizes its urgency and magnitude.
The U.S. press today is in what I call “stage-two” denial of the climate crisis. They acknowledge its existence – and they minimize its scope and urgency. You can see this from the pattern of coverage that provides occasional feature stories about the decimation of the forests in Alaska – but which continues to ignore the fact that scientists have been blindsided by the unexpected speed with which the climate is changing – and the expanding dimensions of the havoc it could cause.
So if there is a message in all this, I think it should be: this problem is real. It threatens the survival of our civilization. Moreover, by many very credible scientific accounts, we are already well past a point of no return in staving off major climate disruptions.
How we respond, I think, will determine whether, in the face of these disruptions, we become a more cooperative global community or a more polarized, fortressed, degraded and war-like society. To me, that’s the central question before us. But, again, that is not a debate you’ll likely find in the mainstream press.
Personally, given my own professional background, I don’t really see the captains of big coal and big oil as the primary villains. They’re doing what they’re paid to do – bring us abundant and affordable energy while protecting their industries – albeit with deplorable and dishonest means. To me, the primary villains are our news outlets whose negligence and indifference are bringing us to the brink of catastrophe.
Finally, from the point of view of an individual journalist, the climate crisis is by far the most dramatic story any reporter could ever hope to work on.
Given its diplomatic, technological, economic, scientific and political aspects, it offers one of the richest and most multi-faceted areas of reporting one can imagine.
There simply is no other story that involves such profound consequences.
Most sadly, all those journalists who are ducking this challenge are depriving themselves of the professional gratification that can only come from aggressively covering what is undoubtedly the biggest story of this millennium.
Whether it is due to a lack of interest – or more damningly to a failure of courage -- the press has blown this story in a very major way.
Ross Gelbspan (c) 2010
Talk presented at the "Climate Talks Project," May 5, 2010. Convenors: William R. Moomaw and Timothy C. Weiskel Sponsored by Harvard University Extension School and The Fletcher School, Tufts University.