When legendary editor Ben Bradlee finally retired from his perch atop The Washington Post in the summer of 1991, his reporters sent him joke requests for stories: The funniest one of all was a multipart series on global warming.
Bradlee wanted what he called “holy shit” stories—stories that would make a reader sit up and take notice, though not necessarily stories that would appeal to a reporter’s mother. And the idea that a newspaper—even one with the Post’s power and influence—could interest the public in a story like climate change was, to everyone concerned, hysterical on its face.
Today we know a great deal more about the threat posed to our planet by global warming, but it’s hardly clear that the members of the media have succeeded in stepping up to the challenge by helping the public understand—and ultimately act on—that threat. Eric Pooley dissects the problem in some detail in a thoughtful new paper released by the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center at Harvard. His findings should give us all cause for concern.
Pooley demonstrates that the American press—hampered by budget constraints, a lack of confidence and expertise, and an exaggerated notion of what constitutes “balanced” daily coverage—has taken a shortsighted approach to the so-called climate policy beat. News bureaus have directed their reporters toward the debate about the short-term economic costs of climate action, while ignoring the long-term, global, and arguably more devastating societal consequences of inaction. What ought to be a “permanent, important beat: tracking a mobilization for the moral equivalent of war,” has developed into something disposable and irrelevant. It’s cheap and noncommittal horserace coverage (verging on stenography) of the latest cap-and-trade or carbon tax debate, for example, without an eye to the truth or to the future of the planet.
To put it another way: there’s an elephant in the room, but a bunch of blind men are hanging out way too close to his rear end. The climate story is all about emissions right now. And, as a result, the public is losing sight of the animal as a whole. Andrew Revkin, who runs the Times’ blog Dot Earth, spoke back in December about the importance of reframing the climate beat in terms of a larger narrative:
Climate change is not the story of our time. Climate change is a subset of the story of our time, which is that we are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite. So how we mesh infinite aspirations of a species that’s been on this explosive trajectory—not just of population growth but of consumptive appetite—how can we make a transition to a sort of stabilized and still prosperous relationship with the Earth and each other is the story of our time. And it’s a story about conflict.
It’s a more complicated story to piece together, no doubt, but far more interesting and urgent. In Revkin’s world, addressing climate change is not just about incremental debates over the cost of emissions. These problems ought to be linked to larger issues—poverty and migration, scarcity and growth, and ultimately, war and peace. And if journalists don’t restructure the climate beat to connect these ideas to one another, their ability to engage the public in the policy debate will continue to be limited.
Certainly any number of nonprofit and smaller reporting organizations have done yeoman’s work on the issue. Grist is one excellent example. And the mainstream media has not been entirely lacking in the kind of reporting that ties the big issues together. For instance, Elizabeth Kolbert notes in a recent New Yorker profile of Van Jones—a visionary organizer, founder of Green for All, and Center for American Progress Senior Fellow—that the environmental movement’s political base, “defined as Americans who report the environment as being central to their concerns—is nearly 90 percent white, mostly college-educated, higher-income, and over 35.” Jones sees the answer as getting “the greenest solutions to the poorest people… That’s the only goal that’s morally compelling enough to generate enough energy to pull this transition off.”
If the idea, from the perspective of both journalists and concerned earthlings, is to generate diverse interest and energy around the climate debate, “morally compelling” should be the operative phrase. And it’s certainly not difficult to imagine a morally compelling framework for climate policy reporting when potential problems include massive unemployment and entire countries drowning as sea levels rise.
But developing a climate policy beat that even begins to cover the bigger picture has pretty much been a nonstarter in the mainstream media. Pooley’s ideal climate policy team has an energy reporter, an environmental reporter, and a political reporter who can attack the problems of global warming from varied but complementary perspectives. Alas, he notes:
Editors at cash-strapped news organizations simply have not allocated sufficient resources to the subject, treating it as “a disposable beat,” according to staffers at several national newspapers. When another story gets hot—a presidential campaign, a fiscal crisis—reporters get yanked off the beat. Few have the luxury of covering it full-time; most are energy, environment, or political reporters pressed into service on a subject that requires them to wrestle with all of those issues at once.
Climate policy coverage is, he calls it, “an infant threatened by crib death.” If nothing else, the financial crisis provides an ideal teachable moment in journalistic accountability for the American press’ editors and reporters. When disaster strikes, someone inevitably (and understandably) asks, “Why didn’t we see this coming?” “Why did the press drop the ball?” “What’s the point of even having journalists cover this beat?”
This is one disaster we saw coming….
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.
Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.