Sunday was Earth Day, sort of like the environmental movement’s Fourth of July. The event got a lot of attention in the press, but coverage tends to be cynical or fluffy, though a few articles are more substantive and analytical.
The difficulty, for the editors and their audiences, is that Earth Day represents the environmental movement at its most trendy. The annual celebration attracts hundreds of millions of speakers and revelers in over 100 countries around the world, but still, it lacks the weight of a Supreme Court decision or United Nations climate report. Plus, the whole affair is largely associated with the turbulent young, who do not wield as much political clout as judges or ambassadors. But at least one news outlet—MTV—took Earth Day so seriously that it devoted “millions of dollars worth of airtime” (the company doesn’t release financial specifics) to environmental coverage over the last year, in expectation of Sunday’s main event.
The label “news outlet” may throw a few people off, but the music channel has earned its stripes. A recent BusinessWeek article chronicling the “Greening of America’s Campuses” asked whether environmentalism is “the next big youth movement” in a long line of worthy causes such as civil rights, Vietnam, sweatshops, and genocide. If so, Music Television is giving environmental news and debate more attention than most of the mainstream press.
Just over a year ago, on Earth Day 2006, the station announced its “Break the Addiction” campaign, encouraging people to kick (or cut back on) habits that depend on fossil fuel. The campaign is a suite of on-air programming, MTV News stories, public service announcements, contests, online resources, and grassroots mobilization efforts. No, MTV is not the type of news outlet that one would reference in a scholarly paper, and it never will be. And although MTV has produced environmental stories intermittently for over twenty years, the “Break the Addiction” campaign was its first ambitious commitment.
“Historically, the environment never rated highly,” said Ian Rowe, MTV’s vice president of public affairs and strategic partnerships. “But we were starting to see signs that global warming was becoming a bigger story, even if our audiences weren’t clamoring for such news, so we made a proactive decision that we would connect the dots for our audience.”
Those dots, Rowe explained, consisted of other prominent stories, such as Hurricane Katrina and national security, that were inextricably, though perhaps not obviously, linked to man-made climate change. In 2003, a Web article on AlterNet.org commended MTV for its reporting at the beginning of the Iraq war, which the site called “some of the most balanced coverage on television.” During that time, Hans Blix, then the chief United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, told MTV News, “To me the question of the environment is more ominous than that of peace and war. We will have regional conflicts and use of force, but world conflicts I do not believe will happen any longer. But the environment, that is a creeping danger. I’m more worried about global warming than I am of any major military conflict.”
Today, the music’s channel’s coverage isn’t as bold as it was in the run-up to the war, but some of the environmental coverage is no less international in scope. The most impressive report from the last year was hip-hop artist Jay-Z’s “Water for Life,” a short exposé on global clean water shortages. Cynics deride the celebritization of environmental issues. (Annie Leibowitz’s photomontage of Leonardo DiCaprio and Knut, a baby polar bear born in the Berlin zoo, on the cover of Vanity Fair drew mild snickers in the blogosphere.) Nonetheless, Jay-Z’s reportage should strike a chord with viewers. His questions are not the well turned, academically minded queries of Anderson Cooper, but they don’t have to be. He visits small villages in Angola and South Africa, among other stops, where he simply drops in a few homes and asks locals to show him how they get their water. What follows is always an arduous, time-consuming trek to the nearest well or river. The footage - including other scenes of terrible pollution in village waterways - really speaks for itself. Jay-Z even helps carry the bucket (sigh).