Surprise, MTV’s Environmental News Rocks

MTV rediscovers some of the social consciousness that it once proudly displayed.

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 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).

MTV has a few other high-profile stories like this, including an interview with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that aired on Earth Day, and the network did a very good job covering New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But most of the news reports are a mix of stories on youth environmental movements at high schools and colleges, and tips on green living. Again, CNN this is not, but thank god. If high school kids only watched the evening news, they would end up a very jaded lot. It doesn’t take a gifted reporter to explain the benefits of compact fluorescent light bulbs, but it does to make a bunch of obstreperous teenagers actually pay attention. If this isn’t clear, compare the reportage of Sway, one of MTV News’ most popular reporters, to that of your typical nightly news program.

Plus, it gets more exciting than light bulbs. On Earth Day, MTV ran a special edition of “Pimp My Ride,” the popular automobile makeover show. Governor Schwarzenegger is a friend of the team at Galpin Auto Sports in California, where the program is filmed. He and the crew (mostly the crew) retrofit a 1965 Chevy Impala with an 800-horsepower, biodiesel engine. “We try to publicize celebrity involvement in these issues to show people it’s cool, and bring the unconverted into the fold,” said Pete Griffin, a public affairs officer who worked on the “Break the Addiction” campaign. It’s no Pulitzer-caliber exposé on the socioeconomics of biofuels, but, Griffin says, “Stand-alone half-hour shows on these issues can be less effective than integrating them into shows that people are already watching.”

What is unfortunate is that a lot MTV’s best material sometimes receives inconspicuous time slots. Though it later got a primetime replay, Jay-Z’s “Water for Life” first aired at 9 o’clock on a Thursday morning. According to Rowe, there is no way to compare the popularity of MTV’s environment-related programming to more typical shows, such the Real World (which may soon feature a season in an “green” house). Nonetheless, with short public service announcements airing around the clock between scheduled programming, “There is no way you can watch the channel without realizing that global warming is one of our central issues,” Rowe said. But what of the ambitious and valorous new reporting that MTV produced during the early days of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina? We will have to wait and see, but according to Rowe, if environmental issues continue to occupy a prominent place in the 2008 presidential election, MTV will continue its dot-connecting. So don’t expect MTV News to be a cornerstone of the fourth estate. But do expect that the station will play an important role in the education and mobilization of younger generations that will, inevitably, have to face up to challenges of a warmer world.

Correction: The vernal equinox was March 21, not April 21, as the post originally stated. The reference has been removed from the post. (Earth Day used to be held on the equinox.)

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.