Hot Air, All Around Us

This week marks the 35th anniversary of Earth Day, and to mark the occasion, Mother Jones brings out some big guns to write about what many regard as the most critical environmental problem facing humankind: Global warming.

In his introduction to the special report, Bill McKibben relives the moment in 1997 when scientists and environmentalists thought a solution might be at hand in the form of the Kyoto Protocol, in which participating nations agree to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

While other nations have acknowledged the threat of global warming and begun to institute changes, writes McKibben, in the U.S., “Big Oil and Big Coal remain in complete and unchallenged power.” From the outset, they formulated a plan and stuck to it. That plan: Cloud the issue.

The tactic worked brilliantly; throughout the 1990s, even as other nations took action, the fossil fuel industry’s Global Climate Coalition managed to make American journalists treat the accelerating warming as a he-said-she-said story.

It was all incredibly crude. But it was also incredibly effective. For now and for the foreseeable future, the climate skeptics have carried the day. They’ve understood the shape of American politics far better than environmentalists. They know that it doesn’t matter how many scientists are arrayed against you as long as you can intimidate newspapers into giving you equal time. They understand, too, that playing defense is all they need to do: Given the inertia inherent in the economy, it’s more than sufficient to simply instill doubt.

(Or, as Columbia journalism professor Victor Navasky put it in A Matter of Opinion, his new book on a lifetime as a writer, editor and adventurer in the world of small magazines, “… the conventions of objective journalism do have a way of strengthening the status quo.”)

Ross Gelbspan and Chris Mooney also contribute to the MJ package. Gelbspan blames a media more interested in marketing than providing news. Mooney details how ExxonMobil is spending millions to spin coverage of global warming.

And, if you want more on the subject, The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert this week launches a three-part series on global warming. (The article is print-only, but a Q&A with Kolbert about her stories is available online.)

The Weekly Standard offers a curious post-mortem on the Associated Press’ photograph (part of its winning Pulitzer entry) of the execution of Iraqi election workers. The article, by photographer D. Gorton, teases: “Will we ever know the truth behind the Associated Press’ strange, anonymous pictures of an execution?” Short answer: Not after reading this analysis.

And Time, as we noted yesterday, for some reason devotes its cover and nearly 6,000 words to a profile of Ann Coulter (subscription required). Proclaims Time in its tease: “She is quite possibly the most divisive figure in the public eye. But love her or hate her, you don’t know the real Ann Coulter.” Reporter John Cloud, who maintains Coulter is merely “misunderstood,” sets out to lift the curtain on a woman he describes as a “spindle-shanked blond.”

The billowing Cloud cover story — which generated a rapid response from liberals — is filled with lines such as these: “As a Congressional staff member 10 years ago, Coulter used to help write the nation’s laws. Now she is more powerful; she helps set the nation’s tone.”

Or, how about this one? “[N]o one on the right is so iconic, such a totem of this particular moment.” No one? Not Limbaugh, not O’Reilly, not Kristol? (Frankly, we think Time columnist Andrew Sullivan may have a clearer eye; he’s called Coulter “a huckster of ideological hate.”)

Our advice: Save this article for the day you’re stuck in the dentist’s office and the only other choice is a dog-eared copy of Field & Stream.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.