Last Sunday, in a mostly unremarkable 60 Minutes piece hosted by Lesley Stahl, former vice president Al Gore and the Alliance for Climate Protection publicly launched a $300 million campaign to keep the public focused on greenhouse gases and global warming.
The program targets “influentials” and segments of the population that don’t normally tune in to (or trust) mainstream media. American University professor Matthew Nisbet has a very good discussion of why avoiding traditional press routes is important, but journalists clearly wanted in on Gore’s announcement anyway.
Reuters’ coverage was typical of the most straightforward. Environmental correspondent Deborah Zabarenko kept almost exclusively to information in the press release. Zabarenko, like others, described only the most basic anatomy of the campaign in monetary and human numbers, who it targets, what types of ads will be deployed, and where some of them will appear.
“We can solve the climate crisis, but it will require a major shift in public opinion and engagement,” Gore said in a statement … A longtime environmental activist, Gore chairs the Alliance for Climate Protection, which unveiled the “We” campaign with a series of videos, a Web site-www.wecansolveit.org-and a television advertisement set to air during such programs as “American Idol,” “House,” and “Law & Order.”
Even Andrew Revkin at The New York Times wrote a lackluster article that was a bit heavy on press release re-hash. He moved the coverage of Gore’s latest campaign a tiny step forward by including a marketing professor’s discussion of the size of “We” in relation to, say, the billion dollars a year Pepsi and Coca-Cola spend trying to push their respective soft-drink brands. That said, Revkin fired back with a Dot Earth blog post that put his print story to shame.
So what’s the problem-people actually giving a hoot about global warming is a good thing, right? Yes. But Gore’s announcement was the kick-off for a PR campaign, not something like a policy speech, or the creation of an experimental media company.
These articles are little more than free advertising for an advertisement. Gore may be the earth’s chief press secretary, but he has also hired the agency that came up with GEICO auto insurance’s successful talking gecko and caveman ad campaigns.
It’s true that advertising campaigns are often newsworthy-Gore’s last one won him the Nobel Prize, and then there were those ads by Dr. Robert Jarvik. But simply announcing a press release without giving us any context or putting pressure on the assumptions is journalism 101 stuff.
Is this campaign comparable to any past campaigns? What’s the breakdown of how the $300 million will be spent over three years? Will any be going to research? How does this tie in to the election? Is there anyone who thinks the “We” campaign is a bad idea, regardless of his or her position on global warming? One recent study found that the more people know about global warming, the more apathetic they become — so what will make this campaign more effective than the typical TV public service announcement?
Not all of the coverage was unsatisfying, however. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin not only bolstered her article with an extensive interview in which she asked the former veep about why he thinks this campaign is the best way to curb greenhouse gas emissions, she also devoted a sizeable portion to questions about the presidential campaign:
All three [candidates] have discussed global warming with Gore in phone calls over the course of the past few months. While McCain backs a more modest plan than that favored by the Democrats — he supports a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2050, compared with Obama and Clinton’s vow of an 80 percent cut during that period — the presumptive Republican nominee emphasized during a recent stop in Chula Vista, Calif., that he had pushed for a federal cap-and-trade system before either of his opponents came to the Senate…
Gore, who backs a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by mid-century, said that while he’s “encouraged” that the remaining candidates back mandatory limits on greenhouse gases, they still need to be pushed: “What happens after the election will depend on whether or not we win enough hearts and minds in the country as a whole.”
Eilperin went on to compare Gore’s new campaign spending to that of the Legacy Foundation’s anti-smoking campaign ($100 million the first year, now down to $30 million a year), and the various campaigns operated by the Ad Council (a yearly average of around $40 million for fifty campaigns).
Eilperin deserves additional praise for mentioning two other ad campaigns that directly oppose Gore’s: a $35 million pro-coal campaign run by Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, and a Competitive Enterprise Institute campaign “focusing on the threat to affordable energy posed by Al Gore’s global warming agenda.” Eilperin was smart to include this information, not as a reflexive nod to journalistic “balance,” but rather because it is an important part of the story of the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans on energy issues broadly. (It was similar extra depth and perspective that made Revkin’s Dot Earth post so much better than his print article.)
Also worth noting is that Eilperin took part in an “e-chat,” as the WaPo calls it (a live, online Q&A session), discussing her “We” campaign coverage. The transcript, available online, is smart use of technology to add value to an already strong article.
Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.