Covering Climate Now

The press won’t let Trump bury climate change. But it is still complicit.

November 26, 2018

On Friday, as Americans digested their Thanksgiving dinners, headed out shopping, or stayed in to catch a game, the White House slipped out a dire report on the worsening impact of climate change. The report, issued by 13 federal agencies as part of the Congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment, warned that increasingly frequent natural disasters, like the wildfires ravaging California, could help shear 10 percent off the US economy by 2100 if swift action is not taken. The timing of the report’s release struck many journalists and politicians as a ploy to bury conclusions that contradict President Trump’s extreme deregulatory climate agenda. The hunch was borne out by the Times’s Coral Davenport, who reported that the White House did indeed bet on diminished public interest over Thanksgiving.

Using holidays to dump bad news is a timeworn tactic. This time, however, it appears to have backfired, at least to some extent. In news cycles past, a terrifying official report would have driven the agenda for days; in Trump’s Washington, such stories can get submerged within minutes. The relatively quiet holiday weekend at least gave the report a greater share of the available public attention. And Thanksgiving or not, journalists are in no mood to let this president slide embarrassing news out the back door. As Penn State climate scientist Michael E. Mann tweeted Friday, “Ironically, ‘Trump trying to bury climate report’ is such a compelling media narrative that it might lead to GREATER coverage of the National Climate Assessment.”

ICYMI: What the Times got wrong about kids and phones

The report got big play on Saturday morning. Using the Newseum’s online gallery of newspaper covers, CJR found that at least 140 titles nationwide put the story prominently on their front page, including the Times, the Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald. More than 20 of these papers were in California, where wildfires continue to offer a strong news peg. Other titles, from Maine to Hawaii and Florida to Washington state, led off the report with their own localized looks at the impact of climate change. In Mississippi, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger splashed that the issue has been absent from the state’s upcoming US Senate run-off between Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith (whose comments about the Confederacy and attending a “public hanging” have dominated the debate) and Democratic challenger Mike Espy.

This widespread coverage was a positive outcome. On the whole, however, the media is still falling desperately short. With some praiseworthy exceptions, coverage of the California fires has not asserted a strong enough link to climate change—which does not, on its own, “cause” wildfires, but does facilitate and intensify them as rising temperatures make kindling of vegetation. However dire their predictions, official reports remain, to varying degrees, abstractions for news consumers. The media should cite them high up in their stories whenever “real-life” climate tragedies—with their graphic images of human suffering—strike, and vice versa.

On the Sunday shows yesterday, the tenor of some coverage was much worse. NBC’s Meet the Press gave a platform to the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka—a self-professed “not a scientist”—who used her airtime to assert that “we shouldn’t be hysterical” about climate change because  “we just had two of the coldest years… that we have had since the 1980s.” On CNN’s State of the Union, meanwhile, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said climate scientists are “driven by money.”

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Paying attention to climate change, and treating it as a factual matter of settled scientific consensus, are bare minimums for the media. It was thus depressing, over the weekend, that the former counted as a victory while some prominent news organizations could not even manage the latter. It is positive that Trump’s news dump backfired. But when it comes to burying the reality of climate change, the news media is still complicit.

Below, more on climate change:

  • A good example: The release of the National Climate Assessment did dovetail with some nice enterprise reporting over the weekend. As of Monday morning, the Times still led its homepage with Somini Sengupta’s dispatch from Vietnam on the global coal industry and Abrahm Lustgarten’s investigation, in partnership with ProPublica, about the devastating consequences of US biofuels regulations in Indonesia.
  • A TV failure: Media Matters for America’s John Whitehouse has a good Twitter thread rounding up some of the weekend’s worst TV climate coverage. He also re-ups MMFA’s finding, first published in February, that Sunday news shows did not feature a single scientist during any climate-related segment in 2016 or 2017.
  • The shoe fits: On CNN, Brian Stelter pointed out that Fox News only mentioned the climate report once on Friday, devoting more airtime to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shoes.
  • “A shrinking planet”: ICYMI last week, The New Yorker published this haunting deep-dive on our changing climate by the environmentalist and campaigner Bill McKibben. “‘Climate change,’ like ‘urban sprawl’ or ‘gun violence,’ has become such a familiar term that we tend to read past it,” McKibben writes.
  • False balance: In the UK, the BBC has repeatedly drawn criticism for giving a platform to climate change deniers. In a September note to staffers, the broadcaster admitted it had got its coverage wrong too often, and offered training on how to report on global warming.

Other notable stories:

  • High drama in the UK, where a Conservative Party lawmaker investigating the Cambridge Analytica scandal used an arcane legal procedure to escort a US software executive to Parliament to hand over sensitive documents from inside Facebook. The pressure on Facebook did not let up over the Thanksgiving break following the firm’s admission last Wednesday that executives had, in fact, asked hired PR guns to link its critics to George Soros.
  • In better news for Facebook, Politico reports that Europe’s stringent new privacy regime has so far favored big tech. “The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has dampened investment in startups on the EU tech scene,” write Mark Scott, Laurens Cerulus, and Laura Kayali. At the same time, “no Silicon Valley giant has yet felt the sting of eye-watering financial penalties linked to the rules as regulators struggle to keep up with an increased workload.”
  • ICYMI over Thanksgiving, the daughters of the murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi wrote this beautiful reflection for the Post, where their late father was a contributor. Fallout from Trump’s refusal to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing continued over the weekend—in the US, where a bevy of Republican senators publicly questioned the president’s conclusion, and in Tunisia, where activists asked a court to bar MBS from entering the country.
  • The Times’s Patrick Kingsley and Benjamin Novak profile Origo, a fiercely independent Hungarian news website that became a puppet of Viktor Orbán’s increasingly autocratic regime. “Since winning power in 2010, Mr. Orbán has steadily eroded institutional checks and balances, especially the independent media,” the pair write. “His government now oversees state-owned news outlets, while his allies control most of the country’s private media sources, creating a virtual echo chamber for Mr. Orbán’s far right, anti-immigrant views.”
  • Also in the Times, Amy Chozick interviews Kristine E. Guillaume, who recently became the first black woman to lead The Harvard Crimson in its 145-year history.
  • The conservative conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, a former Washington bureau chief for Infowars, has entered plea talks with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Post reports. Corsi, an associate of prominent Trump backer Roger Stone, has come under the spotlight in recent weeks as Mueller investigates whether the Trump campaign had advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’s October 2016 dump of emails from inside Hillary Clinton’s camp.
  • And for CJR, Shira Hanau, a reporter at the New York Jewish Week, reflects on covering last month’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “While other reporters went through the motions of reporting on a shooting… I found myself performing an altogether different role,” Hanau writes. “I, along with reporters from other Jewish publications did the job of ethnic media: we were there as an extension of the national Jewish community, offering comfort to our readers and to our subjects, simply by doing our jobs.”

ICYMI: Climate change plays second fiddle as California burns

Correction: Sunday’s Meet the Press was on NBC, not MSNBC. The post has been updated.

About Covering Climate Now

CCNow, a partner of CJR, collaborates with journalists and newsrooms to produce more informed and urgent climate stories, to make climate a part of every beat in the newsroom — from politics and weather to business and culture — and to drive a public conversation that creates an engaged public.

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