Covering Climate Now

CNN’s climate town hall was a step forward. But we still need a climate debate.

September 5, 2019

Ahead of CNN’s climate-focused town-hall marathon, which took place across seven hours last night and featured 10 Democratic presidential candidates back to back, Emily Tamkin, CJR’s public editor for CNN, had some advice for the network. The moderators, Tamkin said, should take it as given that the climate is in crisis, make the candidates prove that they understand how to address that fact, probe their past records, and move beyond facts and figures to illustrate the real-world impact of climate change on people’s lives. Such steps offered CNN “a chance to significantly better its televised coverage of the climate,” Tamkin said. Otherwise it risked “airing the equivalent of an article from 2009.”

How did the network do? The town hall was a mixed bag, Tamkin says. “In many ways, the moderators themselves slipped back into familiar frames. What is the sacrifice going to be? Are we going to have to drive electric cars? Are you going to take our meat away?” she said in an email. “But the people CNN called on to ask—who were chosen by the network, so that’s to their credit—actually hit the marks that climate/energy reporters told me they were looking for. People from climate affected areas asked questions in ways that made it tangible to them. Activists asked about candidates’ records. Students asked questions that were grand enough that people didn’t get lost in the details but specific enough that candidates were called upon to demonstrate their understanding.”

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Tamkin wasn’t the only journalist to criticize the performance of the moderators. “A lot of the CNN questions are framed in such a way that they assume the solutions to climate change are a bigger threat to existing systems than climate change,” Kendra Pierre-Louis, a climate reporter at The New York Times, tweeted. “Where is the evidence of that?” At times, candidates seemed frustrated by that framing. When Wolf Blitzer asked Andrew Yang if all Americans would have to drive electric cars in the future, Yang snarked back, “Electric cars is not something you have to do. It’s awesome.” Elizabeth Warren rolled her eyes at a question, from Chris Cuomo, about the appropriateness of the government imposing energy-efficient light bulbs on consumers. “This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about,” she said. “They wanna be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70 percent of the pollution… comes from three industries” (building, electric power, and oil).

Not all the night’s questions were bad, however; many of them communicated the full urgency of the climate crisis, the science behind it, and the nuances of how we might respond, winning praise from climate scientists, activists, and reporters. The moderators repeatedly mentioned the immediate context of Hurricane Dorian (in general, climate change makes hurricanes worse), bucking the depressing trend of top outlets failing to mention climate change in their coverage of extreme weather events. They used visuals—of Dorian and other climate disasters—to good effect. And, as Tamkin notes, audience questions were generally well-framed, helping viewers toward the understanding that climate change doesn’t begin and end with the weather. One questioner asked Julián Castro about environmental racism, the idea that communities of color are most vulnerable to a shifting climate. Another asked Castro if there was any moment in his career that he regretted, from a climate standpoint. Castro stood silent, mulling the question, for 10 seconds. Compared to the clamor of the Democratic debates—where some whole answers lasted 10 seconds—the thoughtfulness was refreshing.

In the grand scheme of things, the existence of a seven-hour forum devoted solely to the climate crisis—in prime time on a major network—was a step forward. “Just seeing the words ‘Climate Crisis’ in red on screen is a victory for our movements,” the writer and climate campaigner Naomi Klein tweeted, referring to CNN’s branding; the meteorologist Eric Holthaus called the town hall “unbelievably hopeful.” The challenge for CNN—and all its counterparts in the mainstream media—is to sustain this high level of attention.

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Principally, last night further underscored the need for a Democratic climate debate. Such events often descend into contrived confrontations and viral “moments”; at their best, however, they offer voters dynamic comparisons between competing philosophies that don’t translate effectively to a back-to-back forum. And, like it or not, debates generate an avalanche of hype. The reaction to last night’s town hall has not been of the same magnitude.

The failure to host a climate debate is not on CNN; it’s on the Democratic National Committee, which rejected the notion, and whose rules currently forbid candidates from appearing on stage together at unsanctioned events. As Klein told Politico, it’s “very disturbing and deeply shameful” that the DNC won’t follow major networks in suspending business as usual to center the climate crisis.

Below, more on the climate town hall:

  • “I didn’t realize he does that”: Ahead of the town hall, The Intercept’s Akela Lacy reported that Joe Biden will today attend a fundraiser co-hosted by Andrew Goldman, who founded a natural-gas company. An audience member asked Biden about Goldman; Biden skirted the question, so Anderson Cooper followed up. “I didn’t realize he does that,” Biden said of Goldman. “I’m gonna look at what you just told me and find out if that’s accurate.” Cooper replied, “I think it’s pretty accurate.”
  • Ratings killer or killing ratings?: Politico’s Michael Calderone reports fears that anticipated low ratings for last night’s event “could do more to depress future coverage of global warming than stimulate an ongoing discussion.” (CNN says the town hall was not about ratings; we shall see.) Calderone mentions Covering Climate Now, an initiative spearheaded by CJR and The Nation to improve the visibility of climate change in our media. You can find more details here.
  • On the sidelines: Half the Democratic field was excluded from the climate town hall; CNN extended invitations only to those candidates who qualified for this month’s third presidential debate, on ABC. One of those left out, Tulsi Gabbard, tweeted her climate plan: she’ll “stand up against the military industrial complex & warmongering media” to work with Russia and China, she says. A candidate who already dropped out of the race—Jay Inslee, whose campaign was focused on climate change—was present in spirit at the town hall: multiple participants praised Inslee and his climate policies.
  • Heated: Emily Atkin, formerly a climate reporter at The New Republic, is launching a newsletter, called HEATED. She just sent round a special pre-issue about the town hall. “Maybe this is because I’m a cynical jerk, but I really thought CNN would mess this up,” she writes. “So I was shocked at how productive Wednesday night’s town hall was.”
  • The next one: In the aftermath of the climate event, the Human Rights Campaign announced that it will host a presidential town hall focused on LGBTQ issues, also in partnership with CNN. It’s slated for October 10.

Other notable stories:

  • In the Bahamas, the extent of the damage wreaked by Hurricane Dorian became clearer yesterday as officials launched a huge rescue operation; for CJR, Amanda Darrach followed Bahamian journalists’ efforts to cover the impact of the storm, often at great personal risk. Dorian, now a Category 3 hurricane, could make landfall in the Carolinas today. Yesterday, despite the present danger, President Trump seemed preoccupied with justifying his erroneous claim that Alabama was once at risk from the storm—he held up a National Hurricane Center projection from August 29 that appeared to have been extended into Alabama using a black Sharpie. Hogan Gidley, the deputy White House press secretary, later confirmed the Sharpie mark—as he slammed the media for focusing on it. It’s not clear if Trump or an aide was responsible for the alteration.
  • Yesterday, staffers at the Arizona Republic declared their intention to unionize; as part of their rationale, they cited the impending merger between Gannett, the paper’s owner, and GateHouse, which is likely to lead to job cuts. Per Steven Hsieh, of the Phoenix New Times, the Republic’s top editor—who has compared union supporters to “crackpots and criminals”—accused union organizers of “surveillance.” One of them, Rebekah Sanders, says an HR representative from Gannett subsequently confiscated her work phone.
  • Guy Snodgrass, who worked under James Mattis when he was defense secretary, is suing the Defense Department. Snodgrass says officials have imposed prior restraint on his speech by delaying publication of his book about Mattis’s Pentagon; Defense warned Snodgrass of a “range of potential consequences” should he disclose details that are classified or that violate the “trust” of Mattis, the Post reports. Per NBC, Snodgrass says the Pentagon stalled so Mattis’s own memoir could appear first. It came out this week.
  • James Poniewozik, TV critic for the Times, also has a book out, about “Trump, television, and the fracturing of America.” Vanity Fair has an extract: “As a candidate, Trump controlled TV. As president, he would be controlled by TV,” Poniewozik writes. “For Trump, the childhood illusion—that your favorite show is as aware of you as you are of it—became real. Fox & Friends was Donald Trump’s magic mirror.”
  • CJR’s Sam Thielman checks in at a difficult moment for cartoonists, who have faced a thinning of their ranks and, increasingly, reprisals from newsroom managers. “Where there were more than 2,000 staff cartoonists at work a century ago, and 180 as recently as the 1980s, contemporary estimates are grim,” Thielman writes. “A 2011 survey by The Herb Block Foundation… estimated that fewer than 40 such jobs still exist.”
  • Eliana Johnson, a White House correspondent for Politico, is taking over as editor of The Washington Free Beacon, a neoconservative site. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith asked her if she thinks the media is unfair to Trump. “I think the media is unfair to the president’s supporters and at times uncharitable to the president,” she said. His fans “understand that he lies… so there are reasons beyond that that they support the president.”
  • For CJR, Michael Balter explains why he publishes #MeToo stories from the world of academia on his personal blog, after encountering friction when he tried to place them in major outlets. “I don’t expect many other journalists to follow this unorthodox path—not least because nobody pays me,” he says. “But I have found that the reporting still reaches the communities that most need it, and the people that are best placed to take action.”
  • In Honduras, Edgar Joel Aguilar, a TV journalist with Cablemar TV and Channel 6, was killed by unidentified assailants on Saturday, the Committee to Protect Journalists writes; Aguilar received threats and requested protection the day before his murder, police said. (I wrote for CJR about journalism in Honduras during the political unrest there in 2017.)
  • And Trump’s Labor department reinstated Leif Olson, an official who resigned after Bloomberg Law inquired about his past “anti-Semitic” posts on social media. As I noted in yesterday’s newsletter, Bloomberg Law’s resultant story was off the mark: Olson’s posts were clearly satirical, not racist.

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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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