CJR at COP26: The People’s Summit, Extinction Rebellion, and the press

GLASGOW — Yesterday, instead of going into the COP26 conference center, I headed to a different type of meeting: the People’s Summit. Organized by the COP26 Coalition—a collective of well over a hundred NGOs, unions, Indigenous movements, and other groups united by the belief that “justice won’t be handed to us by world leaders or delivered by corporations”—the People’s Summit ran from Sunday through yesterday; it wasn’t a single thing in a single place, but rather a flurry of workshops, assemblies, performances, and other events spread over more than ten physical locations and the internet. Yesterday, I showed up at a church hall midway through a panel on feminist climate justice. I sat in one of several curved wooden pews along an upper balcony decorated with banners bearing climate-justice messages in blocky letters. The panel was conducted in English and Spanish, with translation accessible via an app and earbuds.

I don’t think I saw any other press present; then again, I probably didn’t look like press: I needed a ticket and a negative COVID test to get in, but not the media lanyard and vetted credentials demanded at COP itself. The People’s Summit piqued some media interest, including from international outlets, especially those based in Europe; more broadly, Coalition representatives have been quoted by outlets including the New York Times, Reuters, and CNBC, particularly around the massive marches that it organized over the weekend in Glasgow and hundreds of other locations worldwide. Those demonstrations drove a lot of coverage, Mim Black, a press officer for the Coalition, told me—but mainstream news organizations, she said, didn’t dig into the substance of the People’s Summit with the same energy. (She namechecked alternative outlets such as gal-dem, an independent magazine that tells the stories of people of color from marginalized genders, as having done a better job.) “The media are looking for big news stories and flashy protests,” Black said. “A People’s Summit that’s a convergence space for movements to strategize and learn isn’t their priority, and I think that’s been quite clear.”

Previously at COP26: The unequal representation of global media at COP

Climate-justice movements (like many other social-justice movements) have historically been marginalized and/or infantilized by swathes of the mainstream media—in the UK as in the US and elsewhere—and members of those movements have long criticized such coverage, while casting corporate media, in particular, as complicit in climate silence and denial. In recent years, youth climate movements have increasingly attracted media attention, especially when Greta Thunberg has been involved, but this coverage has not been without its problems; early last year, to cite one example, the Associated Press cropped Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan activist, out of a photo that it distributed to its partners, leaving only white activists (including Thunberg) in shot. (The AP apologized for an “error in judgment.”) Ahead of COP, Thunberg and Nakate implored the media to do better in an open letter that ran in Time. “No one else has the possibility and the opportunity to reach as many people in the extremely short timeframe we have,” they wrote. “You have the resources and possibilities to change the story overnight. Whether or not you choose to rise to that challenge is up to you. Either way, history will judge you.”

Since its formation in 2018, Extinction Rebellion, a climate movement dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience, has taken the fight to the media more directly. In June 2019, XR’s New York City chapter orchestrated a “die-in” outside the Times’s newsroom in midtown Manhattan to demand more intensive climate coverage; seventy people were arrested. (Days later, youth climate activists around the world followed that up by striking against news outlets in their countries; one of their number, Alexandria Villaseñor, wrote about the strike for CJR.) Last year, XR activists in the UK blocked roads outside printing hubs, stalling weekend deliveries of papers including the Daily Mail and the Murdoch-owned Sun. (“5 CROOKS CONTROL OUR NEWS,” one XR banner read). This summer, XR activists dumped seven tons of manure outside the London offices that house the Mail and other papers. They tried to do likewise outside the offices of the Telegraph (where Prime Minister Boris Johnson used to work) but police stopped them.

Still, Extinction Rebellion UK has also sought more traditional engagement with the British press to get its message out, and has even offered (qualified) praise for right-wing newspapers when it feels praise is warranted. “We’ve always tried to have good relationships with journalists,” Nuala Lam, XR UK’s press coordinator, told me this morning. “There’s people in the movement who previously worked in PR and different things and very much don’t have what you might think is a more typical activist attitude to the media, and actually want to reach them as people and help them do their job.” (When XR launched, Lam recalls, activists convened a news conference to announce their intention to break the law en masse and “there were comments from journalists like, This is amazing—we’ve never been let in like this to activist groups.”) While right-wing British publications, in particular, have continued to demonize XR’s tactics, Lam said that she feels the movement is being taken increasingly seriously by mainstream media—a shift she believes may be attributable to public opinion in the UK, recent flooding in London, and a dire United Nations climate report published this summer. In the wake of the latter, the BBC invited XR onto an evening news show—the first time it had done so, Lam said, without the immediate peg of the group’s direct action.

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Yesterday, I left the People’s Summit to get a cup of tea in the gathering dusk when I heard chanting down the hill. I walked toward the noise, and found that it was coming from an XR march that had started outside the Glasgow offices of JP Morgan and was heading down toward the COP conference venue, flanked by a sizable police escort. I joined the procession and asked some of the marchers how they felt about media coverage both of XR and of COP, and its attendant climate activism. Many of the things they had to say were sharply critical: an activist called Tim, who works as an IT consultant and declined to give his last name, told me that the press is generally “letting the side down” when it comes to climate coverage, adding that he’d struggled to find a live feed of the COP proceedings on any British news website. (“The UN is doing better journalism,” he concluded, after finding the official livestream.)

Others I spoke to, however, echoed Lam’s point that the mainstream media, on the whole, is doing a better job than it used to. Everyone I spoke to (including Tim) singled out The Guardian’s climate coverage for praise without me prompting them. As the march came to a stop on the narrow street outside COP’s outer perimeter, I spoke to Melanie Nazareth, a lawyer and XR activist who told me that she’d helped organize an activist walk from London to Glasgow for the conference (it took nearly two months) and that she’d found many journalists—from big national outlets, but also from local ones along the route—to be both interested in the endeavor and broadly sympathetic toward it, even if some of them, she said, seemed to feel constrained in what they could say about it. Like Lam, Nazareth said that she’d noticed some improvements in broader climate coverage since the UN report came out, much of it pegged to COP. “When you actually begin to quote the activists,” she said, “the message starts to get through.”

Nazareth and others told me that climate coverage still has a long way to go and remains an order of magnitude less urgent than it ought to be; she also noted that the walk to Glasgow was intentionally non-disruptive, which perhaps made it a more comfortable story for the mainstream press. Optics, ultimately, are a reliable driver of media attention, but the story of climate activism cannot be reduced to that. Black, of the COP26 Coalition, told me that many in the media seem to have treated the protests in Glasgow “almost like color for the conference” without always engaging with activists’ demands or expertise—and especially in British media, she said, “there’s a focus on Global North voices and white faces that isn’t actually representative of who’s here and who’s demanding change.” The climate crisis, ultimately, is the story. “If it wasn’t necessary for us to be covered,” Lam, of XR, told me this morning, “we wouldn’t mind.”


Other notable stories, by Mathew Ingram:

  • The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have opened investigations into Ozy Media, according to a report from the New York Times. “Federal prosecutors with the Eastern District of New York have in recent weeks been in contact with at least one company that had dealings with Ozy,” the paper said. “In the parallel civil inquiry, SEC investigators have contacted at least two companies that discussed investing in Ozy,” according to two people with knowledge of the commission’s efforts. While the specific focus of the investigations hasn’t been revealed, the Times noted that a lawsuit filed against the company last month accused Ozy of misleading potential investors about the health of its business and its future growth prospects.
  • Politico has reached an agreement to voluntarily recognize a union of its employees, according to a report from Bloomberg. The news service said that Politico’s editor-in-chief, Matt Kaminski, told staff in an email on Tuesday that the NewsGuild had presented management with enough union cards to suggest there was “overwhelming support” for organizing. According to Bloomberg, Kaminski added that because the unionization effort was “such an important decision for our company, and because we want to roll up our sleeves and begin to work collectively now, we wanted to voluntarily recognize the union quickly and move ahead.” German publisher Axel Springer acquired Politico last month for one billion dollars.
  • Lauren Harris writes for CJR about an off-Broadway play called A Turtle on a Fence Post, written by Hank Morris, a former political consultant who was prosecuted by then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for taking kickbacks, and spent two years in prison. Much of the play is a commentary on how the case was handled by journalists, but Morris claims he has nothing against the media. “‘Look, I don’t think the profession’s monolithic, and I think there are a lot of fantastic people,’ Morris says of his disposition toward the press. ‘But I think there’s a lot of groupthink.’ And he believes he’s something of an expert. During the apex of Morris’s career as a political consultant, he says, ‘I used to talk to twenty of you a day.’”
  • Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge, writes that the publication has updated its policy on when it will allow comments from sources to be “on background,” because of widespread misuse of this process in the technology industry. “We’re doing this because big tech companies in particular have hired a dizzying array of communications staff who routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect accountability, pass the burden of truth to the media, and generally control the narratives around the companies they work for while being annoying as hell to deal with,” Patel wrote. Brian Merchant wrote about tech journalism’s “on background scourge” for CJR in 2019.
  • Twitter and ViacomCBS announced a global partnership in which the social media platform will stream content from various ViacomCBS news, sports, and entertainment brands, including content from live events, according to a report from TechCrunch. “In addition, ViacomCBS-owned streaming service Paramount+ will also host three ‘Twitter Watch Parties’ designed to capitalize on Twitter’s ability to serve as a second screen and a home to fan communities and conversations,” the site reported. The companies did not specify which Paramount+ shows would be hosted as Watch Parties, but said they would be original.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook has allowed plagiarized content to flourish on its platform, according to the company’s own researchers. “About 40% of the traffic to Facebook pages at one point in 2018 went to pages that stole or repurposed most of their content, according to a research report that year by Facebook senior data scientist Jeff Allen,” the paper reported, based on internal communications that it was given access to. The researchers also said that Facebook has been slow to crack down on copyright infringement for fear of opening itself to legal liability: “Mr. Allen, who left Facebook in late 2019, wrote that Facebook pages seeking big followings simply had to ask one question of the content they were considering recirculating: ‘Has it gone viral in the past?’”
  • Brian Williams, the long-time MSNBC anchor who rose to the heights of network television before being sidelined for fabricating an anecdote about Iraq, said Wednesday that he is stepping down from his position as host of an 11pm news show, and will leave NBC News by the end of the year, when his contract runs out. After being put on unpaid leave for six months after the lying incident became public in 2015, Williams returned to the network and built a following for his news and commentary show, The 11th Hour. “It debuted at the height of the 2016 presidential election and quickly found an audience,” said the New York Times. “Left-leaning viewers shocked by the election of Donald J. Trump as president were flocking to MSNBC, and they seemed to forgive Mr. Williams’s past transgressions.”
  • A new company called Workweek launched on Wednesday and plans to “give creators of business-to-business content full-time support to work independently,” Axios reports. The startup plans to focus on content that would “traditionally exist in white papers or behind paywalls at trade outlets,” Axios says, and will pay writers a salary plus benefits such as full health insurance, paid time off, parental leave, a 401(k) matching plan, and a stipend for office equipment. The company has raised one and a half million dollars in funding so far and has hired ten employees, Axios reports, and “is launching with creators across a handful of topics, including healthcare, cannabis, money and financial tech.”

Related: Climate crisis coverage in the first person

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: 11 November 2021, United Kingdom, Glasgow: Activists dressed as corpses lie in front of the grounds of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow during a protest by the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion for the victims of climate change. For two weeks in Glasgow, around 200 countries are wrestling with how the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times, if possible, can still be achieved. Photo by: Christoph Soeder/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images