Listening to Greta Thunberg

Yesterday, as world leaders (minus some notable exceptions) gathered at the United Nations in New York to wring their hands and make inadequate pledges to confront the climate crisis, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist from Sweden, stole the limelight. She offered the world’s media two viral-ready moments, which duly dominated much mainstream coverage. Addressing assembled dignitaries, Thunberg seethed, “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” (Later, #HowDareYou trended on Twitter.) Separately, she glowered at Donald Trump as he walked past her. (Trump attended the summit for 14 minutes, then took other meetings.) It was, as British newspaper The Independent put it, “a mood.”

Thunberg was a hot topic in conservative media, too; where liberals see her as a courageous truth-teller, many on the right paint her, variously, as a liar, a hypocrite, the ringleader of a shady socialist conspiracy, and the witless victim of her parents and the liberal media. (Such attacks are very gendered, Martin Gelin writes for The New Republic.) Demonization of Thunberg isn’t new, nor is it limited to the US; her August visit to the UK, for instance, gave right-wing commentators there conniptions. Yesterday, the trolls were out in force again. (Predictably, the president was among them.) On Fox News, viciously patronizing coverage of Thunberg recurred throughout the day. Marc Morano, a guest on Fox & Friends, accused her of “causing and instilling fear in millions of kids,” forcing some of them onto anti-anxiety medication. Greg Gutfeld, a Fox host, called her behavior embarrassing. Hitting rock bottom, Michael Knowles, a guest on The Story, called Thunberg “a mentally ill Swedish child.” (The network called the remark “disgraceful,” and said it has no plans to book Knowles again.) Later on, Laura Ingraham cast Thunberg and other young climate activists as victims of “child abuse” and media “fanaticism.” Ingraham went on to compare the activists to Stephen King’s titular children of the corn.

ICYMI: The news according to migrants in Italy

On social media, liberal commentators jumped to Thunberg’s defense. This morning, she features on the front pages of newspapers in the UK, Germany, Sweden, and beyond, alongside glowing praise for the power of her address. We should be clear, however, that Thunberg wasn’t just targeting the shameful passivity of world leaders, or the dangers of climate denialism. She rebuked the comfortable liberal narrative that the next generation will save the world. And while she didn’t mention the media by name, we must take her admonition of the “business as usual” approach to the climate crisis as a critique of our work, too.

Our media does, slowly, seem to be waking up to the enormity of the climate story. (Among other initiatives, in the run-up to yesterday’s summit, CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project coordinated increased climate coverage in more than 300 newsrooms worldwide.) The summit, however, has been pushed down the news cycle by other stories—principally, Trump’s apparent solicitation of campaign help from Ukraine, possibly as part of a quid pro quo. The Ukraine story is hardly “business as usual.” But the wall-to-wall nature of coverage, especially on cable news shows, meant world leaders’ inadequate efforts to fix an existential threat to our planet—on the rare occasion of many of them coming together to discuss it—were conveyed with insufficient urgency. If any issue merits wall-to-wall coverage, surely it’s the one that has the adjective “existential” tied to it.

Lots of good coverage of the summit did happen. On his MSNBC show, Chris Hayes discussed the Trump administration’s shameful climate stance with Gina McCarthy, who served as EPA administrator under Obama. And stories in The New York Times and elsewhere centered the key point that, for all the promises made at the summit, big polluters such as China did not pledge fresh action. But it’s easier for world leaders to shirk their responsibilities when the world’s press is not, with one voice, suspending business as usual to shout about the climate crisis from the rooftops. Yesterday showed that while many in the media are eager to hear from Greta Thunberg, they are perhaps less prepared to listen to her.

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Below, more on the climate crisis and the UN:

  • “Unknown Gretas”: To coincide with the summit, Thunberg and 15 other young people announced that they are suing five heavy polluters—Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey—for violating their rights as children. Alexandria Villaseñor, another high-profile plaintiff, urged the media to write about the other children involved, not just her and Thunberg. In a similar vein, Grist’s Rachel Ramirez and Paola Rosa-Aquino interviewed “a handful of unknown Gretas who are fighting no less vigorously than Thunberg for climate action.”
  • Covering Climate Now: CNN’s Kerry Flynn caught up with some of the news organizations that participated in Covering Climate Now: “The commitment to promote climate stories with the #CoveringClimateNow hashtag started on September 15, but many news organizations hope to stick with it long past Monday’s UN event,” Flynn writes. “One reason is the readership and engagement from audiences have increased.” ICYMI, Kyle Pope and Mark Hertsgaard, the project’s leaders, offered their own reflections last week.
  • Other business: Following yesterday’s summit, the UN General Assembly opens today. The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor rounds up the key issues to watch, including discussions about Iran, and Trump’s planned meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart tomorrow. Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, already announced an independent watchdog combating extremist content online.


Other notable stories:

  • This morning, two rulings for your attention: the European Union’s top court determined that Google does not need to apply the “right to be forgotten”—a European rule that allows internet users control over what information about them appears online—globally. Authorities in France had sought the rule’s expansion, but were unsuccessful. And Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that a recent move by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to suspend Parliament was unlawful; John Bercow, its speaker, says Parliament will reconvene tomorrow.
  • Yesterday, in an address at Brown University, A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the Times, shared an unreported story about Declan Walsh, a Times reporter who, in 2017, faced imminent arrest in Egypt. A Trump administration official gave the Times a heads up, Sulzberger said; the warning seemed standard, until the paper learned that the official was speaking without the permission of his bosses, who intended to let the arrest happen. In the end, it was diplomats from Ireland, Walsh’s home country, who got him out. The anecdote, per Sulzberger, is emblematic of America’s retreat from its defense of global press freedom.
  • The televised White House press briefing has been mothballed and it doesn’t look like it’s coming back anytime soon. (The last one was more than six months ago.) Appearing on Fox & Friends yesterday, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said Trump may choose to recommence briefings in the future, but “right now, he’s doing just fine. And to be honest, the briefings had become a lot of theater. I think that a lot of reporters were doing it to…” A host cut in: “get famous?” “Get famous!” Grisham echoed. Reporters, she added, “weren’t being good to [Trump’s] people. He doesn’t like that.”
  • For CJR, Alessio Perrone and Angelo Boccato profile the Black Post, an Italian online magazine run by immigrants. “Most of the contributors’ stories draw from personal experiences as a way to offer perspective on current affairs,” Perrone and Boccato write. “This is a deliberate choice, since their voices are precisely what the Black Post thinks is missing from Italian media.”
  • The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu tackles “cancel culture,” the idea, popular among conservative commentators, that free speech is increasingly at risk from a censorious horde of online jacobins. “Perhaps we should choose instead to understand cancel culture as something much more mundane,” Nwanevu suggests: “ordinary public disfavor voiced by ordinary people across new platforms.”
  • New York magazine has signed on with WME, a Hollywood talent agency, as it seeks to develop its content across film, TV, and audio, The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Sun reports. To the same end, New York’s parent company, New York Media, is launching its own production initiative headed by the brother of its CEO, Pam Wasserstein.
  • A new study from the Global Disinformation Index, a UK-based nonprofit, analyzed 1,700 sites pushing disinformation and found that 70 percent of them benefit from automatic ad placements administered by Google. Vice News’s David Uberti has more.
  • This week, CJR’s Mathew Ingram will lead a series of interviews on Galley, CJR’s discussion platform, about the funding scandal engulfing MIT’s Media Lab. (I wrote about it in a recent newsletter, if you need a primer.) Ingram will talk with Max Larkin, a reporter with WBUR; Justin Peters, of Slate; Adam Clark Estes, of Gizmodo; and Becca Lewis, a researcher at Stanford. You can get involved here.
  • And authorities arrested a US Army soldier who discussed attacking CNN with a vehicle bomb, CNN’s Katelyn Polantz reports. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s president, reassured staff that there was never any imminent threat to their safety.

ICYMI: For many reporters covering climate, population remains the elephant in the room

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.