The Media Today

The eeriness of an orange sky, and the familiar lack of a climate crisis connection 

September 11, 2020

On Wednesday, the sky over the Bay Area turned orange. The visual was alien, yet the cause—rampant wildfires, accelerated by climate change—was very much a this-world problem. “Some folks said it felt like living on the next planet over, the red one,” Steve Rubenstein and Michael Cabanatuan wrote on the front page of yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle. “Others said it was like a solar eclipse, but longer, or the apocalypse, but less biblical.” Their story appeared under a banner headline, “SURREAL SKY, SURREAL YEAR.” A photo, spanning the width of A1, showed a passerby, clad in shorts, sneakers, and a medical mask, staring upward; behind him, the lights that typically illuminate the Bay Bridge at night were still glowing, because their sensors had been unable to detect the sunrise. Catherine Geeslin, a Bay Area resident, told the Chronicle, “It feels like the end of the world, or like Mordor.”

The fires are not only in California—swaths of land are ablaze along the length of the West Coast. The flames have torched entire towns and killed at least fifteen people, seven of whom were found dead yesterday. In Washington State, more than five hundred thousand acres have burned; in Oregon, the figure is nearly double that. In California, more than three million acres are charred, including a patch of the Mendocino National Forest that now constitutes the biggest fire in the state’s history. Hundreds of thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes. As I wrote recently, that’s a complicated feat in the midst of a pandemic.

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The fires are life-changing, yet the story here is sadly repetitive. Some journalists who live out West have argued that the national press isn’t paying sufficient attention to their plight, particularly compared to the urgency in coverage of hurricanes that hit the East Coast. “I hate being ‘what if national media covered California like they cover New York’ guy,” Kevin Roose, a New York Times tech columnist based in the Bay Area, wrote on Twitter, “but if the sky looked like this in Brooklyn there would already be 142 essays and 17 commissioned TV specials about ‘our orange tomorrow.’ ” Roose’s colleague Charlie Warzel, who lives in Montana, asked, in a column, whether eastern journalists would take fire seasons—and, consequently, climate change—more seriously if they had to experience the flames.

Criticisms like these have irked staffers at outlets—the LA Times, for instance—that are covering the fires aggressively. And they have opened up other complaints: ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman, who lives in Texas, observed that the East and West Coasts both enjoy an ample media presence compared to the middle of the country, where disasters, such as the recent derecho in Iowa, are frequently ignored by the national press. The reality is, of course, that there are national journalists doing strong work in response to the fires, yet the fires story hasn’t inspired a comparable media frenzy to, say, the one circling Bob Woodward’s new book. The problem is one of consistency and prominence.

Which brings us to the importance of making a connection to the climate crisis. During California fire seasons in 2018 and 2019, I observed, in this newsletter, that despite some excellent climate-centered enterprise reporting and editorials, major outlets were generally doing a poor job of integrating climate change into their quick-turn news stories. This year, the picture has been similarly mixed—this morning, the top headline on the Times’ homepage is “A Climate Reckoning in Fire-Stricken California,” yet other national stories, including in the Times, have failed to assert any climate link. In late August, CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project tracked notable instances of climate-free fires coverage; this week, Emily Atkin, who writes the climate newsletter Heated, pointed to more bad examples. Allison Fisher, of the progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America, reports that between September 5 and 8, ABC, NBC, and CBS collectively ran forty-six segments on the fires. Only seven mentioned climate change; Jeff Berardelli, a CBS meteorologist, contributed four of the seven, and ABC contributed none. PBS did a better job.

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As I wrote recently, America is living through a period of compounding crises—from climate disasters to the pandemic to racist violence—whose story lines intersect as they drift along the same currents: death, destruction, despair. On Wednesday, Ed Yong, of The Atlantic, argued that amid all the carnage, we may have become collectively “habituated to horror.” Anne Helen Petersen borrowed that phrasing in Culture Study, her newsletter, which dwelled at greater length on the fires. “People keep comparing the photos of San Francisco against the backdrop of eerie orange to Blade Runner,” she wrote. “It’s a way of deflecting the fear, of making it speakable through comparison to a text that is solidly otherworldly. But the thing about dystopian narratives is that they are not distant from our world; they’re just what happens when our world, or at least our civilization, begins to bend towards its end.” Habituation is dangerous, in journalism as in life.

Below, more on fires:

Other notable stories:

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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.