WHY OUR MAINSTREAM MEDIA HAVE FAILED IN THEIR COVERAGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

For decades now, our mainstream media have failed in their coverage of climate change. Earlier this year, Bill Moyers and the Schumann Media Center, which supports independent journalism, announced the creation of the Covering Climate Now project, a partnership of The Nation magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). They hope to increase the coverage of climate issues and help journalism live up to its responsibility to connect the dots and tell important stories so that the public can understand them and act on the information presented. As Bill Moyers, the iconic journalist, said in his amazing speech (30 minutes) kicking off the project (there’s a 2.5 minute excerpt on the CJR website if you scroll most of the way down), “Reporting the truth is always the basis of any moral authority we can claim as journalists.” [1]

The first president to mention global warming was President Johnson in a speech to Congress in 1963. However, attention to it in public policy got lost due to a host of other hot issues (no pun intended). The fossil fuel industry, however, was paying attention and undertook a disinformation campaign that continues to this day.

In October 1970, the Mobil Oil Company began paying The New York Times to publish regular Op-Eds, also called advertorials, written by Mobil’s press office. Mobil viewed them as part of a major political campaign to prevent action against fossil fuels due to global warming. By 1983, Mobil’s press office felt they had succeeded in shifting the Times’ editorial positions to those Mobil had been espousing. [2]

Today, it is increasingly common for the mainstream media to present non-advertising “news” content that has been prepared by or for large corporations. For example, The New York Times and The Washington Post have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies and organizations, such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute, to create the industry’s advertorials, which they then publish. [3]

The mainstream TV media haven’t done any better: combined coverage of climate change by the three major networks and Fox was just 142 minutes in 2018, down 45% from 2017. That’s an average of only 41 seconds per week per outlet! Not only have the major TV networks basically ignored this story, but they have failed to counter the false and deliberately deceptive propaganda promoted by the fossil fuel industry. [4] For example, extreme-weather events are linked to climate change, but the mainstream media almost never mention the climate change connection. Local weather forecasters are doing more to report the links between weather and climate change than the national networks.

The fight over climate change featuring environmentalists and scientists versus the powerful fossil fuel industry and its political supporters sounds like a David vs. Goliath story to which the mainstream media would love to give lots of coverage. But that has not been the case to say the least. [5] For example, in our general election presidential debates, the moderators who are from the mainstream media have not asked a single question about climate change in 2016, 2012, 2008, or ever.

The mainstream media, both TV and print, have been brainwashed by the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda to view climate change as a political story rather than a science story. The fossil fuel industry has successfully spread confusion and doubt about the science using the same public relations strategies and even some of the same “scientists” as Big Tobacco did in its campaign to spread doubt about the dangers of smoking. For example, Frederick Seitz, a physicist by training, received $45 million from Big Tobacco to obscure the risks of smoking and then, with funding from the fossil fuel industry, became the prominent US denier of human-caused climate change. [6]

The fossil fuel industry has bought enough politicians’ support through campaign spending and lobbying to make climate change appear to be a political issue rather than a scientific one. [7] The Republican Party in particular has bought into using climate change as a campaign issue (or perhaps it has been bought by the fossil fuel industry). Therefore, the mainstream media cover climate change as an issue of politics and not science.

As a result, the media typically give equal coverage to the scientific consensus that human activity is a major contributor to global warming and the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda that global warming is exclusively due to natural fluctuations in global temperatures and therefore not related to fossil fuel use.

Responsibility for the failure to accurately report and act on climate change goes beyond the mainstream corporate media and the fossil fuel companies. In many ways it includes much of corporate America, for example through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is supported by most of the large corporations in the U.S. and has aggressively opposed action on climate change with multiple tactics: massive lobbying, substantial campaign spending, and extensive involvement in lawsuits and other legal actions. The Chamber spends roughly three times as much on lobbying as the next most active group. It has spent almost $150 million on congressional campaigns since 2010, when the Citizens United Supreme Court decision unleashed corporate campaign spending. In most congressional election cycles, the Chamber is the biggest “dark money” spender, meaning that it shields the identity of the donors for its spending. This provides corporations with a protective veil; they can oppose climate change action through contributions to the Chamber and no one will know. The Chamber is also active in court cases. In a three-year period during Obama’s presidency, it was involved in over 500 court cases. Although not all these court cases and all this spending is in opposition to climate change action, environmental issues were the third most frequent subject of its court cases and energy and environmental issues are a major part of its lobbying activities. The Chamber’s position on energy and environmental issues inevitably is in support of fossil fuels. [8] It would be hard to overstate the political clout of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the laundry list of major corporations that provide its funding.

In summary, the mainstream media have failed in their coverage of climate change in terms of both quantity and quality (i.e., accuracy) because of:

  • Their conflict of interest due to revenue from the fossil fuel industry for advertising and the preparation of advertorial Op-Ed pieces,
  • Brainwashing by fossil fuel industry propaganda, and
  • Being part and parcel of corporate America.

[1]      Moyers, B., 7/15/19, “What if reporters covered the climate crisis like Murrow covered World War II?” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/climate-change-media-murrow-boys/)

[2]      Westervelt, A., May 6, 2019, “Why are The New York Times and The Washington Post creating ads for Big Oil?” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/big-oil-pr-fossil-fuel-lobby-herb-schmertz/)

[3]      Westervelt, A., May 6, 2019, see above

[4]      Moyers, B., 7/15/19, see above

[5]      Hertsgaard, M., & Pope, K., 4/22/19, “The media are complacent while the world burns,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/climate-change-media-aoc-gnd-propaganda/)

[6]      Hertsgaard, M., & Pope, K., 4/22/19, see above

[7]      Hertsgaard, M., & Pope, K., 4/22/19, see above

[8]      Schumer, C.E., & Whitehouse, S., 11/21/19, “Climate change and dark money,” The Boston Globe

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