Al Gore, in Rolling Stone, Mocks the Media: A Justified Takedown, or an Outdated View?

Once a journalist, former Vice President savages media coverage of climate science in a recent Rolling Stone essay. Hot rhetoric on a hot issue, but journalists and academics raise points calling into question Gore’s perhaps-dated perspective and analysis.

One-time Nashville Tennessean metro reporter, Columbia Journalism School lecturer, and U.S. Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., recently returned to the climate change/journalism spotlight with a 6,997-word essay, “Climate of Denial,” in Rolling Stone. In it, he hammers the news media for being — as depicted in a colorful quasi-allegory that opens the piece — a fake referee at a fake wrestling match.

The verbiage he attaches to the media’s current state and ongoing practice is something of a rhetorical atomic elbow: “seems confused,” “completely ignore,” “looked the other way,” “once again distracted,” “getting instructions from their owners.” The blows rain down.

News Analysis

“As with the invasion of Iraq,” Gore writes, “some are hyperactive cheerleaders for the deception, while others are intimidated into complicity, timidity, and silence by the astonishing vitriol heaped upon those who dare to present the best evidence in a professional manner.”

It is vintage Gore, echoing his 2006 critique in “An Inconvenient Truth” that the news media have engaged in inexcusable false balance by consistently quoting paid deniers as being on par with expert scientists: “That disgraceful fact is a notable stain on America’s modern news media, and many leaders of journalism are belatedly taking steps to correct it.”

As new evidence of media disgrace, Gore cites and mocks the at-times breathless coverage of the hacked e-mail scandal of 2009/2010, so-called “climategate,” which indeed most serious media analysts believe was vastly overplayed and hyped. But Gore also asserts that the media are being too timid in connecting the dots between extreme weather events and anthropogenic climate change. “It is not uncommon for the nightly newscast to resemble a nature hike through the Book of Revelation,” he writes, turning a bit of fundamentalist “end-times” imagery on its head and setting up an acid bit of sarcasm. “Yet most of the news media completely ignore how such events are connected to the climate crisis, or dismiss the connection as controversial; after all, there are scientists on one side of the debate and deniers on the other.”

In sum, Gore draws an equivalency between an earlier media era, when basic issues of climate science were represented in the media as dubious, and the current 2011 media moment, when the new major flashpoint questions relate to specific extreme weather events.

Vintage Gore, But Too Vintage?

In years past, Gore’s points may have gotten nods of approval from the more sage and serious members of the press corps. But what to make of the reaction now of someone like Bryan Walsh of Time?

“I think Gore has an outmoded view of the media — which is ironic, considering he’s a new media mogul himself,” Walsh writes in a blog post titled, “Gore Chides Obama on Climate. But His Real Beef — Not So Fairly — Is with the Media.” He continues:

Gore is absolutely right that the scientific consensus over the reality of manmade climate change has grown increasingly strong in recent years. Any reporter who writes otherwise deserves to be horsewhipped by Joe Romm. But consensus on the reality of climate change is not the same thing as consensus on the exact effects and severity of climate change, where there is significant and natural scientific debate. Nor is there consensus — or some kind of unimpeachable fact — on how we as a nation and a world should deal with climate change. The reporting should reflect that very lively debate — a fact that sometimes gets forgotten by environmentalists.

Walsh also points to what he sees as a significant hole in Gore’s current intellectual framework. “This idea Gore seems to have — and it’s one shared by many in the environmental movement — that the unfiltered message would alone be enough to galvanize Americans into massive action on climate change just isn’t true.” Walsh references Andy Revkin’s 2010 post, “What if the Public Had Perfect Information?“, where the DotEarth author noted that even well-informed news stories on climate don’t necessarily have the “issue salience” that would bring them to prominence. Moreover, they cannot in good faith present immediate risks that would allow them to tap into some of the public’s “finite pool of worry.”

Certainly, part of this kind of Gore-Walsh disagreement is a function of the age-old split between climate activists and climate reporters. However, there are other ways of making sense of this very real wrestling match.

Cultural Cognition: An Emerging Idea

Step back from the media debate to a fascinating area of academic study that reexamines the field of climate communications. Take for example Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project and two papers co-authored by, among others, Yale Professor Dan Kahan: “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus” and “The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Cultural Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change.”

Kahan’s essential insight is that scientific knowledge is filtered through a more fundamental set of cultural values, and people ultimately want — and this is an utterly rational decision — to be tied to groups with whom they share values. To adopt heretical views based on value-neutral scientific facts is not necessarily “rational.” And so, simply blasting more facts at those who would reject science because of their shared community values is not necessarily the solution.

In remarks shared with The Yale Forum and cross-posted at the blog “Balkinization,” Kahan says that he disagrees with what appears to be Gore’s solution to the climate communications problem. Kahan argues that climate communicators should work to create …

an alternative set of cultural meanings that don’t variously affirm and threaten different groups’ identities. In that sort of environment, we can rely on the trust in science and scientists common to the overwhelming majority of cultural communities in our society to guide citizens toward acceptance of the best available science — much as it has on myriad other issues so numerous, so mundane (“take penicillin for strep throat”; “use a GPS system to keep from getting lost”) that they are essentially taken for granted.

Noting that the Gore view seems “very 1.0,” Kahan also said that in his Rolling Stone essay, the former vice president “calls the debate over climate change ‘a struggle for the soul of America.’ He’s right; but that’s exactly the problem. In ‘battles’ over ‘souls,’ citizens of a diverse, pluralistic society will naturally disagree — intensely. We’d all be better off if the issue had never come to bear connotations so fraught.”

Gore could certainly have enlisted academic research to support some of his views, but he nevertheless would need to deal with a lot of other findings that run counter to his basic premise. And he may be hard-pressed to explain how a “perfect press” that ignored all denialist nonsense is anything more than one necessary condition among many others — not a sufficient one — to spur mass action to address climate change.

A 2009 paper in Climate Change that surveys the field of climate communications, “Communicating Climate Change: History, Challenges, Process and Future Directions,” notes that “although further education and increases in scientific literacy are essential and welcome for many reasons, it is far too simplistic to assume that individuals merely lack education, information, or understanding of climate change, and if these knowledge gaps could be filled and lay individuals somehow could be forced to interpret the findings in a particular way, they would automatically act to reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint.”

Another 2011 study, from researchers at Columbia University and the National Research Council, “Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States,” suggests that the deep communications problems Gore blames on the vagaries of the media are primarily attributable to the “inherent difficulty of understanding climate change [and] the mismatch between people’s usual modes of understanding and the task.” The study puts it another way: “Public understanding of climate change needs improvement, but the problem is not one of ‘illiteracy.’ In comparison to the rest of the world, the American public has an average amount of knowledge about climate change and an average understanding of climate change phenomena.”

Not Responsible for ‘Pronouncing a Winner’?

Even if Gore could sustain his argument against both Kahan’s cultural filter critiques and Walsh’s points that the science within climate science has uncertainty — and that even a perfectly informative media would not be a sufficient solution — some academics would say the former vice president may need more empirical evidence to justify his premise that the media are a major factor in muddying public opinion on climate change. No doubt, there was ample research on the media practice of “false balance” during the early and mid-2000s, and work by scholars such as Max Boykoff have documented these pernicious practices and effects. This is precisely what Gore attacked in “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006.

But the question remains whether or not Gore’s view of the press is outdated, a kind of knee-jerk “manufactured dissent” that is increasingly the artifact of a different era. (As discussed recently at The Yale Forum, some scholars believe there is an improved “new normal” for the media on climate change issues, though others disagree vigorously.)

Stanford’s Jon Krosnick, a well-known climate communications expert who has polled on these issues for more than a decade, says that Gore fails to make the media-public opinion connection now.

“As a backdrop to Gore’s assertions, it’s useful to consider evidence on the impact that the news media have had on Americans’ thinking about this issue,” Krosnick told The Yale Forum in an e-mail interview. “According to our national surveys, large majorities of Americans have believed that climate change is real and human-caused, will have undesirable consequences, and merits substantial government action to address it. These majorities rose a little in the years preceding 2007 and fell a bit in the years after, but the majorities remain large. Mr. Gore might look at these data and say: ‘Ah, ha! Just as I expected! During the last 15 years, climate scientists have generated more and more evidence of the existence and threat of warming, but Americans are not being well-informed of this growing consensus by the media, so public opinion has held relatively steady instead of moving toward my views even more. The climate science is not getting the attention it deserves from the news media!’”

Krosnick continued: “But I’m not sure this would be a fair accusation: I’d say the news media have paid plenty of attention to the climate science, but truth be told, that science is now an ‘old story,’ one the media have told many, many times before. It’s understandable, therefore, that every new climate study is not at the top of the front page of every newspaper in the country. So given today’s ethics and principles of journalism, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to fault the news professionals for practicing their craft as they do.”

As mentioned, Gore might counter that extreme weather events and other natural occurrences — he discusses the evidence in his Rolling Stone article relating to heat, floods, drought, and melting ice — need to be connected more strongly by the news media to anthropogenic climate change. On this new point of contention, perhaps only the scientists can indeed “referee” …

The issue comes back to whether or not Gore is fair to the media or is too broad-brush in his critique, both substantively and tonally, and whether his wrestling analogy is even apt.

“Mr. Gore portrays the news media as a referee in a wrestling match-like bout between ‘Science and Reason’ and ‘Poisonous Polluters and Right-wing Ideologues,’” said Krosnick.

“I don’t view the news media that way, and I don’t think news media personnel do, either. At its core, journalism involves documenting what happened, and what people said and did. In carrying out that process, journalism professionals often do their best to determine whether assertions of fact are actually correct. But the latter is a secondary part of their jobs, and in the end, the news media are neither responsible for pronouncing a winner (as Gore’s wrestling referee is) in a debate, nor are those professionals necessarily capable of doing so.”

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to The Yale Forum, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: johnwihbey@gmail.com, Twitter: @wihbey)
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11 Responses to Al Gore, in Rolling Stone, Mocks the Media: A Justified Takedown, or an Outdated View?

  1. THE NOT UNEXPECTED ONSLAUGHT BY MEDIA APOLOGISTS uncritically recited in John Wihbey’s article, unanimously condemning Al Gore’s overdue attack on intellectually corrupt media, begs the question: “If it’s difficult for many reasons to persuade climate-denial diehards that there is no crisis — contrary to science, scientific models, and empirical climate observations — is it better to say nothing?” Of course not. It’s not time to pull punches, when our very survival depends on public awareness and activation.

    I discriminate between journalists who report the truth as they know it and “the media,” the commercial networks of information that largely reflect their corporate executives’ and owners’ point of view. Journalists’ reactions to Gore’s criticism in general were hardly as negative as this article seems to suggest. My journalist friends were overwhelmingly positive about his article’s appearance, upset only that Gore’s criticism of President Obama’s failure to deal with the issue was too soft.

    I detect contrarian, careerist intentions at work. Al Gore is a Noble Prize winner, the individual singly most responsible for public awareness of the coming climate hell. So if you want to stand out and earn points with the media and its sponsors, be contrarian and blame him for widespread lack of climate change awareness. Now that’s unique! How Rove-ish.

    Let’s face it, the TV news does a crappy job of covering climate issues. You know it and I know it. When’s the last time (or the first time, for that matter) that climate change and related phenomena were seriously covered by commercial networks or local news? When have theater chains screened a climate change-themed film other than Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, which now appears more prescient than many thought when it was released in 2004 (it forecast that climate change would produce intense cold as well as heat)? In Europe, Burn Up, a 2008 UK/Canadian film about that dread moment in the future when leaked data reveals that Peak Oil occurred years ago, was a big hit. It never showed in the USA. Several outstanding documentaries about climate change have been produced, but none has achieved prominence equal to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, a film more about the putrid state of our politics than climate change.

    I reread Wihbey’s article before submitting this comment, to be sure that my jaw dropping wasn’t merely a function of my “bias” — trusting science — blinding me to remarkable insights regarding media and climate change. It wasn’t. The article reveals few new insights.

    Meanwhile, the media have no qualms about running copious ads for Big Oil/Gas/Coal and secretive climate-denial cadres funded by the Kochs and their ilk, but they recoil from requests that they give climate change equal time, let alone time proportional to the science of climate change. Apologies for this overt behavior are ludicrous. The media wagons are being circled to lock out alternative points of view. Follow the money.

    Cheating the American people of the knowledge they need to prepare themselves and their children for major hard times to come is criminal. Gore’s media criticism in Rolling Stone, if anything, was too mild. The media need a good shot across the head: it’s their world, too, that’s imperiled. They know it, they just don’t want to admit it. Their executives prefer to remain in their professional bubbles, it’s what keeps them in the 1%. Regarding the media and climate change, everybody knows that these dice are loaded.

  2. PS Is “cultural cognition” the new “public opinion”?

  3. John Wihbey says:

    Robert – I appreciate your comments, and I can understand your frustration. In my view, this issue should never have, as Kahan suggests, gotten to the point where it is the stuff of shrill partisan shout-fests. Perhaps I should let you know where I’m coming from. I have deep respect for Al Gore and his work. I do not question his motives. I have no specific insight into them, but I believe them to be for the public good — for helping to bring clarity to a looming and dangerous global problem. Per your point on TV coverage, we might indeed usefully distinguish between certain partisan broadcast media and other responsible outlets. That’s an interesting point and one that deserves more care than I gave it here. The goal of my article was to assess more closely Gore’s views on the media in an analytical way. Perhaps you think I’m being too narrow, but it’s not my job to paint with a broad brush. What I didn’t say, but perhaps I should have, was that the catch-all category of “media” needs to be broken down into component parts. Some parts may be good, some parts bad. That is an empirical question. Which parts reflect consensus science and which do not? Which outlets are reflecting the latest science on extreme weather events and connections to climate change? These are questions we all need to continue to pursue. The Rolling Stone essay in question does not pursue them, per se. Perhaps Gore’s next one will. -John

    • Bob Jacobson says:

      John, historically, issues that apparently impinge on how humanity should or will live in the future have always “gotten to the point” where they are “the stuff of shrill partisan shout-fests.” Of course, the partisans haven’t always been political actors; at one point, for example, they were the monotheists vs. the worshippers of many gods and even today, the monotheists vs. pantheists (including many climate change-activists) and atheists. We all know that something is happening — even Rick Perry admitted as much during this week’s Republican puppet show — but we don’t know what it is, unless we consult the scientists (who are 97% on the side of human-causation) — and lest everyone do that, those who desperately need to avert widespread understanding lest it affect their hold on power are doing everything in their power to prevent it. Including sponsoring shout fests in the press and online. “Muddy the waters” is always the best defense for corporations and contrarian individuals who really haven’t much else to say than “it isn’t so — because it isn’t.” The sad part, John, is that there are no “responsible outlets” that stand out on this issue more than the “partisan broadcast media.” I noted that while Bill McKibben and his trusty volunteers — more than a thousand, by the time it was over — were getting arrested in front of the White House to protest the environmental disaster of tar-sand exploitation, not one TV media news outlet, not even MSNBC or Countdown on Al Gore’s Current said anything about it. I wonder whether it had anything to do with incessant oil and gas industry ads during every commercial break. In light of the evidence, Gore’s possible hypocrisy on this issue notwithstanding, I think he was right to portray the media in general as complicit in promoting public misunderstanding and ignorance. Sadly, media generally does not mean scholarly peer-reviewed journals and accurate blogs that passively proclaim truths. Media project meanings. So far, our media have collectively projected mostly falsified confusion. I’m afraid, John, that a more granular taxonomy of the North American media, while it might be useful to journalists who cover the media, in realpolitik terms would be beside the point.

  4. Chuck Kutscher says:

    John Wihbey charges Al Gore with an outdated view of media coverage of climate change. He then quotes Jon Krosnick that climate science is an “old story” and hence not deserving of top news coverage. However, newsworthiness is not simply a matter of how often something is covered but also of how serious it is. At what point should Hitler’s invasion of yet another country have become “old news”? If a large meteor were on course to strike the Earth in two years, would it become old news in a few months? In the case of climate change, we are rapidly melting the planet’s polar ice caps with enormous consequences for our human civilization that developed and adapted to a fortuitous 8,000-year period of relatively stable temperatures and sea level, which we are now disrupting. Skeptic arguments such as the one citing increased solar output as the global warming culprit continue to find a voice in the media despite being scientifically disproven by multiple researchers years ago.

    We can’t expect journalists to understand the details of climate science. But when an issue is as serious as climate change, we can ask that they put in the extra effort to get at the truth, or at least expose the obvious falsehoods. Australian John Cook has done an excellent job on his web site, http://www.skepticalscience.com, of scientifically debunking each of the skeptic arguments, and any journalist covering this topic should become familiar with that information.

    But perhaps the real story that journalists should be exposing is a propaganda campaign that has taken the tactics developed by the tobacco industry to a whole new level. Journalists were quick to pick up the carefully crafted term, “Climategate,” intended to evoke the cover-up of the Watergate affair and imply that greedy climate scientists were withholding the truth from the public to garner more research funds. (When many skeptics are funded by the richest and most profitable industry the world has ever known, ascribing a profit motive to climate scientists is taking the Big Lie to new heights of hypocrisy.) On the other hand, how much press coverage was given to the three separate British panels or the one at Penn State that exonerated the scientists? Skeptics have declared that climate change is a hoax. But it is the hoax-within-a-hoax that is the real journalistic story here, and by no means has it received adequate coverage.

    It is true that getting the facts out is not, by itself, sufficient. But to address an issue as serious and pervasive as climate change, all of us have a responsibility to step up and play a larger role. That includes journalists. And when Gore says journalists are not doing enough, he’s right.

    • James Evans says:

      “Journalists were quick to pick up the carefully crafted term, ‘Climategate,’…”

      Seriously? “Carefully crafted”? http://bigthink.com/ideas/39426

      “Skeptics have declared that climate change is a hoax.”

      There really is little hope of moving forward if this indicates the level of understanding of scepticism. Do you want progress or not? I’d suggest actually getting to know the people who disagree with you, and actually understanding their views. There ARE some people who believe that climate change is a hoax. Those people really aren’t your problem.

  5. James Evans says:

    In discussions of how to communicate climate science, there is a popular idea that if people aren’t getting the message about climate change, it’s because they aren’t getting the science. The problem is seen as being due to those people “who would reject science because of their shared community values.”

    But, as Mr Walsh writes:

    “… consensus on the reality of climate change is not the same thing as consensus on the exact effects and severity of climate change, where there is significant and natural scientific debate.”

    Quite. The climate does change (duh), but the vital bit of science that needs sorting out is: How much of recent climate change is due to us pumping out CO2? The various answers to that question seem to be a range of rather unconvincing guesstimates – and there’s plenty of room for genuine scientific debate on the issue.

    What would the climate be doing without our CO2? It’s a tricky question to answer. To assume that people who disagree with your answer are badly informed, or have anti-scientific community values, is not going to help. It’s a genuinely open scientific question. And it’s not obvious that we’re going to have a commonly agreed answer any time soon. The attempts of palaeoclimatologists to show that the current changes in climate are “unprecedented” have shown little more than that there is some pretty dodgy science in the literature. The climate models merely illustrate the assumptions used to create them.

    Hopefully before too long, we will all be able to move together on the issue of climate change, but I’d suggest that what is needed is more science, not more communication.

  6. James Evans says:

    P.S. I’d like to add that I think science communicators should really stop hamstering on the issue of climate change. Given the material that they have had to work with, they’ve done a truly spectacular job. An Oscar was won. Nobel prizes have been handed out like candy. The idea has beome totally ingrained within our society – the organisation that I work for, for instance, has committed itself to drastic cuts in fossil fuel usage. It’s an unusual week in the media (here in the UK) if climate change doesn’t get several mentions.

    The communicators have done fantastically well. It’s up to the scientists to give them more (and better) material to work with.

  7. Russell Seitz says:

    The synergy of bad science and worse journalism seems demographically assured.

    As long as ersatz journalists, be they from science-free seminaries or The Dartmouth Review slide into entry level slots at Fox and post-conservative editorial pages like the WSJ, there will be a bull market in equally ersatz science and flash-in-the-pan climate factoids .

    Such outlets will afford a safe haven for the scientifically unpublishable as long as politicians and publishers cater to the half of the electorate on the two-digit side of the Bell Curve, and degree-granting theogogues denounce thermodynamics as a particularly Godless manifestation of materialism.

    The polarization this effects will be mirrored largely on the left because the scientific culture of the right presently affords few surfaces bright enough to reflect anything. If, in consequence, the political captivity of scientific organizations becomes the norm, activism on the left may be less to blame than the quietism of the center and the religiously inspired recusal on the right. Yet though disturbing, this scarcely constitutes politicized science, which can only exist in reality when both sides have some inkling of what it is they are trying to politicize.

    Chris Mooney’s ‘Republican War On Science’ likewise remains elusive as the fabled GWOT, because neither hostis totius humanis can muster a division, and a handful of Puntland pirates could carry off the whole corps of anti-science activists in a surfboat. Thanks to web aggregators like Marc Morano, one ignoramus can do the work of a dozen science editors.

    Gore may face a similar problem of threat inflation in the Climate Wars. in 1987 Al postulated a ‘climate crisis’ in no uncertain terms as consisting in the acceleration of the history of anthropogenic temperature rise at a rate of several ( ~1.5-4.5) degrees C per century. It didn’t happen. A generation later, we have yet to feel a perceptible fraction of the first degree, and the crisis has become one of expectation – to keep Al from joining the ranks of prophets of doom who fail to deliver now requires a rise of half a degree or more per quarter century

    Unless such a rate manifests itself through the natural fog of variability (and temperature-negative human activities ) in the next few decades, the empirical case for a low value of climate sensitivity may make precedence over the former Vice President’s imagination of disaster.

    We have many other climate ( and albedo ) problems to worry about , but when models that remain fundamentally right fail to deliver in the face of decades of hype, some blame attaches to those who did the hyping.

  8. Andrew Pearson says:

    Al Gore’s comments are tragically correct. Ronald Reagan’s de-regulation of TV and cable, sustained by successive presidents, has helped to produce organizations that make money for their owners and choke viewers on entertainment. It’s completely illusory to imagine that the Republican “marketplace of ideas,” has produced a place where important issues can be shown.

  9. James Evans says:

    OK. No engagement here. That’s great communicating.