Flogging the Media … But Really?

Both ‘sides’ in the climate change policy debate might at least share one thing in common: disdain for the media. News reporters covering climate issues are often singled out for their stories, and sometimes justifiably so. But critics could sharpen their criticisms if they want reporters to do a better job.

To borrow from the late stand-up comic Rodney Dangerfield, the news media don’t get no respect.

Commentary

Several months ago, former Vice President Al Gore slammed journalists for failing to report accurately on climate change. Veteran climate reporters rejected the Gore critique as outdated, and social scientists challenged the premise of Gore’s criticism.

Gore’s lament is nothing new, of course. It’s been a common refrain of climate activists yearning for aggressive controls on CO2. But the reality is that similar criticisms are frequently voiced also by conservatives and well known climate skeptic bloggers.

The endless grousing from the Left and the Right has led Tom Yulsman, a long-time environmental journalist and professor with the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, to sardonically ask, “Are we really that awful?

One theme of the inveterate press bashing is that journalists are a bunch of lapdogs (Gore had that on his Rolling Stone checklist, too). Now, scholar Walter Russell Mead has aired at the American Interest a variation of this theme. (He is a perceptive critic of climate policy and politics, but with a biting, caustic style, as a recent series on Al Gore demonstrates.) What he mostly wrote is a withering rebuke of American environmentalists who have been thwarted on climate change and are feeling jilted by President Obama’s pale green policies.

Somehow, Mead traces the impotence of environmentalists, and what he considers their misguided ideas, back to the media. Consider this quote from his posting:

The United States and the world need a strong and intelligent environmental movement. We won’t get one until and unless the press stops flattering and indulging the pack of incompetents who currently lead it. Good (but poorly conceptualized) intentions linked to terminally stupid ideas and self defeating methods are a terrible curse. They steadily discredit environmentalism and push those who care about the environment away from real influence. I don’t actually enjoy tweaking the greens — but until the mainstream press gets on the case, somebody has to point the way.

It would be nice if Mead had perhaps fulminated less and specified how exactly the press flatters and indulges this “pack of incompetents.” (Or does he mean newspaper editorialists and columnists? Hard to know, since he paints with a broad brush.) In his post, Mead references a recent New York Times news story that quotes a number of greens voicing their anger over President Obama’s widely panned reversal on ozone regulations. From there, Mead launches into a screed against environmentalists and suggests that the press should call them out on their failures and fuzzy thinking.

But is it a reporter’s job to spank an interest group for its track record and tactics?

One wonders if Mead would suggest that mainstream political reporters have similar license to get on the case of Republicans or Democrats for their “terminally stupid ideas and self-defeating methods”?

If not, at least we know there are plenty of bloggers out there — including Mead — who are willing to point the way.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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10 Responses to Flogging the Media … But Really?

  1. harrywr2 says:

    There has never been and never will be a shortage of people who believe that the correct way to present information is whatever way they think is correct.

    Unfortunately, this line of thought leads to the ‘ministry of truth’, and the first thing that happens at the ministry of truth is a realization that since the ministry is the ultimate arbiter of ‘what is true’ then the ministry can define whatever truth it wishes. Inevitably the Ministry of Truth becomes the biggest liar of all or as some famous person said, ‘Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely’.

    The ‘media’ presents information that it may or may not believe is true and correct in a fashion that it may or may not believe is fair and balanced.

    The only thing wrong with the Media is the belief by some that the media is an arbiter of truth. The media is a presenter of multiple-perspectives where each of the perspectives has a limited field of view as nobody is ‘all seeing and all knowing’.

  2. Keith,

    You wrote:

    Seriously? Many media critics have called out the press for granting false balance to a tiny, ethically challenged minority with outsize resources for communications outreach and you use this old chestnut to talk about the criticism of the media by climate change naysayer bloggers. There is no equivalence. They are a group paid to create false doubt by using the media as their method and sloppy journalistic practices like false equivalence and the old “if they are both mad at me, I probably got it right” mindset.

    Anyone reporting on climate and media criticism without acknowledging this phenomenon is negligent and is ignoring the work of dozens of groundbreaking journalists who have covered it.

  3. Sorry, I forgot to close the blockquote tag>

    Gore’s lament is nothing new, of course. It’s been a common refrain of climate activists yearning for aggressive controls on CO2. But the reality is that similar criticisms are frequently voiced also by conservatives and well known climate skeptic bloggers.

    Seriously? Many media critics have called out the press for granting false balance to a tiny, ethically challenged minority with outsize resources for communications outreach and you use this old chestnut to talk about the criticism of the media by climate change naysayer bloggers. There is no equivalence. They are a group paid to create false doubt by using the media as their method and sloppy journalistic practices like false equivalence and the old “if they are both mad at me, I probably got it right” mindset.
    Anyone reporting on climate and media criticism without acknowledging this phenomenon is negligent and is ignoring the work of dozens of groundbreaking journalists who have covered it.

  4. JeffN says:

    “But is it a reporter’s job to spank an interest group for its track record and tactics?”

    Yes, if a spanking is in order. In fact, it’s central to what we all learned in J school- accountability and truth. If Greenpeace is running around burning scientific agricultural experiments based on claims that are almost universally accepted to be just plain nuts, that “record” and “tactic” is relevant to evaluating their claim to be “pro-science.”
    Mead’s comments, in my opinion, reflect the plain truth that most media are happy to reprint Greenpeace and Al Gore press releases almost without question- though Gore would certainly like to see them go further on this (eliminating entirely the rare phone call to those who dare to disagree).
    The danger in this- an unquestioning media – is the cocooning effect it creates. Think of it terms of the fable of the emperor with no clothes. Discovering you are naked is better before you get out into the middle of the parade.

  5. Keith Kloor says:

    Richard Graves,

    Those “media critics” that still call out the press for habitual “false balance” would be wrong. This is why there was such strong pushback from numerous climate reporters after Gore’s Rolling Stone essay appeared. But you don’t have to take their word for it (or mine). See this 2007 paper by Max Boycoff, “Flogging a dead norm? Newspaper coverage of anthropogenic climate change in the United States and United Kingdom between 2003-2006.”

    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/resource-2745-2007.39.pdf

    Additionally, See a related paper by Boyckoff and Pielke Jr. titled, “Effective media reporting of sea level rise projections: 1989-2009.”

    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/2011.03.pdf

    JeffN:

    My main complaint with Mead is that he generalizes (as so many media critics do), lumping all journalists together. So I have no problem with spankings that appear on the editorial or the op-ed pages, or even in the main news section if they are labeled as, say “news analysis.” But by reporters writing straight news stories?

    That said, the second half of your comment–interpreting Mead’s presumed point–is a legitimate beef. Of course, we can argue about to the degree it happens and then to be fair, we also have to acknowledge that credulous and/or slanted climate stories are just as likely to appear in all outlets, as we saw with how the original coverage of Spencer’s controversial journal paper played out in the conservative media in July (which I discussed in my previous Yale Forum post).

    • JeffN says:

      Keith, good points but I quibble with two:
      I read this as Mead is talking about journalists who cover the environmental beat so I’m not sure I agree that there is a broad brush. He thinks the folks in this beat are pretty much captives of the movement they cover and rarely question it. I think we get lost in the weeds of a definition of “spanking.” It is perfectly reasonable to firmly and deeply question people on the news pages. It’s also reasonable to ignore the nuts. In other words, when Ernest The Activist calls up with a completely ridiculous claim about GMO, there’s no reason to give him space in the NY Times just because he’s a member of Greenpeace. That sounds harsh, but Ernest the UFO Tracker is used to it.
      Second quibble is that while I would agree with you that cocooning works both ways, the media does have a liberal bent on this topic (this is why Mead is speaking up). A Roy Spencer is much more likely to be closely questioned (by columnists and news reporters) than a Dressler would be. One of the funniest examples of the perils of cocooning in action was Bill McKibben going to the White House with Jimmy Carter’s solar panel. A Democrat in the White House whose poll numbers are cratering due to stagnant economy and here come’s ol’ McKibben to stand in front of the TV cameras with a couple weeping tree-huggers to “helpfully” claim that their guy in the Oval Office is just like One-termer Jimmy “malaise” Carter. Hilarious. It was even funnier when he couldn’t understand why they didn’t welcome him at the White House

  6. As so often with Mr Kloor’s published opinions, they bear little resemblance to reality or provide useful information.

    1. There is a horrific lack of balance in climate science reporting, and this has been documented thoroughly.

    2. Al Gore is more than justified in complaining about it.

    3. It is both documented and now widely known in the industry that tens of millions of dollars per year are pouring into the coffers of “faux” think tanks, right-wing lobbyists, and even so-called “scientists” to produce books, articles and studies purporting to disprove the reality of human caused climate change. This has been going on for decades and is now bearing copious and odious fruit.

    4. Major media outlets (e.g., the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN, and others) and various pundits (George F. Will comes to mind) continuously distort and just plain lie about the science of climate change. Network owners and editors let them get away with it, time after time.

    5. Mr. Kloor’s blog post conveniently ignores all of the above.

    It is unseemly that this post should appear under the aegis of the Yale Climate Forum.

    • JeffN says:

      Wow. A couple of questions for you, if I may.
      Tens of millions? Whole tens?
      If “tens of millions” (and Fox News!) is enough to move the whole country’s opinion, why the failure of Al Gore’s $300 million campaign (and the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, NBC, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, CNN!)?
      Given that the skeptical camp- like most Republicans – favor nuclear power, just why is it, again, that the fossil fuel industries would want to pay them? Do you think they burn coal or oil at nuke plants? There is a big U.S. company that builds nukes- GE. They own (or owned until recently) MSNBC. How does that fit into your ideas?

  7. Howard says:

    Mead has a point that the media gives environmental nonsense credibility. However, this does not occur in a vacuum. As a nation, we have become illiterate in math, science, language, history, art, industry, diet, etc. The press, politics, special interest groups and the public at large all reflect our geometrically increasing gross national ignorance.

    Pogo had it right.

  8. Michael Tobis says:

    Keith, I am very glad you raised this. It is timely from my point of view.

    Please look for my answer beginning early next month.

    I am a bit tired of trying to explain to the few media people who pay me any mind (and I appreciate that) what they are doing wrong. I intend to throw my hat in the ring with a science and policy relevant reporting website.

    Still I will try one more time to explain in brief.

    I would like coverage of sustainability issues to at least approach the level of sophistication and volume of coverage of football. Most everybody has noticed that the environment is deteriorating rapidly, and most everybody is very interested, but various confused ideas are widespread among the public just the same. This is not a niche subject, and the press treating it as such is endlessly frustrating and dangerous.