Bad News for Good Times

NWF   |   October 18, 2006

Good times are here again. Gasoline prices have plummeted this pre-election season. The Dow Jones has responded to this positive signal by rocketing into virgin territory nearing a record 12,000 points. SUV owners are no longer concerned about driving gas-guzzling dinosaurs.  Voters have forgotten about the energy crisis in less than a month. In the remaining days before elections, all is well in La-La Land, USA.

Americans are in the dark about the looming crisis on planet Earth. We still have eyes, but we do not see; we still have ears, but we do not hear what’s happening to our planet and to our very future. Is this collective denial, intentional ignorance or have average Americans just not gotten the word? Since most people get their information from TV, I think we need to look at what television is feeding them. I am afraid it’s junk food.

I am shocked by what has happened to the commercial television industry in America since the fairness doctrine and other critical communications provisions that historically protected the publicly owned airwaves were removed from the law. The Federal Communications Commission is a big part of the problem since it turned its complete attention away from ensuring that the broader public interest is being served by our media and toward watching for lewd content on MTV or monitoring for “wardrobe malfunctions” on the Super Bowl halftime shows. As a result, the once solid TV journalism on many networks has degraded into “info-tainment” to prop up ratings and to keep advertising revenues flowing. The pace of the disappearance of useful news and information has been utterly astounding. Is the era of television journalism over? Is it being replaced with competing opinions shouted across a table?

Let me give a recent example of this trend: Thirty-five media vehicles with satellite dishes encircled District Attorney Mary Lacy in Boulder, Colorado, and broadcast every word live as she carefully described the latest development in the ten-year-old Jon Benét Ramsey case. Meanwhile, top scientists were issuing an urgent planetary warning that went largely unnoticed by the media.   

The scientists, led by Katey Walter of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, published an absolutely alarming report in the journal Nature (September 7, 2006, issue). Using new, more accurate measuring devices, they determined that methane is pouring from melting Siberian permafrost at a rate that is five or six times what we had previously seen. Methane, a greenhouse gas that has 23 times the heat-trapping punch of carbon dioxide, is being released from 6 million square miles of Russia’s permafrost. The study is an urgent warning that human-induced global warming is triggering nature to give up its vast stores of frozen methane. The facts about this tipping point are pretty scary and the urgency of this message cannot be overstated.

Where were the media’s satellite trucks when this report was being released? Howard Kurtz, a writer for The Washington Post, asks and then answers his own question about the misplaced media attention, “Will every anchor, correspondent and producer who shamelessly hyped the John Mark Karr story now apologize for taking the country for a ride? Don’t hold your breath.”

Global warming is, without a doubt, the greatest threat to Earth’s ecological integrity and to its ability to support expanding human populations around the world. Furthermore, scientists warn that we have little, if any, time to waste in curbing carbon emissions before we end up with a “different planet.”  Yet, the mainstream American media barely talk about it and when they do, it is not given a sense of urgency or clarity that it deserves. For more than two decades, I called global warming "the greatest story never told." Recent efforts by Discovery Channel and others have helped raise the issue but much more needs to be done.

Jeff Chanton, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University and a coauthor of the study, warned, "This is not good for the quality of human life on Earth." Don’t hold your breath waiting for Jeff’s warning to be heard on FOX or the other so-called news networks. 

Published: October 18, 2006