In the Absence of Light

A few years ago, we invited some urban children to visit a remote natural area for an "owl watch."  As night fell, many of the children got their first glimpse of a myriad of bright stars set in a clear black sky. In the city, urban haze and "scatter-light" had been blocking their view of the heavens.

In much the same way, contemporary television "news" is creating scatter-light and haze that masks the vivid realities of the climate crisis. Shallow and misdirected news coverage is preventing many Americans from seeing the alarming dangers that are just around the turn.

On September 7, 2006, researcher Katie Walter, leading a joint U.S.-Russian team of scientists, published an important paper in the science journal Nature warning that melting permafrost in Siberia, covering more than 10 million square kilometers of Russia, is releasing five times the amount of methane previously estimated by scientists. Walter compared the melting Siberian permafrost to "a time bomb waiting to go off" threatening the world’s climate. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 21 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

Since there are 70 to 80 billion tons of methane sitting under the permafrost, you would think this finding was newsworthy. In fact, Radio Free Europe and the BBC thought it was; both gave it extensive coverage. But in the United States, on the very same day, rather than reporting on Walter’s work, 42 network satellite trucks gathered in front of the Boulder, Colorado, district attorney’s office to get the latest details of Jon Benét Ramsey’s warped admirer.

A second example of the profound failure of American news occurred on December 12, 2007, when Wieslaw Maslowski, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told a large gathering at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco that the Arctic will be ice-free sometime during the summer of 2013. Based on his analysis, Maslowski warned that the Arctic melt is 100 years ahead of earlier predictions and will change weather patterns all over the world. This stunning news should have been covered by CNN, which recently aired a special report accusing Al Gore of overstating the climate crisis. But Maslowski’s report wasn’t covered by CNN—or any of the other U.S. networks.

Again, last December, U.S. television failed to cover important moments at the Bali Climate Conference, where world leaders were seeking solutions to the global warming crisis. On December 15, in the absence of media lights, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky did everything possible to block progress on a process to establish a new climate agreement involving every nation, including the United States and China. Even the final watered-down language offered by much of the rest of the world at the conference was initially rejected by the U.S. delegation. An email sent by Peter Riggs, Director of the Forum on Democracy and Trade, recorded one of the saddest moments in American international relations: "Then occurred one of the most remarkable sounds that has perhaps ever been heard in the annals of international diplomacy—like a collective global groan—descending then to a murmur, then increasing in volume to a full-throated expression of rage and anger and booing and jeering, lasting for a full minute." Moments later, the Papua New Guinea representative stood up and said: "If you’re [the United States] not willing to lead, please get out of the way."

The Society of Professional Journalists believes that "public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy." If that is so, can justice, or democracy for that matter, be secure in a media world where public enlightenment has been supplanted by the superficial? Until the television media quits distracting us with entertainment masquerading as news, Americans will not wake up to the urgency of global warming.

You can help. Start by thanking reporters such as Heidi Cullen, the Weather Channel’s climate expert, for sound analysis on global warming. Challenge the rest of the media to step it up too. And demand that Congress restore greater oversight of the publicly owned airwaves to ensure the media are being operating fairly and in our interests. The cynics suggest that we will not address global warming until it interferes with our television reception. Let’s prove them wrong.

Published: December 17, 2007