Climate and Very Serious Media (2)

Part two of my exchange with David Roberts of Grist.

(Read parts one and three.)

From: Wen Stephenson
To: David Roberts

> deviance is what we just don’t talk about, positions that don’t even earn a mention in mainstream coverage, e.g., climate change means economic growth is no longer viable.

I’d suggest that a position like this — “climate change means economic growth is no longer viable” — gets mentioned, maybe even discussed at some length (in the pages of the better newspapers and magazines), but is framed as, yes, deviant. The mainstream enjoys a little deviance — letting it into the discussion can be an amusing parlor game, and of course helps define the boundaries of what’s Serious (i.e. legitimate) and what’s not. Or are you saying there are truths and/or serious arguments about climate that really are unmentionable?

> Secondly, it is always safer for a journalist, pundit, or talking head to echo conventional wisdom, even when it is terribly wrong (see: Iraq; 2008 financial meltdown; climate). Career advancement comes to those who stay within the herd.

Pundits and talking heads, sure, but I’d be careful with the sweeping statement about journalists. Career advancement (indeed the highest prestige and respect of peers, at least in newsrooms) still goes to those (very, very few) who succeed in overturning the conventional wisdom by means of actual reporting. The thing is, when it comes to climate, what more reporting is needed to overturn conventional wisdom? Isn’t it fair to say we know what we need to know in order to make a persuasive case for urgent action?

> One good indicator of a VSP is that he/she claims to be unbiased and non-partisan, occasionally “centrist.” To VSPs, being on “a side” is a sure path to illegitimacy; one must always be above all that, moderate and reasonable.

I knew it. I’m no longer Very Serious. Oh well, so be it.

> I call this the “and thus we’re f*ckd” principle. I keep meaning to write a post on it …

You already did write that post, more or less. It was actually your series of posts on what you called “the brutal logic of climate change.” I think we’ll know that the major media are taking climate seriously when we start seeing cover stories like, maybe not in so many words, “WE’RE F*CKD. NOW WHAT?” When the conversation — and the reporting — begin from the realization of what we’re actually up against.

But “brutal logic” runs up against media logic. There are (at least) two great cardinal sins in (serious) newsrooms and magazine offices: first, the sin of rehashing old news, of failing to advance the story/conversation. And a bitter irony here is that for sophisticated news editors/reporters, who think that they already “get it,” climate is nothing if not old news and a stale conversation. They feel like they’ve heard the same thing a million times. And so, from somewhere deep in their journalistic bones they resist covering it unless they can be seen to “advance the story” or reshape the narrative in a big way. The other cardinal sin, as you know, is to be seen as an advocate. And then, of course, there’s the fear of being labeled an alarmist.

So, given this kind of media logic, what’s the pitch? How do you convince them that they are, in fact, missing the opportunity to reshape the narrative in a huge way? Is this what you’re trying to do in your role at Grist?

And then there’s this: most newsrooms have been decimated in the past five years or so. They don’t have the resources they once had. They’re stretched impossibly thin. Given that, it’s impressive that climate is as well covered, at least from a science and environment perspective, as it is. There is some good reporting out there (and sometimes it even makes the front pages!).

Given these conditions, maybe blaming the media gets it backwards. Maybe it’s up to the climate movement to reshape the narrative, create new facts on the ground — as in, a political movement with leaders who take climate seriously and can win elections — and the media will be forced to follow. We’ve seen this in Wisconsin and the Occupy movement, which have brought neglected issues to the fore. We’ve seen it with Keystone.

(Nah, let’s blame the media. They’re too fat a target.)


From: David Roberts
To: Wen Stephenson

1. I wouldn’t say unmentionable so much as unmentioned. For instance, when, say, John Broder at the NYT covers the failure of international climate talks, he doesn’t say, “the failure to develop serious global climate policy raises the already-high probability that humanity will experience widespread disruption, suffering, and die-off later this century.” He might know that it’s true, on some level — I don’t know. But he doesn’t say it, because it sounds extreme. Saying that the status quo guarantees mass suffering makes you sound “partisan,” like an “alarmist” (and guarantees that right-wingers will hassle you and your editor). Again, this has nothing to do with the truth of it, only with the norms of Very Serious writing. Saying stuff like that is like farting at a cocktail party.

It’s quite instructive to compare coverage of climate with coverage of the deficit. I would argue that, on the factual merits, climate is a much bigger, more severe, and more urgent problem. The deficit isn’t a short-term problem at all, as most professional economists agree. Quite a few economists argue that it’s not a mid-term or long-term problem either! (That’s one of those deviant perspectives you never, ever see represented in mainstream media.)

Yet everyone in elite media, punditry, think tank, and political circles “just knows” that the deficit is a looming, awful threat that will crush our grandchildren and their puppies. An “objective” reporter can say that without fear of being accused of bias. Indeed, the deficit is mentioned not just in stories about the deficit but in almost every story about economics or government, period! You can recommend economic austerity measures that are absurd to professional economists and never, ever get your reputation dinged. There is no social risk to over-worrying or talking too much about the deficit; there’s only upside, reputation- and career-wise. It is the paradigmatic Very Serious issue, divorced from the facts but reinforced by herd behavior.

Climate is the mirror image. The facts support a far more alarmist case, but not only can objective journalists not take that for granted — they’re barely allowed to take the existence of climate change for granted. Even the mildest of carbon-pricing schemes is deemed radical, unrealistic, bad politics. “Everybody knows” we’re going to keep accelerating through oil, gas, and coal until they’re gone. To say otherwise is to be un-savvy, the cardinal sin for VSP.

Like I said, a media that reported honestly and factually about climate change would sound hopelessly “extreme” and “biased” to our current ears. That’s got nothing to do with the facts on climate and everything to do with the interests of America’s wealthy elites and the way they dominate media narratives.


2. Yes, one of the glories of my freedom here at Grist is that I am not tied to “new facts.” You’re right that there are rarely new facts on climate, especially when it’s not on the political agenda. Science moves slowly and incrementally; there are rarely big stories, and the ones that are big are usually half hype.

But facts on climate are not what’s lacking. What’s lacking on climate is understanding. What kind of problem is it? Whose interests are at risk and who stands to gain? How much will it cost to address? What assumptions are embedded in those economic projections? What are the prospects of getting through it? What does it mean for our institutions and our way of life? For global justice? For who we are as a species? For me, in my own personal life and behavior?

Americans might know the bare facts about climate — it’s getting warmer, more storms, polar bears something something — but they don’t know what to make of it. They don’t know how to internalize it, to fit it alongside their other values, beliefs, and aspirations. And so they “know” it in a very shallow way. It has no motive force; it’s never top of mind. It’s in a little silo. The only ones who associate it with any kind of passion are the right-wingers who have lumped it in the with the Grand Socialist Conspiracy!

That’s one of the things I try to do, in my obscure little way: talk through what climate means for us, what it means for economics and land use and agriculture and morality and politics — how it fits with the rest of what we know.

How to pitch that to a traditional editor at a traditional paper in charge of traditional reporters? I have no idea. But that’s a problem with traditional media, not with climate. If you’ve chosen a model that is incapable of helping your readers understand the world, change your model.


3. Yes, it’s certainly true that a large, vigorous, powerful grassroots movement would draw coverage. But I’m not sure I really buy the resource-constraint argument. There are reams and reams of facts about climate change that most people don’t know. Assign someone to get those facts and write about them in an accessible way! All it would take is a person sitting at a desk. The pretense that the only stories that matter are hugely expensive stories where someone is sent to the Arctic is dumb. Read the science and the economics; digest it; explain it. Voi la.


(Read parts one and three of this exchange.)

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