“A Human Folly Beyond Imagining” of the White House Press Corps

Last week Adam Browning in the invaluable Gristmill alerted me to a column by veteran Washington Post writer David Ignatius, who thoughtfully looked at the trouble reporters are having reporting on climate change:

One of the puzzles if you’re in the news business is figuring out what’s "news." The fate of your local football team certainly fits the definition. So does a plane crash or a brutal murder. But how about changes in the migratory patterns of butterflies?

For some reporters, notably Andrew Revkin of the NYTimes, who has been reporting on climate change for twenty years, these questions are far in the past. Revkin knows climate change is news, and has proved it countless times. His most recent story, about the efforts of government public relations officials to silence this country’s leading climatologist, Jim Hansen, is today the most emailed of all NYTimes stories.

The explanation for this I hear so often from leftists (including a comment on Adam Browning’s post)is  that "the owners [of the commercial press] do not allow articles or columns that offend advertisers." But this will come as news to the LATimes, which lost at least a million dollars last year after General Moters cancelled their advertising because of a highly critical column written by Dan O’Neill, their auto critic. Their response? They gave O’Neill an additional column in their weekly magazine, and promoted it heavily, besides continuing to highlight his auto reviews.

The fact is, this "commercial" explanation makes little sense, because big papers like the NYTimes, the LATimes, and the Washington Post cover global warming more thoroughly than anyone else in the print media except science publications, and in fact even right-wing sensationalists like the Drudge Report and FOXNews like global warming stories. Moderate-sized papers (The Boston Globe, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the San Francisco Chronicle) often run big stories on global warming. BusinessWeek, Fortune, and the Economist have published countless pieces on the issue. A terrible movie on the subject ("The Day After Tomorrow") was a huge hit. Probably it’s true that in smaller towns and red states, the issue gets less coverage, or sarcastic coverage, but that surely that reflects the slow and difficult-to-understand nature of the threat as much as it does advertisers. As Ignatius points out: 

Scientists believe that new habitats for butterflies are early effects of global climate change — but that isn’t news, by most people’s measure. Neither is declining rainfall in the Amazon, or thinner ice in the Arctic. We can’t see these changes in our personal lives, and in that sense, they are abstractions. So they don’t grab us the way a plane crash would — even though they may be harbingers of a catastrophe that could, quite literally, alter the fundamentals of life on the planet. And because they’re not "news," the environmental changes don’t prompt action, at least not in the United States.

But I would argue that the real split here is not between scientists and reporters, many of whom are following climate change news intently, but between reporters in the science field…and reporters in Washington, especially at the White House.

To test this theory, I looked through this months "press gaggle" briefings at the White House, with Scott McClellan.

The results? Not one question about the global warming, the environment, or the health of the planet was asked to date this month.

Questions were asked about what the President thought about "the compatibility between the Washington Post and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints." (McClellan ducked the question.) Numerous questions were asked about the different between "responsible critics" and "irresponsible critics" of the President’s policies, as defined by the President. (McClellan artfully alluded to "irresponsible remarks" by certain Democrats, but refused to specify which ones he meant, thereby broad-brushing every Democratic criticism as irresponsible.) Of course, countless questions were asked about the hot button issues: war in Iraq, the nuclear program in Iran, the Middle East, the Patriot Act, and surveillance on phone conversations without warrants, which are issues surely everone in national news would agree need discussion.

But the fact remains that the White House Press corps was far more interested in the health of Dick Cheney’s foot–asking numerous times if he was using a cane–than the health of the planet.

This during a month when numerous enviro issues came to the fore. For example, the year began with the tragic death of twelve coal miners; reporters could have followed the lead of the Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles and pointed out that coal mining is a very dangerous business for coal miners, and–scientists say–for us too, as coal is the worst choice in power generation, at least until some means is found to sequester carbon emissions.

Did this disaster prompt the Administration to rethink its commitment to build new coal plants?

No questions on that, but plenty of questions on the semantic difference between "having a strategy" for winning the war in Iraq, and "not liking the strategy" for winning the war in Iraq.

This month saw the release of two serious and alarming books on global warming (see here and here) including one at the beginning of the year by Lonnie Thompson, an Ohio State researcher funded by the government. Thompson has been studying glaciers around the world for most of his life, and believes that in fifty years we may not want to go outside between one and four under the business-as-usual scenario being pushed by the Administration.

Should the Administration reconsider its promotion of the construction of new coal plants?

No questions on that, but plenty of questions about Dick Cheney’s cane.

Also this month saw the twenty-fifth anniversary of the once-proud Environmental Protection Agency. Five Republican former chiefs of the EPA said at a panel in Washington, D.C. that they believed that global warming was real and a threat to our way of life. Did the President take note?

No question about that, but a long question about a Navy Chaplain who has gone on a hunger strike because the Navy ordered him not to mention Jesus Christ in public prayer. He’s appealing to the President. That, the President’s press secretary promised to investigate.

Perhaps today we’ll hear some questions on the topic. This weekend came the news that James Hansen was not allowed to meet reporters without a government official in attendance (shades of the USSR!) on Saturday, and on Sunday in the Washington Post we heard again about our arrival at a planetary tipping point. Let’s hope some questions are asked on the topic.

Tomorrow I will report on a one-question poll sent to scientists and economists on this issue, asking if President Bush tomorrow in his State of the Union address will in any way, shape, or form mention global warming.

But for today, let’s not let the White House press corps off the hook and remind them of Ignatius’ conclusion:

So many of the things that pass for news don’t matter in any ultimate sense. But if people such as {scientist Thomas] Lovejoy and ["New Yorker’ writer Elizabeth] Kolbert are right, we are all but ignoring the biggest story in the history of humankind. Kolbert concluded her series last year with this shattering thought: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing." She’s right. The failure of the United States to get serious about climate change is unforgivable, a human folly beyond imagining.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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