The Price of Bored Journalists

Oh, damn. When you consider the forces arrayed against you, or whatever your idea of civilization stands for, you want to imagine a squadron a magnificently outfitted bombers with their ideologies pruned and sharpened to inflict the most pain possible from yours, a force to battle that does you the honor of being as elegantly disciplined and thus terrifying as possible, and perhaps from sheer engagement sharpens your own blades. But, alas, I don’t even have to write the next part.

Our corporate overlords, in conjunction with our B-schools and J-schools, have proffered a generation (now firmly into power-wielding adulthood) of bored journalists. I think I would prefer hucksters. Via CP, the perspective of former BBC correspondent and editor Mark Brayne, which seeks to explain where/how the BBC is coming from on climate is reducing its coverage of climate change. And if the BBC won’t cover climate…

As a former BBC foreign correspondent (Moscow, Berlin, Vienna, Beijing) during the Cold War, and former World Service editor now struggling with the monumental failure of contemporary journalism on climate change (Nicholas Stern’s 2007 comments about the market are just as relevant for the news media), I have to agree with recent commentators on Climate Progress who see the roots of this failure more in newsroom culture and subtle peer expectation than in a direct and explicit response to political or commercial demands (although those play their part, of course).

My former colleagues at the BBC, including Richard Black and others whom I know as good men and women all, remain trapped like most Western-style journalists in the old paradigm of news as event, not process, always needing to be shiny, new and different.

As a correspondent, and later at every nine o’clock morning editorial meeting at the World Service on every weekday through the 1990s, I and my colleagues would grapple with this – how to tell a complex story in just a few lines, with enough of a news peg to interest our listeners. And listeners, viewers and readers have short attention spans – they’ll tune out if they sense it’s just the same old stuff.

So, in order to sell and appeal, whether public service or commercial, journalism needs events. We need clear causes, agents and forces to be visibly responsible. We need (not that we put it like this) a narrative of baddies and goodies. Where the climate is concerned, things are slow-moving, complex, and what’s more, we ourselves are the baddies. That’s not something listeners and viewers want or wanted to be told.

Given our human evolutionary need for primal reassurance that we are safe, and that bad things are happening over there and not here, the events that journalism reports tend to focus mainly on conflict, ideally involving stories of the dramatically dead. World Service news bulletins would often drip with blood, as do the standard news agendas of most Western media. If it bleeds, I’m afraid it does lead.

That’s factor one. Consider then how the editorial decisions of each news editor are taken in the context of those made by his or her immediate predecessor on the last shift, and by the shift and the week and the months and the years before that. As I know from my years in the field, it’s very, very hard to go against the received news agenda wisdom.

Add in, as a third factor, the post-1960s, post-modernist, post-Watergate (especially) but actually quite arrogant self-belief of Western journalists as brave, embattled warriors fighting for truth against devious authority, and I’m afraid it doesn’t surprise me that the news business finds the climate story so hard to tell.

Bear with me a little longer to see how this all plays especially at the BBC, as a public service broadcaster funded by a domestic licence fee that’s essentially a tax on anyone with a television. (The World Service is funded directly by the Foreign Office.)

At the Corporation, despite its fiercely-defended principles and charter of journalistic independence, the sense of ordinary journalistic embattlement is compounded many times over by pressure (think Tony Blair and the Iraq war, or, even harder to deal with and much more relentless, think Israel and Palestine) from very vocal, insistent and well-organised interest groups.

The BBC’s programmes, domestic and international, are under quite extraordinarily intense daily scrutiny. Editors and journalists respond, both consciously and less so, with a desperation to appear balanced, and fair, and objective.

On climate change, that BBC journalistic urgency to be seen to be fair now means, after a period between Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and the disaster of Copenhagen when global warming was everywhere in the output, that the Corporation has been bending over backwards to reflect the opposite, sceptical view.

Journalists at the BBC know that the mood has shifted – for the time being, anyway. My old colleague and the Corporation’s first environment correspondent Alex Kirby emailed me this week to agree that Richard Black, sharply criticised elsewhere on CP for his recent reporting of the current state of Arctic sea ice, was most probably, as Alex put it, “a victim of the BBC wishing to demonstrate its ‘even-handedness’ by being, if not sceptical, at least much more questioning about the science, even though 99% of it stands up.”

(The determination to be “fair” to all sides on all stories can at times go to such absurd lengths that Allan Little, one of our best reporters with hard experience of covering Sarajevo in the mid-90s and much more, speaks of the analogy of two men at a bar, one saying that two plus two equals four, and the other that two plus two equals six. The BBC solution to this disagreement? Put them both on the Today Programme, and the answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle.)

This past Monday night, discussing climate change at a very poorly-attended (as usual, when the subject is global warming or peak oil) screening at the Frontline Journalists’ Club in London of the movie Collapse with Michael Ruppert – yes, flawed, but with much sound analysis about oil and energy — I heard from a former BBC producer colleague that internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have in fact explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”

Coming towards the end of these thoughts, I quit daily journalism in 2002 after 30 years to work as a psychotherapist (same job, listening to people, but where I get to stay with the story week after week without having to simplify it beyond recognition for the evening bulletin).

As such, I often ask myself — and, obsessively, others — what it will take to get Western-style, ratings-and-profit-led journalism, reflecting as it does the emotions of politics, economics and public opinion, to take climate change and sustainability as seriously as it deserves, as a present, existential threat to the very survival of our species.

Putting it bluntly, I regret to have concluded that this will only happen once very large numbers of people start dying. As in, hundreds of thousands to millions, and quite clearly climate-change-related.

The Pakistan floods were shocking, as were the Russian summer peat fires and the landslides in China. But in order for enough of humanity to wake up (as we all ultimately, or course, will), not enough people died. Ouch.

This is how we are programmed by evolution, to pay attention or not. It has to be personal, people-related. And for most of us, including our newsrooms, things just aren’t hot enough yet, or sufficiently and personally uncomfortable. (Ecocide of almost every other species and the collapse of ecosystems already observable doesn’t, I fear, hit home emotionally.)

Until something Very Very Big happens (we must hope, in Sir Crispin Tickell’s description, for catastrophe that is benign), I do not believe that mainstream journalism, as indeed mainstream politics and economics, will change. The financial crash wasn’t big enough. Nor was the Eurasian summer of 2010. One shudders to think what might (and will) be.

Propa-NOVA?

Joe Romm details the curious case of the Koch-funded influence on PBS’ Nova (and a Smithsonian exhibit on climate change and human evolution) in the context of the PBS Ombudsman’s response of, “Wha?”

But not PBS ombudsman Michael Getler.  He seems to have no trouble whatsoever with David Koch, a leading funder of the anti-scientific climate disinformation campaign (and the anti-science Tea Party), funding an episode of the great science show Nova, which:

  • is an effort to greenwash Koch’s activities
  • just happens to whitewash the threat human-caused global warming

Getler ignores the first concern entirely, and his entire defense of Nova’s dubious entanglement with Koch is “As a viewer of what strikes me and a lot of others as a consistently first-rate program, I trust NOVA.”  The beauty of that defense is that it could apply equally well to essentially every PBS show.  Hey, they are all first rate programs, so what the heck are you listeners complaining about?

It is becomes very difficult to navigate the morality of rich billionaires funding things you like, like museums and opera houses, at the same time they’re bankrolling nefarious schemes to muddy the water on global climate change. They know it’s tender conundrum and maybe that’s why support the arts – as a sort of protection racket for their own hobby horses and political affinities. This is either cynical of them, or me for thinking it – but you have to ask yourself it’s better to be aware of the poisoning of your favorite wells or just to keep on lapping it up because it’s always tasted so good. But just because it’s hard to discern doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it.

As an example, and a pretty good one because it’s ostensibly about the royal family and mostly beyond the realm of my caring, I read this article about phone hacking by the British tabloids and, the take away is the depths of the corruption of which the Murdoch News Group avails itself. The extent to which they are connected to Scotland Yard and can afford to settle with complainants (who then sign non-disclosure agreements) and/or simply hire former government officials is profound. The side story about how the new Conservative PM will embark on a campaign to de-fund Murdoch’s UK competitor, aka the BBC, is also handsome bit of roughtrade. But again, good to know and better even to acknowledge that this kind of corruption goes on and some/many view it as a perfectly proper way to do business using everything at their disposal. Now you can’t say we didn’t tell you.

On a side note, you just read the 501th post.

Billions of Ways to Be Wrong

When you’ve got enough of it, green means being able to influence elections, muddy the water on issues of the day, even fund fake grassroots movements, aka Tea Parties (R.I.P), all to stoke your corporate agenda while you call it libertarianism. Huzzah! Jane Mayer has a well-written and well-reported piece in The New Yorker on the Brothers Koch and their exploits. You should read it all; it’s like contemporary American history in the making:

In a 2002 memo, the Republican political consultant Frank Luntz wrote that so long as “voters believe there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community” the status quo would prevail. The key for opponents of environmental reform, he said, was to question the science—a public-relations strategy that the tobacco industry used effectively for years to forestall regulation. The Kochs have funded many sources of environmental skepticism, such as the Heritage Foundation, which has argued that “scientific facts gathered in the past 10 years do not support the notion of catastrophic human-made warming.” The brothers have given money to more obscure groups, too, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, which opposes the presentation of global warming as a scientific fact in American public schools. Until 2008, the group was run by Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. Mary Beth Jarvis, a vice-president of a Koch subsidiary, is on the group’s board.

Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, is the co-author of “Merchants of Doubt,” a new book that chronicles various attempts by American industry to manipulate public opinion on science. She noted that the Kochs, as the heads of “a company with refineries and pipelines,” have “a lot at stake.” She added, “If the answer is to phase out fossil fuels, a different group of people are going to be making money, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re fighting tooth and nail.”

I’m as guilty as anyone of narrowing my focus at times and missing the big picture. But the big picture is huge and often difficult to grasp, and it’s good to be reminded that it’s not conspiratorial to think know that some people with means count on this, too, as just another tool in the pouch. Remind yourself that it takes some work to stay informed, that the 1st amendment is a kind of cautionary note, freedom in reverse – not to do nothing, but a responsibility to do more. Way more. Just to find out what you need to know. Especially when we’re as peopled with highly motivated oligarchs as we are. Besides the many other things they are, the Kochs’ activities equal exhibit A for the estate tax. 99.3% at least.

Greenland’s Petermann

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Just think of us as one big glass of Bourbon, into which large chunks of ice keeping falling.

A large — approximately 97-square-mile — chunk of ice broke away from the Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland. This new ice island (as seen in the image above just to the right of center) is the largest iceberg formed in the Arctic since 1962, according to a University of Delaware news release. It’s about 40-percent larger than the District of Columbia.

Or about four times the size of Manhattan, per the NYT. Which makes us about what we are – a big glass of watery well-brand.

Too Late, Soon Enough

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Finally. After 400 years, the Northeast Passage appears. Some background.

Despite the riches in the New World, most European nations were focused on trade with the Orient. The lure of spices, silks, gems and other luxury items was more compelling than mundane fish and furs that required more work to obtain. Worse, the New World was full of aggressive natives – “savages” – who fought with the Europeans and often won their battles. But geography was in the way. There were only two maritime trade routes to the Orient and the Spice Islands known: around the southern tip of Africa or the bottom of South America. Both voyages were long and dangerous. Pirates and privateers straddled both routes and could steal both cargo and the ships carrying it. Crews often got mutinous or sick on the long voyages. A long journey meant lower profits – more money was required to pay crews, ships needed more refits and repairs. A shorter passage through the north would both reduce the dangers and the time, as well as increase the profits. It was very attractive to the merchants who invested in the expeditions.

Europe’s economy was rapidly changing in this period, nowhere more so than in England and Holland. The sudden increase in gold and silver caused both to become devalued: the more that arrived, the less valuable it became. The middle class of merchants was on the rise and land ceased to be the basis of wealth as trade propelled incomes. Bills of exchange began to replace cash as the staple of business transactions, and banks began to open in major cities. Businessmen combined their resources to become joint shareholders in large companies, rather than venture merely their own capital – a new concept for capitalism.

When I see you, I See Red

Sticking with the X theme, and why not. Today’s Pigment of the Day: Madder lake.

So… positive words from Big Oil and their patsies political allies on the heels of efforts by Sens. Kerry, Graham and Lieberman to put together legislation capping global warming pollution. I guess ‘positive’ isn’t quite the right word – it’s kinda like the line in Raising Arizona:

Evelle: [about the balloons he just bought] These blow up into funny shapes and all?
Grocer: Well no… unless round is funny.

Ha. Ha.

Industry officials said they too welcome the discussions of a carbon fee as part of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman effort.

“Clearly it softens the reaction and increases the likelihood that a number of people who’ve been forced to push back will be much more cooperative in the dialogue,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute.

Gerard said that the carbon fee approach would yield net environmental benefits, while giving consumers the most transparent signal they can get about what the costs are from the program. Unlike the House bill’s cap-and-trade system, oil companies would pass through the costs with signs at the gas pump letting people know they’re paying more because of U.S. efforts to deal with climate change.

As Grist reports, the energy companies like the fee because they’ll be able to complain about it as a tax ‘Americans cannot afford’. Actually, re-setting a highly mobile bar, they will be decrying the removal of $80 billion in loopholes and oil company subsidies as an “unprecedentled tax.” Dig it.

I mean, drill… or whatever. The oil companies see the handwriting on the wall. We can’t change underwear without taking off our pants – and they know what a zipper sounds like, as much as they will spend spin like crazy to try and tell you it’s bubbling brook.

That Newspapers Are Generally Terrible

Like so many, many things, because of a fealty to investors and/or corporate governance that equals the same thing, newspapers are under a lot of pressure these days. This creates an enormous problem for newspaper reporting, which itself creates one Gargantua of a feedback loop, where newspapers keep sucking, reporting is inaccurate and sensational, newspapers keep sucking, the profit margin shrinks, reporting gets more sensational, which makes newspapers suck more, which makes them less profitable… ad abundantiam, they get skewed hyper-capitalistic sensationalist status quo.

A fine example of this, if one is needed, rests in the deflowering of the supposed takedown of the IPCC and the work of scientists connected to it. It would seem to be enough, on a blog about green, to write about how all the pushback against climate change and global warming is a bunch of wishful thinking on the part of first-worlders, Randians and energy suppliers. That even though they really really really want to believe it’s bunch of bunk and we can keep on digging and spewing and burning for as long anybody wants to, we actually can’t.

But NOOOOOOOO. You can’t just do that. Because green isn’t just about climate real’ry or fakery but about financialry, and because it is you’ve got to get a handle on at least a few of the interlapping conflicts going on and how they relate to the preservation of a way of life. It’s what one might call a complex system.

It is a way of life, right?

Paving Our Fate

Or cementing, if you like. An American Business Community that was way late on the short-sighted-ness of sprawl, commercial real estate and exotic financial instruments (but big on INNOVATION!) is now working to defeat healthcare reform legislation because it will… slow down the climate change legislation juggernaut. Synergy!

Corporate front groups and large business trade associations are funneling their resources into defeating health reform. Even though health reform will lower costs for small businesses and boost worker productivity economy-wide, it appears that corporate entities influenced by major polluters are hoping that the defeat of health care legislation will slow President Obama’s agenda and derail their true enemy: clean energy reform.

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which is largely backed by the coal industry, candidly revealed this strategy in a letter released today to Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Robert Byrd (D-WV). The Chamber of Commerce demanded that the senators use “their clout and seniority” to obstruct the health reform debate until cap and trade legislation is taken off the table and the EPA is barred from regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. As Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette noted, Rockefeller has already rejected a similar proposal of blocking health reform unless the EPA stops reviewing mountaintop removal permits. The coal lobby has also pressured West Virginia state legislators to pass resolutions opposing clean energy reform.

I’m kind of even bored with my own impulses toward snark on this, and maybe that’s a good sign. It’s simply not amusing, the way in which major financial interests in this country align their loyalties with short term infringements on their power instead of taking a longer view toward sustainable, if lower, profitability. That is the trade-off they choose to see. But it’s not a trade. It’s a fail. They appear wiling to sacrifice both for neither, as though activating some kind of compass in their Solomonic wisdom survival pack. But you have to wonder, the survival of exactly what?

Plus, in what kind of country is the true enemy clean energy reform? Explain your answer.

Pat on the Head

It brings to mind the quote attributed to Niels Bohr. The details are disputed but, either he was visiting a friend or a friend was visiting him, and upon seeing a horseshoe placed luck side up in his garden, the friend asked,”you don’t believe in that, do you?” To which the famous physicist responded, “No, but I’m told it works the same even if you don’t believe in it.”

Today, Little Tommy Friedman serves up a similar riposte in a pretty good column. It’s all rah-rah energy technology, but he’s right, echoing Bohr,  about whether one believes in global warming.