Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 022: Burying the Lede

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. There's a climate change conundrum that’s baffled communication researchers for over 30 years. Okay, here it is. Given that global warming poses such a significant threat to our planet, why is it largely ignored by the media? This week, we go into search of answers. We start off by consulting with Ron Burgundy of Anchorman. 

 

RON BURGUNDY: Let's see here. Global temperatures rise half a degree. Alarm climate scientists….boring. Come on, we're just brainstorming here. We're trying to figure it out how to make the news less boring and you act like we peed in your milkshake. The news is supposed to be boring Ron, serious stuff. I just don't know why we have to tell the people what they need to hear. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Among the world's climate scientists, the number of those who doubt that global warming is caused by human activity is extraordinarily low. Fewer than three in 100, but that's not the impression you get from the media itself. The fossil fuel industry has used the tobacco playbook to sow doubt about the science of global warming. This well-orchestrated campaign has been implemented by industrial groups like the Coke brothers funding right wing think tanks who make climate skeptics available at the media’s request. These climate deniers enjoy plenty of exposure from which to propagate their crazy theories. It turns out that climate skepticism in the media is largely confined to the US, the UK, and Australia. It's no coincidence that these three countries form the core of Rupert Murdoch's media empire with outlets like Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, The London Times, The Australian andSky News,all providing long-term platforms for climate skepticism. This fake news campaign has had an impact. Americans badly underestimate the expert consensus on climate change and only 42 percent of Americans believe that climate change will pose a serious threat to them during their lifetimes. This leads to the second major area of concern. Silence. In the first nine months of 2017, the US was pummeled by fifteen weather and climate disasters, that each did more than a billion dollars in damage. And in the case of hurricanes, much more. It's well established that warmer ocean temperatures lead to stronger winds and yet only four percent of news articles discussing Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate even mentioned climate change. ABC and NBC both completely failed to bring up climate change during their news coverage of Harvey, a storm that caused the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in the continental US. An extreme weather event is a moment when people can see and feel climate changes’ impacts, and so the silence of the mainstream media is not only a missed opportunity to connect the dots, but even worse.  It adds to the false impression that climate change is not part of our current reality. Right wing media is only one part of the story. News outlets with a reputation for impartial reporting have also come under fire for how often they present fringe views on climate change alongside those of climate scientists. This is known as a false balance. This misapplication of impartiality allows wing nuts to debate Nobel Laureates, contributing to the sense that there's disagreement and there's no imperative to act. And even when the media does a good job of explaining climate change, they very rarely tell us what we can do to reduce our carbon emissions. Three quarters of Americans think that there's a problem with the way that the news media covers science. The good news is that people don't like being fooled, so when they're informed about the tactics used to trick them with misinformation, they're less likely to be fooled again. Journalists, news editors and media owners have an opportunity to help the public prepare for a climate uncertain future by weaving together the complex facets of climate change in a way that both educates and engages the public. In this week's episode, we talk with two environmental journalists, Betsy Rosenberg and Geoffrey Lean, and with media watchdog Bob Ford, of the London School of Economics, about the state of reporting on climate and environmental issues, and where we go from here. We start with Betsy Rosenberg, an award-winning broadcast news veteran turned green radio activist. For the past 15 years, she has hosted and produced green radio programs including the nation's first Green Daily Theme Show on the Air America Radio Network. Betsy is currently hosting and producing The Green Front, a weekly interview program heard on the progressive radio network. She's appeared as a guest commentator on Fox's Sean Hannity show half dozen times and is a fierce and feisty challenger to anti-science special interests. Betsy has also appeared as a guest on the CNN headline news, and she's currently working on her first book, tentatively titled The Green Elephant in the Room. I can't wait for it to come out. I start by asking Betsy how her career in journalism began.

 

BETSY ROSENBERG: I got hired to work for CBS Network in New York. I did the top of the hour five-minute newscast. It was ‘CBS News, I’m Betsy Rosenberg’ and it was basically ripping and reading wire copy. After I moved back to San Francisco, just doing fires and floods and murder and mayhem and crime and corruption and traffic and weather every day as an anchor and reporter locally just didn't do it for me. I always hated waste and I would try to get stories on about waste prevention and they'd said no one's interested in that and it was so difficult even to get the bigger environmental stories on. We were just starting to hear about the greenhouse effect and I got tired of fighting for it and I thought my news director said we did an environmental story last month, Betsy. I said, but we do traffic and weather every 10 minutes and sports twice an hour and business twice an hour. Why is it? It's always been that way and I'm sad to say it's still that way, that there's this green bias, green discrimination in network news. He said, be the Martha Stewart of waste. He said, go be the Martha Stewart of trash. And that's when I started Trash Talk Minutes, Earth Day 1997. Did that for 10 years. Local radio wasn't enough, but the reason I left was it wasn't satisfying doing news, and I always felt that it was strange that we in America treat the environment, which I say is our environment because the air out there, once you take a breath in, becomes our environment. And yet there's this disconnect. I know you've talked about how we forget we're part of nature and nature is part of us and that's really key. And when I said that, by the way on Sean Hannity's show, I got death threats for saying that humans are part of nature. I've been doing this long enough that I recall when the New York Times shut down their environmental desk and those of us who were covering the beat said what? This was like five or six years ago, and they've since now hired a whole climate change team. Watching this for as long as I have and trying to bring green content and consciousness to the mainstream news channels with great difficulty. The quantity has improved and the quality has improved. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, given these improvements, what do you think is still missing? 

 

BETSY ROSENBERG: What's missing to me is the connecting of the dots. When we have extreme weather events, and Al Roker, because I watched the today show every day…It's almost like there was a memo that said, no matter how many heat records we break and how many you know, infernos we have burning, how many monster, mudslides or “horrorcanes” as I call them, because this is all weather on steroids…they never say this could be climate change. The news networks are not only catering to the base that voted for Trump, meaning lowest common denominator and talking down to them for fear of alienating them, but since when do you do news by ratings? It's supposed to be about the most important stories of our time and this is the biggest story that's not getting told. Every time we mentioned climate change, it showed that the ratings go down. People tune out.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Why do you think that is? 

 

BETSY ROSENBERG: We have an eco-literacy crisis in this country. The dots have not been connected. If the dots were connected by a meteorologist, reporters, anchors, when we're having no shortage of extreme weather events so destructive, so long lasting in terms of impact…they still don't have electricity and water in a big part of Puerto Rico. But is that in the headlines? No, because they don't connect those dots and people say, well, the environment's too depressing. You think Trump and what's going on? It's not depressing. So, there's all this hypocrisy. Okay, so I don't buy it. When people said we've heard about that, and also of course we haven't solved. We haven't solved it because Jared, we're not having a national conversation and it's not just climate change. We're in a big planetary pickle and it's late in the game and who is talking to the American adult population about what we can do. We don't want to think about things that are like bigger and scarier, but we're dealing with nuclear threats here. That's news. So, I just don't buy that, and we need to talk about our weaknesses as human beings. So, I'm not blaming people who have human nature, which is it's not pleasant to think about scary things like climate change. But not talking about it will ensure us to gloom and doom, will ensure that we have a harsher weather climate in the future and I don't know. I missed the memo that said we're giving up on our kids' generation and grandkids. We have a choice and by the time I'm finished with this career of mine, all I want is for one thing, for no one to be in ignorance anymore. It's up to us. We can't you and I can't make anybody do anything but the ignorance, the eco-ignorance that gets condoned and is perpetuated by mainstream news media ignoring it.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Betsy, what is eco-literacy and why do you think we're in a crisis?

 

BETSY ROSENBERG: There should be people screaming in the streets. We are still on the margins and as long as we don't have the mainstream engaged, how are people supposed to know? I'm not saying there aren't excellent articles online now. I'm mostly talking about network television and radio because that's what I grew up on and that's where there's still a void. There is not one program, not one hour of programming on, regular programming, except maybe an occasional special, on environmental challenges and solutions. So, when I do see these occasional stories on the TV network news -documentary, CNN sent, went up to the melting Arctic, they called it global warning, but there was absolutely nothing throughout the whole hour, which is a lot for them to devote to climate change, about what to do.  And it’s like we're going Zombie-like off of a climate cliff. Why is there that missing piece consistently? Always. We kind of went from ‘problem, what problem?’ to, ‘oh yeah, it's too late.’ What about that sweet spot in the middle, which has been at least 20 years that I've been paying attention, where we talk about what we can do? There’s is a sense of defeatism. Ignorance and then, oh yeah, there's nothing we can do, when there's everything we can do. So, the polarization actually is the saddest thing for me because we haven't used this as a great unifier. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It continues to be, of all the issues out there, a winner for Republicans to beat Democrats over the head with…

 

BETSY ROSENBERG: And we all lose as a result, but that's what's not clear. That this is not a political issue, it's a practical issue. I say my show is not for everyone. It's only for those who eat, breathe or drink. I've gone up to Tom Steyer so many times over the last three elections now and I say, Tom, great that you're supporting climate-savvy politicians and candidates. I say, but you're not going to get bang for your buck until you start educating America and having information and a media campaign to connect the dots enough so that more American voters will know why it matters to vote for the climate-savvy candidate. He said, you're right, Betsy, you’re right, we'll get around to that. Well, I could have saved him billions of dollars. There are problems and yes, it can be depressing, but if we talk about how there's so much we can do or not, like if people say that, I'm not going to tell you, Mr. Citizen, what to do. You're never going to listen to me, but if I can tell you why it matters to your kids and your family and your community and then connect the dots to all the things that are not going to happen some day off in the future but have already happened. Let's just call it what it is. People are always telling me, don't say environment. Don't say sustainability. That's a tune out. Okay? Maybe 20 years ago we could water it down, dilute it, dumb it down. But not anymore. Let's just call it what it is. You know, in AA, you don't get the solution until you acknowledge you have a problem. Let's acknowledge we have a problem and roll up our sleeves and be grown-ups, so our kids have a chance of a future that we had to thrive and let's get on with it. Like get over all that BS that is held a lot of this communication back. And I blame my industry, broadcast news, the networks at connecting the dots because I don't know how else adults learn things. I don't think they're aware of the fact that their kid who has asthma in the back of their Expedition, you know, doesn't have to have that asthma. Why is environmental news treated as anything different? Why is it not abundantly clear that environmental developments, positive or negative, have an impact on all of us? So, we're all dependent on nature and what I'd like to say to these deny-a-saurs in the White House and running the EPA are ignorant and arrogant. We need a campaign to end ignorance and arrogance just on environmental issues alone. Because that's the most urgent. We can go back and forth on immigration and health care for a while. We can. The climate window, as you well know, is closing and while it's closing, we're not having this conversation because there's no place anywhere in mainstream media where we're having it. And there's so much crap on TV, whether it's the news networks going on and on about politics or escape TV, that we're missing an opportunity and the window once it closes, it's gone. We live in an idiocracy when it comes to so many things, but mostly the environment. How about the environmental news of the week? And that's like unthinkable. That's why I feel it's so important to get it out there because the information is there, the solutions are there. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You were mentioning that you pitched CNN on doing a weekly environmental news show. How do they react? 

 

BETSY ROSENBERG: What CNN said to my proposal was, we don't think it would sustain interest for six episodes. We're probably going to do a film on the environment. I said, well, first of all, the environment is not just one story and I cannot believe that in 2018, I'm still having such a hard time getting my former industry broadcast news interested, and I really think the visual piece is key. We could overcome the noise and whatever sense there is that this is not interesting, important or too difficult. The only thing that will be too difficult is if we continue with business as usual. It will be a very harsh future.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You seem motivated by a great sense of urgency.              

BETSY ROSENBERG: It's later than we think, and that's not happening. And that needs to happen and that's why I can't stop doing what I'm doing, even though I'm 21 years into this. I would bet my life on it, Jared, because I have. I have spent my entire career working on this, and if someone would have told me how hard it was going to be and how frustrating it would be - No, it's people like you, Jared, and your podcast that keep me realizing that we just got to keep on pushing, but louder, louder, louder, louder. And it's got to go outside the margins. And the only way that I know how to do that in 2018, because social media isn't enough. People say, oh, just do a tweet about it. I do that, but that's not enough. The issues are too complex, and we need context and we need consistency. And mainstream media still reaches millions of people. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It's always great talking with Betsy. She has so much insight and energy. Betsy got me thinking in particular about how the media covers climate change, so while I was in the UK, I caught up with the respected journalist Geoffrey Lean and with Bob Ford who monitors climate media for the London School of Economics. Geoffrey Lean is the world's longest serving environmental journalist. He was the environmental writer for the UK’s Observer and The Independent on Sunday, and from 2009 until 2017, he was with the Daily Telegraph, one of England's most conservative newspapers. He was fired because his views on climate change weren’t in tune with the newspapers growing slant towards climate skepticism. Bob Ward runs Policy and Communications for the Grantham research institute on Climate Change in the environment. The center was established by the London School of Economics in 2008 to create a world leading center by bringing together experts on economics, finance, geography, and political economy. Bob formerly worked at the Royal Society of the UK National Academy of Science. Bob monitors the media for climate inaccuracies and in a recent case, forced the UK’s Mail on Sundayto admit that it misled audiences by using unverified data about global warming. I start by asking Geoff how long he's been an environmental reporter.

 

GEOFFREY LEAN: I’ve been an environmental reporter since 1969. I got hooked very early on in the importance, but also the great interest is there and nearly 50 years later here I am. I think actually things are better in the United States at the moment than here, which isn't always the case, but the moment I think they’ve got some good reporters around. Yeah, it’s pretty grim. And then Trump has obviously helped by being so anti-anything to do with the environment that obviously keeps it up in people's minds. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Bob, how do you view US climate reporting? 

 

BOB WARD: Well, what is kind of amazing looking at the United States is how many politicians and parts of the media are simply ignoring what is very clear from the reports of the National Academy of Sciences. You know, America's best scientists. And given the US have a tremendous record on size, it's remarkable how easily they are sidelined. The arguing about whether you have a problem or not is a clear tactic of climate change skeptics. It's straight out of the tobacco industry playbook where you get people arguing over whether it is a problem because you want to delay for as long as possible. I think there's a tradition for a long time of people who have learned that you don't have to tell the truth to win an argument. And unfortunately, with many of my colleagues and those who come from science backgrounds, they assume that because you're telling the truth that you win an argument. And you've had people who’ve manipulated that system. It happened a lot with many environmental risks, partly because it's kind of difficult when you're dealing with issues where you have to study statistics and trends over long time. And if you tried to, for instance, tell whether the climate is changing just by your daily experience of weather, it can be very difficult to do that. 

 

GEOFFREY LEAN: Well here, when I say that things are more serious here than the US, is that we have 10 climate skeptic columnists writing for the National Daily Press in the main parts of the paper. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Wait, wait, so 10 climate skeptics? columnists? 10? I didn't even know there were 10. 

 

GEOFFREY LEAN: There used to be four of us on the other side. Three of us left within a year, leaving only one who was a brilliant, but slightly maverick columnist writing for the Guardian. So, you have a huge deficit. And whereas it hasn't actually changed governments’ policies, it has a very chilling effect on polite society and on other little bits of government policy. It hasn't served people to climate skeptics. Polls show only three percent of the British population are really climate skeptics. So, they’re not they're not converting people, but there’s are an element of doubt. And that has a chilling effect on policy, which is really quite deadly. 

 

BOB WARD: And newspapers on the right tend to give disproportionate space to climate change denial. Britain has an established system of media regulation. The statutory regulation around broadcast news, which requires news to be both accurate and impartial, where newspaper has a science or environment correspondent, they try and do a pretty honest job. And most of the science and environment correspondents I know are just trying to tell their read of the truth. However, you usually see the skeptical voices and the inaccurate portrayal of climate sides in opinion pieces, and I spend quite a lot of my time countering the misinformation. All information about climate changes is treated as if it were just an opinion, which is obviously wrong. And it does mean that I think is contributing to some worrying trends in in public opinion here, which show for instance, that a large

proportion of the public underestimate the size of a scientific consensus around the main findings about climate change. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Why do you think there's misinformation continues to get into the media? 

 

BOB WARD: I would say the part of the problem here is that most editors, including opinion editors, do not have science backgrounds and don't know enough about climate change to be able to tell the difference between what is a plausible and reasonable telling of the story and what is outright propaganda. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Geoffrey, what do you think? 

 

GEOFFREY LEAN: There was never a strong backing for the environment in the media. It's always been seen as something worthy, some sort of external to the main things people worry about like politics or sports or crime. Actually, all the polls show, every paper I've ever worked on, the environment is right up there in what people want to read up there with health. So, for example, in Britain, there was a huge revolt against fracking. Enormous. I mean not a drop of oil has been fracked in this country, and you still have, at my last count, two to 300 regional groups fighting against it. I've never known that for any other source of energy. It's normally taken quite a while for that to be established before we get the reaction, but it's not reported at all in the press, and where it is reported, it’s denigrated. Because it reflects this particular group, and most editors edit their papers for the other editors, rather than for their readers. Cause they’re looking to the next job or their reputation in the present show. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So how do you think this is affecting environmental literacy amongst the public? 

 

BOB WARD: The difficulty with the newspapers is that they create an environment in which it's difficult to increase action because like all countries, the UK needs to be increasing the urgency of this action. And against the backdrop where people might be confused or slightly doubtful in the back of their mind, it can be all too easy that those kinds of concerns can undermine an acceptance of a policy where people are being asked, for instance, to pay more for electricity because you're taxing fossil fuels because of the emissions they create or because you're subsidizing green forms of energy which need some short-term help.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Geoffrey, given all the reporting you’ve done on climate change, were you surprised to be hired by England's most conservative newspaper, The Telegraph? 

 

GEOFFREY LEAN: I was amazed to be approached. It was the main climate skeptic paper and a quality paper. There’s a good editor there, a great editor really, who wanted to modernize the paper, and bring it more into the center and they latched on the environment as a way to do it because they knew people were interested in it. So, they brought me in. They put me in a very key position. They knocked a very prominent columnist out of his position, very politically powerful. They put me there, which caused quite a shock wave both in the paper and in the country and sort of governing circles as a whole. So, I survived three editors. Then the fourth time, the right was coming up, the climate skeptic right was gaining force in the paper, and my days were numbered. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Institutions like the BBC where there's kind of a written desire to have impartiality…you know, you have the climate scientist who knows what they're talking about and then you just have some, you know, talking head there to represent climate skepticism. And that's kind of almost created a bizarre bias towards having climate skepticism always in the story. 

 

GEOFFREY LEAN: There is a duty of impartiality, which is a good thing, but that often gets presented rather easy fashion. And because they want people to be entertained, they often look for the most extreme voice on either side and that can make reasonable debate very difficult. So, this is like, you know, the scientists come on and say the sky is blue, and you find some columnist for the right-wing papers that say the sky is red. And the BBC says, well, you know, it's interesting one side, another side, I think the sky is probably purplish of one sort or another. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Bob, you spend a lot of time on this issue.

 

BOB WARD: Yeah, I have a problem with the way in which they interpret impartiality because although they're supposed to be supposed to be accurate, impartiality between fact and fictions is not an accurate portrayal. And I think that parts of the BBC have from time to time got this wrong. They think that they claim that it will be shutting down debate, but you know, frankly it would be like them saying, well we've got to have somebody on who denies that vaccines work because we've got to have impartiality. One could easily see that that's not just wrong, but it's dangerous. And I would argue, given the risks associated with climate change, it's no less dangerous to have people on who are basically telling falsehoods about the science of climate change. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Do you think the environment is just seen by editors as this chronic problem that doesn't sell newspapers? 

 

GEOFFREY LEAN: Papers go by novelty and not by processes. So, one climate story is like the next, you know, you accept the climates in trouble. What else do you say? Someone who is not following it closely, who's sitting there at his desk, who has 30 or 40 reporters badgering him and limited space in the paper and is always looking out for something new because that's what his reputation depends on.

 

BOB WARD: Climate change has been around for a long time, and it can be quite difficult for journalists to create a new angle. But to resort to our, well, we've just got to have two people arguing opposite points of view, is a rather lazy and unproductive way of approaching this, you know? A shouting match between two people that doesn't serve the public interest. So, I think most responsible journalists look for increasingly different angles. And I think that the story is changing. Increasingly, the impacts of climate change are becoming more obvious. What you are seeing is the rise of so called “lukewarmers” as these are people who won't deny the physics of the greenhouse effect, which is pretty difficult to deny anyway, but they claim that they have some deep insight, which means that they can be certain that the impacts of climate change could only ever be small. And it's not a sensible approach to risk management. It’s like claiming that if your house catches fire, the damage will only ever be small, and you couldn’t possibly burn your house down. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Given that the responsibility of editors and people who get to play stories, why are these stories that are plainly false about climate skepticism still getting ink?

 

BOB WARD: It’s part because editors are too ignorant about this issue. They are not respecting the public interest. This is not an academic issue. People's lives and livelihoods are at stake. It may not be completely obvious, but when I read something that's misleading about climate change and I can tell that the writer is deliberately trying to mislead the public, it makes me angry because it's a pretty low thing to be doing, to be promoting myths that harm children and future generations. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What would your advice be for someone who wanted to start out right now as an environmental journalist? 

 

BOB WARD: Well, you may have a tough time now, but it's going to come your way. And you know, there's no way the way the world is going that the environment is not going to be the center of the next 30 or 40 years. I mean, we are in the middle of the biggest change since the industrial revolution. We are going to turn to a low carbon society. We may do so willfully and in time and have a good low carb and prosperity. I mean, it's happening, whatever happens. So that's the biggest story. It's been around for 200 years. That's the turning of the world on its axis. All over the world, things are happening in practice on the ground. Extraordinary stories. My twitter feed is full of them. So there's never a lack of stuff. You'll never lose stories. You may have difficulty breaking through, getting into the minds and news heads of the paper. It's not the quickest way to fame or fortune. But you'll never be bored. And it's very satisfying work. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A big thank you to Betsy Rosenberg, Geoffrey Lean and Bob Ward for giving us an insider's view into the world of environmental reporting. What I took away from this week show is that climate skeptics have been very effective in getting the mainstream media to repeat their hogwash. The big news networks, newspapers, and radio have largely failed to connect the dots between climate change and what's happening to the planet. And in many cases, the environment isn't even covered as an issue at all. It's critical that we work to turn this around by not accepting the status quo. This requires that we both seek out and promote accurate environmental news outlets, and that we continue to push the mainstream news media to do a significantly better job of covering climate and other environmental issues. Let's start by following Bob Ward’s lead and writing letters to the editor each time we see or hear fake climate news being reported. Next week, we talk science fiction. Please like our show on Apple’s Podship Earth page. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer, Rob Spate, Producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a fabulous week.