Signals Intelligence

As always, Chris Hayes did one hell of a job with his five-part series on climate change shown this past week on MSNBC. Hayes is one of the very few voices on mainstream-media airwaves who can discuss this issue with the complexity and compassion it deserves; future generations will revere his work the same way this generation reveres the work of Edward R. Murrow.

It’s been over four years since the debut of Hayes’s weekend program Up, a show that broke new ground in terms of its coverage of the climate crisis. I still remember how much of a thrill it was to see David Roberts, Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) and countless others who have called for strong action to combat carbon pollution stimulating the American intellect with their discussion of this issue. In April 2013, when MSNBC launched All In on weeknights, Hayes continued his exemplary work, providing a forum to scientists such as Michael Mann and activists such as Josh Fox to make the compelling case for climate consciousness.

However, considering the importance of this issue–an issue that is connected to virtually all major economic and social issues in this world, including terrorism–is it not obvious that there needs to be a dramatic expansion of climate coverage on broadcast and cable television?

It’s been forty-five years since the late NBC News anchor Frank Blair mentioned the risk posed by human-caused climate change in the network’s coverage of the first Earth Day. Since then, television coverage of the climate crisis has been woefully inadequate, to say the least. Yes, there was the famous April 1980 CBS Evening News report about coal’s contamination of the climate–but one report, no matter how great, is a substitute for sustained reporting.

Sustained reporting in the news medium most Americans consume could not be found as the climate crisis grew in the 1980s. Yes, there was an occasional NBC Today segment here and a brief news digest there, even a PBS special. However, comprehensive coverage of humanity’s greatest crisis was lacking–and a bad situation became far worse after the fossil fuel industry launched its despicable climate-change denial campaign in the late-1980s.

Three years after the fossil-fuel industry launched its insidious campaign of climate-change denial, its sick goals were achieved when ABC’s Nightline invited, of all people, Rush Limbaugh on to attack Al Gore and demonize climate science. Limbaugh had no business being invited on to such a prominent platform; he had no credibility whatsoever when it came to discussing science. Yet a mainstream media outlet intimidated (or influenced?) by the fossil-fuel lobby gave this Big Oil shill an opportunity to deceive.

As the climate crisis grew, American cable and broadcast coverage of the crisis continued to shrink. In 2000, ABC ran a special about the climate crisis, “Planet Earth 2000,” featuring an interview with President Clinton conducted by Leonardo DiCaprio; of course, the special was buried on a Saturday night. It wasn’t until after the 2004 release of The Day After Tomorrow that our broadcast and cable networks began to give this issue some of the attention it deserves.

Former MSNBC personality Keith Olbermann deserves credit for using his program as a forum to push back against the forces of climate denialism; like Olbermann and Hayes, Rachel Maddow has also distinguished herself on climate. Yet it’s not nearly enough.

There has been a noticeable spike in broadcast and cable climate coverage during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris; CBS News in particular has done great work (including an outstanding interview with President Obama). However, journalistic integrity demands that American cable and broadcast networks significantly increase their coverage of the gathering storm of human-caused climate change. A story this important can’t be relegated to occasional specials and documentaries.

Climate change is a life-and-death issue–an issue that even ExxonMobil now acknowledges the severity of. It’s time for American broadcast and cable networks to reflect the magnitude of this crisis in their coverage.

UPDATE: Speaking of ExxonMobil, our cable and broadcast networks must provide comprehensive coverage of the company’s shameful–and potentially criminal–track record of deceiving the American people on the accuracy of climate science, as Peter Sinclair does here:

UPDATE: More from Sinclair, The Hill and CBS Face the Nation.

SECOND UPDATE: More from CBS Face the Nation and Joseph Robertson.

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D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.