The New Fall Season: Will Gore Prompt More Green Programming?

Five years ago today, in an appearance on CNN, Bill Nye observed:

I appreciate that we want to show two sides of the story — there’s a tradition in journalism that goes back quite a ways, I guess — but the two sides aren’t equal here. You have tens of thousands of scientists who are very concerned and you have a few people who are in business of equating or drawing attention to the idea that uncertainty is the same as doubt. When you have a plus or minus percentage, that’s not the same as not believing the whole thing at all.

Ah, the days before the biggest problems facing climate hawks, in addition to those aforementioned “merchants of doubt,” were a) the prospect of Mitt Romney becoming President and b) the prospect of then-President Barack Obama approving the Keystone XL pipeline. Seems a lot longer than five years, no?

Of course, one thing hasn’t changed since Nye spoke those accurate words: the mainstream media’s insufficient coverage of the climate crisis. Let’s not forget that it was five years ago this fall that presidential debate moderators Jim Lehrer, Candy Crowley and Bob Scheiffer failed to ask Obama and Romney any climate-related questions at the debates, with Crowley infamously declaring that she ran out of time before she could ask a question that would satisfy the interests of “all you climate-change people.” The media’s climate silence before and during the debates was greeted with appropriate outrage by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes:

”Climate change people” is a revealing phrase. It suggests that climate is a boutique issue like NIMBY opposition to an unsightly development down the block or advocating for the metric system. But I can`t really blame Crowley for the omission, because the candidates both spent much of the night talking about the related and entirely inseparable issue of energy, and had every opportunity to at the very least mention our single greatest governing challenge. Instead, the entire debate about energy, such as it was, was a debate over who can most ruthlessly facilitate the total and utter exploitation of every last ounce of fossilized carbon sitting beneath the continent…

[Today], we have this asymmetry of passion. On one side of the ledger, a concentrated set of interests and voters who care in a near life-and-death way about the continued exploitation of dirty energy, and on the other side, a public with a weak, nonchalant preference for us to “do something” about that whole climate change thing.

Barack Obama isn`t going to rectify this imbalance. The only way to get a sane climate debate in our national conversation is to create a cadre of activists and citizens and voters who will balance that ledger, who care as passionately about saving the planet from ruin as those on the other side do about their industry, because they see and understand just as viscerally as the other side that, yes, this really is a life or death issue. Not for one industry, or one region of one state, but for the planet and every single person we love who lives on it.

It will be interesting how mainstream-media entities will react at the end of the month, when An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is released. The long-overdue follow-up to 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth is sure to intensify public interest in this issue…but will the press meet the public’s desire for more reporting on the threat carbon pollution poses to our planet?

An Inconvenient Truth’s release, its Best Documentary Oscar win, and Al Gore’s subsequent Nobel Peace Prize victory made front-page news a decade ago, and influenced the 2008 presidential contest. (It’s been forgotten that the film, and Gore’s achievements in the aftermath of its release, raised so much public awareness about the climate crisis that it actually impacted the Republican presidential primary back then. Granted, that was before Citizens United, but still…) If An Inconvenient Sequel outperforms its predecessor at the box office, perhaps broadcast- and cable-news executives might once again recognize that the public is indeed interested in news about the only planet we call home.

It’s commonly assumed that fossil-fuel advertising is the primary impediment to expanded climate-change coverage on broadcast and cable news, though that theory can be questioned in light of the outstanding climate reporting we see from the likes of CBS’s Mark Phillips and NBC’s Anne Thompson. It’s more likely that climate-change deniers are far more vocal in attacking climate reporting than non-deniers are in praising such stories, creating the false impression in the minds of broadcast- and cable-news executives that deniers are more numerous among the American people than they actually are. A strong domestic performance by An Inconvenient Sequel would indicate to these executives that America is indeed a climate-concerned country. (After all, the candidate who vowed to continue President Obama’s climate legacy did get three million more votes…)

Of course, Fox will take a hatchet to Gore, just as they’ve done so many times before. However, a successful sequel could motivate non-wingnut media to step up its green game, reporting extensively on the clean-energy innovators, courageous scientists and national and international activists leading the fight to preserve a habitable planet for future generations–as well as our generation. With climate science under assault as never before, and with American leadership on climate tragically declining, the need for aggressive coverage of this issue is greater than ever.

UPDATE: Speaking of the press, Trump loses it again on Twitter.

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.