By Denise Tessier
There’s an old saying:” If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”
The Journal hasn’t exactly stayed out of the “kitchen” when it comes to reporting on global warming. As we’ve said before, national stories carried on the Journal’s pages regularly talk about the warming trend. And Journal science writer John Fleck has done an admirable job keeping up with current scientific reports and New Mexico-centric stories about warming, water shortages and El Niño/La Niña weather.
What’s irritating is when the Journal dilutes the impact of these reports by running pieces alluding to or quoting those who contend global warming is a “myth.”
By now, savvy readers have come to recognize that when media present a discredited theory like climate change, it’s usually in service to showing “both sides,” and ends up a false attempt at appearing fair and balanced. At this point in history, it behooves media to drop stories that deliver falsehoods, because those stories stymie honest effort toward mitigating the effects of climate change.
A couple of things prompted me to write about this topic this week.
The first was an article from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard quoting Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), who, while keeping an eye out for all kinds of abuses of power in Washington, has noticed a slew of nonprofits springing up specifically to further lobbyist agendas via the media.
In the article, “Be Careful Who You Quote,” Sloan talks at length about how lobbyists, grassroots organizations, and other special interest groups succeed in getting biased or false information—often presented as facts and expert advice—published in the media, adding that the journalistic culture of “he said/she said” contributes to the problem, perpetuating false information in pursuit of showing “two sides”:
Sometimes there isn’t another side, like there actually is not another side to climate change. You can discuss degrees, but the concept that you can have an article that says “there is climate change, there is not climate change” is ridiculous.
The Nieman Foundation interviewer, Stefanie Friedhoff, asked whether that’s still true, considering how often climate change has been cited as an example of the “shortcomings of ‘he said, she said’ reporting.”
Sloan responded that “interestingly, we still have it,” citing numerous examples, including Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who denies climate change and the Heartland Institute, which pays people to deny it — “and they are being quoted in the media.”
Not long after reading Sloan’s interview, I was struck by the boldness of the July 19 cover of the Weekly Alibi. Forgoing its usual humor / clever graphic art, the Alibi filled its front page with a photo of cracked, dry mud, its only caption the first few paragraphs of the issue’s lead story. Underneath in huge letters was a single word, “Megadrought.”
The story inside (“Bone Dry: Southwest farms bite the dust as ‘megadrought’ becomes the new normal)”, was as weighty as the screaming play it had been given on the cover. Reporter Ari Levaux not only interviewed a Navajo farmer (now selling burritos), a farmer in Placitas, an acequia mayordomo in Mora, and other locals, like author William deBuys (who provided historical context). He also interviewed Bill McKibben – not the retired New Mexico legislator, the nationally renowned author and climate activist — who told Levaux:
Not even the Land of Enchantment can cast a spell strong enough to keep climate change at bay—it’s going to take hard, urgent effort, here and around the world.
Levaux advised readers: “If you’re interested in doing something about climate change, the New Mexico branch of 350.org, the nonprofit McKibben helped found, would happily put you to work.”
The Alibi story came on the heels of the worst fire in New Mexico history (the Gila, not to mention the devastation wrought near Ruidoso and to our neighbors up in Colorado Springs) plus a record month of heat and heat-related deaths in the United States. I’d recently visited Chicago, where the normal temp for the week was 84 degrees F. but we were sweltering at 103, locals welcoming us with remarks like, “How do you like our hot city!”
The stark Alibi cover was a bold play, and justified, but it needed a chorus of other media to join in if the public and policy officials were expected to listen and act. Remember when journalists were accused of running with a story like a pack? They still do, but with our fractured media, the story is served up with its own spin and unlike the old days, we’re no longer unified in the media we’ve been watching. Before, all it took was good play on the three major networks and the leading daily newspapers to put a story out for public response.
Dated the same day as the Alibi cover, Rolling Stone magazine arrived in the mail a few days after with a day-of-reckoning article by Bill McKibben himself — “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”. It is a must-read explanation of the crisis (it evens mentions New Mexico) and it articulates the feeling some of us recently have had that the end times could indeed arrive via fire and a hot wind. But again, Rolling Stone is an “alternative” magazine, just as the Alibi is an “alternative” newspaper. Would we hear from the “mainstream” media on this?
It took a few days, but on July 25 the Journal was on point with a front-page story from Fleck. The story started below the fold, but the label-headline “N.M. Drought” caught the eye with its red color, followed by “Worst 2 Years In Decades: Grasslands Dry Up As Cattle Feed Costs Soar.” A box by the piece led readers to B1, where the top story was, “Cattle Herds Shrivel in Face of Drought: N.M., Southwest Hardest-Hit Areas.” Turn to A3, and an Around the World headline said, “All of Greenland Is Melting.” That same issue also had a guest column, “Climate, Man-Created Landscapes Feed Wildfires .”
And every week the Journal carries Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet. Read the tiny print (it’s comparable in size to the paid obituaries), and consistently, the column is forthright in spelling out the challenge and the lack of will by communities to do anything about it, even if it means only to prepare for the worst. The weekly feature cites scientific reports to back its assertion that climate change is not only a fact, but that humans are exacerbating the problem. Here’s a sample:
Climate Dithering — While cities around the world are reporting more and more impacts from climate change, a new study suggests those in the United States are less prepared for what lies ahead than their international counterparts. . . . U.S. cities were the least active in assessing their vulnerabilities and risks from the changing climate, while those in Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were the most aggressive in planning for it. Many climate experts blame an orchestrated campaign of misinformation by the energy industry for a lack of resolve among politicians to cope with climate change, or to even acknowledge that it exists.
Ocean Warming — A team of international researchers has determined that human activity is the main cause of worldwide ocean warming over the past 50 years. . . . Lead author Peter Gleckler at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California said the scientists tried to determine if the warmer waters could be explained by natural variability alone. But their extensive research concludes that the average warming from the surface down to 2,300 feet of about 0.025 degrees Celsius per decade was primarily due to the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. “Humans have played a dominant role,” Gleckler writes.
Human Influence — The U.S. government has for the first time concluded that man-made climate change is likely connected to a rash of recent extreme weather events across the country. One of the more economically damaging shifts has been that droughts in Texas are now “roughly 20 times more likely” because of greenhouse gas effects on the atmosphere, according to a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Researchers analyzed temperatures and dryness associated with Texas droughts for the past 50 years. Only by factoring in the effects of greenhouse gas warming could the intensity and duration of them be explained, scientists said. “What we’re seeing, not only in Texas but in other phenomena in other parts of the world, (are episodes) where we can’t explain these events by natural variability alone. They’re just too rare, too uncommon,” NOAA climate office head Tom Karl told reporters.
Climate change is real, and it’s affecting the food supply, the world economy and human safety. In order for “climate dithering” to stop, the public’s resources for information – including the Journal and other media – must stop giving free space on their shrinking pages to those who likely are being paid to dispute what is right before our eyes, supported by scientific research. Our future depends on it.