Is the Press Afraid Of Climate Change?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

For decades, conservative media activists have been working the refs, as it's called. By constantly harping on the press' supposed liberal bias, critics hope to influence and tilt future news coverage for their partisan gain.

But perhaps the ultimate victory in a media intimidation campaign is when the press is so worried about right-wing barbs that it consciously sidesteps newsworthy topics, or simply walks away from controversies because journalists are afraid of the heated debate that the topics might spark; they're scared that cries of "liberal media" will fly.

According to a weekend report in the New York Times, that's precisely what happened with the Discovery Channel's acclaimed, seven-hour series, "Frozen Planet," which documents the earth's dramatic warming trend and the havoc it's creating for the polar caps. Missing from the series? Any explanation for why the polar caps are melting and why huge chunks of ice are falling off Antartica and Greenland, as well as any acknowledgement that most scientists agree that humans are causing the warming trend.

Coming on the heels of the recent Media Matters report that shows network news divisions have drastically cut back on the amount of time they devote to the topic of climate change over the last three years, we begin to see the effects of the right-wing's endless campaign to simultaneously dismiss and politicize global warming: a growing media silence.

From The New York Times [emphasis added]:

The vast majority of scientists agree that human activities are influencing changes to the climate -- especially at the poles -- and believe that the situation requires serious attention. That scientific consensus is absent from "Frozen Planet," for reasons that shed light on the dilemma of commercial television, where the pursuit of ratings can sometimes clash with the quest for environmental and scientific education, particularly in issues, like global warming, that involve vociferous debate.

Including the scientific theories "would have undermined the strength of an objective documentary, and would then have become utilized by people with political agendas," Vanessa Berlowitz, the series producer, said in an interview.

Even "On Thin Ice," the series finale devoted to climate change, failed to note that a "vast majority of scientists believe that human activities are contributing to the warming trends evident there," according to the newspaper.

The Times cites a Yale professor who says his research shows that just ten percent of the American population is dismissive of the human effects on global warming. Yet because that tiny percentage enjoys such a loud and boisterous megaphone via the right-wing media, the Discovery Channel and the BBC (which co-produced the series) apparently chose to avoid the central discussion about the causes of global warming for fear of sparking a Fox News or Rush Limbaugh-led backlash against "Frozen Planet."

That, despite the fact the approach left a gaping hole in the series:

"It's kind of like doing a powerful documentary about lung cancer and leaving out the part about the cigarettes," said Bill McKibben, a scholar and climate change activist. "There's no scientific mystery here: the poles are changing because we're burning so much carbon."

And that's the key here about the media bullying in play- it surrounds a topic in which there is virtually no scientific debate. Imagine if in the past conservatives had been able to scare the press off topics that were more hotly debated, like as McKibben noted, the dangers of cigarette smoking.

As for the Media Matters findings regarding dramatic drop-off in climate change network news coverage between 2009 and 2011, there's no explicit evidence the new timidity is a result of right-wing intimidation or the cries from climate deniers. But we do know that when the topic was discussed on the Sunday news programs over the last three years it was addressed in a purely political setting.

Meaning, conservatives have succeeded in taking a virtual scientific consensus and now have the press treating it as a political "debate." And it's a debate led most often by Republican politicians, no less.

Working the refs, indeed.

Discovery Channel
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