With former NBC chief Jeff Zucker now in charge at CNN, the network reportedly has big changes planned.
The overhaul presents an opportunity for CNN to reverse a decline in environmental coverage that one former top environmental producer at the network blames on an obsession with beating Fox News.
Peter Dykstra, who oversaw the CNN environmental beat from 1995 to 2008, recalled top CNN executives describing environmental stories as “elite issues or liberal issues” that would not draw a Fox News crowd.
“For the last 10 years, CNN has been battered by competition, primarily by Fox. They have incurred huge losses in ratings to Fox and like just about anyone in cable television, they have altered their programming far more in the direction of entertainment and amusement as opposed to information with redeeming value. That of course does not bode well for covering science,” Dykstra said in a recent interview. “CNN has looked obsessively at how many viewers they've lost to Fox.”
Dykstra spent 1991 to 2008 on the environmental beat at CNN, except for a short stint on the military desk in 2002, serving as executive producer for environmental and science coverage from 1995 to 2008. He was laid off in 2008 when the environmental unit was shut down, he said.
A former board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists, Dykstra has been publisher of Environmental Health News for the past two years, previously working at the Pew Charitable Trust after leaving CNN.
“The biggest issue is that what we covered were perceived to be either elite issues or liberal issues that were of little value if your goal in life is to compete head to head with Fox News,” Dykstra recalled about his CNN days. “You do not need science and technology to compete with Fox.”
Ironically, a recent report at the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage ranked Fox News 9th out of 30 national news outlets in the amount of environmental stories, with CNN ranked near the bottom at 25th. The report noted, however, that “Fox's environmental coverage has often been documented and criticized for being biased and misleading.”
Dykstra said that former CNN President Jonathan Klein, who served in that role from 2004 to 2010, was one of several executives who called for a reduction in environmental coverage in order to compete with Fox, even though he believed climate change existed.
“I will give him credit for looking me in the eye and telling me to my face, and he was not the only CNN boss who did this, that he did not consider science and environment coverage to be a high priority,” Dykstra said of Klein, later adding, “It never was hostility, it was more an attitude of 'that doesn't work for us, that doesn't help us beat Fox.' There was very little if any political push back. In fact, Jon Klein, I recall him saying in editorial meetings on more than one occasion 'it's obvious that this is for real, it just didn't necessarily have a place in CNN's coverage.'”
Dykstra said CNN had been a leader in environmental coverage in the early 90s as it ramped up coverage at the time.
“They increased when everybody else increased which was shortly before I got there around 1990,” he said. "There was a huge peak in environmental interest around 1970, some of the first designated environmental reporters were given a beat on newspapers, that was when Earth Day [first] happened.
“Over time over the next few decades that momentum faded and it began to come back in the 80s, first as a reaction to Ronald Reagan's policies and then you had this series of high-profile environmental cataclysms in the 80s -- Chernobyl, medical waste and sewage washing up on all the east coast beaches, and the first serious reports on global warming.”
Asked when and why the shift changed at CNN to less coverage, Dykstra said: “Much of it can be attributed to the response to Fox [which launched in 1996]. Gradually, through the 90's and dramatically after 9/11 and then in a very final sense after the economy tanked [in] 2007, 2008. In the midst of a real focus [post-9/11], we did no environmental coverage. There was really no coverage of anything other than Al Qaeda and 9/11 here.”
But Dykstra said the lack of coverage is almost worsened by the way CNN has handled climate change today. He cited the recent appearance on Piers Morgan's show of Marc Morano, who oversees the climate change denial site ClimateDepot.com.
“That means they are comfortable with allowing utterly discredited crackpots on the air like Marc Morano, who has been on there twice in the past six weeks,” Dykstra said. “If you let Marc Morano have half of a show on climate change, someone who was utterly discredited, who was involved in the swift boat story, who worked for Rush Limbaugh... if you took that same standard that they used for this environment story and applied it to a medical story you would have to pair Sanjay Gupta up with a faith healer or a witch doctor every time he went on the air.”
Jonathan Klein could not be reached for comment and CNN did not respond to requests for comment.
“What has happened particularly in the cable news business is that the competition particularly between MSNBC and Fox and CNN has prompted all three to strive for the lowest levels,” he said. “With Fox in the lead and MSNBC and CNN playing catch-up, there has been a tendency to present over-simplified versions of the news and often to have them presented on the air by the real-life equivalent of cartoon characters.”
He said his efforts to focus coverage on climate change and even evolution versus creationism were often blocked in the later years of his CNN stint.
“It obviously does not fit the political portfolio of Fox and a place like CNN is terrified of alienating viewers with progressive coverage and driving them to Fox. Climate change stories were not my most difficult sell at CNN,” he said. “I could get absolutely nowhere with relevant stories about the science and politics of creationism versus evolution.”
Dykstra said he actually had more trouble getting creationism controversy stories on the air than climate change, but he said climate change was still a “tough sell.”
“When I was there, of course it was long before [Hurricane] Sandy this year and all of the horrendous weather stories of the past year, extreme weather was an easy sell,” he explained. “Katrina made climate change a bit easier sell ... people tend to forget there were at least four major hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004. Those issues where there was reason and immediate on the ground self-evident reason to ask questions about climate, it was an easier sell.”
He later added, “Now we see it rising again and it is rising again on the occasion that we've just gone through tremendous drought, a huge melt back of the arctic ice pack, Sandy and other storms... and the public is responding again. TV news often reacts to that response. There's at least a sliver of hope that there will be some comeback in climate reporting at CNN and other networks.”
Dykstra offered some hope that CNN would improve its environmental coverage, praising most of the reporters there. But, he stressed, the striving for ratings and push for personalities does not help.
“There was and still is enough journalistic sensibility at CNN that they will never move to the right like Fox, but they will give Glenn Beck his first [TV hosting] job, which CNN did about 5 years ago. They will tolerate Lou Dobbs becoming this Howard Beale-like populist crackpot at the point in his career when Lou Dobbs was denying climate change and promoting birther stories about Obama.”
Dykstra said ratings are not always the driving force, sometimes it is getting advertisers who want a certain audience, even at the detriment of proper news coverage.
“Lou Dobbs' business show never really had high ratings, but business-oriented sponsors, people who might be selling Cadillac Escalades or jewelry to wealthy viewers, would pay a premium price even if it's a smaller numerical audience to reach a richer audience,” he explained. “The eternal challenge [for environmental coverage] is that we are not linked to a personality, there is no star environmental reporter out there.”
Dykstra said the CNN environmental and science team reached 24 people -- with up to a dozen on the environment alone -- in the 1990s. By 2000, it was down to 12 staffers across both beats.
Dykstra was among seven environmental journalists laid off in 2008, with five having been let go during 2004-2007.
“I don't have a great deal of optimism that CNN can improve. There are still a lot of people there with high journalistic values and principles who are very smart and work very hard, but it is clear that the mandate at the top is to not rock the boat and when it's a conflict between informing people and amusing people, amusement will win,” he said.
Is there an opportunity to improve?
“They would have to commit, top to bottom, take a big risk. The argument could be made that their numbers have fallen so much that they really don't have much to lose,” he said of CNN.
“They have enough journalistic backbone left that the best they will ever do is a half-assed version of Fox, and that will get them nowhere,” he added. “That doesn't mean that they have to be raging liberals to counteract Fox's raging conservatives... CNN is still the best of the three but that is also like saying you have just won the beauty pageant in ugly town.”