Video ››› ››› TED MACDONALD
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The most ambitious climate plan ever proposed in Congress got just one passing mention on a nightly news show
The Green New Deal has been one of the most important climate stories so far in 2019, but the major broadcast nightly news shows have given it virtually no coverage.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) unveiled the plan in February. The Senate held a vote -- albeit a sham vote -- on the proposal in March. Six Democratic presidential candidates are co-sponsors of the deal, while three others support it, and they have been talking about it on the campaign trail, helping to turn climate change into a major campaign issue. The Green New Deal was discussed during the first round of primary debates in late June. President Donald Trump has criticized the plan since it was released, including during a recent speech. And the Sunrise Movement and other grassroots groups have made the Green New Deal a priority, galvanizing a new generation of climate activists.
All of the energy and action around the Green New Deal has led to an uptick in media coverage of the climate crisis this year, though it still falls short of the quantity and quality of coverage we should be seeing. Prime-time cable news shows have covered the proposal, including in a special event MSNBC’s Chris Hayes hosted with Ocasio-Cortez specifically to discuss the plan. However, Fox has covered it much more often than CNN and MSNBC, and much more poorly.
But while many other news outlets have covered the Green New Deal, the major broadcast networks’ nightly news shows have been virtually silent on it. The nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired no segments about the Green New Deal from January 1 to July 8, and made only one passing mention of it. The nightly news shows also failed to cover the proposal in November and December of 2018, according to Public Citizen.
The only passing mention this year occurred on the March 7 episode of NBC Nightly News, and it had nothing to do with climate change. It came in a segment about allegations of anti-Semitism made against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and a fight between progressive and moderate Democrats. After citing Ocasio-Cortez’s support for Omar and denunciation of anti-Muslim hate, reporter Kasie Hunt stated, “This conflict between younger, progressive Democrats and leadership could get even more intense over issues like the Green New Deal and impeachment.” This type of framing for Green New Deal references is common, unfortunately. Media outlets often frame discussions of the plan in narrow, political ways, emphasizing political divisions and neglecting or even completely ignoring the climate crisis that the plan is intended to address.
The broadcast nightly news shows’ failure to cover the Green New Deal is not surprising. The programs have a terrible record when it comes to covering climate change. In 2018, the major nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC spent only 55 combined minutes reporting on the climate crisis -- a 66% decrease from 2017. And when they do air climate coverage, they usually don't cover policy plans or actions to address the problem. In 2017 and 2018, less than 19% of the climate segments on broadcast networks’ nightly news shows and Sunday morning shows even mentioned potential solutions.
These are pitiful figures at a time when growing numbers of Americans are recognizing that climate change poses a massive existential crisis. The nightly news shows’ neglect of one of the biggest climate change stories in the first half of 2019 is a dereliction of their duty to report the news. The broadcast nightly news programs still have big audiences; they average close to 27 million viewers per weeknight. They should be keeping these viewers informed about the climate crisis and major proposed plans to tackle it.
Media Matters searched the Nexis database for transcripts of ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’ Evening News, and NBC’s Nightly News containing the phrase "Green New Deal" between January 1 and July 8, 2019.
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Democratic candidates brought up climate change far more than the shows' hosts did
The five major Sunday morning political shows aired a combined total of six segments in June that included at least a substantial reference to climate change. This is the highest monthly total since March.
But half of the substantial climate references occurred because Democratic presidential candidates mentioned the topic, not because hosts asked the candidates about the climate crisis. Democratic candidates also made several additional passing mentions of climate change while answering hosts' questions on other topics.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who is pushing the Sunday shows to offer more and better coverage of climate change, gave a speech from the Senate floor in May about the lack of climate coverage from major media outlets and the shallowness of the segments they do run. He released a scorecard on the shows' June performance:
The only Sunday show host who asked a candidate a climate-related question was Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday. During his June 23 interview with Democratic presidential hopeful and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Wallace asked for the governor's views on the Green New Deal.
None of the Sunday shows covered the growing push for a dedicated climate debate, nor did they talk about how climate change was discussed at the June 26 and 27 debates in Miami. This despite the fact that the campaign for a climate debate became a big story: Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez rejected calls for a dedicated debate even though the idea has support from 15 presidential candidates, more than 200,000 voters, Miami-area Democratic leaders, and many members of the DNC. The Sunday shows also failed to discuss the ongoing, cataclysmic flooding in the Midwest and the record-breaking heat wave that hit Europe and especially France, which recently hosted the Women's World Cup.
The most notable climate discussion on a Sunday show occurred on the June 23 episode of CNN’s State of the Union, when host Jake Tapper repeatedly pressed Vice President Mike Pence for clear answers about his views on climate change. Tapper noted that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats considers climate change to be a threat, but the Trump administration has weakened emissions rules for coal power plants, then asked, "Do you think human-induced climate emergency is a threat to the United States?" Pence tried to avoid the question, so Tapper pressed him more than half a dozen times for a straight answer. And when Pence falsely asserted that “America has the cleanest air and water in the world,” Tapper fact-checked him and said, "That is not true." This exchange is a commendable, albeit too rare, instance of a host pushing a powerful public official for straight answers and calling out misinformation in real time.
Sunday morning political shows will have lots of climate news to cover in July, if they are so inclined. The European Union’s satellite agency just announced that last month was the hottest June ever recorded on Earth, and prime season for hurricanes and wildfires is now under way, so extreme weather could make more news. There will undoubtedly be pressure on the moderators to make climate change a significant topic in the CNN presidential primary debates on July 30 and 31, something that the moderators of the last debates failed to do. And activists and citizens will continue with their campaign demanding a dedicated climate debate.
Less than 6% of questions focused on climate, and half of candidates weren't asked about it at all
The climate crisis got short shrift during both nights of the first Democratic primary debates in Miami on June 26 and 27, showing why activists continue to demand a debate dedicated entirely to the issue of climate change.
The moderators asked a total of 170 questions over the course of the two nights, but just 10 were focused on climate change, or less than 6% -- five questions each night.
The percentage of climate questions increased slightly compared to the average number asked during the 2016 election cycle debates. During 20 presidential primary debates in 2015 and 2016, only 1.5% of the questions were about climate change.
NBC's Chuck Todd and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked the climate questions on both nights of the June 26-27 debates. Their questions on the first night were poor, in some cases ignoring the crushing costs of climate disaster and instead fixating on the potential costs of taking climate action. The questions on the second night were at least more productive, asking candidates to describe their proposals and plans for action.
Todd’s question to California Sen. Kamala Harris:
We are moving to climate, guys. Sen. Harris, I’m addressing you first on this. You live in a state that has been hit by drought, wildfires, flooding; climate change is a major concern for voters in your state. It’s pretty obvious, obviously this state as well. Last night, voters heard many of the candidates weigh in on their proposals. Explain specifically what yours is.
Todd’s question to South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg:
Mayor Buttigieg, in your climate plan, if you are elected president, in your first term, how is this going to help farmers impacted by climate change in the Midwest?
Maddow’s question to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper:
Governor, you have said that oil and gas companies should be a part of the solution on climate change. Lots of your colleagues on stage tonight have talked about moving away from fossil fuels entirely. Can oil and gas companies be real partners in this fight?
Maddow’s question to former Vice President Joe Biden:
Vice President Biden, on the issue of how you do this, Democrats are arguing robustly among themselves about what's the best way to tackle climate change, but if we’re honest, many Republicans, including the president, are still not sure if they believe it is even a serious problem. So, are there significant ways you can cut carbon emissions if you have to do it with no support from Congress?
Maddow also gave Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 30 seconds to offer a response on climate change.
Still, only half of the participating candidates, 10 of 20, were even given the opportunity to weigh in on climate, and no one got to go into any depth, address follow-up questions, or debate fellow candidates on the specifics of proposals.
Now climate activists are pushing with even more persistence for a debate all about combating climate catastrophe. And they have a new ally who's employed by one of the networks that hosted the first Democratic debates: MSNBC's Chris Hayes. He sent this tweet after the second night of the debate wrapped up:
I think I've changed my mind on the need for a climate debate. I see the DNC's point that it opens up a set of asks for other specifically themed debates. BUT there is just nothing like the climate crisis and no way to wrestle with its scope in the context of a general debate.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) June 28, 2019
Methodology: In counting the number of questions asked by debate moderators, Media Matters included invitations to candidates to make 30-second responses. We did not include invitations to make closing statements. We also did not include interjections and clarifications from the moderators unless they were interjections to allow a different candidate to speak. Follow-up questions to the same candidate on the same topic were counted as separate questions.
Five of 10 candidates on stage were not asked about climate change at all
Note: This post is about night one of the first Democratic debate. For analysis of both nights, June 26 and 27, see here.
On the first night of the first Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami, on June 26, only 6% of the moderators' questions were about the climate crisis. The five moderators posed a total of 82 questions to the participating candidates and just five of the questions centered on climate change. Only five of the 10 candidates were asked about climate change; the other half were not invited to discuss the topic.
During 20 presidential primary debates in 2015 and 2016, just 1.5% of moderators' questions were about climate change. This first primary debate night was only a mediocre improvement over that cycle -- and an inauspicious beginning to the 2020 campaign season.
Three of the climate-related questions posed by NBC's Chuck Todd were particularly poor, emphasizing the potential costs or difficulties of taking climate action, without noting the extreme danger of not taking action.
Todd's question to former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke:
Congressman O’Rourke, you’ve also put out a big climate change plan from your campaign. You want some big changes in a pretty short period of time, including switching to renewable energy, pushing to replace gas-powered cars in favor of electric ones. What’s your message to a voter who supports the overall goal of what you’re trying to do, but suddenly feels as if government is telling them how to live and ordering them how to live? What is that balance like?
Todd's question to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro:
Secretary Castro, who pays for the mitigation to climate, whether it’s building seawalls for people that are perhaps living in places that they shouldn’t be living? Is this a federal government issue that needs to do that? Do they have to move these people? What do you do about that, where maybe they’re building a house someplace that isn’t safe, who pays to build that house? And how much should the government be bailing them out?
Todd's question to Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan:
Congressman Ryan, I got a full question for you here, which is simply this: There are a lot of the climate plans that include pricing carbon, taxing carbon in some way. This type of proposal has been tried in a few places, whether it’s Washington state where voters voted it down. You’ve had the yellow vest movement. We had in Australia one party get rejected out of fear of the costs of climate change sort of being put on the backs of the consumer. If pricing carbon is just politically impossible, how do we pay for climate mitigation?
That Todd's climate questions were weak should not be a surprise. On the relatively rare occasions when Todd brings up climate change while hosting NBC's Meet the Press, he tends to ask questions that frame the issue too narrowly and through an overly political lens.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked one climate question of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. She focused on climate impacts in the host city of Miami and asked Inslee whether his climate action plan could "save" the city:
You have staked your candidacy on the issue of climate change. It is first, second, and third priority for you. You've said it's all the issues. Let's get specific. We're here in Miami which is already experiencing serious flooding on sunny days as a result of sea level rise. Parts of Miami Beach and the Keys could be underwater in our lifetimes. Does your plan save Miami?
In the fifth and final climate question of the night, Todd offered former Maryland Rep. John Delaney 30 seconds to discuss carbon pricing.
Climate activists and Democratic voters who've been calling for a dedicated climate debate were not happy with the low number of questions allotted to the subject and the feeble nature of those questions. Their continued calls for the Democratic National Committee to hold a climate-focused debate have only been bolstered by the moderators’ lackluster performance.
Methodology: In counting the number of questions asked by debate moderators, Media Matters included invitations to candidates to make 30-second responses. We did not include invitations to make closing statements. We also did not include interjections and clarifications from the moderators unless they were interjections to allow a different candidate to speak. Follow-up questions to the same candidate on the same topic were counted as separate questions.
Fox News is singled out for being "especially terrible" on climate change
Young climate activists have been demanding that mainstream media give climate change far more attention and cover it like the true global emergency that it is, and they'll be ramping up their call this Friday.
Sixty-six activists with the international direct-action group Extinction Rebellion were arrested while protesting for more and better climate coverage in front of the New York Times building on June 22. Eve Mosher, a New York-based spokesperson for the group, told CNN, “They should be treating it like World War II, where there were headlines every day.”
To tell news outlets what kind of coverage they want to see, the New York City chapter of Extinction Rebellion put out a list of “Standards for Media” featuring these main points:
The Extinction Rebellion protesters and other activists have been inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate leader Greta Thunberg, who started the school climate strike movement in 2018. She pointed out in a January TEDx talk that the media's undercoverage of climate change has led to the public failing to understand the gravity of the crisis:
I remember thinking that it was very strange that humans ... could be capable of changing the Earth's climate. Because if we were, and if it was really happening, we wouldn't be talking about anything else. As soon as you'd turn on the TV, everything would be about that. Headlines, radio, newspapers, you would never read or hear about anything else, as if there was a world war going on. … You would think the media and every one of our leaders would be talking about nothing else.
Now, youth activists are calling for a climate strike against the media on Friday, June 28 -- the first in a series of climate strikes this summer aimed at powerful institutions that aren't taking the climate crisis seriously. These will build on the energy generated in March during a global school strike that saw students in more than 100 countries leave their classrooms to demand meaningful climate action.
The 14-year-old American climate justice activist Alexandria Villaseñor, founder of Earth Uprising International, wrote about the need for a media strike over the climate crisis in a piece co-published by The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, and The Guardian, using research from Media Matters to bolster her case:
The media as a whole lets us down every day by either treating the climate crisis as a non-story or, worse, by propagating misinformation designed to confuse people and thwart action. Recently I learned ABC’s World News Tonight devoted more broadcast time to the new royal baby in a week than it spent on climate change during the entire year of 2018, according to data analyzed by the watchdog group Media Matters. ABC, CBS, and NBC did not mention the words “climate change” or “global warming” once during the combined 28 news stories they ran about catastrophic flooding in the Midwestern United States in March.
Which is why I and countless other young people around the world will be climate-striking against the news media this coming Friday—protesting outside of TV, radio, and newspaper and other news outlets to demand that they start covering climate change like the emergency that it is.
Villaseñor called out Fox News in particular for its pernicious and destructive role in spreading misinformation about climate change and downplaying its severity, again citing research by Media Matters. Her piece was headlined “Why I’m Climate Striking Against Fox News on Friday”:
This Friday, I will be striking outside of Fox News headquarters in New York City because Fox’s coverage of the climate crisis is especially terrible. Unlike the other broadcast networks, Fox doesn’t practice climate silence. It does something worse: It spreads climate misinformation—for example, by reporting as fact the lie that the well-established science linking greenhouse gas emissions with rising temperatures is unfounded. When the US Senate was about to vote on the Green New Deal last March, Fox aired more than twice as many prime-time segments discussing the Green New Deal as MSNBC and CNN did combined. But Fox’s coverage was full of climate denier talking points, including absurd suggestions that the Green New Deal would get rid of cows and cost a stratospheric $93 trillion.
Fox News commentators have long belittled youth climate activists. In February, President Donald Trump's favorite show, Fox & Friends, aired a discussion in which co-host Ainsley Earhardt said that climate activists are “using the children,” and New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz said, “You can't have a debate with children,” adding, “You're supposed to nod, and smile, and agree to whatever the little kids want ... they're manipulating you by using children.” In March, a Fox & Friends segment about a youth climate lawsuit against the U.S. government featured guest co-host Jedediah Bila saying that kids are “being used as propaganda,” and longtime industry shill and climate denier Steve Milloy agreed, saying that “these are kids being used by adults as human shields to advance their political agenda. This is ideological child abuse. It's got nothing to do with the climate.”
People interested in joining the climate strike against media can learn more from the Earth Uprising website, and everyone can spread the word using the hashtags #CoverClimateNow, #MediaClimateStrike, and #ClimateStrikeSummer.
#MetsUnite and #ShowYourStripes campaign highlighted the importance of climate communication
The 2019 summer solstice marked the second year in a row that TV meteorologists around the globe donned colorful stripes to talk to their viewers about climate change. The #MetsUnite campaign, started last year by meteorologist and CBS contributor Jeff Berardelli, aims to unite meteorologists to educate their audiences about the climate crisis and how it's affecting weather patterns. The stripes, created by U.K. climate scientist Ed Hawkins, show that the earth has warmed significantly since 1850 by using blue stripes for cooler-than-average years and red ones for years that were hotter than average.
This year, the nonprofit group Climate Central worked with Hawkins to develop an extensive set of climate-stripes graphics tailored to different cities, states, and countries, available on a #ShowYourStripes website. Meteorologists in the U.S. and other countries incorporated the stripes into their broadcasts.
On NBC's Today show, weather anchor Al Roker used the stripes to explain how average temperatures have risen around the world and in specific U.S. states, then zeroed in on warming in the Arctic, which is happening “twice as fast as anywhere else around the world.”
In Florida, sometimes referred to as “ground zero” for global warming, at least three broadcast meteorologists devoted time to discussing warming temperatures. On NBC 6 South Florida (WTVJ), Steve MacLaughlin showed the stripes chart for his city and said, “there’s just no doubt: Our planet, and Miami, is warming exponentially.” On ABC7 Southwest Florida (WZVN), John Patrick showed the Florida stripes graphic and talked about how average summer temperatures in the region have increased nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit since 1970. And Tallahassee’s WCTV did a strong segment highlighting rising temperatures in the state capital, which included an interview with Climate Central meteorologist Sean Sublette about the worsening effects of climate change on agriculture and diseases:
Other meteorologists around the U.S. used the stripes to show warming in their regions. In Washington, D.C., Chuck Bell of NBC4 (WRC) encouraged viewers to read the federal government’s National Climate Assessment “to learn more about our changing climate change and how we can make moves to improve our situation in the future.” Josh Marthers of WCBD News 2 talked about rising temperatures around Charleston, SC, where average summer temperatures have increased almost 2.2 F since 1970. Across the country in Fresno, CA, A.J. Fox of KSEE 24 discussed climate change’s effects on the number of large Western wildfires since 1980:
Many other meteorologists around the U.S. took to social media to show their stripes, as did people in countries from Mexico to Austria to New Zealand. Hawkins tweeted that nearly a million stripes graphics were downloaded by visitors from more than 180 countries.
Climate Central’s Climate Matters campaign has been influential in getting meteorologists to talk more openly about climate change. More than 600 meteorologists now participate in the program, and on-air climate change reporting by weathercasters increased more than fifteenfold from 2012 to 2018. Weaving climate change into local weather forecasts is critical; broadcast meteorologists, like other local newscasters, are seen as trusted messengers in their communities. A 2018 survey by Poynter found that Americans have more trust in local TV news than in other news sources, and a recent Weather.com article explained that this outlook is central to the #MetsUnite campaign:
“Increasingly, the public is convinced that the climate is changing. However, they don't always know exactly what that means for them, their family, and their community,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, who directs the broadcast meteorology program at Climate Central.
“TV meteorologists are in a unique position to help answer those questions—to connect the dots between climate change and the increase in heavy rain, more coastal flooding, challenges to our food and water systems, longer and stronger pollen seasons, and intensifying heat that takes a toll on the health of outdoor workers and results in rearranging of our kids' camp and sports schedules.”
Mass media coverage of climate change has traditionally been pretty awful -- particularly on TV. That’s why campaigns like #MetsUnite are so important: They provide climate change information in a trusted format to an underserved public. As the summer rages on in what’s projected to be the third-warmest year on record, let’s hope to see more weather broadcasts linking rising temperatures to human-caused climate change.
Media are missing the environmental justice story behind Trump's Affordable Clean Energy rule
On June 19, the Trump administration announced that it was officially replacing the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration's 2015 policy for curbing carbon pollution from power plants, with a much weaker Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. The text of the new rule claims that it will “improve environmental justice communities’ health,” but recently published research found that in many states it could actually lead to increases in air pollution, which would have especially negative health effects on communities of color and low-income populations.
The ACE rollout is a major environmental justice story, but that's being missed by most media outlets.
The text of the ACE rule says it is not expected to have notable negative effects on minority and low-income communities, and in fact, it will have positive ones:
The EPA believes that this action is unlikely to have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations, low-income populations and/or indigenous peoples ... The EPA believes that this action will achieve CO2 emission reductions resulting from implementation of these final guidelines, as well as ozone and PM2.5 emission reductions as a cobenefit, and will further improve environmental justice communities’ health as discussed in the [regulatory impact analysis].
But recent scientific research calls this claim into question. A study published earlier this year by scientists from Harvard, Boston University, and other institutions found that the ACE rule could lead to increased emissions of the air pollutants sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in about 20 states. As E&E News explained when the study was released, “The proposed Affordable Clean Energy rule’s focus on cutting emissions through efficiency improvements could cause emissions to increase at 28 percent of regulated power plants, as more efficient plants run more frequently and states delay retirement of older, dirtier plants, according to the study.”
At least one Trump official has acknowledged this. “A senior administration official … confirmed Wednesday that some plants may end up emitting more pollutants under the rule,” The Washington Post reported last week.
The health effects could be notable, as study co-author Jonathan Buonocore told E&E: “These pollutants contribute to PM 2.5 [fine particles] and ozone, with health effects including increased risk of premature death, respiratory disease, heart attack and some neuro-cognitive diseases as well.” Fine particulate pollution is linked to tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. each year, according to a separate study released this spring.
When the ACE rule was proposed in August 2018, the EPA's own analysis estimated that it would result in 470 to 1,400 additional premature deaths a year by 2030 because of increased fine particulate pollution compared to expected pollution levels under Obama's Clean Power Plan.
The negative ramifications of the ACE rule are likely to fall especially hard on vulnerable populations, as a disproportionate amount of harmful health effects from air pollution occur in low-income communities and communities of color. Last year, EPA scientists published a study that found that people of color in the U.S. are exposed to more air pollution than white people, with African Americans exposed to the most. A number of other studies have documented the outsized and negative health effects of air pollution on minority and low-income communities.
When the Trump EPA first proposed replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with the ACE rule last August, it tried to paint the policy shift as good for communities of color by arguing that the Clean Power Plan would have hurt them.
Draft administration talking points from the release of the ACE proposal cited a thoroughly debunked and discredited 2015 study from an industry-funded front group, the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), to claim that the Clean Power Plan “would increase Black poverty by 23 percent and Hispanic poverty by 26 percent” and would result in “cumulative job losses of 7 million for Blacks and nearly 12 million for Hispanics in 2035.”
The NBCC study's numerous flaws were exposed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, while flaws in other reports that the NBCC study had relied on were explained by PolitiFact, The Washington Post (twice), and the Union of Concerned Scientists again.
Environmental justice advocates rejected the NBCC's claims. As Jalonne L. White-Newsome, then of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, wrote in 2015 after Obama's Clean Power Plan was finalized, “Despite continuous rhetoric from the Koch brothers’ network, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and others claiming that the CPP would hurt minority communities, we knew that if the final plan were crafted with equity in mind, it could be a huge win for low-income communities and communities of color.” She and other activists worked with Obama's EPA to create a plan that took environmental justice seriously.
Proponents of environmental justice have consistently rejected the Trump administration's moves to repeal the Clean Power Plan and replace it with the ACE rule.
Alice Kaswan, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and an expert on environmental justice, critiqued the draft ACE rule after it was released last year:
Ultimately, EPA's proposal fails to grapple with what matters to disadvantaged communities. Energy justice implicates not only the monthly bill, but access to new technologies, relief from pollution and its health consequences, and participation in a cleaner energy economy. The narrowly focused ACE fails to facilitate a clean energy transition that could benefit all Americans.
And last week, GreenLatinos President & CEO Mark Magaña denounced the Trump administration's finalization of ACE:
There is a good chance that those lives lost will come from Latinx or African American communities. The risks are too high when our communities are more exposed to air pollutants than white communities. We already know that Latinx children are 40% more likely to die from asthma than non-Latinx white children.
By rolling back the Clean Power Plan, the EPA continues to abdicate its mission to protect human and environmental health. Instead, it works on behalf of the fossil fuel barons who have made deep inroads into the upper echelons of the Trump administration. In the end, the Affordable Clean Energy rule will increase the risks from climate change for everyone and particularly harm vulnerable communities around the country. That's a story media outlets ought to be telling.
Do’s and don’ts for the moderators of the upcoming Democratic presidential debate in Florida
The leadership of the Democratic National Committee is so far refusing to hold a presidential primary debate focused on climate change, despite calls from 15 candidates and more than 200,000 voters. So at least for the first debate, set to take place over two nights on June 26 and 27, it will be up to the moderators to decide how much of a focus to put on the climate crisis. That could be a problem.
In defending the decision, DNC chair Tom Perez wrote, "I have the utmost confidence that, based on our conversations with networks, climate change will be discussed early and often during our party’s primary debates." He explained, "I made clear to our media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently in our debates. That didn’t happen in 2016 — and it was wrong."
Perez is correct that the climate crisis should have gotten more attention the last time around. During the 2016 season presidential primary debates, only 1.5% of questions from moderators were about climate change, and nine out of 20 debates didn't feature any climate questions.
But is he right that we can count on the networks’ moderators to do better -- much better -- this time?
Here we offer do’s and don’ts to help moderators give the climate crisis the serious attention it deserves. The first debate, which is being hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo, will have five moderators: José Diaz-Balart, Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Rachel Maddow, and Chuck Todd.
The No. 1 task for moderators is to give the climate crisis much more attention than it’s received in past debates, which means not just asking about the topic one time but addressing it from multiple angles in multiple questions.
And as they ask those questions, the moderators need to give all candidates an opportunity to discuss the issue. This may be a challenge, as the two-night debate will include 20 candidates, 10 on stage at a time, but voters need to hear from all of them in order to make informed choices about who deserves their support.
Too often, when generalist journalists ask questions related to climate change, they frame the issue through the narrow lens of horse-race politics. We've seen this happen repeatedly in recent months on the Sunday morning political shows -- including on NBC's Meet the Press, hosted by Chuck Todd, one of the moderators of the upcoming debate.
On the May 19 episode of the show, Todd brought up climate change during an interview with Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but his question was more about how to beat Trump than how to tackle the climate crisis:
Well, let me start with something the vice president, former vice president, said yesterday. And it was a fascinating way -- he was talking about his climate change proposal. And he said, “If you want to know what the first and most important plank in my climate proposal is,” it was, quote, “beat Trump.” You have said, if all the Democrats do is focus on Trump, you lose. Essentially, Biden is saying, no, no, no, no, no, it is all about Trump. Your reaction.
Rachel Maddow, another moderator at the June 26-27 debate, shifted a climate conversation to electoral politics during a March 4 interview she conducted on her MSNBC show with Democratic presidential candidate and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. After Inslee spoke about his commitment to climate action, Maddow noted that climate change is important to Democratic primary voters, but then asked whether a climate-centric candidate can win over voters in coal-producing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio and thus beat Trump.
Instead of focusing so heavily on the race against Trump, the moderators should prompt candidates to explain the specifics of how they would tackle the climate crisis.
Many mainstream political journalists do not consider the climate crisis to be a top-tier issue, and that dismissive attitude can come through in the questions they ask -- even when those questions involve climate change.
The Democratic presidential primary debate in November 2015, for example, featured one climate-related question, but it actually appeared to downplay the problem. After a lengthy discussion about ISIS and terrorism, moderator John Dickerson of CBS asked Sanders, “In the previous debate you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?” Sanders affirmed that he did, but voters didn’t learn much new from that exchange -- except that the moderator seemed to think it surprising that a presidential candidate could consider the climate crisis to be a massive national security threat.
In 2016 debates, candidates regularly raised the issue of climate change even when they weren't asked about it, but moderators then steered the discussions away from climate and back to other topics. This happened during the three presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The moderators asked the candidates no climate questions, but Clinton raised the issue herself in all three debates, and Trump raised it once, saying it wasn't as serious as the problem of nuclear weapons. On all of those occasions, moderators failed to engage and ask follow-up questions related to climate change.
Todd also has a tendency to do this on Meet the Press. For example, during an April 14 interview with Inslee, Todd's first four questions for the governor were about immigration. Although Inslee twice pointed out that climate change is a factor pushing people to migrate, Todd pivoted the immigration conversation away from climate change.
At the debate later this month, moderators should take note when candidates bring up climate change and find good opportunities to ask them subsequent questions about it.
Voters need to hear about the solutions and policy approaches that candidates are endorsing to address the climate crisis, so it is important for moderators to ask specific and substantive questions. If moderators are short on ideas, they can look to the many suggestions coming from journalists and activists.
The Tampa Bay Times offered some good questions in an editorial titled “Democratic presidential debates should highlight climate change”:
How would the candidates change the nation’s energy mix? What federal support would they make available to states and cities to harden their transportation systems, utilities and other infrastructure? How would Washington expand mass transit nationwide to curtail automobile emissions? Is it finally time to create a national catastrophe fund as insurance against hurricanes and the other forms of extreme weather that have been hammering the Midwest?
Six environmental and energy journalists posed potential debate questions in a recent piece published in the Columbia Journalism Review.
While making the case for a dedicated climate debate, David Turnbull of the activist group Oil Change International published a list of 60 climate-related questions that moderators could ask.
When moderators have asked climate questions in past debates, some candidates have tried to skate by with vague answers and platitudes about the importance of a clean environment. We saw this in a number of 2018 senator and governor debates.
The solution is for moderators to ask follow-up questions and press candidates for more details and specifics. This has proved successful in some CNN town halls with Democratic presidential candidates this year. For example, during a February 18 town hall with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, an audience member asked her about the Green New Deal, and then moderator Don Lemon followed up with questions that elicited more specific answers.
Though the Democratic presidential contenders all say climate change is a serious crisis that needs to be addressed, they have diverse views on the best ways to do that. For example, the candidates have widely differing opinions on nuclear power, fracking, and fossil fuel exports, as The Washington Post has documented.
R.L. Miller of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote has started a list of questions that moderators could ask to help illuminate those policy differences.
Moderators should read up to make sure that they understand the basics of climate science and climate policy well enough to ask informed questions and spot any misinformation that may arise.
This would be less of a concern if the DNC agreed to have a dedicated climate debate with moderators who are knowledgeable about the subject area. Journalists with a strong background in climate and energy reporting would be best positioned to ask intelligent questions and spotlight important areas of disagreement.
Chuck Todd should take this recommendation in particular to heart. During a discussion about climate change on Meet the Press in November of last year, one of Todd’s guests made an absurd claim about global temperatures dropping and Todd let it slide by with no pushback. He caught a lot of flak for that, and he tried to redeem himself a month later by hosting a Meet the Press episode dedicated entirely to informed discussion of climate change, so we can hope he’ll be quicker on the draw if any climate misinformation crops up in the coming debate.
The first Democratic debate this year will take place in Miami, which is visibly and obviously under extreme threat from climate change. The whole state of Florida is already being dramatically affected.
Moderators should seize the opportunity to ask questions about climate-related challenges in Miami and in Florida more broadly, many of which would be relevant to other coastal communities in the U.S.
The editorial board of the Miami Herald recently suggested another topic:
How climate change and the rising sea will impact South Florida more immediately and severely than many other parts of the country. Candidates should be prepared to detail short- and long-term solutions for their Florida audience, they should offer creative ideas that reveal they understand what’s at stake for us.
The Tampa Bay Times, in its recent editorial calling for debates to focus on climate change, raised more Florida-centric topics worthy of discussion:
Tidal flooding already pours into Miami even on sunny days. Miami Beach has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for new stormwater management systems to pump seawater from the neighborhoods. Red Tide and algae blooms are costing the fishing, restaurant and tourism industries tens of millions of dollars a year. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that residential properties in the state valued now at about $26 billion are at risk of chronic flooding by 2045. And the longer we wait for a fix, the more expensive it gets.
NBC is soliciting debate questions from the public via its website. Send in your suggestions.
Tweet at the moderators with your climate questions: José Diaz-Balart, Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Rachel Maddow, and Chuck Todd. And get more traction for those tweets by using the hashtag #climatedebate.
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Sunday morning political shows’ coverage of climate change stayed low in May, just as it had been in April. The five major shows aired a combined total of just two segments in May that included anything approaching substantive discussion of climate change. This continued a troubling trend of climate silence on the Sunday shows; three out of five of them did not air a substantive climate segment in either April or May.
The most notable climate discussion in May occurred on the May 5 episode of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Guest host Jonathan Karl challenged the Trump administration’s positions on climate change during an interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Karl noted that Pompeo had previously said climate change was not a top five national security threat and then asked him how he would rank it. Pompeo gave a vague answer, so Karl pressed him further, noting a recent news report about the State Department’s efforts to remove language about climate change from an international statement on the Arctic. Karl concluded by asking Pompeo, “What are you doing specifically to address this threat, or do you not take it particularly seriously?”
This was one of the most substantive Sunday show climate segments of 2019. Even though Pompeo dodged and changed the subject, the host attempted to hold the Trump administration accountable by asking informed, pointed questions about how climate change factors into policy decisions on national security and international agreements.
The other relatively substantive climate segment aired on the May 19 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press, but the discussion of climate change was driven more by the guest than the host. NBC's Chuck Todd mentioned climate change during a question to Vermont senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, but it was narrowly framed through the lens of horse-race politics and not really about climate change at all.
CHUCK TODD: Well, let me start with something the vice president, former vice president, said yesterday. And it was a fascinating way -- he was talking about his climate change proposal. And he said, “If you want to know what the first and most important plank in my climate proposal is,” it was, quote, “beat Trump.” You have said, if all the Democrats do is focus on Trump, you lose. Essentially, Biden is saying, no, no, no, no, no, it is all about Trump. Your reaction.
Sanders noted the importance of beating Trump, but he focused most of his answer on fighting climate change, saying that pushing Trump out of the White House is "not enough." Sanders said we need to “beat the fossil fuel industry,” “transform our energy system,” and make “massive investments in wind, solar, and so forth” because we have a “moral responsibility to make sure that our kids live, and our grandchildren live, in a healthy and habitable planet.” Todd did not then ask Sanders what specific steps he would take to make that happen, but instead pivoted to a question about Democratic Party inside baseball and whether Sanders could win in Pennsylvania.
The recent climate silence from more than half of the Sunday morning political shows has been deafening in a year when there have been many pressing reasons to discuss climate change. Large swaths of the country have been devastated by extreme weather. Democratic voters have elevated climate change to a top-tier issue. Multiple presidential candidates have released plans to combat the climate crisis.
And yet CNN’s State of the Union has not aired a substantive climate segment since March 31. Fox News Sunday’s last one was on March 17. And CBS’ Face the Nation went more than three months without a substantive climate discussion; the only two it has aired in 2019 came on February 24 and June 2.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) spoke out about the dearth of major media reporting on climate change and the shallowness of the segments that have aired during a recent speech on the Senate floor. The speech was part of a concerted effort by the senator to push corporate media, especially the Sunday morning political shows, to offer more and better coverage of climate change. He released a scorecard on the shows’ May performance.
June will also offer compelling reasons for the Sunday show hosts to discuss climate change. The Democratic Party is holding its first presidential primary debate June 26-27 in Miami, one of the areas in the country most at risk from climate change, and candidates and activists have been calling for a debate focused specifically on climate change. Disastrous flooding has been hitting the Great Plains and the Midwest. The corporate media should be reporting all the time on how we can address the existential crisis of climate change, but this month is as good a time as any for Sunday shows to start giving this issue the sustained and urgent coverage it deserves.
Strong environmental journalism is key to informing citizens and holding polluters accountable
Update (5/31/19): After publication of this article, Media Matters spoke with The New Orleans Advocate and learned that it has made job offers to The Times-Picayune's full three-person team of environmental journalists and those offers have been accepted. The Advocate also plans to bring over a grant-funded journalism fellow as part of a year-long environmental reporting project that was started at The Times-Picayune. These journalists, who are expected to begin their new jobs on July 2, will join the Advocate reporters who have been covering environmental issues as they intersect with other beats.
"We are extremely excited to be expanding our environmental coverage," said New Orleans Advocate Managing Editor Martha Carr. "The Advocate has a strong record of environmental reporting in New Orleans and Louisiana. These reporters will add to what we can do to keep citizens informed."
The Times-Picayune, a 182-year-old newspaper published in New Orleans, has produced some of the most important environmental journalism in the country. But after a surprise purchase by the owners of The New Orleans Advocate and the Baton Rouge Advocate in early May, the entire staff of the Picayune was laid off. The buyers reportedly plan to merge The Times-Picayune with The New Orleans Advocate, but it's unclear how many of the 161 Picayune employees will be rehired to work on the new joint paper, which is expected to relaunch in July. Local environmental advocates are concerned that a degraded and depleted Picayune will have a much harder time informing the public about important environmental issues.
For decades, The Times-Picayune has produced groundbreaking stories about how humans affect the environment in southern Louisiana and around the world. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for its “Oceans of Trouble” series, which examined threats to fish populations around the world.
In 2006, the Picayune was awarded another Pulitzer, this time “for its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant.” The paper's Katrina reporting was also built on critical work its journalists had done in previous years. In 2002, it published a prescient five-part series that revealed how woefully unprepared the region was for the full brunt of a major storm. The series included an ominous warning: “It's only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.”
The Times-Picayune has twice earned the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, presented by the Columbia Journalism School. In 2001, it won for “Unwelcome Neighbors: Race, class and the environment,” a four-part series that examined environmental justice and the legacy of environmental racism in Louisiana. And in 2008, it was honored with an Oakes Award for a special report titled “Last Chance: The fight to save a disappearing coast.”
The newspaper also received many other accolades over the years. For example, the Picayune's reporting on the BP oil spill earned first place for outstanding beat reporting in a small market from the Society of Environmental Journalists in 2011. In 2018, the paper partnered with The New York Times to produce a three-part series that investigated the ecological catastrophe occurring along Louisiana's disappearing coastline, and further reporting on the topic won the 2018 Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors award for continuing coverage.
The Times-Picayune continued to produce innovative and informative environmental journalism even after suffering massive staff layoffs in 2012. But as in far too many other newsrooms across the country, good journalism would ultimately not be able to save the paper.
Notable achievements, high readership, and even profitability have so far proved unable to stem the growing tide of newsroom erosion and extinction all around the country.
Picayune journalist Haley Correll, who found out that she lost her job while in New York to accept an award, illustrated this point in a tweet.
Last night, I stood in Pulitzer Hall at Columbia and accepted The Dart Award. Today, I ugly cried on an airplane as I heard @NOLAnews was bought and we’re all losing our jobs in 60 days. The whole newsroom.
— Haley Correll (@HaleyCorrell) May 3, 2019
The Wall Street Journal recently took a deep dive into the dire state of local newspapers. The article noted, “Nearly 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018, leaving 200 counties with no newspaper and roughly half the counties in the country with only one,” according to a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina. The job losses have also been staggering: Between 1990 and 2016, newspaper positions in the U.S. declined by about 60%, falling from 465,000 jobs to 183,000.
Local environmental activists have expressed apprehension about what the Picayune’s sale portends for the future of journalism in a region that is highly vulnerable to climate change and plagued by environmental injustices like “Cancer Alley.” Dustin Renaud, a spokesperson for New Orleans-based conservation nonprofit Healthy Gulf, told Media Matters, "Environmental protection starts with informed citizens, and The Times-Picayune has been an invaluable source of information on issues like sea-level rise, land loss, increased severity of storms, and oil and gas development, which are all very real threats to Louisianians.”
His unease is shared by Andy Kowalczyk of climate action group 350 New Orleans, who told Media Matters, “Unbiased reporting is increasingly important in Louisiana because there is an all-too-common and casual lack of transparency from regulators of polluting industries, and, of course, the industries themselves.”
They're right to be concerned. Research suggests that the loss of local newspapers can result in citizens who are less civically engaged and institutions that are less accountable, leading to more government and industry waste, fraud, and abuse. A recent study also found that newspaper coverage of polluting plants was correlated with lowered emissions from those plants.
Without knowledgeable journalists who can tell compelling stories, a local paper will sometimes morph into a digital version plagued by junk advertisements and rife with stories that have little relevance to the community it serves.
Renaud emphasized the importance of tenacious reporters: “We need dedicated environmental journalists to tell the stories that Healthy Gulf advocates for or else we risk important environmental news falling through the cracks.” Having experienced journalists on the job is particularly important for beats like environmental reporting that require a grasp of science, regulatory systems, politics, and local arcana.
There is at least one bit of good news on this front: Poynter reported that the leaders of The New Orleans Advocate intend to hire some Picayune journalists on contract, and “the hires will draw on the strength of the Times-Picayune’s environmental reporting,” among other areas of expertise.
The outlook for local news outlets around the country is bleak, but there are new models being pioneered that have the potential to help newspapers survive and even thrive in some cases.
One example is Report for America, a project aimed at recruiting, training, and placing 1,000 reporters in local newsrooms by 2023. The organization splits the cost of a reporter’s salary with the local newsroom and an individual donor, university, family trust, or foundation. This year, Report for America placed 61 reporters in 50 local news organizations.
Another project is focused specifically on the environmental beat. InsideClimate News’ National Environment Reporting Network is "hiring experienced reporters based in key regions of the nation to write stories, train local reporters, and collaborate with newsrooms to produce more in-depth environment reporting.” The network recently teamed up with 14 news outlets in the Midwest to produce a series of stories on local climate solutions.
Public funding of news outlets is another model that is beginning to be tested in the U.S., as the Nieman Lab reports. In New Jersey last year, grassroots activists successfully pushed through the Civic Info Bill, which created a public fund to support journalism projects and other potential ways to inform state residents.
In Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune recently announced that it is seeking to become a nonprofit. If successful, the paper would become the first “legacy U.S. daily to switch to nonprofit status,” according to a Tribune article. The effort will be a complicated process; to kick it off, the Tribune’s owner has petitioned the IRS to change the paper’s status “from a privately owned business to a community asset.”
These are promising steps, but the ability of these models to support quality journalism is still in doubt -- as are the fates of many talented and experienced journalists who are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. But no matter which models ascend to fill the role historically played by local newspapers, one thing is certain: They should be guided by the consistently rigorous, revealing, and relevant reporting produced by local papers like The Times-Picayune.