The author and activist talks to Media Matters about media trends, climate journalism, and his new novel
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"I think media activism is one of the most important parts of this whole resistance," Bill McKibben, influential climate activist and journalist, told Media Matters in a recent interview. His new novel, Radio Free Vermont, puts a spotlight on the importance of independent media.
"Just as we have got to go about the work of building a fundamentally healthy energy system, and a fundamentally healthy agriculture system, we have to go about the long, patient, crucial work of building a healthy information system again on this planet," he said.
McKibben has published more than a dozen nonfiction books, many of them about climate change and environmental issues, but Radio Free Vermont is his first foray into fiction. It features a band of activist pranksters in Vermont who find creative ways to fight against corporate control and the big retail chains that push out locally owned businesses. The novel's protagonist, Vern Barclay, is spurred to become a rabble-rouser because the local radio station where he works is taken over by a corporation based in Oklahoma.
McKibben says this aspect of the book was partly inspired by a frightening event that happened in Minot, ND, in 2002. In the middle of the night, a train derailment caused a dangerous chemical release into the town's air, ultimately killing one resident. When police tried to reach someone at the local radio station that was designated as the town's emergency broadcaster, they couldn't get ahold of anyone. Clear Channel Communications, a Texas-based conglomerate, owned that station and all five of the other commercial stations in Minot, and piped in prepackaged content from remote locations.
"That really struck me," said McKibben.
Clear Channel, now known as iHeartMedia, is the largest operator of radio stations in the U.S., with more than 850 in its control. Meanwhile, in the TV market, Sinclair Broadcast Group owns more stations than any company in the U.S. and is poised to acquire many more, which would enable it to squelch local voices and spread its right-wing messaging to the biggest media markets in the country.
McKibben's character Barclay worries about "big media barons" and a federal rule that would "let the big media companies own even more TV and radio stations." He's right to worry: The Federal Communications Commission, now chaired by a Trump appointee, has been making decisions that will benefit Sinclair, such as rolling back a rule that required local news stations to maintain offices in the communities they serve.
Another big problem with media in the U.S., according to McKibben, is the misinformation being spread via giant social media companies like Facebook, which "seem to be mostly sewers for sort of garbage information."
"I think that we took the notion for granted that somehow the internet was going to perform this necessary work by itself, that it would accomplish an awful lot. I guess we were wrong," McKibben said with a rueful laugh. Facebook “seems to have introduced us to yet another new circle of hell where we look back fondly on the three monopolistic television networks that ruled our lives."
Good journalism can break through the cacophony, though, especially when activists help to spread and amplify it, McKibben said. He pointed to investigative reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times in 2015 exposing that Exxon knew the basics of climate science 40 years ago but buried that information and worked to stymie action to fight climate change. The reporting inspired advocates, political leaders, and state attorneys general to pursue investigations and lawsuits to hold Exxon accountable.
But overall, media coverage of climate change has been lacking in both quality and quantity for decades, McKibben said. "Where it continues to fall down is in making people understand the urgency of the situation that we're in. People continue to perceive it as something that will happen in the future instead of something that is crashing into us now."
He pointed to the string of record-breaking hurricanes and fires that have hit the U.S. in the last few months. "Those are all precisely the things that scientists have been saying for years will happen as we warm the planet, and journalists have not done a good job at making those connections in every single story as they should, over and over and over again."
Climate change "is undoubtedly the biggest story of our day," McKibben said, but "the news media doesn't seize onto" that. "Every single day, there's something more dramatic happening than climate change. But every single day, there's nothing more important happening than climate change." So when disasters hit, media need to report on how extreme weather is linked to climate change. "When we have the opportunities to foreground that story, to make people understand the stakes, we should definitely be taking them."
McKibben made his name as a pioneering climate journalist, but he wishes more reporters would have quickly followed him onto the beat. "When I was writing The End of Nature, the first book about all of this climate change 30 years ago, I was like a tiny bit worried in 1989 that someone else was going to write the book or the big story for The New Yorker or something and scoop me. It turns out I needn't have worried. For much, much longer than I've wanted to, I've had the biggest story on the planet more to myself than I should have."