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  • On WNYC's On the Media, Lisa Hymas explains what the press got right and wrong in covering the National Climate Assessment

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    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Lisa Hymas, director of Media Matters' climate and energy program, went on On the Media to discuss coverage of the National Climate Assessment -- the good coverage as well as the problems that cropped up on the Sunday morning political talk shows and CNN.

    From the November 30 edition of WNYC's On the Media:

    BROOKE GLADSTONE (HOST): So the National Climate Assessment dropped on Black Friday.

    LISA HYMAS: It looked like a pathetically blatant attempt by the Trump administration to keep it out of the public eye. But it didn't work.

    A lot of the print media did better than TV. The New York Times and The Washington Post, they have really strong climate teams; they did great coverage. But you saw it in smaller papers all around the country. The Columbia Journalism Review found that at least 140 newspapers around the country put it on their front pages. That includes places like The Chicago Tribune and the Miami Herald, 20 different papers in California. And many of those papers also looked at the local impacts. The Portland Press Herald in Maine, they had a big story about the national implications, but they also, on their print front page, had a big story about the impacts in New England, specifically.

    But I think TV was a mixed bag: Sometimes the coverage was good, and sometimes it was not. And in cases where the coverage is poor, we probably would have been better off without it.

    GLADSTONE: You said that Sunday was the first time this year that the five major Sunday shows discussed climate change on the same day. We're talking about ABC's The Week, CBS' Face the Nation, CNN's State of the Union, Fox News Sunday, and NBC's Meet the Press -- they all had segments. The most talked-about one on Sunday was probably on Meet the Press.

    HYMAS: Yes. NBC's Meet the Press featured Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that's supported by the Koch brothers. She used a favorite climate denier line ...

    [BEGIN AUDIO CLIP]

    DANIELLE PLETKA (SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE): I'm not a scientist. I look at this as a citizen, and I see it, so I understand it. On the other hand, we need to also recognize that we just had two of the coldest years, biggest drop in global temperatures, that we've had since the 1980s, the biggest in the last 100 years. We don't talk about that because it's not part of the agenda.

    [END AUDIO CLIP]

    HYMAS: No. Climate scientists have been very clear that the global climate has consistently been warming, and the hottest years have been the most recent ones.

    GLADSTONE: Yeah. NOAA said that 2015, ’16, and ’17 were the warmest on record, but 2017 was only the third-warmest.

    HYMAS: I don't really find that comforting. You know, if you're not a scientist, you ought to listen to scientists. To say, "I'm not a scientist, but I don't believe this," that's nonsense.

    I mean, one thing that was frustrating about this last episode of Meet the Press: Host Chuck Todd later in the same show interviewed Tom Steyer, who got his start as an activist by focusing on climate change, and Todd didn't ask him anything about the report. The focus was just on the 2020 presidential race.

    GLADSTONE: Let's look at how Fox News handled the report on the day it was released. Here's CNN's Brian Stelter with a recap.

    [BEGIN AUDIO CLIP]

    BRIAN STELTER (CNN MEDIA CORRESPONDENT): The network actually spent more time talking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's shoes on Friday. Now to be fair, the networks' newscasts did air several segments about climate change, about the crisis, on Saturday. But on the president's favorite talk shows, nada, not a word.

    [END AUDIO CLIP]

    GLADSTONE: Meanwhile, Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace also did not invite a climate scientist on to discuss the report. He spoke with Republican Senator of Nebraska Ben Sasse, who dodged the topic of climate action and spoke vaguely about the need for innovation.

    [BEGIN AUDIO CLIP]

    SASSE: Because you can't legislate or regulate your way into the past. We have to innovate our way into the future. And right now you don't hear a lot of the people who put climate as their No. 1 issue, you don't hear a lot of them offering constructive, innovative solutions for the future. It's usually just a lot of alarmism.

    [END AUDIO CLIP]

    HYMAS: You know, notably, Fox's big-name personalities didn't dig in on the report at all. They just stayed focused on their pet issues. So you had Sean Hannity, this past week, ranting about Hillary Clinton's supposed scandals and crimes. I mean, he's still doing that more than two years after she lost the presidential election. And you had Lou Dobbs scaremongering about the migrant caravan. And the Russia investigation is a witch hunt -- that got a lot of coverage this past week, but the climate report didn't.

    GLADSTONE: Margaret Brennan of CBS' Face the Nation did speak to a scientist about the report, NASA's Steven Clarke, but that exchange was very brief, and it was buried in a segment that was almost entirely about NASA's Mars probe.

    HYMAS: Yes. So, on the one hand, I was glad to see that Face the Nation actually asked a scientist about the climate report. We track how often the Sunday shows incorporate or talk to scientists when they're discussing climate change, and it's been almost three years since any Sunday show has asked a scientist about climate change.

    GLADSTONE: What? Seriously?

    HYMAS: Yes, the last time was in December of 2015. It was also on Face the Nation.

    GLADSTONE: So many opportunities. So many national conferences, so many elections, so many extreme weather incidents, and nothing?

    HYMAS: There are climate scientists who are really good public speakers and who do a really great job of explaining the science in terms that normal people can understand, but they don't get the airtime.

    GLADSTONE: I think the winner of the week's booby prize, though, would probably be CNN.

    HYMAS: I think that's true. Rick Santorum was on CNN claiming that scientists are in it for the money.

    [AUDIO CLIP]

    RICK SANTORUM (FORMER SENATOR): If there was no climate change, we'd have a lot of scientists looking for work. The reality is that a lot of these scientists are driven by the money that they receive ...

    [END AUDIO CLIP]

    HYMAS: The next day, we saw Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader.

    [AUDIO CLIP]

    TOM DELAY (FORMER REPRESENTATIVE): The report is nothing more than a rehash of age-old, 10- to 20-year assumptions made by scientists that get paid to further the politics of global warming.

    [END AUDIO CLIP]

    HYMAS: He's the disgraced former House majority leader who had to resign after he was convicted of money laundering and conspiracy. Why is this guy qualified to discuss a scientific report about climate change? We saw Stephen Moore, a Trump-loving economist, making the same ridiculous claim on CNN.

    [BEGIN AUDIO CLIP]

    STEPHEN MOORE: Billions and billions and billions of dollars at stake. A lot of people are getting really, really, really rich off the climate change issue.

    [END AUDIO CLIP]

    HYMAS: Then on Tuesday morning, John Avlon did a good segment on CNN where he completely debunked this notion that there's a big climate-industrial complex and that scientists are just doing it to get rich.

    [BEGIN AUDIO CLIP]

    JOHN AVLON (CNN POLITICAL ANALYST): Now, that talking point you're hearing is a classic bit of distraction and deflection. In fact, one of the scientists who worked on the climate change report, Katharine Hayhoe, confirms that she and her colleagues were paid, quote, “zero dollars” for their work and could easily make 10 times their salaries by working for something like Big Oil.

    [END AUDIO CLIP]

    HYMAS: But, later that same day on Tuesday, just hours after Avlon's fact-checking segment ran, CNN again had on Stephen Moore to make that same claim. And what was so frustrating about CNN having these climate deniers on to make ridiculous claims is they didn't disclose the fact that Rick Santorum and Tom Delay, when they were in Congress, they got more than $700,000 each from the oil and gas industry in campaign contributions. Stephen Moore works for a number of groups that are funded by the Koch brothers. Last month, Stephen Moore gave a speech to the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association. These things were not disclosed, but those men were allowed to accuse scientists of being in it for the money.

    GLADSTONE: Why does CNN pay people like Rick Santorum to lie to the public it's supposed to be serving?

    HYMAS: I will never understand why CNN pays Rick Santorum.

    Cable TV likes to have conflict, and they like to have sparks fly. But there’s much better ways you can do it, even if you do want the conflict. I mean, it's absurd, in 2018, for a discussion about climate change to include someone who contends that we're actually in a period of global cooling. Get people who all recognize the challenge of climate change but propose different responses and solutions to it. There are plenty of conservatives who propose carbon taxes. Let's see them discuss and debate people who are proposing a highly progressive Green New Deal, or a carbon-fee-and-dividend approach. There's a lot to debate. It just doesn't have to be a denier against someone who accepts the reality of climate change.