“If we’re not using mainstream media outlets for the biggest planetary crisis of our time, what the hell are we using them for?” In a wide-ranging conversation with veteran radio host Betsy Rosenberg on her program On the Green Front, we talked, among other things, about how mainstream media fail to connect the dots on climate change, and how right-wing dominance helps marginalize environmentalist views on the radio.
The program is archived online here: On the Green Front, June 20, 2012
Betsy Rosenberg: What do you think of all these extreme weather events? Currently on the first day of summer we have fires burning – I heard one report that said they’re not going to be fully out until fall, and here we are on the first day of summer.
Rick Piltz: This is a big story. You have the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history – 500 square miles burned now – and the second largest in Colorado’s history… Last year there were extraordinary, record-breaking, something like 20,000 wildfires in Texas. It’s interesting that the media will talk about this being the second warmest May on record, and they’ll cover the wildfires, but they don’t connect the wildfires with climate change. It seems to me that climate change is a factor. They’ll say, “well you can’t attribute any one specific meteorological event to climate change.” That’s the wrong framing.
Anthropogenic climate change is embedded in all weather now. It’s feeding these wildfires just as it would be expected to; there are hotter, drier conditions. There has been severe drought in all of the areas where they are having major wildfires. You have longer fire seasons; the snowpack is melting earlier and that kicks off the start of the fire season. You have the mountain pine beetle eating up forests, moving northward, creating a lot of dead vegetation for fires to feed on. You can’t adequately put the wildfire problem in perspective without talking about climate change. I think the leading climate scientists will tell you that.
D.R. Tucker: And why do you think the media doesn’t connect the dots? Do you think it’s a dynamic of fear? I was watching an interview a few days ago with Joseph Williams of POLITICO, where he noted that reporters are afraid to state obvious facts because they’re concerned about specific interests (and he meant interests from the right) going after them and attacking them. Do you think there’s a sense in the newsrooms that if we say specifically this is being caused by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas they’re going to be bombarded by hateful emails and they don’t want to deal with that?
Rick Piltz: I think that clearly is an element of it. The climate change/climate disruption problem is big and complicated. It’s hard to get your arms around, to understand the science. It would be tough enough to analyze if everybody were being intelligent, knowledgeable, public-spirited, and scientifically literate. But when you have ideological interests who are afraid this implies more government intervention, and you have powerful corporate interests ripping through the public discourse like shrapnel, it does poison the well (to mix metaphors). It makes it more difficult.
In the media there are such cutbacks in print journalism, you have attenuation of environmental and science reporters who have the institutional memory to cover the issues like real pros. You have people covering issues who don’t really understand the stuff very well. So there is a path of least resistance to avoid it and still say you’re covering your story, or to do some kind of fake balance. But there is an anticipatory self-censorship, you might call it, whether they are getting an explicit signal from above or whether they can just read the signals to avoid controversy.
The global warming denial machine – I’m not taking about legitimate skeptics, I’m talking about the politically orchestrated right-wing attack – will get all over people, whether it's in the blogosphere or whether it’s shutting down the discourse at the level of Congress. Even the president won’t talk about climate change. The path of least resistance is avoidance now, which is very concerning.
Betsy Rosenberg: Couldn’t agree with you more, Rick. I would add to that, because I’ve been hitting the 'green ceiling' as I call it, trying to get radio syndicators to run an environmentally themed program for the last 15 years. First with my network CBS, then with AirAmerica – they didn’t support the show, meaning they didn’t pay for it or promote it. But we still managed to get 50,000 listeners a night and move from a weekly to a daily slot. So that really speaks to the fact that there is a pent-up need out there for environmentally minded people. And of course we’d have a lot more of those green-minded citizens if we connected the dots for more of them, and if they got that from the media. So that’s the Catch-22.
But I’ve been told, and this is important to publicize, by the head of Clear Channel Programming, Westwood One, and a couple of other smaller syndicators, that because of the dominance of the ultra-conservative radio talk shows (Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck at the time, Sean Hannity) there’s no room for a green show. And I said, well if you guys love controversy, and this is somehow seen as controversial and political, put me on there. I’ll take them on. “Oh no we can’t do that.” How about the weekends? “No, it’s hostile territory out there.”
So because of the success of the right-wingers, they’re blocking out shows like mine that could actually make a difference. If we’re not using mainstream media outlets for the biggest planetary crisis of our time, what the hell are we using them for? And of course if you turn on TV there’s lots of ‘reality’ shows. It’s bizarre isn’t it? Kind of a surreal moment in our nation’s history?
Rick Piltz: Yes, it is. And I think at the level of the power elite, the highest level political people and corporate elite – they know better. They’re not stupid. They can see what the National Academy of Sciences is saying. They know what’s coming out of the IPCC. They’re not ignorant of science, but there are interests at stake….
You have a culture war going on as well. The antagonism toward liberal elites, toward progressive values, and toward activist government leads to skirmishing in the media, in the blogosphere, in election campaigns, among the ‘99%’. It's useful to people in the 1% who are controlling the strategic decisions to have people divided among themselves, because it keeps the focus off people putting pressure on them to bring about major changes. Jim Hansen referred to the global warming denialists as the “court jesters” out there in front, but the real power interests behind them are the danger and tend to escape people’s notice.
Thanks to Katherine for the (abridged and slightly edited) transcript.