This is Earth Week, that brief period once a year, when you might actually see an in-depth green story, series, or panel discussion about an environmental topic on TV, or hear a few on the radio. Newspapers and magazines can be counted on to do an eco-themed article in late April, but that’s about it.
Sadly, that’s about all the consistent coverage we’ve gotten from mainstream commercial media over the past 15 years. That’s how long I’ve been focused on this odd programming void. While that reality remains unchanged, ecologically and meteorologically speaking, there’s been a groundswell of dramatic events.
Nice and feel-good, but is this the most useful and deepest offering on a once a year occasion? We’ve come a long way since recycling was our biggest environmental concern, no?
Earth Day Lite, as I call it, is almost a Hallmark holiday – expressed on recycled content cards of course. It’s as predictable as the climate has become UNpredictable. With glaciers melting, sea levels rising and freak storms taking lives and livelihoods at a record rate, why have we not progressed in our coverage of the environment, our life support system, and the tenor of these topics, for the most part, remains unchanged?
Is it because Americans have short attention spans, low tolerance for disturbing news, are just too busy to bother, and programmers fear such content will be a turn-off? I suspect it’s a little of all the above.
The environmental threats facing our country and planet have deepened, grown exponentially in number and complexity -- which is what usually happens when problems are ignored -- and yet, media coverage has, as anemic as it was, actually decreased.
According to Media Matters of America, the major networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox -- significantly decreased their coverage of climate change between 2009 and 2011 while spending twice as much time discussing Donald Trump as our worsening climate. If they compared how often Kim Kardashian “made news” vs. climate change, she would also likely come out on top. Perhaps if we called it Kim Kardashian’s climate change more Americans would tune in?
Funny, but not so funny, when you consider that we cannot address what we don’t fully understand. And therein lies the Catch 22 of climate change -- the great eco-exacerbator. By the time we fully grasp what we’re up against, it will be too late to slow and reverse the destructive momentum of “global weirding”. During the same two year period that Trump trumped climate coverage, heat records were broken and devastating “freak” storms, droughts and floods reached near biblical proportion.
On the bad news/good news side, researchers at Yale’s Environmental Studies Dept. have just released new data indicating, that by a 2-1 margin, Americans say weather in their communities is getting worse, not better. A strong majority is beginning to link extreme weather events to evidence of climate change.
That’s why relevant and regular mainstream coverage of these multiple and interconnected matters is key, starting now. If people don’t see newscasters doing stories or hear elected representatives talking about peak oil, species extinction, ocean acidification, climate caused crop shortages and the like, how will they know these are developments they should be concerned about, and with a sense of growing urgency?
Fluctuating gas prices ARE making headlines because it’s a pocketbook, more than a planetary issue, in this country. The steadily rising cost of crude gives political pundits something with which to fill their talk tanks -- but like so much of the daily coverage, that energy story merely reflects a tip of the melting iceberg.
This confluence makes for an ideal moment to get some seasoned green talent on general interest – not niched – channels to bring in eco-experts with solutions, keep out the nonsense (climate change is a hoax) and lead intelligent, engaging, even entertaining, discussions that will help move the green ball forward. But it in order to have the full impact needed, such a show should be aired five days or evenings a week, not buried in the weekend public affairs programming ghetto.
Perhaps this is the “wake-up and smell the C02 moment” we’ve been waiting for. In an interview on my program this week (www.thegreenfront.com), Yale’s top climate communications expert, Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, said their poll signals a new window of opportunity to educate a potentially more open -- and concerned -- public about climate change realities and what each of us can do to be ‘part of the solution.’
These reports come on the heels of an announcement from the Discovery Network that they are obliterating their Planet Green channel, which launched to high hopes in the environmental community four years ago. Although this development is not entirely surprising -- given their programming was never deep green and over the years has been diluted down from light to pale green -- it is yet another setback for the planet, which of course we each have a stake in.
But that wasn’t all. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh upon hearing David Zaslav, Discovery’s CEO, announce the channel would be replaced with one highlighting Americana, featuring an anchor show about the best fast food restaurants in the U.S. With both an obesity epidemic and environmental crisis on our hands, that news goes down with no small amount of indigestion. America needs to go on a crash low carb diet!
When we have hundreds of channels on broadcast radio and cable television, not one of which has a dedicated green talk format, there is truly something wrong in America. Among the many ironies here: concern that green programming will be filled with gloom and doom -- thus to be avoided -- will only help ensure there is more, not less, misery ahead for all earthlings. There’s also the paradox that our national eco-iq will remain low without such programming and without knowledge of what’s happening to our environment – and what we can do about it – demand for such programming will remain sluggish. That’s a seemingly endless loop that makes me loopy!
If more Americans truly knew what was at stake, and the groundbreaking alternatives within our grasp, more would be interested in this content. There is also a well-funded disinformation campaign, which can be neither overlooked nor understated.
Certainly mainstream broadcast outlets and newspapers have run stories on global warming, which is what we called it a few years ago, but not on any ongoing basis and too often -- when it comes to the dominant conservative outlets -- it is only to discredit scientists and their nearly unanimous view that climate change is a clear and present danger. Having appeared on Fox’s Sean Hannity show to spar with their resident “deny-o-saur,” Chris Horner, I can tell you it is idiocy personified when it comes to ‘debating’ climate realities.
I call it the “Inanity Show” but it’s not funny because millions of Americans get their ‘news and information’ from ultra conservative radio and television sources. When on, I love asking them how it is that they know more than 98% of the world’s climate scientists and watching them squirm. They must like it too since they’ve had me on a half dozen times over the past few years. Like bullies who like to pick a fight, they retaliated by calling me a name: “earther” (this was during the Obama “birther” story sideshow). The mother in me wants to send these bad boys to their rooms, but with the millions they’re making, those rooms would be way too comfy.
It was while prepping for one of those appearances, exactly one year ago this week, that I came across a brilliant blogger by the name of Devone Tucker, or D.R., for short. The story of his conversion from being a climate skeptic to a true believer -- so much so that his eco-epiphany nudged him to the left a notch, politically -- was a direct result of his party’s active denial of climate change science (Tucker went from being a conservative Republican to a moderate). After mentioning him on Hannity, and the fact that Tucker had taken time to read the 2007 IPCC report and was stunned to discover he and most of his party’s right-leaning leaders were wrong, I invited D.R. on my internet show, The Green Front, and a fast friendship was formed. We hope to co-host the first Red and Blue Green show!
Programmers concerned that such content could be neither popular nor profitable should consider this; when my program was on Air America, we had some 50-thousand listeners each night, according to network executives. That was with zero marketing of the show and five years ago, before the ‘green wave’ arrived. While green-leaning sponsors were hard to come by back then, they are out there now, no doubt in search of some credible eco-themed programming that can reach a wide audience to help grow the green marketplace. Target demographics for such a show? All those who eat, drink, or breathe!
My favorite “reason” given for not taking a chance on groundbreaking green programming? I’ve heard some media types speculate that there might be a ‘fatigue factor’, that people are tired of hearing about green this and that. I have to laugh since cable TV -- and broadcast networks to a lesser degree -- have programming throughout the day and night too often focusing on the same few stories, with different talk hosts and guests putting a slightly different spin on them. I find that rinse and repeat cycle boring, even insulting, as the stories that will have much greater impact on all of us are ignored. When the commercials come on - and the majority are promos for the fossil fuel industry’s airbrushed, Disneyland version of our energy future - I have to turn it off.
For all the political junkies out there and those who feel the economy is all that matters consider this; there’s NO good jobs, nor politics, nor anything worthwhile, on a dangerous and dying planet. I frequently find myself talking back to the TV pundits droning on to say, “It’s the environment stupid – try going one day without it!”. And to politicians who vote against everything remotely progressive for preserving the planet, I say, “love it or leave it!” Bottom line is we simply cannot wait until we address all other issues du jour to get around to protecting our life support system. Mother Nature won’t wait for us to get off our (g)asses!
Patriotic Americans should be angry that other countries are leaving us in the dust, most notably Germany and China who are leading the way in producing solar panels and other cutting edge green technology. If nothing else awakens the slumber of a complacent and preoccupied public, it should be the specter of growing reliance on Chinese imports, not just clothing and computers but clean tech as well. Americans are nothing if not competitive. At least we used to be. Maybe we’re too busy watching “reality shows” to concern ourselves.
So the question remains, what will it take to build a critical mass of support for programming that helps us navigate these rough and rapidly changing waters wisely and well? I fear the answer may be when we reach a critical mess. The good and bad news is we’re getting close. But until then, it appears the eco-evolution will NOT be televised. Happy Earth Week.
Betsy Rosenberg is a 25-year veteran of broadcast news (CBS Radio reporter and anchor) and has been hosting and producing environmentally themed programs since last century! She broke new ground with EcoTalk, the nation’s first daily green talk show, heard on Air America Radio between 2004-2007. Betsy is a green speaker, writer and commentator.