Paying a Price for Getting Word Out

Oct 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Elizabeth Jensen

Special to TelevisionWeek

In recent months, ABC News’ Bill Blakemore has been denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate as an “alarmist.” On the Internet the criticism of his reporting on climate change has been more creative: He’s been called the network’s “resident global-warming panic salesman” and even “a world-going-to-hell specialist.”

Mr. Blakemore is in good company. Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw’s July 16 Discovery Channel special “Global Warming: What You Need to Know” was attacked in the online world even before it aired; reporters for The New York Times, Time magazine, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” and CNN, among others, have also been vilified for their global warming stories.

Venture into reporting on, say, the war in Iraq or national politics and the attacks from one side of the political spectrum or the other will be swift; it’s not a job for the faint of heart. But environmental reporters who tackle the charged issue of global warming must also learn to develop thick skins.

Much of the criticism has originated in the offices of Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from oil-rich Oklahoma and the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment & Public Works. It has been amplified by blogs, and it ratcheted up over the summer as increased visibility for the topic with the May release of former Vice President Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” sparked a surge in reporting stressing the need to stop global warming.

Sen. Inhofe reiterated his criticisms of the media twice in just a few days at the end of September, in lengthy back-to-back speeches. In particular, Sen. Inhofe and others want to see equal time given to scientists who dismiss global warming as a threat to the planet.

As Mr. Blakemore and others have reported, many of those scientists have ties to fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil whose business interests stand to be seriously damaged by any movement to cut energy consumption or switch to alternative forms of energy production. But there’s another reason why many reporters may be seen as having abandoned balance on the story: While some scientists are still skeptical about global warming, the vast majority believe there is a problem.

“Most scientists will say, 99 to 1, that it is a serious issue,” said Heidi Cullen, a research scientist herself and host of The Weather Channel’s new weekly series “The Climate Code With Dr. Heidi Cullen.” “We’re getting away from posing it as 50-50.”

In a 2004 article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Chris Mooney took journalists to task for giving equal weight to two sides of issues such as global warming and evolution, in a piece subtitled “How `Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality.” Many reporters appear to have taken that criticism to heart.

Mr. Blakemore, a veteran foreign reporter and former ABC Rome bureau chief who covered both Iraq wars and all 27 years of John Paul II’s papacy, is a latecomer to the topic, which he called “professionally the hardest story I have ever come across.” He stumbled onto it in the summer of 2005 while talking with a scientist about biodiversity, and says he came to it “a skeptic,” having largely ignored the debate because a renowned scientist he interviewed almost a decade ago dismissed any link between global warming and the intensity of hurricanes.

“I’d let myself be spun,” he said. But once he delved into the topic, he said, he quickly became convinced that much of the reporting to date had been problematic. “I was all the more shocked to discover this enormous gap,” he said, between the reporting he saw in the mainstream media and what scientists were actually saying.

His indictment of the press is harsh. “I came to realize there was a massive gap between the reality out there that was evident to any basic self-respecting professional journalistic inquiry and the … approach being taken” by almost all journalists,” he said. (He cites The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin as an exception.)

“Mainstream professional news people didn’t seem ready to stand up for themselves when it came to making their own assessments as to where the consensus was,” he said. “It was just laughable; it was even easier for the spinners to befuddle us than it was with tobacco” interests earlier. Those spinmeisters, he added, succeeded in causing the press to “get tangled up in debates with people who are not credible.”

Mr. Blakemore speculates that it’s not just a misguided sense of balance that has some fellow reporters skittish about fully embracing the topic. “I found the reality to be reported on is very difficult for any human being to think about,” he said. “No humans like to think we have finally done this to the only planet we have.” Such frightening news, he said, “brings us to the edge of existential fate.”

“An Inconvenient Truth” was inconvenient for nonpartisan journalists covering global warming, Mr. Blakemore said, because of the former vice president’s political affiliation. “I am not a Democrat or liberal, not a Republican or libertarian. I do not believe it is my job as a professional to save the environment or save the world; it is my job to say what is happening,” he said.

Shrugging Off Criticism

Some reporters wear criticism as a badge of honor; Mr. Blakemore shrugs it off. He said he’s only vaguely aware of what is being said about him, adding, “It’s so easy not to pay attention to them. You look at them for 20 seconds and they don’t have anything.”

“If there were any scientists who could come forward with any evidence” to dispute the grave story line that has dominated the press in recent months, “that scientist would instantly be on every front page,” Mr. Blakemore said.

Jane Root, Discovery Channel’s general manager, said the network didn’t anticipate the criticism of Mr. Brokaw’s special, “but when you do big, important subjects you never quite know where they’re going to lead to.”

The documentary was produced in partnership with NBC News and the BBC. “We just decided it was really important to tell the story of global warming in the most factual and accurate way we could,” she said, referring to Discovery’s brand message, which is, “Don’t listen to experts; become one.” The network expects people to scrutinize what it is saying, she said, adding, “We trust the journalism.”

The criticism, she said, “wasn’t a problem for Tom Brokaw, it wasn’t a problem for the BBC and it wasn’t a problem for us.” Nor did the network feel a need to respond to the attacks. “It’s not our job to get in there,” she said, adding that because the network believes global warming to be one of the most important questions of the era, “We were very happy when people with different points of view wanted to discuss it.”

The criticism doesn’t seem to have deterred others from tackling the subject, either. Sundance Channel’s weekly programming block focusing on environmental sustainability topics begins running early next year. The offerings will include a regular news program hosted by CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo.

The Weather Channel’s weekly “Climate Code” is approaching the topic by looking for solutions, which, of course, presupposes that there is a problem. Ms. Cullen said she anticipates that the show will eventually deal with the global warming skeptics, even though she is professionally surprised that they are still around.

“I’m fully convinced that we know enough about the problem that it’s worth looking at as an issue,” she said.

Network executives aren’t worried about any fallout. “We don’t think there is going to be a political backlash,” said Terry Connelly, senior VP of programming and production for The Weather Channel. Before the show launched, he said, “We talked to a lot of people on Capitol Hill and regardless of their persuasion or position, to a person … they said we need a place to go where our voice can be heard regardless of the positions we are representing.”

The show’s aim, Mr. Connelly said, is “to provide the public with as much information and as many perspectives as we can give them, to help them understand the basics.”
The biggest challenge, he said, will be “bringing it down to a digestible level for even educated people.”