The news media and climate change: Casting light on the contradictions of consumer capitalism

This is a general election year here in Aotearoa New Zealand and the election will hold the much of the attention of New Zealand’s political junkies. In some respects, though, even for New Zealanders the US presidential election taking place in November is of far more consequence.

I’m thinking in particular of the issue of global warming. Because the US generates around 22% of global CO2 output (2004 data, available here), the decisions of the next US president will – in one way or another – have a critical impact on the issue of climate change. Whether he or she takes action on global warming or follows the lead of GW Bush and places her or his head firmly in the sand, the outcome will affect just about everyone on the planet.

Climate change is certainly a very significant public concern in the US: Yale University opinion research conducted in July 2007 shows that “a large majority of Americans (62%) now believe that global warming is an urgent threat requiring immediate and drastic action.” Furthermore, and perhaps of even more interest to potential presidential candidates, “40 percent of Americans said a candidate’s position would be either extremely (16%) or very important (24%).” So what do the US presidential primary candidates have to say on climate change?

The leading Republican Party candidate, John McCain, seems to be of the head-in-the-sand school. On his website, ‘environment’ is listed 10th of 11 key issues and the relatively brief and general comments there contain a single sentence on ‘carbon emissions’.

The Democratic Party candidates, on the other hand, are making all the right noises. There are quite extensive policy proposals to address global warming on the websites of both Barack Obama (filed under ‘energy and environment’) and Hillary Clinton (filed under ‘energy independence and global warming’).

Given the level of US public concern on climate change noted above, and the significance attached to the issue by Clinton and Obama, one might think that climate change is among the key topics that journalists are picking up on with the US presidential primary candidates.

If so, one would be entirely incorrect. According to Katharine Mieszkowski, five prime-time tv journalists who conducted 171 interviews with the various candidates asked a total of 2,975 questions and only six (0.2%) of these questions used the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. And, Mieszkowski adds, “To put that in perspective: three questions mentioned UFOs.”

In the discourse of democratic ideals, the news media play an enormously important role in setting the agenda for political debate by reflecting public concern and challenging politicians on those issues that the public sees as important. In so doing, journalists are free to tackle politicians with gaping holes in their policy platforms, and probe the proposals that have been put forward by others. There is plenty of opportunity for asking these hard questions – political candidates live on the oxygen of publicity. And yet, back in the real world, here are the leading lights of the US news media ignoring the urgent threat of global warming, the issue that, for 62% of Americans, demands “immediate and drastic action.”

It would be naïve of me to be much surprised but I have to say that the ability of supposedly leading journalists to ignore the central political challenge of our time is just uncanny. This isn’t just an unfortunate oversight, a rogue individual, or an isolated event – this is collective media failure on a massive scale.

Let’s face it, though: the ‘big media’ corporations that own large tv networks and major national and metropolitan newspapers around the world are not social critics; they are profit-hungry enterprises that are an integral part of the system of consumer capitalism. For example, data on Wikinvest shows that CBS Television generated $US9,450 million in 2006, of which $US6,400 million (68%) was advertising revenue. This advertising is “principally associated with the automotive, financial and pharmaceutical industries.” Manufacturers and service industries need the media to promote their products; the media need manufacturers and service industries to provide the majority of their revenue.

Given the extent of this symbiosis, why on earth would the big media want to promote the idea that immediate and drastic action is needed to curb global warming. How would the bottom line of the automobile corporations look if that idea got any traction? And where would that leave the tv stations, newspapers and magazines that are constantly adorned with drooling SUV adverts?

Interestingly, at the Guardian newspaper in the UK, these very questions have already been raised, and where they ultimately led is very instructive.

In October 2007 there was some discussion of the “contradiction” that exists between the news reports and advertising copy that sit side by side on the pages of the paper. Environmental activist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot noted that “while it is true that readers can make up their own minds, advertising helps to generate behavioural norms. These advertisements make the destruction of the biosphere seem socially acceptable.” So, he asked, “Why could the newspapers not ban ads for cars which produce more than 150g of CO2 per kilometre? Why could they not drop all direct advertisements for flights?”

Because, said editor Alan Rusbridger in response, “newspapers would go out of business without advertising.”

The very succinct comment made by Barry in his recent post on the paradox of consumer capitalism sums it up nicely: “We know what we are doing is ultimately destroying our future, but we keep doing it anyway, because our socio-political system seems to require it.”

Like every other large corporation, the big media (including the liberal Guardian) are locked into the system of production and consumption that is the root cause of the ecological crisis, a system that demands growth and profitability above all. It is incredibly difficult for the big media to report fully and accurately on a crisis in which they are deeply implicated. And in those circumstances, when moral questions encounter the profit motive, narrow economic logic always wins out.

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