And what do we get? I haven’t been able to watch all of the programming, so perhaps I’ve missed something. But from what I’ve seen, both on television, and the video on their Web site, it’s mostly talking heads disagreeing vehemently with each other, and a confusing mess in which the science and the politics of climate change are mixed up together. There doesn’t seem to be any actual reporting — no attempt to actually get at some semblance of the truth.
In one case, we get climate skeptic Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute squaring off against Bill Nye the Science Guy. When it comes to discussing specific aspects of climate science — surface temperature records and stratospheric temperatures — Michaels pretty much eats Nye for lunch in one gulp. This makes me wonder how CNN chose Nye to represent the “other side” of the debate. Did it have something to do with his bowtie? Check out this video:
At the end of the clip, Campbell Brown reveals her bias, saying, “I would love it if I could get a little common ground between the two of you to end on.”
So this is CNN’s approach to trying to get at the truth of a complex issue: Put up a couple of bloviators against each other (and stack the deck), hope they bloody each other for the audience’s edification, and then hope that they hug each other at the end.
With this kind of lazy and ultimately dishonorable coverage, viewers are treated to an entertaining spectacle suggesting that an equal number of scientists on both sides of “the debate” are exceedingly angry at each other. I’m guessing that many if not most viewers come away from this thinking that the “global warming debate” is getting louder and louder, so this must mean that we don’t really know anything about the Earth’s climate.
In my new “Covering Climate Change” course at the Poynter Institute’s News University, I advise journalists to move beyond the “he said/she said” coverage that so typifies the ratings-driven coverage of CNN and Fox News. And I specifically recommend against using the term “the global warming debate,” because there simply is no single debate:
If journalistic coverage is to add to civil discourse, and help expand society’s policy options, it must move well beyond what often prevails, particularly on American television. Climate policy debates often are portrayed as titillating political battles featuring rowdy talking heads arguing about the scientific basis for action, economic impacts and the like. But this superficial coverage masks much deeper issues – ethical considerations that form a surging current beneath all discussion of climate policy.
Too frequently, and to the detriment of public understanding, media outlets conflate the vast and varied terrain of climate science and policy as a unified issue. A good example is when reporters refer to “the climate change debate.” What debate would that be? There are separate debates within science and within policy, and there are even debates about how scientific findings should guide policy. So rather than referring vaguely and unhelpfully to the “climate change debate,” reporters should specify what debate, specifically, they are covering in a story.
As someone who went to journalism school when the legacy of Edward R. Murrow was still fresh — and when his producer, Fred Friendly, was still around to teach one of the best classes I ever took — the continuing descent of American television journalism into triviality and intellectual dishonesty is particularly depressing. What a vast wasteland it has become.