Yesterday, I posted a summary of my interview with Andrew Revkin of the New York Times. Today, I add to the open notebook project with this posting about my interview on Monday with Peter Dykstra, former head of CNN’s science and environment unit, which was canned last month. Dykstra had a bit of a soft landing: He is currently serving a brief fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. After that, he does not know.
For awhile, CNN distinguished itself by dedicating an on-air correspondent, Miles O’Brien, to the technology and environment beat, and six producers, all of whom formed the network’s science, technology and environment unit. But in December, CNN axed the entire operation, laying everyone off, including O’Brien, and the chief of the unit, Peter Dykstra.
CNN claims that it is going to integrate these subjects into the network’s coverage, rather than having a standalone unit. But we probably shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for that to happen.
Particularly when it comes to the environment, “rightly or wrongly, they don’t feel that it is a way to draw more audience to CNN,” Dykstra says of the network’s management. “Let’s just say that that was not foremost in their decision-making.”
But aren’t climate change, energy technology, and the other issues the unit covered more newsworthy than ever? And isn’t covering the news the core mission of a network with the word “news” in its title?
Well, not entirely. “It has to sell well commercially, and environmental stories have had a mixed history in that regard,” Dykstra says. “It also has to bring in the metrics. And increasingly, broadcasters are relying on the metrics they see on their Web sites.”
Broadcasters once relied on Nielsen ratings to tell them what viewers were watching. Although they knew that these ratings were quite limited in value, there was no other way to judge what was popular and what was not. “Nielsen ratings have never been fully trusted, even though they are the basis for the business model,” Dykstra says.
The ratings, he points out, are expensive and usually 24 to 48 hours old. Even the best defined Nielsen numbers “tell you next to nothing about whether an individual story is popular.”
Web clicks, by contrast, provide instantaneous feedback on how many people did or did not come to a story. And this information is free. So Web clicks are “increasingly influencing what’s on television,” Dykstra says. Even though stories on the Web are by definition different from what’s broadcast on television, Web clicks are simply “a more reliable measure of any audience interest than television has had at its disposal.”
The result of relying on this new measure of audience interests? Peter directed me to look at the line-up of story links on CNN’s home page, just to the right of the main story. Among links to stories on politics, the war in Gaza, and other serious topics, there were these headlines: “Old ladies bowl better than Obama?” and “Twin boys born in different years.” (That latter one in particular sounded like it would feel right at home at the National Enquirer.)
And then there was this gem ”Simmons kisses anchor’s foot.” When I clicked it, up came a two minute and 14 second video — an eternity in broadcast — of Richard Simmons kissing (actually “devouring” is more like it) CNN’s Kiran Chetry’s foot. Not content to show the “kiss” once, the video shows it over and over and over. (We also learn that Kiran was wearing white shorts underneath her skirt. One wonders why…)
Meanwhile, there was significant environmental news that could have been aired in the past week or so. For example, the Washington Post reported this a few days ago: “The Bush administration appears poised to push through a change in U.S. Forest Service agreements that would make it far easier for mountain forests to be converted to housing subdivisions.”
In global warming news, the National Snow and Ice Data Center has reported that very rapid growth in Arctic Ocean sea ice experienced in the fall — which was hyped by global warming skeptics — has slowed, and that unusually warm temperatures now prevail. (See this graph for more detail. It shows that sea ice extent is significantly below the 1979-2000 average.)
To be fair, CNN’s Web site offers a long list of environmental pieces, but almost all are exclusively Web stories and were not broadcast on the cable channel itself.
So by telling editors what sells the best, Web clicks are helping to drive the coverage at CNN, both on the air and on the Web site. “What you routinely see is a mix of serious and absurd stories,” Dykstra says. What we are unlikely to see is sustained, serious coverage of the complexities of climate change.
Dykstra does offer this one bit of praise for CNN: “The people who do Planet in Peril are very capable, and it is very well done. But it is an occasional marquee feature that is driven by sponsorships, rather than sustained, day-to-day coverage.” The program totaled just six hours in two years. “Six hours is what Lou Dobbs gets in a week on CNN.”
As was the case with Iraq and the economic crash, the news media have failed to anticipate and cover the full import of global warming. So Dykstra predicts the country is in for a rude awakening when the impacts become more evident. “We’ve had 20 years of reporting on climate change,” Dykstra says, “but it is very clear, at least in this country, that it has not been enough to have been taken seriously.”
Toward the end of the interview, Dykstra turned a bit philosophical, directing me to the following quote from Thomas Jefferson on how the third President of the United States envisioned the role of the news media — then limited to newspapers — in our society:
”. . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
I wonder what Jefferson would say now.