At a time when the president shouting “fake news” is old news and daily scandals are the new normal, it is both difficult and important for the media to strike a balance between the serious and the sensational. I understand how tough that tension is. Every day at the Nation, we try to cover what is important, but that’s not always easy — especially when much of the media privileges stories with the biggest shock factor.
Over one seven-day period this summer, when children were being separated from their families at the border, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News dedicated only 1 hour and 8 minutes to the crisis — combined. During that same span, the three networks spent 34 hours and 28 minutes covering Omarosa Manigault Newman and her tell-all book.
The same thing is happening right now. Last week, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a watershed report on climate change, warning that a bigger crisis could come sooner than we thought.
Last week, The Post and the New York Times ran front-page articles with the news as well as analyses and reactions about the report over the days that followed. But if you flipped on your television, you likely didn’t hear much, if anything, about it. You might have heard about President Trump’s latest rally or Kanye West’s visit to the White House, but this earth-shattering story was buried. As Politico’s Dan Diamond tweeted Sunday, “The landmark report has essentially disappeared from the news.”
In a recent column for The Post, Margaret Sullivan said the media must cover climate change as if it’s “the only story that matters.” The Pentagon has stated that climate change is a threat to national security. The World Bank has warned about the devastating impact of rising temperatures on economies. Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, has said that “climate change is actually the biggest thing that’s going on every single day.”
So why isn’t the media covering this story all day, every day? There are several reasons, including the collapse of local daily newspapers and excessive conglomeratization. But the biggest reason right now is distraction. As Sullivan put it, “There is just so much happening at every moment, so many trees to distract from the burning forest behind them.”
Climate change has been described as a “catastrophe in slow motion.” But the Trump administration could be called a catastrophe at full speed. The distractions are relentless.
The corporate media seems to prefer distractions and even capitalizes on them. At least, that’s what veteran journalist Ted Koppel suggested in a recent conversation with CNN’s Brian Stelter. “CNN’s ratings would be in the toilet without Donald Trump,” Koppel said.
Stelter rebutted later in a tweet that the cable news business is “more complex than he makes it seem.”
Is it? In corporate media, ratings are prized above all else. So, the president gets his reality show because scandal plays better — and pays better — than substance. Then-CBS chief executive Les Moonves admitted as much in 2016 when he said that Trump’s political ascent was “damn good for CBS” and bragged that “the money’s rolling in.”
But what is “damn good“ for the American people? After all, the airwaves belong to them. They need to be informed. They aren’t spectators; they are citizens.
Networks including Fox News are dialing back their coverage of Trump’s rallies (which are huge spectacles). But when they were still airing those rallies live and in full, Vox founder Ezra Klein asks, “What are we crowding out when we let him decide what we cover, every time he does a rally?”
After last week, the answer became much easier: climate change.
Even with less coverage of the rallies, early morning tweets and late-night bombshells could permanently crowd climate change out of the news cycle. Unless the media makes a change. Unless it makes a decision to pursue the serious along with the sensational, the important along with the shocking.
It is a difficult balance. It will require fresh thinking. But it can be done.
Chris Hayes, Nation editor at large and MSNBC host, is trying to do it, and I know he would like to do even more. Last Monday, Hayes covered the U.N.’s report on climate change. He interviewed climate activist Tom Steyer, asking him, “How do you connect the scope of the challenge [of climate change] to the marginal and incremental things that can be done in the now?”
That’s an important question. CNN would be wise to ask questions like it during the network’s prime-time Florida gubernatorial debate this month. And with Hurricane Michael wreaking havoc in that state, every outlet has an opportunity to explore the connections between climate change and massive, destructive storms right now.
The media has a responsibility to inform, and it has the power to decide what is and is not in the national conversation. Climate change demands to be a constant and significant part of that conversation, and the media has a vital role in making that happen. Anything less would be media malpractice.
Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.