Working the Refs

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorAug 5, 2011 4:42 PM


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In his recent widely publicized Rolling Stone essay, former Vice President Al Gore harshly criticized media coverage of global warming. He compared journalists to referees of "professional" wrestling. Some mainstream reporters who regularly write about climate change objected. But climate scientists nodded approvingly, as did Joe Romm, who called Gore's essay a "devastating critique" and piled on:

I would add that the media doesn't just mis-report the climate story, it under-reports the story of the century.

I'll also add that, while the media grousing by Gore et al appears sincerely felt, there is another element at work here: these guys are doing what some well known basketball coaches (think Phil Jackson) often do: work the refs. That said, it's still worth examining Gore's media criticism at face value, which is something John Wihbey does in an extensive post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the media. This observation from Stanford communications expert Jon Krosnick caught my eye:

"As a backdrop to Gore's assertions, it's useful to consider evidence on the impact that the news media have had on Americans' thinking about this issue," Krosnick told The Yale Forum in an e-mail interview. "According to our national surveys, large majorities of Americans have believed that climate change is real and human-caused, will have undesirable consequences, and merits substantial government action to address it. These majorities rose a little in the years preceding 2007 and fell a bit in the years after, but the majorities remain large. Mr. Gore might look at these data and say: "˜Ah, ha! Just as I expected! During the last 15 years, climate scientists have generated more and more evidence of the existence and threat of warming, but Americans are not being well-informed of this growing consensus by the media, so public opinion has held relatively steady instead of moving toward my views even more. The climate science is not getting the attention it deserves from the news media!'" Krosnick continued: "But I'm not sure this would be a fair accusation: I'd say the news media have paid plenty of attention to the climate science, but truth be told, that science is now an "˜old story,' one the media have told many, many times before. It's understandable, therefore, that every new climate study is not at the top of the front page of every newspaper in the country. So given today's ethics and principles of journalism, I'm not sure it's appropriate to fault the news professionals for practicing their craft as they do."

It may not be appropriate, but scapegoating journalists will surely continue as frustration over climate inaction mounts. Someone has to bear the blame, and since many leading climate activists have proven averse to introspection, media bashing offers a distraction from their failures. When Phil Jackson worked the refs as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, it was a tactical ploy. He may have overdone it, but he also knew that players win games, not referees.

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