Has The New York Times Dropped The Ball On The Most Important Story Ever?

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“Simply assuming that this is an interesting controversy that we should check in on occasionally is not correct. The survival of human civilization is at risk. The news media should be making this existential crisis the No. 1 topic they cover.”

That was Vice President Al Gore being quoted in a New York Times piece by the newspaper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan. Sullivan’s article, “After Changes, How Green Is The Times?” examines environmental reporting since the Times dismantled its environmental reporting facility last January. Sullivan’s analysis, which seems fair, actually shows the Times as not having entirely dropped the ball, but it is clear that coverage of environmental issues since the Time scrapped its special team (called, ironically, a “pod”) to have diminished in both quantity and depth. Environmental issues have become more numerous and more important nearly every month over the last few years, and as Vice President Gore notes, there is no longer any question that these issues are existential. Seeing a drop in environmental reporting at America’s Most Important Newspaper now would be analogous to seeing a drop in reporting of World War Two after the invasion of Normandy. It is impossible, in fact, to see the New York Times being relatively blasé about the environment as something other than bad management or sloppy journalism. Seeing this sort of thing sends one to Wikipedia to find out who owns the newspaper. So I did. I was surprised. Murdock and Big Oil don’t own them, they don’t own stakes in coal mines, nothing. The company that owns the Times seems to also own the Boston Red Sox. That doesn’t explain much.

Consider for a moment what some of the most influential or important news stories have been. Looking at “top ten stories” internet lists for just 2010-2012, here’s what people have listed as the most important stories (I’ve added the term at the beginning of the phrase to place them into categories):

  • Environment: World flooding
  • Environment: Deepwater Horizon
  • Environment: Mass animal deaths
  • Environment: Ajka Alumina Plant Accident
  • Environment: Superstorm Sandy
  • Nature: Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull
  • Nature/Animals: Bedbugs take over
  • Energy: Copiapo Mining Accident
  • Leaks: Wikileaks
  • Leaks: Snowden
  • Sports: Death of Nodar Kumaritashvili
  • Crime: Capture of the Grim Sleeper
  • Crime: Sandy Hook
  • Crime: Penn State, Jerry Sandusky
  • Crime: Trayvon Martin Shot, Zimmerman Acquitted
  • Crime: Aurora Shooting
  • Politics: Obama Re-elected
  • Politics: Obamacare Passed
  • Social Justice: Gay Marriage Normalization
  • Economy: Fiscal Cliff
  • Economy: Us economy upswing
  • World: Libya government turns over
  • World: Syria

Eight of the 23 stories would be top headlines covered by the science and environment “pod” reporters. Two of the stories are cases of people doing things the New York Times should probably have done, like in the old days, but didn’t. Of the other stories, one or two, including Syria and possibly Libya, have strong environmental connections. This list does not include a lot of other environmental stores such as reaching 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, not because they are not important, but, possibly, because new agencies like the New York Times didn’t say they were important. And the New York Times isn’t even owned by Big Oil!

And there’s another problem at the New York Times. Michael Mann wrote about this just a few days before Margaret Sullivan’s piece came out (making me wonder if Mann’s article prompted Sullivan’s) in a piece at the Huffington Post called “Something Is Rotten at the New York Times.” Mann notes, “When it comes to the matter of human-caused climate change, the Grey Lady’s editorial page has skewed rather contrarian of late.” Mann goes on to document a particular case of a broader phenomenon we see at the Times and elsewhere: The “hones broker” phenomenon. This is where all the science tells us that A is true, but there is a bought and paid for (or sometimes, just cranky “get off my lawn” motivated) “viewpoint” that is utterly wrong claiming that B is true, and the “honest broker” tries to mediate between the two views as though simply throwing out “B” wasn’t the appropriate thing to do. Mann:

The New York Times does a disservice to its readers when it buys into the contrived narrative of the “honest broker”…Especially when that white knight is in fact sitting atop a Trojan Horse–a vehicle for the delivery of disinformation, denial, and systematic downplaying of what might very well be the greatest threat we have yet faced as a civilization, the threat of human-caused climate change.

So, with that, here’s my open letter to the New York Times:

Dear Editors,

Please try to do your jobs.

Thank you very much.


Click here to send them your letter.

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2 thoughts on “Has The New York Times Dropped The Ball On The Most Important Story Ever?

  1. Environmental issues are not going away. They will increase in importance across the board precipitously for the next 4 decades at a minimum.

    Environmental issues shouldn’t be a section we can delete or displace. It should be contained as a necessary component in every section. A news story about Chicago should include information about its local environmental concerns. A story about trade across the Canadian border should include information about wilderness and the use of fossil fuels to sustain the businesses.

    If these issues don’t become a reflexive part of our analysis, we are going to regret it.

  2. Why _The Times_ behaves that way:

    1) Controversy, whether real or contrived, engages the emotions of conflict. Conflict sells. How many movies have you seen, and fictional books have you read, that involve lots of conflict, compared to those that have little to no conflict?

    Hypothesis test: ask that question of 100 people and count up the answers. Prediction: significant difference favoring conflict-heavy stories at better than p < .001. Do it formally and you can publish the result in a peer-reviewed journal.

    Direct implication: the media will always milk any possible controversy for all the conflict-emotions it's worth. This extends to the level of creating "controversies" where there are none, such as by giving climate denialist quacks a platform.

    Further direct implication: the way to deal with denialist quacks isn't by ignoring them (someone else will un-ignore them to our detriment) but by subjecting them to vicious ridicule of the type that's normally reserved for medical quacks and perpetual motion quacks.

    Action item: Stop using the word "denlaiist" and start using the word "quack." "Climate quacks." Quack quack quack. "If it ducks like a quack, it's a quack." In public debates call them that to their faces. Use analogies to medical quackery and perpetual motion machines. Over time this will stick, and it will work.

    2) Money is an ass-cushion. Ass-cushions alter behavior.

    People at the very top end of the economic curve (including those who own newspapers and broadcast stations) have grown used to the notion that they can "write a check" (or "swipe a card" or "call someone") to solve whatever troubles come their way. If their house gets destroyed by a natural disaster or climate impact, they just relocate to their other house, or their third or fourth house. If their place of employment gets wiped out, they can live on the return on investment of their capital assets. This produces climate apathy, along with disaster apathy in general.

    The rest of us don't have those luxuries, so we're less likely to fall into apathy about the big things that can squish us or eat us.

    By analogy, observe the behavior of cyclists and motorists on a main road that has lots of potholes. Vehicles with very little cushion (tires, suspension, padding on the seats) between the road surface and the driver's/rider's ass, maneuver around the holes: bicycles, motorcycles, sports cars. Vehicles with lots of cushion go right through or over the holes: SUVs, large pickup trucks, large trucks generally.

    Extreme disparity of wealth is a direct driver of climate denialism and its evil twin, climate apathy. Exceptions only highlight the rule. The solutions are obvious but unspeakable in Washington DC, starting with a highly progressive tax on all income regardless of source.

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