However, I think there is one significant disagreement, less so with Roberts than Romm I think, who summarized Roberts’ article as:
“It speaks to what happens when the referees — the media — don’t call balls and strikes anymore but mainly report the play-by-play.”
The referee metaphor is indeed Roberts’, and he does say “But the referees [media] have left the building.” He is talking about a broken system, ie civic society generally, and the dysfunctional dynamic between the Republicans and the Democrats in the US specifically. The media reference is about the medias’ failure to play a watchdog role.
To which I say, what? Since when has the media been an impartial referee? Below is a sampling (and it is merely a small sampling) of quotes about the press over the past two and a half centuries. Use a search engine to find ‘Quotes “the press”‘ for many hours of more like them.
“The press is the hired agent of a monied system, and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where their interests are involved. ” – Henry B Adams
“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.“ ~Thomas Jefferson
“…if only the press were to do its duty, or but a tenth of its duty, this hellish system could not go on.” – William Cobbett, 1830
“…the liberty of the Press is called the Palladium of Freedom, which means, in these days, the liberty of being deceived, swindled, and humbugged by the Press and paying hugely for the deception.” – Mark Twain 1870
“It is a free press…There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.” – Mark Twain
“The bigger the information media, the less courage and freedom they allow. Bigness means weakness.“ ~Eric Sevareid, 1959
“Freedom of the press in Britain is freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertiser’s won’t object to.” – Helen Swaffer
Granted selected quotes are not a scientific sampling, but they have to serve as a metaphoric ice core for a history that extends to well before proper instrumental records were kept.
So when was this Golden Age of neutral, objective reporting? Pre-Gutenburg perhaps? We romanticize the past based on a handful of gutsy reporters like Iggy Stone and Ed Morrow, forgetting that their fame is because they were notable exceptions, not examples of the norm.
For the greater part of the mass media we’re damn lucky when they restrict themselves to simply “reporting the play-by-play.” Many are outright cheerleaders, and some (eg Faux News, The Telegraph, The National Post etc) have actually put players on the field.
The media are not and have never been outside of the debate, and most certainly not as neutral observers.
“The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.” – A. J. Liebling
The media were never the referees, ie those who enforce the rules. For the most part they are entertainers who must please the audience who attend their particular theatre, an audience who willingly suspend disbelief on the condition that the entertainers keep a straight face when claiming to speak the truth. The comic farce must always be played as though it were straight drama.
In a democracy the voters allegedly are the referees, although sometimes the justice system is. In any society it is the populace, whether by ballot or boycott, that ultimately enforces “the rules.” They are always the final arbiter, and usually the first one as well.
The problem is naturally that to the extent that the citizenry are the referees, they are blind. We need a free press not because the institution as a whole will act as watchdogs, (the majority will not), but because a handful of them will.
A free press makes an Ed Morrow possible, but these mavericks who misunderstand the fact that generally “journalist” is spelled S t e n o g r a p h e r (alternatively P u b l i c i s t) will always be the exception.
The real dynamic of journalism in liberal democracies is far more complicated, convoluted and nuanced than anything so mind numbingly simplistic as being “bought and paid for” by powerful interests. Fascinating though the topic may be, it is not my intent to explore it at this time.
Instead I want to emphasize that if we are to map out a successful political strategy for dealing with climate change we need to understand what the media is and how it actually functions. Lamenting that they fail as watchdogs may be useful as theatre, but broadly speaking it is not a role they ever fulfilled, nor are ever likely to.
Some quotes of particular relevance to the climate change issue that we need to consider when talking about the media would be:
“Journalism – a profession whose business it is to explain to others what it personally does not understand.“ ~Lord Northcliffe
“Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation.“ ~George Bernard Shaw
“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” ~Malcolm X
We need to have a coherent, proactive media strategy that works with how the media actually functions. Some media will accurately and intelligently report the facts, but the majority will not. We cannot continue simply putting out the facts and hoping that at some point the media will report them properly.
In the activism course that I teach I continually emphasize that the moment you depend on media coverage for your success you have lost. Not only have you disempowered yourself by surrendering who determines the success of your actions, you have done so to one of the institutions that overall seeks to maintain the status quo, not change it.
As Roberts states “Again that forlorn, undying hope: that the politics can be taken out of politics.” Hope is not a strategy. In this regard the entire climate science community has behaved as naively as Roberts cites Obama and the Democrats as being. Roberts is right, and he is right again in concluding:
“Policy is policy. Politics is politics. First you figure out what you want — in my case, I want clean energy, dense land use, and economic justice — and then you take every chance to make progress toward those goals. Meanwhile, you wage political war with the tools of politics: money, message, organization, solidarity, and a healthy dose of ruthless opportunism. Policy concessions aren’t just a poor weapon in that war; they are no weapon at all.”
The climate change fight is a political one and it will be waged on the streets, not at scientific congresses, in peer reviewed journals or even political conferences. All of the above have there place in that struggle, but we in the climate science community need to come to terms with the facts of what our role is and how we can contribute most effectively.
We give our consent every moment that we do not resist.
It is worth knowing and abiding by whether you comment on this blog or not.
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