Al Gore Chides Obama on Climate. But His Real Beef—Not So Fairly—Is With the Media

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Chances are you’ve heard about—if not read—Al Gore’s 7,000-word essay in Rolling Stone on America’s ongoing failure to act on the climate crisis. (If the whole piece is a bit too much for your Wednesday lunch hour, Mother Jones has a nice summary.) The media, unsurprisingly, has focused Gore’s criticism of President Obama’s inaction on climate change, going so far as to say that his Democratic colleague has failed to respond to what Gore sees as the most pressing issue facing America and the world:

President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change. After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding. After the House passed cap-and-trade, he did little to make passage in the Senate a priority. Senate advocates — including one Republican — felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return. He has also called for a massive expansion of oil drilling in the United States, apparently in an effort to defuse criticism from those who argue speciously that “drill, baby, drill” is the answer to our growing dependence on foreign oil.

Obviously the fact that Gore was willing to criticize the man that he endorsed for President instead of the wife of his former White House officemate is news, however gentle that criticism is. (Gore does note that Obama has had to deal with a crippling recession, a couple of wars, an intransigent opposition, among any number of other crises. Personally, I don’t know how the President gets up in the morning.) Whether you think Gore’s criticism is valid depends on how you view the fate of climate action over the past couple of years. A lot of reporters and environmentalists have held the White House largely responsible for the failure of cap-and-trade in the Senate last year, but I’m skeptical the President could have done much more—not with the 60-vote high Wall of Senate Filibuster in his way. Did the White House handle the legislation well? Probably not. Would it have made much difference if they had? Again, I suspect not.

Gore also faults Obama for not using the bully pulpit of the White House to talk more about the climate crisis:

Yet without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is “the power to persuade.” Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action.

(More from TIME: Talking with Al Gore)

That’s a more valid criticism—this is the President who failed to mention the world “climate” at his most recent State of the Union. But I still see Obama talking pretty much endlessly about clean energy, energy security and all the issues in between. If there’s a clean tech startup that hasn’t hosted the President for a speech, they really need to fire their PR staff. And even if Obama talked about the climate crisis 24/7, that doesn’t mean Americans would pay attention. (Plus, in the age of the Internet and cable news, the President’s bully pulpit isn’t quite as bully as it used to be.) Yes, polls generally find that a majority of Americans believe in climate change and want government action. But as Andrew Revkin writes, public attention on the issue is like “water sloshing in a shallow pan”—and belief that something should be done about warming doesn’t automatically translate to support for environmentalists’ preferred policies.

But Gore’s criticism of Obama is just a small part of the essay. The former Vice President reserves his real anger for one of his favorite targets: the media:

These extreme events are happening in real time. It is not uncommon for the nightly newscast to resemble a nature hike through the Book of Revelation. Yet most of the news media completely ignore how such events are connected to the climate crisis, or dismiss the connection as controversial; after all, there are scientists on one side of the debate and deniers on the other. A Fox News executive, in an internal e-mail to the network’s reporters and editors that later became public, questioned the “veracity of climate change data” and ordered the journalists to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.”

And this:

But the “public square” that gave birth to America has been transformed beyond all recognition. The conversation that matters most to the shaping of the “public mind” now takes place on television. Newspapers and magazines are in decline. The Internet, still in its early days, will one day support business models that make true journalism profitable — but up until now, the only successful news websites aggregate content from struggling print publications. Web versions of the newspapers themselves are, with few exceptions, not yet making money. They bring to mind the classic image of Wile E. Coyote running furiously in midair just beyond the edge of the cliff, before plummeting to the desert floor far beneath him.

(More from TIME: The Last Temptation of Al Gore)

It’s a common argument, one you can find in just about every bombshell post over at ClimateProgress: if Americans just got the real story on climate change, they’d wholeheartedly believe in warming—and they’d support drastic actions to slow it down. But because the media fails to play its referee role fairly, it allows the climate denier side to get away with lying about the facts—and the message gets muddied. As a result, we’re stuck in neutral on climate change, and the polluters keep winning.

OK. There’s a lot of bad coverage of climate change out there—and as Gore points out, it sure looks like Fox News leans close to actually twisting basics facts on climate change for political purposes. (See this memo from Fox executives.) And even those members of the media who try to report these issues honestly get things wrong sometimes. (Though, hey—no one’s perfect.) But I think Gore and other critics from the left are wrong about how poorly the media reports on climate change—and even more wrong about the difference it makes for the public.

Let’s look at some of the climate-related covers of TIME magazine over the past decade:

Basically, if the American public had been paying attention to what I and my TIME colleagues have been writing about climate change these past several years, we’d already have a cap-and-trade system and a global climate deal. (And that kind of writing continues in the mainstream media—see Sharon Begley’s recent cover for Newsweek on climate-related extreme weather.) Though you wouldn’t know it from reading some blogs, the New York Times still devotes a lot of ink—and budgeting—to climate coverage. NPR covers climate change like it’s part of their core mission statement.

Of course, all of those sources are seen by many conservatives as hopelessly biased and left-wing—I know, I have the angry comments to prove it. And Gore’s bigger concern is television, where he’s on surer ground. Cable news doesn’t cover the environment or climate change very much, and of course Fox has its own bias against the issue. (Although, that has to be somewhat counterbalanced by its lefty counterpart MSNBC, no?) It’s an argument that should be familiar to readers of Gore’s 2007 book The Assault on Reason, which lamented for the health of a republic ruined by the gatekeepers of TV.

(Photos: Al Gore’s American Life)

But I think Gore has an outmoded view of the media—which is ironic, considering he’s a new media mogul himself. To be a member of the mainstream media—like me, apparently—is to be told simultaneously that you’re a dinosaur with waning influence, and then to be held responsible for the state of the country because of the failings of your coverage. But there is no “the media,” which should be obvious to everyone. Cable news gets tons of attention and tweets and eyeballs, yet one of its most popular anchors, Glenn Beck, drew just 2.2 million viewers—or less than 1% of all Americans. That’s far less than the Nightly News with Brian Williams, the top network TV news show—which still only drew 7.6 million viewers. (Tens of millions of Americans watched Walter Cronkite in his prime—and that was with a much smaller total American TV audience.) Big magazine circulation is hemmorhaging and newspapers are basically terminal in their current form. If it sounds like sour grapes, well, that’s surely part of my reaction—after all, it does get annoying to be constantly told you’re doing a terrible job. And it’s not an excuse for getting things wrong. But if, like Al Gore, you’re mad at the media, don’t worry—it’ll probably be unrecognizable soon.

(One other bit: Gore is absolutely right that there the scientific consensus over the reality of manmade climate change has grown increasingly strong in recent years. Any reporter who writes otherwise deserves to be horsewhipped by Joe Romm. But consensus on the reality of climate change is not the same thing as consensus on the exact effects and severity of climate change, where there is significant and natural scientific debate. Nor is there consensus—or some kind of unimpeachable fact—on how we as a nation and a world should deal with climate change. The reporting should reflect that very lively debate—a fact that sometimes gets forgotten by environmentalists.)

Of course, the disruptions of the Internet has also led to great things for those who care about climate messaging: smart environmental blogs and green media like Grist. It also makes it easier for climate skeptics to reach a larger audience. That’s the media today, and it reflects that Americans are a heterogeneous people. This idea Gore seems to have—and it’s one shared by many in the environmental movement—that the unfiltered message would alone be enough to galvanize Americans into massive action on climate change just isn’t true. Sorry. But it’s a comforting thought—that, I understand. Blaming the messengers relieves Gore and his allies from examining whether they’re message is really the right one—and I say that knowing that the dysfunctional structure of the Senate and the total abdication of most Republicans on these issues may mean that no message would work. But we can be pretty sure this one won’t—and it may be time to try something new.