“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:
Please try to do your jobs.
Thank you very much.