As anyone with a Twitter account is sick of hearing by now, Washington, D.C., is being battered by a “snowpocalypse.” Conservatives are using the occasion to mock Al Gore because, you see, snow disproves climate change.
This is obviously something that only extremely ill-informed (or stupid) people would say. No matter what you think about climate change, there is no theory, even among the most hardcore climate skeptics, under which an individual weather event would count as decisive evidence for or against it. Even the most rudimentary grasp of science … no, even the definitions of the terms involved make that obvious. I feel dumber just having to write about it. (If you want a more patient explanation, see Jeff Masters at Weather Underground, Bryan Walsh in Time, Brad Plumer on TNR, Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones, but really … it isn’t complicated. Weather isn’t climate.)
Now, you’d think when a group of people, some of whom are responsible for running the country, say something so cosmically stupid, something that reveals such deep and thoroughgoing ignorance, the reaction would be stunned bafflement or mocking laughter. And that was true in many places, but notably, not in mainstream political coverage. More on that in a minute. First, some good mockery. Here’s Jon Stewart:
Here’s Stephen Colbert:
Here’s Bill Nye the Science Guy on Rachel Maddow:
Now, compare and contrast “official” political media accounts, say, Politico’s “Conservatives mock Al Gore on snowstorms” or The New York Times‘ “Climate-Change Debate Is Heating Up in Deep Freeze.” Marvel at the bland, neutral tone, the he-said she-said presentation of the “sides,” the focus on tactics and strategy over the facts of the matter.
I went to see a presentation by “This American Life” host Ira Glass recently, and one of the points he made was that news reporting is declining in part because of just this phenomenon: reporters do not react like human beings. The audience doesn’t see or hear themselves in most news reporting. When covering something amazing, reporters are not allowed express awe. When covering something unexpected, they’re not allowed to express surprise. And when faced with conservatives celebrating and reinforcing one another’s ignorance, they’re not allowed to show gall or outrage. Or mock.
People reading these stories get “the facts,” but facts without context or affect are inert. There are no cues about what the facts mean. The strongest cue is the presence of the story itself, which says, “These are legitimate participants in our political dialogue, with something to say worth repeating.”
Until this learned alexithymia is abandoned, news reporting will continue declining. People will continue turning to ideologically sympathetic commentators to get their cues on the meaning of the news. Ignorance will continue to spread. And the planet will continue warming.