Photo: Gene HuntOn Tuesday, officials arrested another News Corporation executive in the ongoing phone-hacking scandal that has plagued the now-defunct News of the World newspaper. As revelations of these tactics emerge, public outrage is fully appropriate. But as offensive as the hacking is, News Corp. and its executives must face up to an even larger scandal, one that is deeper, longer-lasting, and more profoundly detrimental: the damage they’ve caused to the institution of journalism and, as a result, to the planet itself.
As far back as the 1950s, long before climate science had reached the sophistication that it has today, the journalistic establishment was helping audiences understand what was occurring in the Earth’s atmosphere. “Today, more carbon dioxide is being generated by man’s technological processes than by volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs,” wrote Waldemar Kaempffert in The New York Times in 1956. “Every century, man is increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by 30 percent — that is, at the rate of 1.1 degrees Celsius [1.98 degrees F] in a century. It may be a chance coincidence that the average temperature of the world since 1900 has risen by about this rate. But the possibility that man had a hand in the rise cannot be ignored.”
A year later, in 1957, Robert C. Cowen wrote in The Christian Science Monitor, “Industrial activity is flooding the air with carbon dioxide gas. This gas acts like the glass in a greenhouse. It is changing the earth’s heat balance. … Every time you start a car, light a fire or turn on a furnace, you’re joining the greatest weather ‘experiment’ men have ever launched. You are adding your bit to the tons of carbon dioxide sent constantly into the air as coal, oil, and wood are burned at unprecedented rates.”
But over the past few years, led in part by News Corp., dialogue in the media has moved backward, replacing reasoned coverage of science with deliberate rabble-rousing — and unfortunately, public understanding and the health of the planet have moved backward in tandem.
In 2005, 73 percent of Americans wanted the U.S. to sign on to the international Kyoto Protocol climate agreement, according to a poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes/Knowledge Networks, and 86 percent wanted the president to join other heads of state in limiting greenhouse-gas emissions. In early 2007, the year after most U.S. media covered Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, 77 percent of the public understood there was “solid evidence of global warming,” according to a Pew poll. But by spring 2011, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change, public concern plummeted: only 39 percent of Americans said they were “concerned” or “alarmed” about climate change, and just 9 percent said they were “very worried,” according to a Yale University poll.
This is one of the consequences of the degradation of journalism, the institution that once bridged science and the public. Alongside the tarnishing of the journalistic institution, we have witnessed diminishing public understanding of science. The policy stalemate that followed has led to continued neglect of planetary health.
What’s baffling is that Murdoch himself has acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, asserting on the News Corp. website that he and his company are “committed to addressing [the corporation's] impact on climate change and lowering the energy use of its businesses.” News Corp. not only took aggressive steps to combat climate change and reduce its own greenhouse-gas emissions to zero in 2010 through carbon offsets, but bragged that it was the first global media company to achieve such a goal.
Yet as the world heats up, species die off, and more calamities loom, News Corp. outlets have sided with the unscientific climate-change deniers. Throughout the late 2000s, in fact, News Corp.’s American media properties frequently gave preferential treatment to the naysayers who sought to discredit both the science and scientists. These naysayers had, for the most part, long abandoned any commitment to research science, and most were connected to organizations being paid by the fossil-fuel industry to manufacture the necessary “doubt” to prevent the establishment of mitigating policies for the climate problem. At the end of 2009, for example, the News Corp.-owned Wall Street Journal published more than a dozen “Climategate” articles, alleging sinister activities on the part of climate scientists, based on stolen emails that were misconstrued. In one piece, “Climategate: Follow the Money,” Journal columnist Bret Stephens argued that scientists had “manipulate[d] the peer-review process” for money.
The accusations were all proven to be untrue, but not before the damage was done — damage to the reputation of climate science and scientists, and damage to the planet itself. Much of the public bought into News Corp.’s scandal framing, and opportunities to enact meaningful climate policies were squandered.
With so many people consuming information in the Wild West of the internet and the blogosphere, who will untangle the realities of the true nature of the climate issue? Traditionally, dedicated journalists would translate the work of research scientists for a more general audience. But with the News Corp. style of “journalism,” those careful, peer-reviewed studies, which are checked and double-checked by a rigorous scientific process, have instead been turned upside down. Rather than being recognized for their important work, climate scientists have been challenged, shunned, even ridiculed. And because News Corp. has a profitable model, other outlets have followed suit, broadcasting unsubstantiated rumors rather than basing their news on the best available facts. CNN, for example, used a teaser during the so-called “Climategate” affair asking, “Global warming: Trick or truth?” One of its reporters suggested, “There may have been some shenanigans going on with some of the leading scientists.” CBS Evening News asked, “Did some scientists fudge the numbers to make climate change look worse than it is?” A CBS correspondent suggested that the hacked emails “cast doubts” on the science.
In a Feb. 13, 2010, interview with BBC News, Phil Jones, author of some of the most controversial hacked emails at the center of “Climategate,” reiterated that he was “100 percent confident that the climate has warmed,” mostly “due to human activity.” What was “more uncertain,” he said, was the pre-1880 temperature record. Still, News Corp. publications relentlessly attacked Jones. In a Feb. 22, 2010, editorial, News Corp.’s New York Post claimed that Jones “admitted that temperatures in the Middle Ages may have been even higher than they are today” and “confe
ssed that there’s been no statistically significant warming in the past 15 years,” a theme repeated by Fox News, which is also owned by News Corp.
So as disturbing as the News of the World‘s phone hacking is, the greater damage wrought by Murdoch’s News Corp. empire is invisible and insidious — lowering journalistic standards and public trust that took decades to establish. And alongside the deprecation of what should be an honorable profession is the loss of deeper understandings about complex matters such as climate science.