The New York Times is one of many major news outlets blowing the story of the century.

The one-time “paper of record” cut coverage sharply since its peak in 2006 and 2007, and failed to connect the dots — heck, a headline this week even blamed the recent record-setting Thailand floods on Thai “officials,” not “an unusually heavy monsoon season”!

Yet the paper never mentions the collapsing media coverage in the Elisabeth Rosenthal article that takes up nearly the entire front page of the Sunday Review asking (subhed in print edition):

Where Did Global Warming Go?

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Even as other countries take action, the issue is fading from the American agenda

Media coverage of climate change

The piece reminded me of the classic Onion article, “Report: Global warming issue from 2 or 3 years ago may still be problem.” Look at the above chart of coverage and then consider this line from the New York Times story:

Across the nation, too, belief in man-made global warming, and passion about doing something to arrest climate change, is not what it was five years or so ago, when Al Gore’s movie had buzz and Elizabeth Kolbert’s book about climate change, “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” was a best seller.

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So media coverage collapses and public concern for the issue drops a bit. Go figure!

But the ace investigative reporting team at the Times doesn’t seem to believe the sharp drop in media coverage merits even a single sentence in a piece on why the issue of climate change has faded somewhat.

Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom The New York Times itself quoted in 2009 as “an expert on environmental communications,” emailed me:

A major factor not mentioned in this article is the collapse of any significant coverage [of] climate change in the media. We know that 2010 was a record low year, and 2011 will probably look much the same. If the media doesn’t draw attention to the issue, public opinion will decline. The media effects literature clearly shows that the public takes cues on concern over issues from the levels of coverage in the press. So perhaps an interview with the editors of the NY Times and why coverage of climate change is declining and is having its predictable effect on public opinion on this issue.

There are a number of flaws and ironies in the story. Rosenthal writes:

This fading of global warming from the political agenda is a mostly American phenomenon. True, public enthusiasm for legislation to tackle climate change has flagged somewhat throughout the developed world since the recession of 2008.

Well, this is a classic conflation of different ideas — the political agenda and public enthusiasm. In the United States, warming has faded from the political agenda, which is set by the elites, but public enthusiasm for action on climate change has remained strong, as multiple polls over the past two years have made clear.

Then we have this classic line:

Buffeted by two years of treacherous weather that they are less able to handle than richer nations — from floods in India to water shortages in China — developing countries are feeling vulnerable. Scientists agree that extreme weather events will be more severe and frequent on a warming planet, and insurance companies have already documented an increase.

The collapse in quantity of coverage isn’t the only failing of the media. So is its failure to connect the dots, which sadly is quite commonplace in The New York Times itself:

Andrew Freedman of WashPost’s Capital Weather Gang writes me, “The fact that the article basically said ‘man, it’s hot too!’ and failed to at least examine the link between that, the dry ground, and climate change was rather egregious.”

The New York Times similarly blew the Arizona wildfire story and the Dust Bowl story.

Just this week, the Times ran an amazing headline: “As Thailand Floods Spread, Experts Blame Officials, Not Rains.” The vast majority of people who are exposed to this article online will probably see the headline and nothing else. The story acknowledges that there was “an unusually heavy monsoon season,” but has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject beyond that.

Sunday’s article notes:

The United States is the “one significant outlier” on responding to climate change, according to a recent global research report produced by HSBC [PDF], the London-based bank. John Ashton, Britain’s special representative for climate change, said in an interview that “in the U.K., in Europe, in most places I travel to” — but not in the United States — “the starting point for conversation is that this is real, there are clear and present dangers, so let’s get a move on and respond.” After watching the Republican candidates express skepticism about global warming in early September, former President Bill Clinton put it more bluntly, “I mean, it makes us — we look like a joke, right?”

Americans — who produce twice the emissions per capita that Europeans do — are in many ways wired to be holdouts. We prefer bigger cars and bigger homes. We value personal freedom, are suspicious of scientists, and tend to distrust the kind of sweeping government intervention required to confront rising greenhouse gas emissions.

“Climate change presents numerous ideological challenges to our culture and our beliefs,” Professor Hoffman of the Erb Institute says. “People say, ‘Wait a second, this is really going to affect how we live!'”

So we’re an outlier, but it’s our “culture and our beliefs” — not our lousy media coverage or the most well-financed disinformation campaign in history. Indeed, that latter point also gets no mention whatsoever. The article merely notes:

There are, of course, other factors that hardened resistance: America’s powerful fossil-fuel industry, whose profits are bound to be affected by any greater control of carbon emissions …

Not a single word is devoted to how the industry is spending its profits.

The rest of the world, however, understands what’s
going on
, even if The New York Times doesn’t.

The article does note that the GOP has been taken over by climate science deniers in this country, but not most of the rest of the world:

Conservatives, rather than posing an obstacle, are directing aggressive climate policies in much of the world.

But again, there is no real explanation offered for this.

The article does, appropriately, throw some blame at Obama for failing to raise the profile of this issue. But as much as I think Obama deserves a great deal of the blame, the media clearly deserves more.

For completeness’ sake, the media’s failings extended beyond collapsing coverage and failure to connect the dots. It also includes false balance, which continues even today, and even at The New York Times.

It also includes lack of prominence.

On New Year’s Eve, Politico published “the largest lead headlines of The New York Times, 2010.” It ain’t pretty. I won’t repost them here, but just summarize:

There is not a single climate story on the list and only one on energy.

Brulle wrote me at the time:

Apparently, the editorial board of the NY Times has yet to fully grasp the importance of global climate change to our collective survival. As the science becomes stronger and more dire, the editors of the NY Times bury their head[s] deeper into the sand.

So while the New York Times coverage has gotten a little bit better in the second half of this year, it is appearing more and more likely that this report was true.

Where did global warming go? Where indeed?

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