On their evening and Sunday news programs during 2016, the four major American television networks devoted 50 minutes of their airtime to covering climate change. No, that’s not 50 minutes a week, or each, it’s all of them combined for the whole year. 50 minutes (according to a study by Media Matters). CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox (which is cable, and does not have an evening newscast but is prominent among Sunday news shows), all of them, all year, produced enough content about climate change to fill a single edition of 60 Minutes.
This was in a year that was, worldwide, the hottest year on record and the third year in a row to set that record; a year that set records in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, sea level, shrinkage of glaciers and sea ice in the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica; that saw wildfires, tornadoes, floods, storms and droughts of unprecedented numbers and severity; and in which 120 nations gathered in Paris to actually start to think about planning to do something about all this. But 50 minutes was all it took to tell the tales. And that was a decline of 66% from the meager amount of time they spent on the subject in 2015.
Personally, I did not watch a minute of any network’s evening news in 2016. The whole notion of turning on the TV set at suppertime to see what happened in the world today seems quaint now, in the age of fake Internet news and wall-to-wall cable hysteria, like when the whole family gathered around the big Crosley radio set to listen to Our Miss Brooks. Still, it’s how about 24 million Americans get their news every night, which is pretty muscular for an old-timer when you consider that it’s about four times the number that watch all three major news channels on cable.
No wonder, then, that climate change ranks low in every survey of concern about world problems, and that therefore goes unmentioned by successful politicians — you know, the ones that get elected to something. Such politicians are lobbied relentlessly by the purveyors of coal- and oil-burning industries, and discover early that to the extent they doubt the universally accepted science on climate change, to the extent that they deny it is happening at all despite a half century of accumulated proof, their fundraising cups runneth over.
The only political antidote to money is an aroused public, and when the politicians, ever wary of public arousal, poll their constituents about how aroused they are by climate change, the answer is a collective yawn. Public concern about, even interest in, the multiple existential threats of climate change has been dropping off sharply since the financial contractions of 2008, both in the United States and around the world. This despite the increasing number and expense of the impacts of climate change — storms, sea-level rise, droughts, wildfires, mass dying of (especially marine) species and the like.
I knew an experienced and cynical (I know, that’s redundant) journalist who insisted that if you saw something — anything — on television, it did not happen. The great majority of us, it seems, has adopted as an inflexible rule the opposite: if you don’t see it on television, it did not happen. And we are not seeing anything — I’m sorry, 12 minutes per year per channel does not qualify as “anything” — about one of the greatest threats to our lives and our civilization that we will ever see.
That TV journalism can continue to pretend that it is functional and valuable and professional; that politicians can pretend to be serving the people and defending their Constitution “from all enemies, foreign and domestic;” and that you and I, free thinking, well-informed citizens of a once magnificent Republic, have let this happen; these are the propositions of a chain of reasoning that leads inexorably to madness, and the death of everything we value.