Celebrity assassination

Cake enough mud on the messenger and no one will be able to make out the message. That's long been a strategy favored by those who wish to deny the extent of human responsibility for global warming, species extinction, and the many other varieties of environmental degradation. Ad hominem attacks of hypocrisy, insanity, and delusion have all been leveled at popular figures who to one degree or another have used their celebrity to try to promote environmental causes.

The archetypical example, of course, is Al Gore, who has been pilloried time and again by voices on the right as well as in more mainstream media outlets for his supposed failure to live a green lifestyle. This blog has already addressed a few of the many weaknesses in this kind of reporting, but it comes down to this basic point: Pointing out Gore's carbon footprint or Leonardo DiCaprio's heating bill does nothing to refute their arguments. In fact, that kind of reporting only makes it harder to determine how bad the problem is and what can be done to help.

But this kind of gotcha journalism is so easy and feels so appealing, especially in a media culture so expert in the celebrity takedown. Reporters sometimes can't help themselves. Take for example last Friday's Los Angeles Times story on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's frequent flights to and from Sacramento. The Governator has been closely associated with environmental initiatives while in office, from repeatedly threatening to sue the EPA for being too lax to promoting solar energy. So when reporters keyed in on his frequent travel on a personal Gulfstream jet, the takedown must have been hard to resist. Citing exactly one environmentalist's vague statements about practicing what one preaches, the article implies – while ascribing the sentiment to others – that "Schwarzenegger is essentially attempting to buy a clean conscience with the carbon offsets" he purchases to make up for his travel schedule.

Soon, other outlets were pushing the story, too, and a new media narrative was born. While it doesn't appear to have the cachet or staying power of the classic Al-Gore-is-a-hypocrite storyline, it's certainly cut from the same cloth—and suffers from the same shortcomings.