On the Beat

Greenwash or Genuine?

Is it possible for a corporate behemoth to loudly embrace environmentalism without being accused of greenwashing and greed? Capping off the recent media fixation with all things green, NBC and its many subsidiaries launched an ambitious publicity campaign on Sunday called "Green is Universal". In addition to shrinking the company's environmental footprint behind the cameras, the campaign involves NBC, Bravo, MSNBC, Telemundo, and other NBC-owned channels promoting environmental awareness through special reports on news shows and strained attempts at incorporating environmental themes into primetime programming. (The plot of "Heroes" this week: "It's green week at Claire's school and her new friend, West, helps with some energy-saving tricks around her house and she's hoping he doesn't stumble upon a picture of the man that kidnapped him as a child.")

The whole thing is pretty easy to make fun of, and it certainly comes off as forced and ham-handed at times, like when "Sunday Night Football" commentators kicked off the campaign by broadcasting from a darkened studio. At least one television critic has already written a column accusing NBC of hypocrisy and – even worse – bad programming, and he's not the only one throwing tomatoes. Deniers of global climate change have, predictably, attacked NBC for propagandizing, and the network has faced criticism from some environmental bloggers for "greenwashing" the role it has in promoting wasteful consumption.

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Birth and Life of a Mistruth

Professionals who work in the business of public perception—politicians, advertisers, PR consultants, entertainers—know there are many ways to win a public debate without having to resort to telling the truth. One of the simplest and more effective is obfuscation, a strategy familiar to anyone who saw or read Christopher Buckley's Thank You For Smoking. You don't have to prove your case, or even disprove your opponent's, just confuse the terms of the argument until committed partisans on either side wrestle each other to a stalemate. The press, of course, often plays along by resorting to formulaic, he-said, she-said reporting.

This strategy has been remarkably successful for global warming skeptics in particular, whose talking points have shifted over the years, but whose strategy has remained quite consistent. Take a recent example that's been popping up in opinion columns and cable news recently: The canard that since 1934 was "the hottest year on record," reports of warming over the past century must be, if not wrong, then seriously exaggerated.

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Probing the Roots of Catastrophe

When a natural disaster occurs, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the wildfires currently burning huge swaths of Southern California, the press has a duty to examine the underlying causes.  Failing to dig into the “why” of a situation doesn't just mean forgetting one of the more important of the five journalistic "W"s; it’s also an invitation to leave the problem unresolved, ultimately inviting its repetition.

In the case of the fires raging right now along the California coast, a pretty convincing case already exists that global warming has contributed to the dry conditions that produced unprecedented "megafires" across the West. In a fascinating and timely 60 Minutes segment this Sunday, reporter Scott Pelley visited firefighting operations in the West to investigate the role climate change was playing in the increasing number and severity of wildfires.

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Getting Personal

The rumors turned out to be true: Gore did indeed win the Nobel Peace Prize last week. But, as predicted, no sooner had the award been announced than opinion journalists of all stripes – ok, it was mostly conservative talking heads – began pillorying the choice. Many attacked Gore's lifestyle as hypocritical, and compared him to past recipients Yasir Arafat and "that crazy Jimmy Carter," as FOX News' Steve Doocy referred to the former president.

While there's still some antipathy toward Gore the politician, the hits on Gore the environmentalist are less about him and more about global warming. Attack the messenger, silence the message. The reaction was so harsh that everyone from the satirists at The Daily Show to the more straight-faced Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz took note.


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Ignobel Prize in Journalism

Bloggers, cable news anchors, and big newspapers alike have been unable to resist speculating this week about Al Gore's chances of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is awarded on Dec. 10 in Oslo, but the winner will be announced Oct. 12.

Of the recent articles on Gore's chances, one of the least substantive but most effective in setting tongues wagging and keyboards clattering was a Christopher Hitchens article written a few weeks ago for Slate. Hitchens suggested, not without a wink, that he would "be very surprised indeed if the peace prize is not awarded to Albert Gore Jr." Although Hitchens didn’t dare to assume that Gore will run for president if he wins yet another award, he did add that "several people, some of them well-informed, have been saying to me that Gore will wait until the Nobel committee's announcement before he makes up his mind." Solid reporting, there.


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Issue 25

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