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Will media’s climate blitz take root?

CNN says ratings aren’t behind its decision to host a 7-hour marathon town hall, which will feature 10 Democratic candidates who met the polling and fundraising thresholds for next week’s ABC/Univision debate. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Media

CNN, MSNBC climate forums promise serious talk, but no guarantee of sustained coverage.

Andrew Yang will get roughly 40 minutes on CNN Wednesday evening to make his pitch about how he would confront the threat of climate change as president.

But it doesn’t mean he wholeheartedly supports the seven-hour marathon town hall.

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“It would probably be better for @cnn to report on Hurricane Dorian and the actual effects of climate change rather than having us talk about climate change,” Yang tweeted Tuesday.

Yang’s complaint goes to the heart of the media’s ongoing struggles to cover the causes and effects of global warming: While the major TV networks and online outlets are committed to giving it serious-issue treatment, like abortion rights or gun violence, they have been far less comfortable relating the scientific consensus in favor of man-made climate change to in-the-moment coverage of devastating weather-related events.

This month, in advance of the United Nations Climate Action Summit, the nation’s news media is preparing multiple special projects and broadcasts devoted to the issue. In addition to CNN’s seven-hour conclave, MSNBC is sponsoring a two-day forum on Sept. 19 and 20 and more than 220 news outlets have pledged to provide a week of climate-focused coverage leading up to the Sept. 23 summit.

“I’ve never seen the level of interest be this high,” said MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who will co-moderate the MSNBC event that’s also sponsored by Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, Our Daily Planet, and New York magazine.

While many climate-change activists and experts are pleased with the special commitment of time and energy, they are also skeptical about whether the leading outlets will keep the pressure on political leaders throughout the election and amid coverage of events like Hurricane Dorian.

David Wallace-Wells, a New York magazine deputy editor and author of “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” expressed frustration with the networks’ framing of climate change during the first two Democratic presidential debates. The moderators’ focus, he said, was “on matters of cost and budgeting, rather than getting the candidates to make their case as to why they have to take action now.”

“I do think there’s a danger where we skip over the case for climate action and then start debating how difficult it will be to manage,” he added.

Wallace-Wells said it is “really valuable” to get the candidates to speak at length on television as its been “a shame and a tragedy” the climate conversation has been neglected. Still, he’s skeptical of a format in which even journalists like himself, who are deeply immersed in the issue, are unlikely to tune in for seven hours.

The anticipated low ratings could do more to depress future coverage of global warming than stimulate an ongoing discussion. “As a sort of test case of TV spectacle, I imagine the numbers will be abysmally bad,” Wallace-Wells said.

CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist acknowledged that “every viewer is not going to watch every candidate and every minute.” While CNN producers will undoubtedly look at the numbers, Feist said that ratings aren’t the motivation behind the event. “This is an important subject that we think deserves the time,” he said.

For its part, CNN, which has steadily covered Dorian, is sticking to its schedule despite Yang’s complaint, though the network seems likely to address the devastating storm during Wednesday’s “Climate Crisis” broadcast given that scientists see warmer oceans and rising sea levels as intensifying hurricanes.

“What better time to talk about climate change than when you have a story that involves, in many ways, climate change,” Feist said.

The news media came under fire for downplaying climate change in the 2016 election, with moderators failing to put a single question about it to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the three presidential debates. That won’t be the case Wednesday as 10 Democratic contenders field questions on the subject from CNN anchors and audience members in back-to-back town halls, stretching from 5 p.m to midnight.

A couple weeks later, MSNBC gets its shot at the Democratic field. Hayes, a progressive MSNBC host who has focused more on climate change than most in TV news, acknowledged last year that the topic can be a “palpable ratings killer.” Hayes said he believes “people are paying attention more.”

There’s been a confluence of factors, he said, including the global student strike movement, Trump’s “dereliction of duty” on climate change, and “the actual effects before our eyes, day in and day out.” He said it’s “pretty tough to look at” raging fires in Siberia and the Amazon, or ice rapidly melting ice in Greenland, and not think “woah.”

Democratic primary voters consistently cite climate change as one of the biggest issues in the 2020 election, though activists were frustrated by the party’s unwillingness to sanction a climate-only debate. The Democratic National Committee last week rejected such a proposal, a move that drew rebukes from several candidates. “Our planet is burning — the least we can do as a party is debate what to do about it,” tweeted former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

While candidates cannot participate in unsanctioned debates, they may attend TV town halls in which they appear separately on stage. CNN invited the 10 Democratic candidates who met the polling and fundraising thresholds for next week’s ABC/Univision debate, while MSNBC invited all declared 2020 candidates. So far, 11 Democrats and one long-shot Republican, Bill Weld, have agreed to participate in the two-day gathering, which will be streamed live on NBC News Now and featured on shows hosted by Hayes and co-moderator Ali Velshi.

Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate group that advocated unsuccessfully for a Democratic climate debate, said the CNN and MSNBC events offer “a historic opportunity to put the national spotlight on the climate crisis.” However, communications director Stephen O’Hanlon said in a statement that “the candidates and the moderators must connect the dots between the climate crisis and extreme weather like Dorian.”

Naomi Klein, a Rutgers University professor and author of the forthcoming “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” said CNN and MSNBC devoting extensive airtime to climate change is “sending a message that this is not business as usual.”

“It is very disturbing, and deeply shameful, that these two networks are willing to suspend their business as usual to say we believe this an emergency and the DNC was not willing to do so,” she added.

Klein said one of the benefits of the television event its “forced the candidates to deepen their climate plans.”

A half-dozen Democratic presidential contenders — Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro — unveiled ambitious climate plans ahead of CNN’s event. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign blasted out emails Wednesday touting his plan and how it departs from the pack.

Beyond specific policies, Klein said she is also looking for which candidate “is going to be able to tell the most captivating story about the next economy that we have to build” and demonstrate the link between climate and a range of issues, from transit to unemployment to national security.

The appearance of 10 Democrats on stage throughout Wednesday evening in support of action on climate change, albeit with different plans, should present a stark contrast to President Trump, who had denied the science behind global warming and whose administration has scaled back environmental regulations. The event has prompted some criticism on the right, such as the conservative Media Research Center accusing the network of “climate change indoctrination.”

Feist said CNN’s position is that there is a “climate crisis,” as the event is billed. He stressed that the network isn’t advocating for any solution, but giving presidential candidates the opportunity to present their plans before a national, and global, audience.

The climate story, of course, is a global one, and one project launching this month, Covering Climate Now, is aiming at a worldwide audience. Mark Hertsgaard, a coordinator of the project and environment correspondent at The Nation magazine, told POLITICO the collective efforts of news organizations involved could reach a half-billion people.

More than 220 news outlets, along with independent organizations and journalists, have have signed on to run climate-focused coverage ahead of the U.N. summit, including The Guardian, Bloomberg, CBS News, The Times of India, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, and Spain’s El Pais. The project includes news sites like BuzzFeed News, HuffPost and The Daily Beast, as well as traditional newspapers such as The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Oklahoman, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hertsgaard said the project began in the wake of the landmark U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last October in which scientists warned that the world had 12 years to reduce emissions in hopes of averting a climate catastrophe. He teamed up with Columbia Journalism Review Editor-in-Chief Kyle Pope on an April event and in the ongoing project.

“I think there are a lot of journalists and news outlets who are doing more climate coverage or want to do more climate coverage,” Hertsgaard said. “What we want to do with this initiative is to highlight that critical mass.”

Hertsgaard said some news organizations may be reluctant to participate due to concerns that joining “a journalistic collaboration like this is somehow advocacy, is somehow partisanship.” Hertsgaard said the project isn’t partisan, but motivated by “alarming” scientific facts.

“The science makes it clear that this is a crisis situation,” he said, “and therefore it is our job as journalists to make clear those facts to the public.”

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