by Peter Dykstra
The Daily Climate
There’s an adorably naïve tendency among many who live and breathe environmental issues – journalists, scientists, advocates – to presume that reason, backed by science, will rule the day, any day now.
I recommend either one of two easy cures for this: Watch an hour of Fox News, America’s most-watched cable news network by a long shot. Or do what I did earlier this week: Watch the White House press corps.
Climate change was ostensibly the Story of the Day for Monday’s daily briefing: White House Counselor John Podesta, the administration’s climate point man, headlined the affair. He showed slides and took questions for 24 minutes before being whisked away, with reporters invited to continue the dialogue with Press Secretary Jay Carney.
To be fair, the climate questions were both logical and appropriate, with not a dumb one in the bunch: Fracking, climate denial, infrastructure and more.
But with one exception, they ended when Podesta left the room. Led by its TV correspondents, the White House press had bigger fish to fry than the mere Earth itself.
That’s right. It was Benghazi time.
By the time Carney closed the proceeding 68 minutes after it began, the final score was climate and energy, 26 minutes of press corps interest, Benghazi, 34. Other topics, like the Ukraine, the Nigerian kidnappings, and tornado-ravaged Arkansans (miffed that the only president who’s come calling is Bill Clinton) got a couple of minutes each. But what may or may not have happened when four U.S. diplomats were killed two years ago was the day’s news, trumping what’s very likely to happen for the rest of our lives.
President Obama scheduled a series of one-on-one interviews Tuesday with meteorologists to talk about the dire new Climate Assessment. The decision to bypass the White House press corps inspired a bothersome thought: If Obama’s renewed focus on climate change is real, we already knew he’d have to pursue it with little help from Congress. But does he also have to do an end run around White House reporters to even talk about it?
If the tactic of anointing a press briefing as Climate Day failed, Tuesday’s weather-palooza succeeded. Sort of. The old-line broadcast networks each did some justice to the importance of the report, with White House correspondents pitching in. Meteorologists Al Roker of NBC and Megan Glaros of CBS ended up on the nightly news.
But they weren’t there chatting climate with Obama. You had the odd spectacle of two of the nation’s most visible weather forecasters grilling the president on the Nigerian kidnapping story. Apparently network suits at NBC and CBS were comfortable diffusing the rare opportunity to talk climate with the President in favor of talking with him about anything.
Another ‘climate’ debate
CNN highlighted still another “debate” on climate science, while Fox News took another in a never-ending series of cakes: Dana Perino, panelist on Fox’s “The Five” half-seriously wanted to know if the weatherpeople would grill the President on Benghazi. Perino, of course, used to run those White House briefings as George W. Bush’s press secretary.
From the absence of climate questions in the 2012 debate to the air of oblivion in the White House pressroom, it’s not hard to figure out why climate change strikes out. With the rare exception of the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, no one jumps directly from the environment beat to the White House beat. Mastering the biggest environmental story is not exactly a proven career move for a journalist eyeing the top of the professional food chain.
Cracked the code
But Sam Stein of the Huffington Post and Brian Beutler of The New Republic may have cracked the code on the behavior of the White House press. As Beutler wrote, “There’s a Drudge-like effect that drives reporters to tackle stories that they know will become widely-consumed news products” that are “already lighting up marquee ideological outlets.” In other words, if you’re on the White House beat, you’re supposedly a journalism rock star. Cover Benghazi and you stay on the arena circuit. Cover climate and you’re back to Open Mike Night at the coffeehouse.
To be sure, those who make it to a White House reporting gig are brainiacs. You can be an oaf and still rise to be a talk show host or news anchor, but the reporting on the White House requires smarts and absurdly long hours.
Sadly, it requires less and less journalism.