Some media pundits create a system that promotes and supports denial of climate change. Most media pundits are opportunists by nature. Their pay is based on their ratings, and being controversial gets more attention than being rational. It is to their advantage not only to say startling things and draw attention to themselves, but to nurture constituencies that will bolster their ratings. That is one of the ways human nature interacts with our mass media. Unfortunately, our global challenges just happen to provide excellent opportunities for unscrupulous pundits.
People who are frightened by the news and looking for an escape are easy prey for pundits. Unscrupulous pundits will cultivate a loyalty that lets followers accept almost anything the pundit says, no matter how far from the truth. If what the pundit says makes people feel safer (such as “global warming is a hoax”) people will naturally want to believe it. A pundit or groups of pundits, harping on the same theme, can create a cloud of misinformation in which people can immerse themselves, sustaining the relative comfort of denial at least until the true facts become too obvious to deny any longer. This arrangement allows the pundits to maintain and build ratings that further their careers, and give their followers a temporary false sense of security. The system sustains itself in this way, at least until the facts being denied become … undeniable.
Maintaining a “cloud of misinformation” has become a standard operating mode for many pundits. Once a pundit has planted the seeds of misinformation, the memes that their followers will discuss and spread, they can build on those memes in their regular broadcasts. They can have their support staff watch the news and do other research to find facts they can use to support the context they are building, and to increase the excitement and interest of their followers. Eventually the misinformation will be discounted by others, and disproven in the experience of numbers of their followers, but a clever pundit will by then have changed the message and moved on to leave the discredited portions of their message behind and keep their following focused on newer ideas. The “cloud of misinformation” isn’t all false, but a mixture of truth and falsehood that hangs together in an apparently rational way, and can be changed and added to over time, essentially evolved, to keep the interest and loyalty of the pundit’s followers.
Today’s punditry is enabled by electronic mass media. Pundits have probably always existed, but never had the kind of audiences they have now until the arrival of the mass media. The kind of punditry that exists today didn’t really exist before radio and television. What newspapers printed when they were the dominant media was carefully monitored and controlled by newspaper owners, and any misinformation was published with the owners’ approval if not at their direct order. Publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer played perhaps the biggest part in creating the Spanish American War at the end of the 10th century (link), but historical records I’ve reviewed don’t reflect individual columnists independently influencing the situation. In the electronic age a pundit can reach millions in an instant and apparently say just about anything they want to without being held responsible for it, since ratings-hungry media companies will not require integrity if they can sell more ads at higher prices and make more money. Of course, none of this means that some owners of the media don’t direct at least some of the misinformation as before, it just means that the “waters are muddied” as far as identifying the original sources of misinformation and the agendas of those promoting it.
Why don’t pundits get in trouble when they misrepresent facts, slander individuals, or speak lies? Personally I am a bit surprised that our litigious society doesn’t generate more lawsuits against pundits who slander people and lie, but their ability to get away with these behaviors reflects the skill with language and ideas, and a fundamental “slipperiness” some successful pundits have developed. Certainly there have been lawsuits over the decades, but they have only caused pundits to improve until their skill at using the language allows them to avoid saying things that would provide grounds for anyone to sue them, while still exciting their viewers/listeners and creating a skewed (if not completely false) world view.
Pundits create not only “clouds of misinformation” but communities of their followers. A pundit’s followers are similar to a religious sect in that they become a community bonded together by shared beliefs. Listen to truckers in the U.S. at a truck stop or on their CB radios on the highway, or to tradespeople or factory workers, and you will hear them sharing what they’ve heard from their favorite pundits, though not always without argument. Some very high profile pundits have amassed amazingly widespread support, and I have wondered what correlation this has with the decline of the quality of the U.S. public education system. Has the dilution of the system by the diversion of resources to private schools and the mandating of standardized testing with punitive implications for poorly performing schools “dumbed down” the average person and made them less likely to be able to spot the fallacies in what pundits tell them? My personal observation has been that more educated people tend to be less likely to follow the more sensationalistic pundits.
Climate change provides a nearly perfect subject for unscrupulous pundits. The frightening and overwhelming nature of the global challenges looming before us provides a great opportunity for pundits who operate in the more negative and sensationalist ways. What scientists are finding out and reporting about our current global climate creates a concerned and fearful audience who would like nothing more than to have the threat of climate change just go away. (I, too, would certainly love it if the scientists were all wrong, but I have seen too much evidence – satellite photos, for instance – that seems irrefutable.) Pundits have really come into their own in the last 40 years, but especially in the past decade, as our perceived challenges have grown. What is happening in our media is not surprising.
What can we do to get everyone to help address our global problems? This is a complex and difficult subject. For starters, I don’t recommend selling your stock in media companies that support the more unscrupulous pundits, as that little piece of ownership represents influence. When a majority of stockholders let their feelings be known to a board of directors or vote their shares accordingly, corporate behavior can be changed, though not as much as when market share is affected by changes in buying behavior. That brings up more ways people can help get everyone pulling in the right direction and adapting creatively to our changing circumstances: we can change our buying behavior. To do so effectively requires learning what are the best choices.
Communicating with others, learning, and avoiding single source information will help us make intelligent and helpful choices. One of the best things we can do is engage in intelligent, positive, and hopefully peaceful discussions with our friends and families, do our own digging to learn what is behind what we hear and read, and be critical thinkers, asking questions and examining the credentials of the media figures we hear and view. We must take what we learn with a lot of salt, cross check with other sources, and never believe a single source of information, no matter how charismatic. This is necessary to cope with the current flood of misleading punditry which supports denial of our global problems.
Thinking long-term and turning long term objectives into short term choices is essential. We must learn to think long term, not just through the next election cycle as our media seem to promote. Then we must decompose our long term plans and goals into small, incremental actions we can take every day.
Mass action has amazing potential and power. When there are so many billions of people in the world, the potential to save with tiny actions performed by many is enormous. I have long thought to myself that, if everyone in the U.S. turned off the tap during the time they are brushing their teeth, if they brush their teeth twice daily and a gallon of water goes down the drain between the time they wet the toothbrush and the time they rinse their mouths, it would save the country 600 million gallons of fresh water every day. We each need to keep looking for incremental ways in which we can change our behaviors to reduce our resource usage and carbon footprints, and promoting those ideas to others. We will often save ourselves money in the short term, making those choices easier, but we need to strive to understand where we are saving ourselves money in the long term, and to spread that knowledge so it can become an increasingly important force in our pursuit of a sustainable world. Hopefully, our descendants will thank us.
As always, I appreciate your comments.