Is NBC's Today show now a sign of a coming apocalypse? I'm beginning to wonder.
Last Thursday, I tuned in to Today for the first time in a long while. I watched a bright and chirpy correspondent climb about 40 feet of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska as part of her epic Journey to some of America's most iconic landmarks. She gawked at the glory of Mendenhall Lake, paddling around it in a kayak. She waxed trivial about her incredible adventure, her great guides and how gorgeous and magnificent she found the glacier.
But a fundamental fact was missing from her report.
The Mendenhall Glacier is retreating. Some places on the glacier thin by 20 feet every year. The lake that Natalie Morales paddled around on did not exist before 1930. The melting produced not just the lake. It also creates flood surges that pose a threat to populated areas near Juneau, Alaska's capital.
Morales mentioned none of this. Not a word.
If you were a correspondent ecstatic over a glacier's beauty, wouldn't you mention the fact that it may be slowly disappearing? That its retreat could endanger homes, livelihoods and lives?
On a good day, I would have shrugged off a silly Today show segment. But this one got my goat. Maybe it was the inspirational music that accompanied Natalie's oh-so-heroic 40-foot ascent while tied to a safety rope. But in retrospect, the words annoyed me the most. Epic. Incredible. Great. Gorgeous. Magnificent. All in a story that missed the real story about climate change.
An expat, I live in Belgium. From a distance, it's almost as if the U.S. news media has self-divided into two camps: the Inane and the Insane.
The Inane include Today and the sad, desultory relic called CNN that reports what's trending on Twitter because there's just no other way to find that out. If you need any proof of the contempt that CNN has for its domestic audience, check out CNN International sometime. That's where the "real news" has gone, albeit in diminished form.
The Insane includes pretty much anything on talk radio and Fox News, which sometimes sounds like what your paranoid uncle with a private arsenal under his bed would shout at you if he wrote the news.
There are still a few places to get the "real" news, most on the web. RFEL has great international news coverage. There's NPR, the BBC and others. It's no accident that such outlets are funded, in part, by public money. Decent thoughtful news that at least tries to be objective is, I believe, a public good. If you want big money, you can't tell people what they need to know, but what they want to hear.
The Inane and Insane are not accidental. They're inevitable. They happen to be the best ways to make money in a fragmented market. The Inane makes money by assuring people that everything is OK. It's a form of escape. The Insane makes money by exploiting the ignorance and prejudices of fearful people. It's anger creation for profit maximization. Neither has much to do with what's really going on.
Climate change doesn't have a big audience, at least not one that could earn billions a year in ad revenue. The Inane and the Insane pre-empt a serious discussion of its risks. By doing so, they safeguard well-established economic interests. An entrenched elite's best defence is not repression but popular ignorance and indifference to the truth. Indeed, a certain amount of ignorance allows things to keep moving along, at least for a while.
George Carlin had this figured out when he said, "If honesty were suddenly introduced into politics, it would throw everything off!" Shakespeare understood long before then that a crooked status quo can't bear honest talk about serious things. In King Lear, a corrupt and declining order is held together by power and hypocrisy. Only the Fool can speak the truth. He must, because he earns a living by making people laugh and the shock of the truth produces laughter, sometimes nervous. (Think Jon Stewart.)
Then Cordelia, the King's favourite daughter, dares to be truthful. The consequences of this act lead to an orgy of violence that destroys the status quo.
Hopefully climate change won't lead to an orgy of violence. Then again, maybe it will. Maybe it already has. But the threat is enormous and we have done nothing. The climate skeptics have won. Not because they challenged the science. They made climate change difficult to talk about. So when a morning TV show does a feature about a retreating glacier, you can come away from it unaware that the retreat is happening at all.
At heart, this is about trust. Do we actually trust the overwhelming majority of climate scientists who tell us what's going on? We've decided that... we sorta do, but mainly, we don't care. We need bold action that our political system seems incapable of producing. Game over!
The journalistic cowardice of peppy, preening, self-absorbed muppets is not a sign of a coming apocalypse. It is, however, a symptom of national decline. If you can't face the future with open eyes, you're probably afraid of where you're going.
So the ice melts, and we paddle around on a new and growing lake, gasping and gawking at a dying glacier's glory, while obsessively repeating comforting words like epic, incredible and great.