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This just in: Global warming a myth -- National Post, Donald Gutstein

To the success of the impossible: Getting to democratic media, Robert Hackett

This just in: Global warming a myth -- National Post

Donald Gutstein
August 2001

The vast majority of the world's climatologists and every country in the world -- except for the oil- industry controlled US government -- agree that the earth's temperature is increasing. They agree also that the increase is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, and will have serious consequences for humanity.

In Canada, the National Post -- together with its sidekicks at the Fraser Institute -- fight an increasingly lonely rear-guard action against the reality of global warming, continuing to deny any of the consensus propositions regarding climate change reached by over 2000 scientists and 150 countries. In a kind of solarcaust denial, the Post performs a valuable propaganda service for the fossil-fuel industry, the primary source of global warming.

The Post's editorial pages are particularly noteworthy for the consistency of its anti-global warming messaging. Between January 2000 and June 2001, the Post published 53 opinion pieces (unsigned editorials, columns and guest opinion pieces) on climate change and global warming. Of these, three are neutral while 48, or 90 percent, deny that global warming is occurring, that it is caused by burning fossil fuel or that it will have harmful consequences. The two pieces that argue for urgent action on climate change -- one by David Suzuki -- were written in response to earlier diatribes by Terence Corcoran, the Post's resident meister propagandist.

Not surprisingly, Corcoran wrote the most anti-global warming pieces, 12 in all. He took every opportunity to attack the Kyoto Protocol (the agreement to reduce CO2 emissions to below 1990 levels by 2010). In one piece he calls it a massive plot by UN bureaucrats to redistribute wealth from Canada to China and Sudan (29 Mar 2001). And just before Earth Day 2000, Corcoran called Kyoto a Soviet-style exercise in bureaucratic planning that Ottawa is preparing to impose on Canadians (20 Apr 2000).

Many of the anti-global warming pieces are provided by guest writers. One frequent contributor is Patrick Michaels, who earns his living being skeptical about climate change. In Nov. 2000, as 20,000 officials, scientists and observers headed to The Hague, Netherlands to hammer out the specifics of reaching the targets established at Kyoto, Michaels wrote a piece titled "Science tricked again on global warming," charging that negotiators from 150 countries and 2000 scientists on the United Nations-mandated panel which determines the forecasts were 'tricked' by power-hungry UN bureaucrats (4 Nov. 2000).

Thousands of climate scientists have achieved a difficult consensus on climate change. Michaels and a handful of scientists, many not climatologists although Michaels is, claim it is not occurring. They are called 'skeptics' by the media but are usually funded by the fossil-fuel industry, as Michaels is -- 'bought experts' is more accurate. Michaels is funded by Western Fuels, a $400-million coal industry front group, the German Coal Mining Association, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of electric utility companies, and Cyprus Minerals, a backer of the Wise Use movement.

Right-wing think tanks like the Fraser Institute provide a platform for the 'skeptics' to disseminate their views, most usually that global warming is not happening and that any possible future warming will be slight and may even be beneficial. Michaels is a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, which enjoys lavish funding from the energy industry and others, campaigns against "unnecessary and harmful" environmental regulations, and promotes free- market environmentalism.

Corporate news media like the Wall Street Journal and National Post give the doubts raised by the skeptics a status beyond that awarded them within the scientific community itself. This creates a sense that widespread disagreement exists among scientists, exaggerating the uncertainty associated with climate change and leading the public and politicians to conclude that since the global warming debate is not over, action is not yet warranted. And every year action is delayed is another year the fossil-fuel industry can reap its gargantuan profits.

Recently the Post has featured another skeptic, David Wojick, who wrote five pieces over the 18-month period. In one piece he calls Kyoto a license for more federal power and more government spending and a plot by hard-line greens to force wrenching life-style changes they long for people to endure. (19 Oct. 2000) In another, he calls the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a plot by under-developed countries to bring down the Western way of life. (23 Nov. 2000)

The Post calls Wojick a journalist and policy analyst but does not say for whom. In fact, Wojick is a columnist for The Electricity Daily, an industry newspaper which covers the North American electricity market and promotes energy deregulation. And his policy analysis is mainly for the electric power industry, the second largest producer of CO2 emissions.

In the early 1990s Wojick worked with AES Corp., one of the world's largest electricity producers, which owns dozens of coal-fired electricity plants in the US and around the world. In 1995, just after Wojick had completed his work as a "strategic planning consultant" helping to make the company "one of the world's largest independent power producers," Greenpeace wrote a report on this company. It calls AES's track record "a sordid one, filled with illegal dumping, toxic spills, and lawsuits covered by falsified reports, political schmoozing and greenwash. In short, AES tries to buy, deceive, or sue communities to allow it to build and operate dirty, unnecessary power plants that pollute neighbourhoods and endanger the global environment." [http://www.greeneapce.org/~usa/reports/energy/AES.html]

Of course you won't find a word about the Greenpeace study in the Post.

Even in its news stories the Post distorts its coverage. A story in March, 2000 reports a study by the US National Research Council confirming earlier findings that the Earth's surface is warming. But the story gives only three paragraphs to this study and the earlier findings. Most of the story -- ten of 18 paragraphs -- is given over to the skeptics or 'dissenters,' as the story also calls them. The other five paragraphs are neutral or mixed. The story presents the impression that the skeptics and the "adherents of the dominant view" are equals and either viewpoint could be valid. As the headline puts it, "Global warming debate heats up," even though there is no debate among the vast majority of scientists (1 Mar. 2000).

Another story at the end of May was solely about the skeptics, with not one word from the adherents of the dominant view. "Global warming theories criticized; models faulty: scientists," the headline proclaims, as if those who formulate the theories and build the models are not scientists but perhaps something worse, like radical environmentalists. National Post reporter Jan Cienski says that "Global warming is all hot air, according to a group of scientific skeptics who gathered yesterday to denounce the climate science that says the world is getting hotter because of greenhouse gases" (31 May 2000). The first skeptic quoted is Richard Courtney, a British energy and environmental consultant, who was already well-known to the Post. On Earth Day 2000 (April 22), the entire business editorial page was turned over to him for a 1900-word anti-global warming rant.

Even when it reported in November 2000 on The Hague meetings, the Post gave most coverage to another skeptic, Julian Morris of the Institute for Economic Affairs, a corporate- backed sponsor of the skeptics in the United Kingdom. Morris complains that there is "so much conflicting data" we shouldn't do anything.

In 2001, the Post provided more coverage to the consequences of climate change, reporting on the melting of the permafrost in the European Alps, droughts on the Canadian Prairies, the extinction of countless species of animals, birds and plant life, the disappearance of the snows of Killimanjaro, a precipitous drop in the number of icebergs in the North Atlantic and a likely increase in the number of monster forest fires in Canada.

But only three stories made the front page, and all three were skeptical of or hostile towards global warming. In one, George W. Bush proclaims that he has no intention of reducing CO2 emissions if it means harming the US economy (30 Mar. 2001). A month later, Dick Cheney, an oil-industry executive who moonlights as Bush's vice president, testily asserts that US consumers do not have to apologize for their gluttonous energy appetites (1 May 2001).

But the Post's anti-environmental agenda was exhibited most clearly on 11 June, 2001, when it gave front-page coverage to a Danish statistician who was once a member of Greenpeace. The reason for the story? He wrote a book.

Thousands of books are written each year. Most are not even reviewed by the Post, let alone reported as front-page news. Titled The Skeptical Environmentalist, this one is news because it attacks environmentalists for being critical of capitalism.

"The book could be the most dangerous tool in a backlash against the green agenda," Post writer Mary Vallis claims, without citing any sources for this proposition. By providing front-page treatment for the story, though, the Post is doing its part to ensure the book becomes such a tool.

Donald Gutstein is writing a book about corporate propaganda in Canada.

To the success of the impossible: Getting to democratic media

© Robert Hackett
August 2001

Any citizen, any social movement, concerned with promoting social equality, justice and democracy within and between nations will sooner or later have to confront and challenge an increasingly globalized corporate media system. While they still offer some (diminishing) openings for progressive views on particular issues, the dominant transnational corporations in the communication and information industries have become key bulwarks of global capitalism both ideologically and economically. Since the 1980s, the emerging global media system has vastly enhanced the communication infrastructure of international commerce, constituted a crucial site of investment, and through its various media formats, created a cultural environment which promotes the politics and values of consumerism and free market fundamentalism.

To be sure, the global communication system has enhanced (unevenly) the affluence of a minority of the world's countries and people, and has sometimes helped to liberalize old-style authoritarian regimes like those of Eastern Europe. On the other hand, the journalism offered in such a hyper-commercialized, corporate-dominated system too often contradicts fundamental democratic ideals, such as equal opportunity for informed participation by all citizens in discussing and deciding matters of public concern. Marketing imperatives are overriding the ethos of public service. Unprecedented transnational media concentration creates potentially centralized power over the public agenda. Affluent consumers and business are relatively well- served with a press that reflects their generally economically conservative politics. The rest of us are offered a steady diet of trivia and scandal.

Thus, any fundamental challenge to the current distribution of wealth and power within global capitalism will soon collide with the power of the currently dominant media. How can progressive social movements succeed when they are demonized, trivialized, or ignored by the media on which they generally depend to reach broader publics? Can ecologically sustainable economies be achieved without addressing a media/advertising complex that cultivates the desire for limitless consumption? Can ethnic and gender equality be achieved while media representations and employment practices continue (despite some progress) to stereotype, marginalize, or underrepresent women and minorities? Can social programs and workers' rights be sustained in the long run when the agenda-setting media are structurally linked to the corporate elite's interests? Can democracy itself flourish without a political communication system which nurtures equality, community, and informed engagement with public issues? The pivotal role of media for nearly all struggles for social justice leads Robert McChesney (1997, p. 71) to observe, "Regardless of what a progressive group's first issue of importance is, its second issue should be media and communication, because so long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible, across the board."

Using conventional media relations and lobbying tactics, democratic movements can occasionally win victories on single issues. But in a political world increasingly dominated by media, and a mediascape where the dominant players are becoming fewer in number and more tightly wedded to the logic of global capitalism, it is going to be more and more difficult for popular-democratic movements fundamentally to influence public discourse on the environment, globalization, or other vital issues which effect core corporate interests.

That is why, in addition to promoting social justice goals through the media, a more direct struggle is needed -- one which seeks to expose and challenge the power and biases of the corporate media themselves.

Encouragingly, there are growing signs that this realization is taking hold. In Canada, the U.S., and many other countries, thousands of grassroots groups are pursuing one or more of the following kinds of media activism:

  • Building "alternative" and progressive democratic media, independent of state and corporate control.
  • Promoting media education in schools and elsewhere.
  • Media analysis and monitoring projects, like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Project Censored in the U.S., both of which have inspired our work in NewsWatch Canada.
  • Campaigns and publicity strategies to use and enhance openings for progressive voices within the existing media.
  • Satirical "culture jamming", which aims to subvert the intended meanings of commercial and corporate media.
  • Challenges by journalists and workers within media industries, to managerial censorship and cutbacks.
  • Public interest interventions in legal, regulatory, and political arenas around issues of state policy towards the media.
  • Most ambitiously, efforts to build national and international coalitions, like the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) in the U.K. and now Canada, and the Cultural Environment Movement and the Media Democracy Congresses in the U.S.

Behind such diversity, there is an important continuity. All these forms of democratic media activism aim to change media messages, practices, institutions and/or contexts in order to expand the range of voices accessed through the media, build an egalitarian public sphere, promote the values and practices of sustainable democracy, and counteract political and economic inequalities found elsewhere in the social system.

Deep and persistent social bases underlie such media activism. Workers and their organizations struggle against misrepresentation by an employer-friendly press. Cultural producers push governments to protect nations' cultural sovereignty against the wholesale importatation of American media fare. Ethnic minorities strive for media access to protect endangered languages and cultures. Progressive religious communities, motivated by the values of human dignity, love and solidarity, critique the acquisitive individualist biases of commercial media. Significantly, the London-based World Association for Christian Communication is at the forefront of international work to give voice to marginalized communities.

Rejection of the idea that all aspects of human life can be bought and sold in the marketplace is developing in the sphere of communications as elsewhere. We now see resistance to the erosion of public broadcasting, the commodification of public information, the targeting by advertisers of children at home and in schools, and the intrusion of violent television programming and video games in the socialization of young people.

Media activism has also been fuelled by the communicative needs and practices of "new" social movements -- for peace, civil rights, gender equality, environmental sustainability, and most recently, for fair trade and human rights in the face of the juggernaut of global corporatization.

Does this activism add up to a coherent social movement? Perhaps not yet. But it is laying the groundwork for one. Clearly, it will take co-ordinated and sustained popular action to counter corporate power over public discourse, and to open up spaces for progressive democratic change in other areas. We need a movement which can both name the problem (the corporatization of public communication) and popularize a solution (media democratization, as part of a broader project of democratic reform). Fortunately, we do not need to re-invent the wheel. Excellent work is already being done by (for example) groups as diverse as FAIR, San Francisco's Media Alliance, and the Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting in the U.S., and the CPBF and Friends of Canadian Broadcasting here at home.

Clearly, the emerging media democracy movement faces formidable obstacles, especially the dispersal of its potential supporters, the consumerism of our culture, and the concentrated political, economic and ideological power of media corporations. It also faces strategic challenges and choices. It needs to use existing resources to reduce the costs of mobilization, give individuals psychological and (where possible) material incentives to participate, and build networks which can respond quickly on different issues. It must also connect with deeply felt concerns of broad constituencies, mount and build on short-term winnable campaigns, and find a common focus, but one which allows different groups to participate in different ways without sacrificing their autonomy.

An exciting way to further all these movement-building processes is now taking shape. Last summer, the CPBF and other local groups in Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere decided to stage the first annual Media Democracy Day. It's modelled on the early (pre-sponsored) years of Earth Day, which put the environmental movement on the political map in the 1970s. It's an opportunity for protest, celebration, education and networking. In Vancouver alone, it is bringing together trade unionists, social movement organizations, independent media, progressive academics and researchers, media workers and other citizens who want to spotlight the "democratic deficit" of the existing media, and find ways of working together to build alternatives.

Find out more at http://www.mediademocracyday.org or http://www.presscampaign.org. Better still, plan for a parallel event in your own community.

The project of democratizing the global media behemoth reminds American communication scholar and CEM founder George Gerbner of the Russian dissidents' toast during the darkest days of neo-Stalinism: "Here's to the success of our impossible task."

An impossible task. And yet it was done.

Portions of the above article are edited extracts from Robert Hackett, "Taking back the media: Notes on the potential for a communicative democracy movement," in Studies in Political Economy (Fall 2000); and "Building a Movement for Media Democratization," in Peter Phillips & Project Censored, Censored 2001 (New York: Seven Stories, 2001).

Other background sources include: Robert A. Hackett, "The News Media and Civic Equality: Watch Dogs, Mad Dogs, or Lap Dogs?" in Edward Broadbent (ed.), Democratic Equality: What Went Wrong? (University of Toronto Press, 2001).
Robert W. McChesney, Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (Seven Stories, 1997).
John Nichols & Robert W. McChesney, It's the Media, Stupid (Seven Stories, 2000).

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