This week, all four major broadcast networks covered extreme weather and climate change on their Sunday morning political talk shows. Those programs have largely ignored global warming in recent years, making their effort to address the issue unusual and laudable. But several of the segments also demonstrated the vulnerability inherent in treating science as a political debate where both sides receive a platform to air their positions.
Major winter storms across the U.S. in the month of February, drought in California, and President Obama's call for a $1 billion climate change "resilience fund" sparked debates this week over the need for action against climate change. The science of global warming is settled: according to one survey, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that "humans are causing global warming." But the Sunday shows, because they are built on a model of showing political conflicts, have difficulty putting that fact in context.
ABC's This Week and NBC's Meet the Press both featured debates between individuals who support and oppose the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, creating a false balance that could serve to confuse their viewers. Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, meanwhile, hosted a discussion in which no panelist stated that human-caused climate change is occurring while several claimed that it is not. CBS' Face the Nation, by contrast, featured an interview with a scientist who explained that "we know that climate change is happening and humans are contributing."
The broadcast Sunday shows devoted a paltry 27 minutes of coverage to climate change in 2013, according to a Media Matters study. Nearly 60 percent of that coverage came on Face the Nation; Meet the Press did not mention the issue all year. Face the Nation also featured the first interview of a scientist to discuss global warming by any of the programs in five years.
It's a good sign that the Sunday shows are addressing global warming, but treating it as just another political issue causes new complications.
Broadcast nightly news shows completely ignored the day's landmark court ruling striking down federal net neutrality regulations, an omission that deals a huge disservice to the public audience and a boon to the news outlets' parent corporations.
Net neutrality -- the principle that corporate internet providers should provide equal access to content for subscribers -- was dealt a serious blow the morning of January 14 when the D.C. Court of Appeals invalidated the Federal Communications Commission's requirement that providers offer equal access to online information, regardless of the source. Prior to the ruling, the FCC prevented internet providers from blocking (or slowing down access to) content in order to benefit their own business interests.
That evening, neither NBC, CBS, nor ABC acknowledged the ruling in their evening news broadcasts.
Here's why that's important -- NBC is owned by Comcast Corporation, which bills itself as the nation's largest high-speed Internet provider. CBS' parent company is CBS Corporation, which also owns multiple sports networks and Showtime, while ABC is part of The Walt Disney Company empire, also the owner of ESPN.
This is a huge conflict of interest for the broadcast news channels, as their parent corporations all have a vested interest in striking down net neutrality laws and promoting their own content at the expense of competitors that lack an advantage in size or Internet service. As PCWorld explained:
Broadcast evening news programs slanted coverage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by hyping negative aspects of the law's rollout while underplaying or not exploring positive changes to insurance coverage under the health care law, including the role that subsidies would play in making health care affordable. All three major broadcast networks aired more segments that took on a negative tone than a positive tone in October and November 2013, according to a Media Matters study.
From the November 8 edition of NBC's NBC Nightly News:
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Media reports suggested that it was previously unknown that some in the individual insurance market would have to seek new health care plans due to the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) regulations. In fact, the administration announced in 2010 that some insurance policies would not be "grandfathered" in under the new law, largely due to regular turnover in the health insurance marketplace.
New reports indicate that Fox News' sister company is no longer in talks to produce a controversial miniseries on Hillary Clinton, a move that takes pressure off the Republican Party as it moved to boycott NBC and CNN -- but not Fox -- for their involvement with Clinton-related projects.
Last month NBC Entertainment and CNN Films each announced intentions to produce biopics on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton timed to precede the 2016 presidential race. Though both outlets claim their network's news division will not be involved in the effort, the proposed specials have raised concerns about the obvious conflicts of interest for NBC's and CNN's parent companies, and their news divisions' ability to report objectively in the event of a 2016 Clinton presidential campaign. Journalists from both NBC News and CNN News have publicly worried that the specials will damage their news divisions' reputations, and both Media Matters founder David Brock and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called on the outlets to cancel the plans.
Priebus even threatened to ban NBC and CNN from hosting GOP primary debates during the 2016 presidential election cycle -- a threat the RNC ultimately fulfilled when it voted this week to exclude the networks if they "continue to move forward" with their Clinton projects. Priebus explained his thinking to Fox News on August 6, saying it's "ridiculous" to allow "moderators who are not serving the best interests of the candidates."
Given that Preibus wants moderators who serve the "best interest" of the GOP, it was unsurprising that days later when the New York Times reported Fox News sister company Fox Television Studios might produce NBC's Clinton biopic, Priebus refused to extend his boycott threat to Fox News. Responding to State of the Union host Candy Crowley's question as to whether Fox's news division will "be subject to the same kind of scrutiny" he applied to CNN and NBC news divisions over the plans of their sister companies, Priebus claimed he was only "going to boycott the company that puts the miniseries and the documentaries on the air for the American people to view."
NBC Universal has pledged to report on the impact of Russia's draconian new anti-gay laws during its exclusive coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics, but its financial stake in maintaining a positive relationship with the International Olympics Commission (IOC) raises questions about the network's ability to be objective in its reporting.
NBC has faced increasing pressure to report on Russia's harsh anti-gay laws - including a measure that bans vaguely defined pro-gay "propaganda" - during its coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi this February. Despite assurances from the IOC, Russian officials have warned that the law will be enforced against Olympians and visitors who display or demonstrate support for LGBT equality during the games.
Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, has stated that NBC will "acknowledge" the law in its coverage if it affects the Olympic Games in any way, saying, "If it is still their law and it is impacting any part of the Olympic Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it."
But NBC's ability to objectively cover the Olympic controversy is potentially threatened by the network's own financial interests. As Time magazine reporter Sean Gregory noted, NBC paid the IOC more than $4 billion for television rights to the Sochi Olympics, as well as rights to the 2016, 2018, and 2020 Olympics. The hefty price tag demonstrates how valuable NBC considers its exclusive access to the Olympic Games to be, an agreement which is granted by the IOC directly.
NBC's close relationship with the IOC is likely to become problematic as the IOC begins to take its own precautions to crack down on pro-gay "propaganda."
NBC Sports has pledged to expose Russia's anti-gay "propaganda" law during its exclusive coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Since the law's passage on June 10, however, NBC's news programming has almost completely ignored the controversy surrounding the measure, raising concerns about their willingness to report on the law during the event next February.
From the July 14 edition of NBC's Meet The Press:
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NBCNews.com badly bungled its report on anti-gay activist John Stemberger's formation of an alternative program for adolescent males following the Boy Scouts' decision to allow openly gay scouts.
A July 9 NBC News article noted that Stemberger's sole reason for founding the group was to protest the Boy Scouts' new membership policy, but accepted at face value Stemberger's assertion that his group would also allow gay members - as long as they don't "flaunt" their sexual orientations:
While the program, which doesn't yet have a name, will allow gays, it won't let them "flaunt" it, said John Stemberger, founder of OnMyHonor.net, a coalition opposed to the BSA's vote in late May to change the controversial membership policy.
"We don't think sex and politics should be in a program for kids. Those are issues for parents,"said Stemberger, of Orlando, Fla., who left the Boy Scouts along with his two sons over the decision in May.
"If a young man has a same-sex attraction he would not be turned away in the program, but he's not going to be allowed to kind of openly flaunt it and carry a rainbow flag," he added, apparently referring to the participation of some BSA members in LGBT pride parades in recent weeks.
Evening television news outlets have largely not reported on two important cases issued by the Supreme Court that rolled back workplace anti-discrimination law, despite the urgent call for congressional action issued by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dual dissents.
Ginsburg, in addition to being one of the most accomplished justices in history due to her trailblazing civil rights work, has also been a crucial participant in the dialogue between the Court and Congress over the scope of anti-discrimination law. Most famously, it was Ginsburg who successfully called upon Congress to act after the notorious Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007) decision, when the conservative majority twisted the intent of Title VII's protections against employment discrimination to make it easier to illegally pay women less than their colleagues.
When the five conservative justices once again attacked Title VII at the end of the Court's latest term and similarly dismissed long-standing law to make it harder for workers to protect themselves from sex and race discrimination, Ginsburg reprised her liberal dissent and asked Congress to undo the conservative damage to this vital component of the Civil Rights Act.
But a Media Matters search of Nexis transcripts since these two opinions were issued reveals that not only have most network and cable evening news programs completely ignored Ginsburg's plea to Congress to take corrective action and "restore the robust protections against workplace harassment the Court weakens" - similar to what legislators did in passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 - they are not reporting on the two new Title VII decisions at all. PBS' The NewsHour was the sole exception, with a solitary mention.
While this most recent term will rightly be remembered in part for the important step forward the Court took in according the LGBT community with equal civil rights under law, it will also go down in history as a term where protections for other groups were rolled back, most significantly in the gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Indeed, the Court's rightward jerk under Chief Justice John Roberts was even more apparent in the continuation of closely divided pro-business decisions that undermine regulations and law that guard against corporate abuse. As reported by NBCNews.com, "[i]n one measure of the strong term for corporations, the Chamber of Commerce was on the winning side for 14 of the 17 cases in which it filed briefs, and a perfect 8-0 in closely divided cases."
Media outlets are pushing the conservative narrative that the Obama administration will "bypass Congress" with a new plan to reduce carbon emissions while ignoring key context: the 2007 Supreme Court decision that explicitly gave the executive branch the power to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act and the endangerment finding that made the EPA "statutorily obligated" to do so.
President Obama announced the details of his new plan to deal with the challenge of climate change in a June 25 speech at Georgetown University. Details of the White House plan, which will extend regulation on carbon emissions to existing power plants, were released on the morning of June 25.
Advance coverage of Obama's climate speech and plan by Fox News, Politico, The Associated Press, NBC News, and The Hill echoes past criticism from conservative media of Obama's efforts to combat climate change by focusing on the fact that the efforts do not need to be approved by Congress.
On the June 25 edition of Fox & Friends First, business analyst Diane Macedo concluded her report on the climate policies that Obama is likely to announce by noting that "none of these steps require congressional approval," and that Obama is "seek[ing] ways to work around [Congress]."
Politico reported on June 21 that the president was "preparing to bypass Congress on climate change." An NBCNews.com headline described the president's intent to "sidestep Congress with new initiatives to reduce carbon emissions." And The Hill stated that the administration would "curb emissions using executive powers that sidestep Congress" and the plan was "designed to get around Congress."
However, not one of these outlets explained that the Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government already has the authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. Right-wing media outlets similarly excluded this critical context when they hyperbolically accused the administration of breaking the law by proposing carbon regulations that did not require congressional approval. In June 2012, Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer said that earlier EPA regulations on carbon emissions were "outright lawlessness." A March Wall Street Journal editorial also claimed that Obama's efforts to regulate carbon make him similar to a dictator.
Sunday talk shows on NBC, CBS, and ABC compared reports that the Internal Review Service (IRS) applied extra scrutiny to conservative groups to President Nixon's Watergate scandal, a comparison which people who worked on both sides of the Watergate scandal agree is baseless.
Following months of media calls for deficit reduction, cable news channels spent just over 7 minutes reporting on a revised Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projection that the 2013 deficit will decline by more than previous estimates. Broadcast network news evening shows did not cover the new report.
More than 72,000 Americans are calling on ABC, CBS and NBC to reassess their priorities after a Media Matters analysis found that their nightly news programs devoted very little time to climate change in 2012 -- less than they covered the British royal family.
Even during the warmest year on record in the U.S., the nightly news programs combined devoted only 12 full segments to climate change. By contrast, these programs dedicated over seven times more coverage to the royals in 2012, as this graphic by the Climate Reality Project in collaboration with Media Matters illustrates:
The disparity was greatest on ABC World News, which dedicated 43 segments to the royal family and only one to climate change. NBC Nightly News wasn't much better, devoting 38 segments to the royals and only 4 to climate change. CBS Evening News covered climate change the most -- in 7 segments -- but still less than its 11 segments on the royal family.
This ongoing imbalance was illustrated just last week when scientists announced that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is set to surpass 400 parts per million, likely for the first time in human history. ABC World News and NBC Nightly News ignored the story, even as NBC found time to cover Prince Harry's visit to the United States.
A previous Media Matters report found that the broadcast networks covered Donald Trump more than climate change in 2011.