FIRE AND BRIMSTONE
NICKI MINAJ We have become that place that you can't speak, you can't speak for the fear of the mob attacking you. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER From Hollywood to Fox News cries of tyranny against President Biden's vaccine mandate. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. Also, on this week's show, religious exemptions are in vogue when it comes to skirting innoculation, but what actually counts as a religious belief?
WINNIFRED SULLIVAN There's no way to distinguish legally between a religion that you and I might hook up right now, and an ancient tradition like Judaism.
SACHA PFEIFFER Plus, fossil fuel companies have been fighting climate conscious legislation through media advertisements for years. But you may not have noticed.
AMY WESTERVELT Influence doesn't look like an oil tycoon in a top hat showing up at your desk to twirl his mustache and tell you to spike a story.
SACHA PFEIFFER It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
SACHA PFEIFFER From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer, sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. We begin this week with a plea for freedom.
NICKI MINAJ When I was a little girl, the people in church would tell us, be happy that you're able to praise God freely because people in so many countries in the world can't praise the God they'd like to praise freely. We have become that place that you can't speak for the fear of the mob attacking you. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER This is rapper Nicki Minaj, speaking on Instagram live on Wednesday after she became the subject of an absurd controversy that, on its face, had nothing to do with religious freedom. The Internet mob was responding to this tweet, which she posted to her 22 million followers on Monday.
TUCKER CARLSON '"My cousin in Trinidad won't get the vaccine because his friend got it became impotent," she wrote. "His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding. So just pray on it and make sure you're comfortable with your decision, not bullied."
SACHA PFEIFFER Needless to say, that tweet went viral pretty much instantly, as did #ballgate. Late night hosts, sensing their work had basically been done for them, had a field day.
STEPHEN COLBERT ...but to be fair to Dr. Minaj, everyone knows there's no source more reliable than your extended family's acquaintances in another country. Her report comes straight from the New England Journal of My Cousins Friend in Trinidad. Check out this week's study: I heard his girlfriend got pregnant from a hot tub. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER But not everyone found it funny.
JOY REID You have twenty two million followers on Twitter.
SACHA PFEIFFER Joy Reid on MSNBC,.
JOY REID For you to use your platform to put people in the position of dying from a disease they don't have to die from. Oh, my God. As a fan, as a hip hop fan, somebody who was your fan. I'm so sad that you did that. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Then there's the other problem with the story of the rapper's cousin's friend. It didn't check out.
DR TERRENCE DEYALSINGH Unfortunately, we wasted so much time yesterday running down this false claim.
SACHA PFEIFFER Here's Trinidad and Tobago Health Minister Dr Terrence Deyalsingh.
DR TERRENCE DEYALSINGH As far as we know, at this point in time, there has been no such reported either side effect or adverse event. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Rather than just apologizing for spreading medical misinformation, Minaj doubled down. She took to Instagram live to riff on her feeling that her critics had robbed her of her freedom to speak her mind. She also said she had been put in Twitter jail, which the company says is not true. Facts be damned, the story was catnip for the right wing media.
TUCKER CARLSON It's not anything to do with the physical effect of the vaccine that makes our political class mad. It's the last part of Nicki Minaj's tweet that enrages them. The part where she says you should "pray on it," make the decision yourself like a free human being and quote, "don't be bullied." [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Maybe Tucker Carlson seized on the story because being told what to do, even in matters of life and death, can be spun to feel un-American. It's the same reason conservative lawmakers and pundits have landed on a scary word to describe Joe Biden's new vaccine mandate for companies of 100 employees or more.
NEWS REPORT Medical tyranny is still tyranny, and that's exactly what this Biden administration is trying to push on American people.
NEWS REPORT Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said even though vaccines are lifesaving, the president's move is unconstitutional. He added, This is still America and we still believe in freedom from tyrants.
NEWS REPORT I think it's interesting that we were assured for four years that Donald Trump is a tyrant, that he is, you know, Hitler incarnate. No, we had to elect to this rotting bag of oatmeal to get a real tyrant. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER History shows that vaccine mandates, which have been enforced legally in this country for more than a century, are neither bullying nor tyrannical. On Tuesday, Arizona became the first state to challenge the vaccine mandate, a measure many businesses seem on board with, because why would they want their workers to end up in the hospital? President Biden.
PRESIDENT BIDEN Some of the biggest companies are already requiring this, United Airlines, Disney, Tice's food and even Fox News. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Fox isn't exactly requiring it. It's asking employees to disclose their vaccination status. And according to a human resources memo sent to Fox staffers this week, 90 percent of employees at the network are already vaccinated and the rest are tested weekly. Meaning, Fox was essentially following the president's new policy before he announced it. These claims of government overreach could just be cynical dog whistles aimed at firing up TV viewers and raising campaign funds. But there actually is a conflict between our constitutionally enshrined religious rights and parts of the vaccine rollout.
NEWS REPORT Some employees can challenge this vaccine mandate. Title seven of the Civil Rights Act allows employees to refuse the vaccine over sincerely held religious beliefs. Tell us what this means exactly.
SPECIALIST It's a little bit murky. No major religious denomination in the U.S. opposes vaccination outright, but beliefs, practices, observances with which an employer might not be familiar, are still protected. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER In other words, even though the pope has come out in favor of vaccinations, Catholics have the right to make an individual case to their employers for opting out. And those requests are on the rise, bringing with them a long list of questions like: what counts as a religious exemption? How can we tell if they're sincere and what even counts as religion?
UNICOLE UNICRON Your personal reality is reality. And in Unicult, as we honor that, it is because of this teaching that Unicult protects its members who do not want to get the vaccine. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER That's Unicole Unicron, the founder of the Unicorn cult known as Unicult speaking on TikTok.
UNICOLE UNICRON Unicult is a real religion, and we can provide documentation to support any religious exemptions if you are a Unicult member. With the highest health in mind, we support you and we love you [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER As it turns out, the Constitution doesn't quite spell out what should be done about Unicult because the Constitution doesn't define religion.
WINNIFRED SULLIVAN There were so many different churches and other religions in the U.S. that there was no single tradition that could have been a national church. So as a practical matter, it was impossible.
SACHA PFEIFFER Winnifred Sullivan teaches at Indiana University Bloomington, in both its Department of Religious Studies and Maurer School of Law. She's also a visiting professor of religion at the University Sciences Po in Paris. She told me that not defining religion in the Constitution was a deliberate decision to ensure that no one church had sole moral and legal authority.
WINNIFRED SULLIVAN We have decided not to know what religion is as an official matter, that that is our constitutional commitment, that there's no official definition of what religion is. That's something that's left to each individual and each community. There's no way to distinguish legally between a religion that you and I might cook up right now, so to speak, and an ancient tradition like Judaism or an old church like the Roman Catholic Church.
SACHA PFEIFFER According to Sullivan, religion is best left undefined in law because otherwise the courts are in the position of deciding what counts as a good or bad religion, which is an awfully messy theological business. It also misses the point because religious exemption cases are often about much more than spiritual faith and practice.
WINNIFRED SULLIVAN So I do think that religious exemptions become a kind of fevered place where American dysfunction gets litigated and talked about. If you have an example where a single person has said I should be able to do this even though it's illegal. One question you should ask is, well, maybe everybody should be able to do this. Maybe the problem is with the law, not with the person who's objecting. There's a Supreme Court case that says that a Muslim man who was imprisoned had a religious right to wear a beard even though beards were prohibited in the prison. I think there, a good question to ask is: if he can wear a beard, why not those men in the prison who either have medical reasons or even just personal reasons for wanting to wear a beard? You know, why only him? That's an American question to ask.
SACHA PFEIFFER The policing of facial hair in prisons is one kind of American dysfunction, but Sullivan says religious exemptions like those for vaccines can also signal deeper systemic failures in education and health care.
WINNIFRED SULLIVAN Where there is dysfunction in American government, you see religious exemptions coming up. So that's in health care where because we funnel health care through private employers, religious exemptions are raised there. If we had national health care, arguably, that would be very differently organized. So I think that the religious exemption problem or arguing about who we are through arguing about what religion is and what's good religion and what's bad religion, this is something we keep doing. And we're doing it right now because our biggest problem is the pandemic. And there has been so much governmental dysfunction around the managing of the pandemic.
SACHA PFEIFFER I do think it's surprising, actually, that we haven't defined religion, especially when you think how much time gets spent trying to define other complicated constitutional words in the Constitution like 'speech.' Why so much time spent on defining speech, but not religion?
WINNIFRED SULLIVAN I think in the U.S. it's impossible. I've written a great deal about this. I think it's impossible to be coherent. That isn't true in other countries. And I'd like to point out to Americans that in many countries, perhaps most, there is a Ministry of religious affairs. There's an office which decides what a religion is, and we decided not to do that. [chuckles] But if you do do that, you have the advantage of being able to have someone to argue with you about who's an official in charge. And we have no officials in charge of what religion is. Sometimes academics set themselves up in that role, and sometimes judges have referred to theologians or other academics and use them as authorities. But mostly there's no support for that in our constitutional history to pick out one Protestant theologian, for example, and say he's the one who defines what religion is.
SACHA PFEIFFER The religious exemption allowance was encoded into law with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. It says employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements because of, quote, sincerely held religious beliefs. And as Winnifred Sullivan points out, since the Constitution doesn't define what is a religion or not, the final ruling is up to employers. One hospital system in Arkansas saw an uptick of employees asking for a religious exemption from the Covid-19 vaccine on grounds that fetal cell lines were used in its development and testing. So the hospital called their bluff and had them sign a form promising they wouldn't use any other drugs developed or tested using fetal cell lines.
NEWS REPORT The form, which has made the rounds on social media, mentions the vaccine went through the same process as many typical medications such as ibuprofen, antacids... [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, aspirin, Tums, Lipitor, Benadryl, Sudafed and many other household medicines.
NEWS REPORT President and CEO Matt Troup says if someone has those beliefs and they are truly beliefs that are strongly held, there should be no issue. And he hopes some of the staff are more educated about that potential decision. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER If you can't beat them, educate them? Coming up, more on what happens when church and state are at odds with one another. This is On the Media.
SACHA PFEIFFER This is On the Media, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. All the coverage of religious exemptions in response to the vaccine mandate has raised questions about the blurry lines between church and state. And when a person's religious practices collide with the law or when laws based on religious beliefs infringe on people's right. That's when the Supreme Court gets involved.
NEWS REPORT The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday handed a victory to religious conservatives in the fight over reproductive rights, allowing employers to opt out of covering contraception.
NEWS REPORT Last week, a decision in which they said that Montana could not exclude a school from a scholarship program simply because that school was church run. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER And then earlier this month...
NEWS REPORT A majority of abortions in Texas are now banned after the Supreme Court did not rule on an emergency appeal to keep a new law from taking effect.
NEWS REPORT The law, known as Senate Bill 8, prohibits abortions after six weeks. It also allows people to sue abortion providers and people who...[END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Last Sunday, less than two weeks after the court allowed the gutting of Roe v. Wade in Texas, Justice Amy Coney Barrett had this to say about the coverage of recent Supreme Court rulings:
NEWS REPORT The newest Supreme Court Justice says she's worried the public thinks the court is partisan. Justice Amy Coney Barrett says justices must be hyper-vigilant to make sure they're not letting personal biases creep into their decisions. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Her timing raised eyebrows. So did where her words were spoken.
NEWS REPORT Judges are people, too, Barrett said in a lecture hosted by the University of Louisville's McConnell Center. Wait, that McConnell? [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER MSNBC's Chris Hayes.
TUCKER CARLSON Oh, yes, it continues, introduced by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who founded the center and played a key role in pushing through her confirmation in the last days of the Trump administration...[END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER As much as Barrett and the other justices may protest otherwise, there is consensus among some about where today's Supreme Court lies on the political spectrum.
LINDA GREENHOUSE Every justice who's been appointed for the last number of decades by a Republican president has been more conservative than the justice that he replaced.
SACHA PFEIFFER Linda Greenhouse covered the Supreme Court for thirty years at The New York Times. She's now a clinical lecturer and senior research scholar at Yale Law School, and she writes opinion columns for the Times about the Supreme Court and the law.
LINDA GREENHOUSE The current court is generally regarded by scholars and historians of the Supreme Court as the most conservative Supreme Court since the 1930’s.
SACHA PFEIFFER In your column analyzing the last term of the Supreme Court, the column published in July 2021, entitled What the Supreme Court Did for Religion, you invited people who think this was a Supreme Court term in which nothing much happened, to take another look. Because you say that today's Supreme Court justices, or at least some of them, are more deferential to religion than past members of the court. What evidence is there for that?
LINDA GREENHOUSE Well, the major evidence that I'm sure people are aware of was what the court did in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic with regulations that various levels of government had put in limiting public gatherings in one place or another place. And so back in the spring and summer of 2020. First, it was a city in California, then it was the state of Nevada, limited all kinds of public gatherings, including gatherings for worship. And these were challenged as violations of religious freedom of the First Amendment free exercise clause. They came up to the Supreme Court and the court by a vote of five to four, upheld the regulations, rejected the challenge. Chief Justice Roberts was in the majority and so was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So, what happened? On the eve of Thanksgiving, this last Thanksgiving, November 2020, another one of these cases came up. This one was from New York and the court flipped. It was five to four the other way. The restrictions were struck down. Justice Ginsburg, of course, was no longer on the court and the justice who was there in her place, Justice Barrett, voted, as she would not have, and so it came out the other way. The majority seemed to think it was some kind of discrimination against religion to impose on worship services, the same kind of public health restrictions that were being imposed elsewhere.
SACHA PFEIFFER In your latest column for The Times, the headline says, God has no place in Supreme Court opinions. And you say, as the country lurches toward theocracy, we need to call out those who invoke God as their legislative drafting partner.
LINDA GREENHOUSE I have to say, I didn't write the headline. I did write every word of the column. My real aim was at the legislators of the country who are invoking God as the reason why they're shutting down access to abortion. And I quote in the column, Governor Abbott of Texas and Governor Ivey of Alabama, and I thought it was time to sort of call out this religiosity both in the legislative branches of the country and on the Supreme Court.
SACHA PFEIFFER You seem to be saying that as conservative lawmakers see a growing number of conservative judges on the Supreme Court, they're becoming emboldened to push for conservative legislation that will likely get upheld by the Supreme Court. And those lawmakers are also becoming more open about their religious motivations because they feel confident the Supreme Court will have their back, so they don't have to conceal their motives. Is that a fair summary of what you believe?
LINDA GREENHOUSE Yes, that is a fair summary. You know, not so long ago, if a governor or a legislator was endorsing an anti-abortion bill, they would give these kind of phony secular reasons for doing what they were doing and saying abortion hurts women, abortion hurts the medical profession. I mean, all kinds of stuff, and they didn't say what they really meant, which is we oppose abortion because it's against our religious doctrine. And, of course, it's everybody's perfect privilege to think that abortion is against the religious doctrine, but what I'm trying to say is it's not their privilege to enforce their religion on the rest of us. There are some justices on the court who have an agenda. We know that. They're very open about it. I mean, Justice Sam Alito spends a lot of his energy writing opinions that basically invite disaffected members of the public to bring issues to the court. For instance, he's convinced that there's a real threat in the country of discrimination against people who oppose same sex marriage for religious reasons. He says they're going to be subject to discrimination. They're going to be written off as bigots when just a few years ago, it was a majority view to oppose same sex marriage, this kind of thing. I think the public can watch this and say, wait a minute, we thought the court was the passive recipient of the disputes that are roiling the country. Not going out, seeking to foment those kind of disputes so that the Supreme Court has the raw material to enable it to decide the way it wants to decide.
SACHA PFEIFFER And remind us of the denominational breakdown of the court.
LINDA GREENHOUSE Justice Neil Gorsuch is Episcopalian, he was raised Catholic. He attended the same Jesuit boys prep school that Justice Brett Kavanaugh did. So let's say there were seven justices raised Catholic on the Supreme Court, and there are two who were raised Jewish. And you can say, how did this happen? I think it happened, I mean, people can dispute this, but this is my observation, that because Republican presidents have basically pledged to appoint judges and justices who would overturn Roe against Wade, how do you do that? You can ask a potential nominee, by the way, will you promise me that you're going to vote to overturn Roe? So you use proxies, you use the evidence at hand. And I think the proxy have come to be Catholicism.
SACHA PFEIFFER You wrote that you consider religion American society's last taboo. We're afraid, will be accused of being antireligious if we ask whether certain politicians have a religious agenda. So first, I have to ask you, do you really believe religion is our last taboo, even more than money or certain political topics?
LINDA GREENHOUSE I do, actually. I mean, there's really nothing we can't talk about in polite society these days except somebody's religion. And what I had in mind when I wrote that and I didn't have space in the column, even in the virtual space, is not unlimited to recount what happened to Senator Dianne Feinstein back in 2017 when Amy Coney Barrett was nominated by President Trump to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago. Amy Barrett was at that time a professor at Notre Dame, and she had been signing statements and expressing her doctrine based views about abortion and so on. And so Senator Feinstein had the nerve to ask her to tell the public, okay, you obviously have strong beliefs in this area. And if you become a life tenured judge on the federal appeals court, would you be able to put these beliefs aside.
DIANNE FEINSTEIN When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that's of concern. [END CLIP]
LINDA GREENHOUSE And of course, Amy Barrett said she could. But the point is that Dianne Feinstein was just blasted by Republicans and more privately by Democrats. So what happened was during Amy Barrett's confirmation hearing in 2020 for the Supreme Court, the Democrats showing really astonishingly unusual discipline did not ask her any questions about religion. In what was kind of funny in a grim way, is that the Republican senators were primed for the Democrats to ask these questions, and so they had their own questions. Basically, isn't it terrible that people are challenging your religious beliefs? Nobody in the hearing had challenged your religious beliefs. So it was grimly humorous to watch Lindsey Graham and a couple of the others asking her these leading questions that didn't lead anywhere because they didn't come from anything, because the Democrats have been so disciplined in not asking her those questions.
SACHA PFEIFFER The recent Biden order essentially mandated vaccines for employees of companies of a certain size. Inevitably will begin to bring up the issue of religious exemptions as some people try to get out of vaccines by claiming a religious exemption. Is that when you expect to go to the Supreme Court eventually?
LINDA GREENHOUSE It may. Well, I think a lawsuit was filed just yesterday starting this thing off. I would say looking ahead to the coming term to watch that space, because the end of one term in the beginning of another is in a way it could have an artificial dividing line. So the court has already told us that it's going to continue on its road to expansion of the role of religion in our public life. They've accepted a case about state aid to parochial schools from a case from Maine that I think is going to be quite important. So we can assume that the court is finished with its project. One of privileging the role of religion over other rights that our Constitution gives us in our public life.
SACHA PFEIFFER Linda Greenhouse was a long time Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times. She now writes opinion columns for the Times about the Supreme Court and the law.
LINDA GREENHOUSE OK, thank you, Sasha.
SACHA PFEIFFER Coming up, why TV news still has a problem with climate change.
SPEAKER 6 Let's dispense with this idea that, oh, there's not time or room. I think it is a dodge. All it takes is one sentence to say, as Al Roker said from the ground in New Orleans, this is an example of climate change.
SACHA PFEIFFER This is On the Media.
SACHA PFEIFFER This is On the Media, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. It is a fact that the raging fires in California and other parts of the West are due to climate change. So are the droughts, deep freezes and drenching storms that are commonplace events nowadays. Even so, media outlets fail regularly in their coverage of the ongoing climate catastrophe. A few years ago, we wrote one of our breaking news, Consumer Handbooks on how not to cover weather events. For example, phrases like ‘once-in-100 year storm’ are misleading. AnD initial death tolls are often severely undercounted, and the consequences of any storm will keep unfolding long after the camera crews pack up and go home. And most importantly, other than volcanoes and earthquakes, there are no natural disasters. One point that was missing from our handbook that we thought was too obvious to share was that when applicable, journalists should make sure to attribute severe weather to climate change. I guess we shouldn't have assumed.
NEWS REPORT Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana today, battering the southeastern Gulf Coast with an onslaught of water and dangerous winds
NEWS REPORT With winds 150 miles per hour and those reported wind gusts reaching 172 miles per hour and then remaining a category four storm for an astonishing six hours.
NEWS REPORT The fifth strongest hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in recorded history. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Media Matters did a study of TV news in the days leading up to and following Ida's landfall in Louisiana. The data showed that of the 774 total TV segments that ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC ran about Ida during that period, 34 mentioned climate change. Just 4%, and that's causing some reporters to sound the alarm on how we talk about humanity's own role in creating the storms ravaging the world
MARK HERTSGAARD When it comes to that coverage of Hurricane Ida, I confess that I was baffled to see my TV news colleagues leaving climate change out of their stories in 96% of the stories at least.
SACHA PFEIFFER Mark Hertsgaard as the environment correspondent for The Nation magazine, and executive director of Covering Climate Now. It's a global media consortium committed to more and better coverage of the climate story.
MARK HERTSGAARD I do know this, that there are definitely people within the ABC News, the NBC News, the CBS News newsrooms who know perfectly well that Hurricane Ida is an example of climate change at work. And indeed, you saw Al Roker, the NBC News weather expert, say that from the ground in New Orleans,.
AL ROKER Andrea was one last thing. I just want to say we are looking at the results of climate change. Those Gulf waters were about 3 to 5 degrees above average, 88 to 90 degrees. And that is purely climate change. [END CLIP]
MARK HERTSGAARD And Jeff Berardelli at CBS News said the same thing, Ginger Zee at ABC News, but the rest of their news teams did not say that. My hunch is that most of the rest of those journalists in those newsrooms do not have the climate knowledge or the climate confidence to say on the air what their colleagues in the weather unit can say.
SACHA PFEIFFER I can think of all the times as a reporter, I wanted to include more detail in my stories, but in radio you have only three minutes or 60 seconds. And if you're writing a newspaper story, you have only 800 words.
MARK HERTSGAARD Let's dispense with this idea that, oh, there's not time or room. I think it is a dodge. All it takes is one sentence to say, as Al Roker said from the ground in New Orleans, this is an example of climate change.
SACHA PFEIFFER If you believe that part of the problem is we don't have enough specialized newsrooms or reporters with individual expertise in climate science. We may never have that. The media's been decimated. Staffs are shorter, people are often more generalists. So what then? Does there just need to be template language so that if you're covering climate, you can at least have a standardized line that mentions climate change?
MARK HERTSGAARD That is what we try to provide, by the way, covering climate. Now, look, here's how you can make the climate connection in your reports. We have 10 best practices in climate reporting that you can read so that, you know, we say to our colleagues, look, if you're new to the climate beat and you're managing editor tells you at 10 a.m. that you've got to have a story on the air at 6:00, come to us, read this stuff for an hour, and you can go out and report that story and get something on the air that night that you will not be ashamed of. It is really not that difficult. And let's be clear here, the U.S. media has long been at least 10 years behind our counterparts in Europe on this. Back in the 1990’s, the media in Germany, in Britain and France, in Italy, in Spain, none of them were saying climate science is a hoax, like we were saying in the United States. None of them were being both sides, "well, there's some people say it's true and some people say it's not." The science was plenty clear enough in the 1990’s.
SACHA PFEIFFER What would you say to journalists who feel that covering climate change is somehow a partisan style of reporting?
MARK HERTSGAARD I would argue that, in fact, that's the single greatest mistake that the U.S. media has made on the climate story going back 30 years now to when it first appeared on the public agenda. We have treated climate change as a politics story rather than a science story. Where, OK, Republicans say one thing and Democrats say another thing. And if we in the media are going to be fair, we have to reflect both sides. You know, when there was the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, we did not say there are some people who believe that men landed on the moon and other people who don't, and "gee, we don't know. It's up for you, the viewer or the listener to decide." We don't do that with cigarettes, we don't do that with gravity, we don't do that with science.
SACHA PFEIFFER Last month there was a Wall Street Journal opinion piece you may have seen and it didn't deny that climate change is happening, but it said that a lot of liberal media outlets focus on the need to cut back on fossil fuel dependance to try to slow climate change. And this journal op ed argued instead, we should be investing more in withstanding climate change, hardening the grid, better electrical systems, better levees, better flood protection.
MARK HERTSGAARD The Wall Street Journal has been lying about climate change on its editorial pages for 30 years. So I'm really not interested in what they have to say except for this. It is very interesting to see how just like the fossil fuel companies are now changing their tune on climate change after lying for 30 years, The Wall Street Journal is now doing the same thing. They want to look like they are part of the solution. I'm sorry you don't get a vote on this. You lied for 30 years about it, that's a big part of the reason that we're in this emergency today where the climate chaos is exploding around the world. If you want to be part of the solution, let's start by you fessing up and admitting and apologizing for your lies. Then we might take your views seriously. Beyond that, yes, of course, we have to do more to prepare for climate change. I wrote 10 years ago the very first book for the mass market on climate change adaptation. It was called Hot: Living through the Next 50 Years on Earth. Yes, we have to do much, much more on adaptation, but I'm not interested in hearing about that necessity from people who are a big part of the reason for why the problem is as bad as it is today.
SACHA PFEIFFER There are a lot of people these days, as I'm sure you know, who just say they're burnt out by the news. They need a break from the news. It's all bad. Climate change factors into that. It's ominous. It keeps getting worse. Obviously, reporters still have to cover the issue. But how should we be factoring in the news consumer fatigue issue? Should we adjust our reporting at all to keep in mind that people are tired and worn out and discouraged and kind of don't want to hear it anymore?
MARK HERTSGAARD Yes, the news is often pretty dire, but that doesn't mean that we don't report it because we've got to know what the facts are. That said, one of the things we work on the Covering Climate Now is what is known as solutions journalism, which I quickly add is not boosterism. It is not cheerleading, but it is telling the whole story, not just, "oh, my God, there's a climate emergency," but "oh my God, we have all the tools and technologies we need to fix that climate emergency." We have solar and wind power that have plummeted in cost over the last decade. We have stopped building coal fired power plants that overheat the planet. We have a very vibrant youth climate movement that is pushing governments and businesses to do the right thing. There's a lot of good news on the climate as well as the harsher stuff. And I think the best journalism mixes that in a way that is responsible. Again, we're never supposed to be cheerleaders, we're never supposed to be activists, but we do have a civic responsibility to inform the people about the good, the bad, the ugly, but also the possible. And when we do that, I think that the democracy thrives, our audiences like it, and that is going to lead to us having a job going forward [chuckles], which is pretty important to0.
SACHA PFEIFFER Mark, thank you.
MARK HERTSGAARD My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
SACHA PFEIFFER Mark Hertsgaard wrote, Why Won't TV News Say 'Climate Change' for The Guardian and is the executive director of Covering Climate Now. Full disclosure, our producing station, WNYC, was a co-founder of that nonprofit along with several other media organizations.
We heard Hertsgaard say that fossil fuel companies have been lying to the public for decades. In fact, it's well documented that almost as soon as climate change became a scientific reality, they actively downplayed the crisis. But to keep Americans unaware of the growing urgency of our environmental problem, those same companies needed a way to paint themselves as heroes. Advertising allowed fossil fuel companies to sell themselves, not their products, as the good guys. The depictions of billion dollar companies were often folksy, innovative, innocent and brazenly, stereotypically American. The strategy was genius. It's also now the subject of congressional scrutiny. This week, the House Oversight Committee officially launched an investigation into the fossil fuel industry's disinformation efforts and their impact on the climate crisis. Journalist and podcast host Amy Westervelt wanted to go back to the beginning to find out how advertising the media and the fossil fuel industry became so intertwined. Her podcast Drilled, profiled several of the men who invented the public relations business we know today. The following is an excerpt from one of those episodes.
HERB SCHMERTZ If you're going to do the job properly, you have to find unconventional ways to communicate to the public. And it's not a question of convincing the press of anything. It's a question of convincing the public [END CLIP]
AMY WESTERVELT That’s Mobil Oil's legendary PR guy, Herb Schmertz. Schmertz was VP of public affairs for Mobil for decades. Slick and handsome, always with an expensive suit, he was the smartest guy in the room and mostly thought that both journalists and other PR guys were idiots. He ran PR for Mobil Oil from 1969 to 1988 and became a master of media manipulation. Schmertz didn't just focus on placing particular stories he set about fundamentally changing the relationship between corporations and the media. To Schmertz, the press was more of an obstacle between him and the public or Mobil and policy makers.
HERB SCHMERTZ And to do the job properly, you have to really go around the press or beyond the press or against the press to get a story out so that the public focuses on it, not the press. If you're just going to limit yourself to getting the press to focus on it, you're not doing the entire job. [END CLIP]
AMY WESTERVELT Schmertz is the guy who really turned media into another propaganda tool for the fossil fuel industry. He invented the advertorial for a start. He also invented issue advertising, which is now the only type of advertising the oil industry does. You'd think all they do is farm algae and research carbon capture and worry about climate change if you only paid attention to their ads.
EXXON MOBIL ADVERT Energy is a complex challenge. People want power and power plants have more than a third of energy related carbon emissions. The challenge is to capture the emissions before they're released into the atmosphere. Exxon Mobil.... [END CLIP]
AMY WESTERVELT Schmertz, also bullied journalists into covering big oil’s side of the story, and he encouraged his peers to do the same. Which, sadly, worked really well, and he lobbied for corporate First Amendment rights and against any media regulations that would make it harder for him to use the press as a tool. Known during his heyday for dapper suits, cigars and generally being something of a dandy. For the first half of his life, Herb Schmertz seemed more destined to be secretary of labor than a famous PR guy. After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1955, Schmertz was drafted into the Army. The Vietnam War was just beginning, given his law background, Schmertz was sent straight to work in counterintelligence in Washington, D.C. After 2 years there, it was back to law for Schmerts. Labor law, following in the footsteps of his older brother. In 1960, Schmertz signed on to work for JFK's campaign.
[CLIP OF JFK AD PLAYS, CHORUS SINGS "KENNEDY" REPEATEDLY]
AMY WESTERVELT He was a Democrat, an idealist, and he helped the campaign with voter registration and reaching out to special groups. Including labor and various ethnic communities in New York. When he went to work for Mobil, commerce is actually still working in labor. He handled the company's labor relations for 5 years, but his background in law and political campaigning, combined with his relationships with various labor unions, made Schmertz an even greater, if unexpected, fit for the company's public affairs office. By this point, 1969, Mobil's CEO was a man named Rawleigh Warner. Warner wanted Mobil, which always seemed to be playing catch up to Exxon, to be more of a visible player in the industry. Schmertz had a lot of ideas on that front, starting with humanizing Mobil. Giving the company a personality, complete with ideas that needed to be shared. Here's Schmertz much later in life, describing that strategy.
HERB SCHMERTZ As a personality where we believe very strongly about the importance of public policy. We believe fervently that as custodians of vast resources and one that we were not doing our job if we did not participate in the marketplace of ideas [END CLIP]
AMY WESTERVELT To get all the facets of the corporation's personality across to the public, Schmertz used the tools he's come to be known for. The issue ad and the advertorial. The latter was born in 1970, when the New York Times opened up its op-ed pages to advertising for the first time. Schmertz wanted Mobil's ad to be just as smart and provocative as any editorial that might appear in the section otherwise. He hired legit writers to write them and eventually ran them every week for decades. They ran the gamut from squawking about taxes, to complaining about the media, to unexpected takes in favor of public transit. Schmertz talked about one of his advertorials on the PBS show The Open Mind in 1980.
DAVE Herb, thanks for joining me today.
HERB SCHMERTZ A great pleasure to be here Dave.
DAVE I want to turn as quickly as possible to a new fairy tale, the Mobil ad or op ed piece or editorial, call it what you will ...
HERB SCHMERTZ We call them, pamphlets,.
DAVE Pamphlets, but they appear in newspapers.
HERB SCHMERTZ Yes. [END CLIP]
AMY WESTERVELT A new kind of fairy tale was the title of Schmertz's latest advertorial, and it criticized PBS for running a film that stereotyped Saudi Arabians. It was, of course, in Mobil's interest to be seen as a friend and staunch defender of Saudi Arabia. At this point in time in particular, the company was increasing its profits mainly by expanding its development and production in Saudi Arabia.
DAVE At the end, your conclusion in the ad, wehope that the management of the Public Broadcasting Service will review its decision to run this film. Meaning you hoped they wouldn't run it.
HERB SCHMERTZ Well not necessarily [OVERTALK]
DAVE ...and exercise responsible judgment in the light of what is in the best interest of the United States.
HERB SCHMERTZ Right
DAVE Do you think they did exercise responsible judgment?
HERB SCHMERTZ I think they did a better job after this ad period than they otherwise would have, but they could have done substantially more [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Driven, at least in part by this advertorial, PBS aired a panel discussion following that film where Mobil's position was represented alongside other voices.
AMY WESTERVELT In various documents and speeches, Schmertz referred to how they helped shape the discourse on key issues to the company and established mobile as the thinking man's oil company. In a long buried briefing that we found called the Corporations and the First Amendment that Schmertz wrote for the American Management Association in 1978, he explains why he chose The New York Times for these ads. He writes, quote, The Times was chosen because it is published in the nation's leading population communications and business center. Because it has a highly intelligent, vocal, sophisticated readership and because it reaches legislators and other government officials. In short, it was the paper most likely to reach the largest number of opinion leaders and decision makers. Schmertz also talks about the program as a great success, in this briefing. "Mobil found that the medium worked," he writes. "The messages stimulated discussion among influentials on both sides of the issue. Exactly what the company had set out to do." But it turns out that the result of placing all those ads was quite different from simply stimulating discussion, not just in terms of reaching a large audience of readers, but also in shaping the Times his own coverage of these issues.
KERT DAVIES They talk about having influence The New York Times editorial viewpoints.
SACHA PFEIFFER Kert Davies is the founder and director of the Climate Investigation Center, a nonprofit watchdog group that focuses on influence around energy and environmental policy. They uncovered an internal marketing report from 1982 in which Mobil's marketing and PR team was reporting to the company's leadership about how these advertorials had done.
KERT DAVIES The document says, quote, our analysis shows that the Times has altered or significantly softened its viewpoints on conservation, moving from a total reliance on conservation to advocating increased production incentives to solve the supply shortage on monopoly and divestiture. Moving from approving the breakup of the oil companies to opposing divestiture. Moving from advocating strict environmental safeguards to suggesting more relaxed controls on offshore drilling. Moving from valuing environmental concerns at the expense of exploration and development, to urging accelerated offshore drilling. So they are tallying how they have affected the viewpoints of The New York Times on conservation, monopoly and divestiture. Decontrol, natural gas, coal, offshore drilling, all things that they had written op eds on.
GEOFFREY SUPRAN And they've been open and forthright about this, even in some of the editorials themselves.
SACHA PFEIFFER Harvard science historian Geoffrey Supran has studied these advertorials at length.
GEOFFREY SUPRAN No doubt the fossil fuel industry has been very effective at embedding themselves into our culture and our society and our media in an increasingly insidious way that makes it hard to discern when you are being advertised to, versus simply being reprogrammed to see the world and society in a slightly different way.
AMY WESTERVELT Mobil was convinced enough that its advertorial strategy worked, to keep running them weekly in the Times for decades. It was even a program that Exxon kept going after it acquired Mobil.
GEOFFREY SUPRAN They've taken out about one in four of all the advertorials that have ever appeared on the op ed page of The New York Times.
AMY WESTERVELT He said one in four. So 25 percent of all advertorials that have ever run in the New York Times op ed pages were commissioned by Mobil or ExxonMobil.
GEOFFREY SUPRAN Political scientists studying these efforts have described this campaign as towering over all other competitors in its volume and expense.
AMY WESTERVELT ExxonMobil doesn't run its advertorials anymore, but it's moved on to the latest iteration. Campaigns made by The New York Times itself. It's not the newsroom, it's the brand studio that The New York Times created, but still, it's the same company that puts out The New York Times newspaper – making oil companies ads for them. See if you can spot a bit of the Schmertz magic here. In 1978, he said the goal of Mobil's advertorial campaigns was to, quote, stimulate discussion among influentials. In 2020, The New York Times brand studio website's tagline is, quote, stories that influenced the influential. Here's a campaign they did for ExxonMobil last year. Highlighting the company's algae biofuel program.
ALGAE BIOFUEL ADVERT These vibrant green dots, microscopic living organisms are algae. Look closely, algae grows almost everywhere from murky ponds. [END CLIP]
AMY WESTERVELT Again, the brand studio is separate from the newsroom. There's a definite firewall between advertising and editorial. And every time I talk about these campaigns, New York Times reporters bristle at the idea that they are being accused of being manipulated or influenced by industry. Whether they are or aren't influenced is not really the point. It's not even the goal of these campaigns. The goal is to reach and influence certain types of readers and to wrap the industry's messages in the cloak of credibility provided by The New York Times or The Washington Post, which also does this. Last year, The Post ran a series of stories that its brand studio created for the American Petroleum Institute, all about how, quote, natural gas and oil are helping to deliver a sustainable fuel mix. These campaigns are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for newspapers at a time when the business model for journalism has never been more strained. And when you ask for proposals on them, as I did, ad sales, people start offering all kinds of things. You could place content they write for you in the climate section. You can peg it two key words like climate change and make sure it's a suggested next read on any related news story. Influence doesn't look like an oil tycoon in a top hat showing up at your desk to twirl his mustache and tell you to spike a story. It looks like readers being fed a bunch of oil propaganda before, after and right next to your legit climate reporting. We have Herb Schmertz to thank for that.
SACHA PFEIFFER That was an excerpt from the Mad Men season of Drilled, an Investigated podcast about climate change hosted by Amy Westervelt.
That's it for this week's show on the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz with help from Juwayriah Wright. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen. Our engineer this week was Adriene Lilly. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios, Brooke Gladstone will be back in two weeks. I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.