BOB: The first two official candidates for president have thrown their hats into the ring, which is dangerous because their scalps are now exposed to deadly ultraviolet rays. But both Republican Senators, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, have said they don't believe that bologna anyway. Their on the record climate change denialists, raising some journalistic challenges for the coming campaign. Here's Ted Cruz last month, on late night with Seth Meyers.
Cruz: Satellite data demonstrates for the last seventeen years, there's been zero warming, none whatsoever. It's why -- you remember how it used to be called, global warming, and then magically the theory changed to climate change?
Cruz: The reason is it wasn't warming, But the computer models still say it is, except the satellite shows it's not.
BOB: Wait, what? Cruz's claim sounded fishy to Washington Post energy and environment reporter, Chris Mooney.
ROBERTS: Mooney actually called up one of the guys who does those satellite measurements and said, 'you know does this interpretation of your work, sound right to you?' And the guy said, 'no, of course, not. That's ridiculous.
BOB: That's David Roberts, a staff writer for the environmental news site, Grist dot org. When a candidate cites science to validate climate change denials, Roberts says, one journalistic tactic is to go to the source and see if the science is being warped. But that doesn't happy so often. As NYU media critic, Jay Rosen recently blogged, denialists views are often reported just like any other campaign position, with no attempt to compare them to, you know, reality. Which David Roberts agrees is a dereliction of journalistic duty.
ROBERTS: At the very least, just note that Ted Cruz is wrong about this. As a journalist, if you're telling your audience over and over again that a politician is lying, at some point the audience has to care and respond, especially in US campaign journalism. If you become the guy or gal who is always pestering people about climate change, and asking these annoying followups, pushing and pushing and pushing, pretty soon you're going to develop a reputation as a crusader. At a certain point as a journalist, you need outside events to push climate onto the agenda. And then you can respond. But asking journalists to be the ones that push it onto the agenda, might be sort of overloading journalists with more responsibility than they can handle.
BOB: Well, it's a structural conflict, you're describing. The journalist's responsibility to be advocates of truth, versus the anathema to most American journalists at least, to be seen as an advocate for a point of view or a political position.
ROBERTS: You know, if you're a journalist, how do you treat a candidate who says that the UN through agenda 21 is trying to establish world government via building bike paths in small American towns? That's ridiculous too. Or death panels in Obamacare. Or what about the theory put forward by Dick Cheney, one of the most prominent Republicans in the world. That Obama's foreign policy is not merely weakening American but that Obama has a secret plan deliberately to weaken and destroy america because of his whatever Kenyan colonialist -- I mean, you know, these things are all transparently absurd. But they're also very widely believed in one political party and not the other, so how do you go around as a journalist, saying, 'these things are transparently absurd,' without appearing to be siding with one of the political parties?
BOB: You know, Jay Rosen suggested one - I think - kind of cynical option, I think he thinks it's cynical as well. He calls it savvy analysis, I call it the Politico approach. And that is to play it all as a horse race story, as a strategy and tactic story, as opposed to facing the underlying reality.
ROBERTS: I mean, even more stories like that about climate would be better than no stories about climate, right? But the problem is that climate doesn't even really give good material for that kind of story. Cause the political analysis is simple. If you're on the right, you deny it and if you're on the left, you have to notionally support doing something about it. It's a clean polarized issue so there aren't even good strategies stories. that's been true for a while now I do think, it's actually changing. I do think climate is starting to sort of organically push itself into the news more often now. This is what environmentalists have been waiting for for decades. The interesting political question now, and this I think is an interesting question for journalist too, what do you do if republicans just don't want to talk about the science at all, refused discuss it and just focus on saying that any regulations are going to destroy the economy, which is much more familiar ground for them.
BOB: Ted Cruz isn't a scientist and I'm not an economist, I know Paul Krugman has spittle flying from his mouth, when that argument is broached, because he says, there's absoultely no evidence, none whatsoever. That any previous government regulation, and clean air and clean water, you know have ever created any kind of doom or even harm to the economy.
ROBERTS: This is, I think, actually a journalistic failing that is in some ways longer standing and more corrosive than whatever journalistic failings you have around climate science, which is you know, as long as I've been paying attention, every time a new regulation is proposed, literally every time, conservatives and business say it's going to destroy the economy, we're going to have to close a bunch of businesses, it's going to cause black outs, or reliability problems. And then the regulation is passed and the economy continues growing, and the air gets cleaner and people get sick less and the economic doom never materializes. But then, you move to the next episode, a new regulation is proposed, they say the same thing, and journalists never seem to let that record of error affect the way they judge the new question. It's as though every time we face this question, we're starting all over again and I think it's just because there's never consensus in economics the way there is in physical sciences. So it's always he said, she said. For ever and ever, amen.
BOB: And therefore, I propose another tact journalists could take, which also hinges on a conservative article of faith. And that is when a candidate denies climate change or says `it's too expensive to address. You could say, is it the President's primary role to protect the American public from all threats foreign and domestic? Why of course it is. Well, then why are you against regulated fossil fuels, the burning of which will kill our children's children and make America uninhabitable.
ROBERTS: What about the Pentagon? What about the military? I mean the Pentagon now has released several reports saying that climate change is going to be the number one driver of resource conflicts and forced migrations around the world. And that a destabilized world is going to be dangerous for America and therefore it is a national security imperative to address this. At a certain point you get - they call it, epistemic closure, You're just so convinced of your position that there is no such thing as counter evidence and I think a lot of conservatives are just so dug in on this, I honestly don't know what could shift it.
BOB: I guess about the time the east river is part of the ocean, that might do the trick.
ROBERTS: Well, it's funny, you know, one of the states that is most directly and immediately threatened by climate change is Florida. And as a matter of fact, sea levels have already risen enough that Miami is being regularly partially flooded now. And so there's this question of, what's Miami going to do about it. But you know, Florida has a republican governor that has more or less forbidden state officials from talking about climate. And so literally you're going to see a state go under water, even as it flails in denial like this. And you sort of have to wonder, like what amount of evidence will do it?
BOB: So it's like the black knight, David, from Monty Python.
ROBERTS: It's only a flesh wound, right?
BOB: It's only a flesh wound. David, thank you so much.
ROBERTS: Thank you Bob.
BOB: David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist dot org. That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Kasia Mihaylovic and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Jenna Kagel. And our show was edited by our executive producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Greg Rippin.
Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.