The following is an abridged version of remarks by TV newsman Bill Moyers, as prepared for delivery at the Covering Climate Now conference co-sponsored by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review on April 30, 2019.
I have been asked to bring this gathering to a close by summing up how we can do better at covering the possible “collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world,” to quote the noted environmentalist David Attenborough, speaking at the recent United Nations climate summit in Poland.
I don’t come with a silver bullet. And I’m no expert on the topic. Like you, I am just a journalist whose craft calls for us to explain things we don’t understand. There’s so much I don’t understand that journalism became my continuing course in adult education. The subjects were so fascinating, and the work so fulfilling, that I kept at it “full speed ahead” for half a century, until two years ago, at the age of 83, I yielded finally to the side effects of a long life and retired (more or less). This is the first opportunity I have had since then to be with so many kindred spirits of journalism, and the camaraderie reminds me how much I have missed your company.
Many of us have recognized that our coverage of global warming has fallen short. There’s been some excellent reporting by independent journalists and by enterprising reporters and photographers from legacy newspapers and other news outlets. But the Goliaths of the US news media, those with the biggest amplifiers—the corporate broadcast networks—have been shamelessly AWOL, despite their extraordinary profits. The combined coverage of climate change by the three major networks and Fox fell from just 260 minutes in 2017 to a mere 142 minutes in 20l8—a drop of 45 percent, reported the watchdog group Media Matters.
Meanwhile, about 1,300 communities across the United States have totally lost news coverage, many from newspaper mergers and closures, according to the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism. Hundreds of others are still standing only as “ghost newspapers.” They no longer have resources for even local reporting, much less for climate change. “Online news sites, as well as some TV newsrooms, are working hard to keep local reporting alive, but these are taking root far more slowly than newspapers are dying,” observes Tom Stites of Poynter in a report about the study. And, alas, many of the news outlets that are still around have ignored or misreported the climate story and failed to counter the tsunami of deceptive propaganda unleashed by fossil-fuel companies and the mercenaries, ideologues, and politicians who do their bidding.
“We journalists have perhaps our last chance to help people grasp the magnitude of the threat. ”
But events educate, experience instructs, and so much destructive behavior has been caused by climate disruption that more Americans today than ever seem hungry to know what’s causing it, what’s coming and what can be done about it. We journalists have perhaps our last chance to help people grasp the magnitude of the threat. My friend and journalist-turned-citizen-activist Bill McKibben told me last week that because of the looming possibility of extinction, and in response to it from the emerging leadership among young people, we have reached a ‘climate moment’ with real momentum, and our challenge as we go forward is to dramatically change the zeitgeist—“to lock in and consolidate public opinion that’s finally beginning to come into focus.”
So, while I did not come with a silver bullet—there’s no such thing—I do want to share a couple of stories that might help us respond to this daunting task.
I’ll begin with how I first heard of global warming—before many of you in this room were born. It was 54 years ago, early in 1965, at the White House. Before I became President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary (“over my dead body,” I might add,) I was his special assistant coordinating domestic policy. One day, two members of the president’s science-advisory committee came by the office. One of them was the famous oceanographer, Roger Revelle. Famous because only a few years earlier he had shaken up the prevailing consensus that the oceans were massive enough to soak up any amount of excess of carbon released on earth. Not so, Revelle discovered; the peculiar chemistry of sea water actually prevents this from happening.
Now, he said, humans have begun a “vast geophysical experiment.” We were about to burn, within a few generations, the fossil fuels that had slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years. Burning so much oil, gas, and coal would release massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it would trap heat that otherwise would escape into space. Earth’s temperature could rise, causing polar ice to melt and sea levels to rise, flooding the earth’s coastal regions.
President Johnson took scientists seriously; as vice president, he had been chosen by President Kennedy to chair the intergovernmental committee overseeing NASA’s charge to put a man on the moon. So Revelle and his colleagues got the green light, and by the fall of 1965 they produced the first official report to any government anywhere on the possible threat to humanity from rising CO2 levels. On November 6, Lyndon Johnson became the first president to mention the threat in a message to Congress.
President Johnson urged us to circulate the report widely throughout the government and to the public, despite its controversial emphasis on the need for “economic incentives” to discourage pollution, including—shudder!—taxes levied against polluters.
This was in 1965! Nearly six decades ago! The future in plain sight.
“Journalists must figure out how to cover [the climate crisis] as if life on Earth depends on it, which it does.”
But we failed the moment. One year later, largely preoccupied with the war in Vietnam, the president grew distracted, budgets for other priorities were squeezed, and the nation was fast polarizing. We flunked that first chance to confront global warming. Our failure to act—and the failure of administrations that followed us—metastasized into the crisis of today, the crisis journalists must figure out how to cover as if life on Earth depends on it, which it does.
Which brings me to the second story I hope will be helpful in confronting this daunting challenge.
It’s about the Murrow Boys: Edward R. Murrow and the young men, none of them yet famous, Murrow hired to staff CBS Radio in Europe on the eve of the Second World War.
I was a kid of about six in Marshall, Texas, when my parents bought a used console radio so they could listen to Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches and I could follow the Saturday serials—especially “The Green Hornet,” my favorite masked vigilante. That’s how we discovered the Murrow Boys, by listening to the news every evening on CBS. Although I didn’t yet know what to make of the events being reported, I showed up faithfully to sit on the floor between my parents in their chairs, all of us listening together.
I can still hear the voices coming from that stained brown console in the corner of our living room; still see the pictures their words painted in my mind’s eye. Their names, hardly known when they started, became hallowed in the annals of journalism. Murrow of course, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer, Larry LeSeuer, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, William Randall Downs, Richard C. Hottelet, Winston Burdett, Cecil Brown, Thomas Grandin, and the one woman among them, Mary Marvin Breckinridge. You can read about them in The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism, a superb book by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.
These reporters spread across Europe as the “phony war” of 1939–40 played out, much like the slow-motion catastrophe of global warming plays out in our time. They saw the threat posed by the Nazis, and they struggled to get the attention of an American public back home exhausted and drained by the Great Depression.
In September of 1939, with Europe hours away from going up in flames, the powers at CBS in New York ordered Murrow and Shirer to feature an entertainment broadcast spotlighting dance music from nightspots in London, Paris, and Hamburg. Here’s the account from Cloud and Olson:
They say there’s so much bad news out of Europe, they want some good news,” Murrow [in London] snapped to Shirer [in Berlin] over the phone. The show, scheduled to be broadcast just as Germany was about to rape Poland, would be called ‘Europe Dances’ … Finally, Murrow decreed, “The hell with those bastards in New York. It may cost us our jobs, but we’re just not going to do it.
And they didn’t. They defied the bosses—and gave CBS one of the biggest stories of the 20th century, the invasion of Poland.
And still the powers in New York resisted. Through the rest of 1939 and into the spring of 1940, Hitler hunched on the borders of France and the Low Countries, his Panzers idling, poised to strike. Shirer fumed, “My God! Here was the old continent on the brink of war…and the network was most reluctant to provide five minutes a day from here to report it.” Just as the networks and cable channels provide practically no coverage today of global warming.
In time I would meet Ed Murrow and follow him as senior correspondent for the documentary series he created after the war with Fred Friendly. Eric Sevareid became a mentor, before and after I succeeded him as commentator on The CBS Evening News. Howard K. Smith and I frequently corresponded and traded books. And I had casual conversations with Charles Collingwood at the little French café he frequented near our office on West 57th street. These men rarely talked details of the past. But I will never forget my debt as a journalist to their work, or what they did for our country.
Never in my own long career have I been as tested as they were. Or as you will be. Our own global warming “phony war” is over. The hot war is here.
My colleague and co-writer, Glenn Scherer, compares global disruption to a repeat hit-and-run driver: anonymous, deadly, and requiring tireless investigation to identify the perpetrator. There are long stretches of nothing, then suddenly Houston is inundated and Paradise burns. San Juan blows away and salt water creeps into the subways of New York. The networks put their reporters out in raincoats or standing behind police barriers as flames consume far hills. Yet we rarely hear the words “global warming” or “climate disruption” in their reports. The big backstory of rising CO2 levels, escalating drought, collateral damage, cause and effect, and politicians on the take from fossil-fuel companies? Forget all that. Not good for ratings, say network executives.
But last October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientifically conservative body, gave us 12 years to make massive changes to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions 45 percent below 2010 levels and to net zero by 2050. On his indispensable site, TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt writes that humanity is now on a suicide watch.
Soon, some of you will be traveling to the ends of the earth to report on this Great Disruption. To Indonesia, where oil-palm growers and commodities companies are stripping away forests vital to carbon storage. To the Amazon, where President Bolsonaro’s government plans to open indigenous reserves to industrial exploitation, threatening the lungs of the Earth. To India, where President Modi pretends to be an environmentalist even as he embraces destructive development. To China, where President Xi’s Belt and Road initiative, the biggest transportation-infrastructure program in the history of the world, threatens disaster for earth systems. You will go to the Arctic and the Antarctic to report on melting ice, and to the shores of African cities, Pacific atolls, and poor Miami neighborhoods being swallowed by rising oceans. And to Nebraska, and Iowa, and Kansas, and Missouri, where this spring’s crop is despair as farmers and their families grieve their losses.
And some of you will go to Washington, to report on the madness—yes, I said madness—of a US government that scorns reality as fake news, denies the truths of nature, and embraces a theocratic theology that welcomes catastrophe as a sign of the returning Messiah.
Madness! Superstition! Destruction and death.
Can we get this story right? Can we tell it whole? Can we connect the dots and inspire people with the possibility of change?
What’s journalism for? Really, in the war, what was journalism for, except to awaken the world to the catastrophe looming ahead of it?
Here’s the good news: While describing David Wallace-Wells’s stunning new book The Uninhabitable Earth as a remorseless, near-unbearable account of what we are doing to our planet, The New York Times reports it also offers hope. Wallace-Wells says that “We have all the tools we need…to aggressively phase out dirty energy…”; [cut] global emissions…[and] scrub carbon from the atmosphere…. [There are] ‘obvious’ and ‘available,’ [if costly,] solutions.”
What we need, he adds, is the “acceptance of responsibility.”
Our responsibility as journalists is to tell the story so people get it.
I wish I could go there with you to tell it. This is a very exciting time for journalism, despite our beleaguered newsrooms, our diminished ranks, and the power arrayed against truth. And I really do think this project (Covering Climate Now) could be the beginning of our redemption.
Over my long life I’ve seen things change quickly. After the Birmingham bombing. After Selma. Vietnam. Nixon and Watergate. The Berlin Wall. The pendulum can swing suddenly. The public can change its mind.
Which brings us back to the Murrow Boys. Late 1940. The start of the Blitz, with bombs blasting London to bits. A Gallup poll that September found that a mere 16 percent of Americans supported sending US aid to beleaguered Britain. Olson and Cloud tell us that, “One month later, as bombs fell on London, and Murrow and the Boys brought the reality of it into American living rooms, 52 percent thought more aid should be sent.”
Americans had taken one step toward defeating fascism, and the Murrow Boys helped us take it. Of course, the journalists were only part of the cast, and I don’t want to overrate their importance. But they were there. On the right side. At the right time. In the right way—reporting on the biggest story of all, the fight for freedom. For life itself.
Reporting the truth is always the basis for any moral authority we can claim as journalists. Reporting the truth about climate disruption, and its solutions, could be contagious. Our gathering today could be a turning point for American journalism.
With no silver bullet, what do we do? We cooperate as kindred spirits on a mission of public service. We create partnerships to share resources. We challenge media owners and investors to act in the public interest. We keep the whole picture in our heads—how melting ice sheets in the Arctic can create devastation in the Midwest—and connect the dots for our readers, viewers, and listeners. We look every day at photographs of our children and grandchildren, to be reminded of the stakes. And we tell the liars, deniers, and do-nothings to shove off: There’s no future in naysaying.
As some of you know, I am president of the Schumann Media Center, a small nonprofit devoted to the support of independent journalism. The Center is the progeny of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, founded in Montclair, NJ, in l961 by a civic-minded couple whose offspring were brought up with a strong commitment to democratic values. Their support of my journalism on public television led us to join forces, which is how I became president of the foundation and now of the center. The family resolved to give away their wealth in their lifetime, and we are just about there; our resources are modest now, and we’re almost done.
One of our last major gifts will be a million dollars to launch the Covering Climate Now project of Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation and to get the project through the first year. Other foundations and individual philanthropists will then have to step up to the challenge, and I believe they will.
This has been a good day of talking and thinking—now must come action. My colleagues at the Schumann Media Center wish all of you and all of those you represent—in newspapers, radio stations, local news, and major corporations—we wish all of you, because it will take all of you, every success.
I am grateful to the veteran environmental journalist Glenn Scherer for the research and ideas he contributed to this speech. His own impressive work can be found at MongaBay.org.