The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Cowboys and Indians, Part 3


This is the final post in a three-part series on the Reject and Protect protest again the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in April. The first post described what it was like to be at one of the events of the protest, the second post explained who had staged the protest and why, and this one addresses the media response to this and other Keystone protests.

Part of the reason to stage a protest is always to get media attention for the cause. Rightly or wrongly, perceived public opinion has a big influence on how most of us see the world, and we infer public option largely through the public media. If a tree falls in the forest and doesn’t make the evening news, does anyone care? Maybe not. With that in mind, I was interested to see whether and how the news media covered the Reject and Protest pipeline protest a few weeks ago.

The short answer? Not badly, considering the event was relatively small (perhaps a thousand or so people on Saturday, the day I was there).

The main television news shows did not cover the event, at least not in my neck of the woods, nor did our local newspapers carry the story. It did not make the national headlines. Nevertheless, some impressive organizations, from Fox News to the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera, have at least mentioned the protest. News blogs associated with ABC and NBC covered the story briefly but fairly, and the event also received coverage through various activist sites and more openly editorial TV shows.

Notably missing in all of this is the PBS Newshour, which has not covered any of the Keystone protests this year, and there have been some major ones. Given their reputation for liberal sympathies (which may or may not be deserved),this is surprising. Could there be something unethical going on? It’s an important question to ask, but in this case the answer seems to be no.

PBS has indeed been accused of climate-denial sympathies in the past, typically for giving equal time to climate change deniers when they cover climate issues. Part of the problem is that David Koch has served on the boards of two member stations and is a major donor. These stations have given the appearance of pulling or altering programs in deference to the Kock brothers’ interests. The Kochs have made much of their fortune from the oil industry and are major funders of the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial organization. Michael Getler, the PBS Ombudsmen, has responded to these allegations at length, and says that there is no evidence that David Koch was involved in any of the relevant editorial decisions.

More importantly, Mr. Getler points out that PBS is a program distribution body only and makes no editorial decisions at all. Member stations are responsible for producing and acquiring programming. That means that while it is possible for a member station to succumb to a conflict of interest (though obviously they shouldn’t), PBS as a whole simply does not have the authority. That means that if the entity that actually produces the Newshour has no conflict of interest then a possible ethical problem exists elsewhere in the system is irrelevant.

As it turns out, PBS Newshour is not produced by any PBS member station, but rather by McNeal/Lehrer Productions, an entity that is in turn largely (but not wholly) owned by Liberty Media Corporation, which is a communications investment company, not an oil company. Could a conflict exist anyway? Yes, of course. Following money around is notoriously difficult and I have not dug very deeply. But lots of things are possible, that doesn’t mean there is any good reason to assert that they are. Let’s not get overly cynical at the expense of anyone’s good name.

In any case, the Newshour does, in fact, cover some climate-related stories very well and has discussed the Keystone pipeline several times over the years. They just haven’t been covering the protests. They cannot cover all possible issues, because of space limitations. The different between them and the commercial news agencies may simply be that the Newshour covers its stories at much more depth and therefor does not have the time to do as many of them. PBS does not necessarily place a lower priority on the protests than its competitors do.

It is possible that mainstream journalists are honestly confused about how to handle climate-related issues. Their training as journalists may predispose them to respect anyone who asserts an opinion on anything. They might not be prepared to identify the difference between the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Heartland Institute.

So, obviously, we need to do more outreach in order to teach journalists and other public figures that climate change is of critical importance. And, in the meantime, the protests may simply have to engage in more spectacle in order to get attention. Like, for example, they could try having cowboys and Indians in feather headdresses set up tipis on the National Mall and ride horses through Washington DC.

Oh, wait; they just did that.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

2 thoughts on “Cowboys and Indians, Part 3

  1. Pingback: They Actually Said It! | The Climate Emergency

  2. Pingback: Sticking Together for the Climate | The Climate Emergency

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