March 9th, 2011
I knew I’d heard the Climategate story before, it just took a while to finally make the connection. The basic story is, “Big, suspenseful media event produces huge audience, but in the ends everyone is forced to admit, ‘There’s nothing here.'” But it doesn’t matter because the event itself becomes the story and produces that most cherished resource in today’s society — ATTENTION!
LOTTA NADA. Geraldo Rivera held the world in suspense in 1986 as he blew open the doors of Al Capone’s vault and found … nuttin’. Same thing happened with the stolen emails of climate scientists in 2009, which proved to be smoking gunless.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE BRING YOU … NOTHING?
Two people who know how to grab the attention of the American public are Geraldo Rivera, and whoever masterminded the theft of emails at the center of the 2009 Climategate story. In both cases they succeeded wildly with capturing the attention of the mass media. Geraldo’s 1986 much-hyped opening of a vault that supposedly belonged to Al Capone produced, at the time, the highest ratings ever for a television special. Similarly, in 2009 the Climategate theft of climate scientists’ emails thrust the climate skeptic’s agenda into the media limelight like few could have ever imagined. It seemed to legitimize the skeptics and put an end to the “there is no debate” slogan of the environmental crowd.
In my book I cited repeatedly Richard Lanham’s book, “The Economics of Attention,” in which he made the point that today we live in an “attention economy,” in which the most sought-after resource is the attention of others. If you accept that, then you can see both Geraldo’s big nothing and the Climategate big nothing were both huge successes pulled off masterfully by skilled communicators.
What you can also see is they had the same ending, which was an absence of trophies.
Geraldo had envisioned a vault filled with stacks of aged currency, cases of bootlegged whiskey, and mementos of an era gone by. All he got in the end was a couple of empty gin bottles. Similarly, the perpetrators of Climategate must have had visions of finding the ultimate “smoking gun” in the roughly 1,500 emails they pilfered. But all they got in the end was a couple of lousy phrases: “Statistical trick” and “hide the decline.”
And just as Geraldo tried for a half a moment to pretend the gin bottles were a significant trophy — “Al Capone’s lips might have touched the mouth of this bottle!” — the spinners of the Climategate story tried to imply that “trick” and “hide” were the signs of big time deceit. Eventually both looked kinda foolish. Geraldo gave up on his gin bottles, and most climate skeptics were eventually forced to realize they didn’t find anything close to what they had hoped for.
What would have been a “smoking gun” in the Climategate emails? Maybe something like a scientist saying, “Now that we’ve changed all the data …” But they found nothing of the sort. And the public eventually sensed this — that the story was much more about the act of stealing emails than about what the emails said.
HIGH WATER MARKS: THE COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE FOR INTELLIGENT DESIGN, CLIMATEGATE FOR SKEPTICS
I have a feeling Climategate will prove to be the finest moment for the climate skeptics in the same way that the intelligent design movement hit their high point in 2005. The intelligent designers exceeded their wildest expectations when they found their story on the cover of Time magazine (they might have popped champagne corks, except they presumably didn’t since they are all supposed to be so pious). But their joy didn’t last long. In December of that year their entire agenda was smashed to pieces at the hands of the Republican Bush-appointed federal judge, John Jones. He handed down a 137 page ruling in the Dover, Pennsylvania trial that so thoroughly kicked the legs out from under their movement that they never recovered. Today intelligent design is hardly even mentioned in the media. Sucks to have your dreams shattered.
Same thing is in the cards for the skeptics. Climategate will probably prove to be their high water mark. All you have to do is spend two weeks in Norway to see the future, as I did in January. The idea of climate skeptics there is laughable. Same thing will happen here. Climategate will take it’s place alongside Al Capone’s Vault and some day Fox News will do a special on both hosted by their man Geraldo and titled, “Big Busts!”