February 15th, 2010
Two years ago we had a great screening of my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” at Penn State University which featured among the post-screening panel discussion members climatology professor Mike Mann. Unlike some climate scientists two years ago who were still trying to follow Gore’s attempt to put on blinders and pretend there was no significant climate skeptic movement, Mike was very realistic. He said he enjoyed the movie and felt the focus on the complexity of communicating climate science was reasonable. He visited me last fall in Los Angeles and we got a chance to talk at length about these issues. His textbook on climate change, “Dire Predictions,” is excellent and given his history with having developed “the hockey stick graph,” and testified to Congress about it, he is one of the central figures in both the world of global warming science, as well as unfortunately the world of global warming politics that has emerged over the past decade. More importantly, and more recently, his name ended up at the center of the Climategate controversy that erupted this past December. In this two part essay I want to first talk about the recent CBS News segment about Mike, then on Thursday will present an interview with him about his recent experiences with the media.
Let’s begin by considering the relationship between science and journalism. Here’s two definitions as a starting point.
SCIENCE: The dictionary defines it as, “A branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws.”
JOURNALISM: According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Professional Ethics, “The duty of the journalist is to seek truth and provide a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”
Notice what word these two definitions have in common — “truth.” In Stephen Colbert’s terminology, they are both about the pursuit of “truthiness.” So you’d think there was a common ground, making scientists and journalists have a lot to agree on. And if you were a scientist and thought that way, then you might make the mistake of seeing a journalist coming and thinking to yourself, “Oh, great, here’s somebody I can trust since we’re both interested in the truth.” But that would be a potentially dangerous mistake, and one you wouldn’t want to make with someone like CBS News these days.
CBS NEWS WISHES THEY COULD HIDE THEIR DECLINE
Once upon a time, CBS News was one of the brightest shining beacons in the world of news journalism. I mentioned in my book that the single most important book I’ve ever read in my life was David Halberstam’s “The Powers That Be.” In that tremendous, towering work he chose four major American media outlets of the twentieth century and examined the relationship between the media and the person most responsible for “the brand.” It was one big exercise in examining the connection between the objective (supposedly news reporting) and the subjective (the owner of the outlet who influences the reporting). One of them was CBS News, with William Paley being the driving force in its heyday.
Halberstam’s account begins with the very beginning of television, right after World War II. During the war a number of radio news correspondents had distinguished themselves in Europe with their coverage of the war. When television appeared, they coalesced into a group that featured such greats as Erik Severeid, William L. Shirer, Harry K. Smith, and the eventual superstar, Edward R. Murrow. Throughout the 1950’s they created the gold standard for what responsible, ethical television news stood for, probably hitting their pinnacle in the 1960’s with Walter Cronkite.
But as Halberstam so skillfully documents, the great days of CBS News eventually fell victim, not to the challenges of accurate news reportage, but to the bottomless moronicity (and by the way, eventual Idiocracy) of the American public when television finally discovered the power of such cultural gems as The Beverly Hillbillies, The Munsters, and Gilligan’s Island (which by the way were the foundation of my television upbringing). By the mid-sixties news programming was losing out to such brainless fare, and television news was never the same.
Cut to the Dan Rather CBS News debacle of recent years, then to two weeks ago when CBS News did what I think was a dirty trick on climate scientist Mike Mann by airing this segment. The supposed subject of the segment was the fact that despite all the allegations of loudmouthed climate skeptics, a detailed investigation of Mike Mann’s science by a panel at Penn State cleared him. But instead, this segment comes off with a different message by giving an extraordinary amount of air time to a cheesy Youtube video that is blatantly defamatory.
Q: Why in the world would you end a “news” clip with the text, “Michael Mann thinks he’s so smart.”
A: Because you feel the same way as the video source you’re citing.
Now let’s talk about how to properly interpret this “news” segment.
HOW TO READ A VIDEO: TURN OFF THE VOLUME
“It’s a VISUAL medium.”
Let me say this again. IT … IS … A … VISUAL … MEDIUM.
I went to film school at age 38 as a heavily programmed academic. This was one of the first catch phrases I began to hear over and over and over again. “It’s a visual medium.” It’s difficult to grasp this when you have been raised with a reverence for words, an ear for lectures, and even trained to lecture yourself. It’s hard to grasp the idea that most of the general public just doesn’t listen anywhere nearly as much as they watch. But that’s the way it works and this was one of the main messages of my book.
So the most powerful and important course in film school, by almost everyone’s agreement, was professor Bruce Block’s “Visual Expression,” class. And guess what was his standard exercise for evaluating the visual design of a movie — he would have us watch an entire movie with THE VOLUME TURNED OFF. It’s a completely different experience. You should try it sometime. Suddenly you’re focused entirely on where the camera has been placed, what sorts of colors you’re looking at, how much depth of perspective there is in the shot, the pacing of the editing … all of the most powerful elements in the presentation of a film.
And guess what, when you turn off the volume, all of a sudden ANY text that is written on the screen becomes very powerful. And this is what you need to know in evaluating what CBS News did with the Michael Mann segment.
GIVING MICHAEL MANN THE FINGER ON NETWORK TELEVISION
So now, keeping that in mind, take a look at that CBS News clip again, this time with the volume turned off. What do you see? A bunch of text, every time they run the Youtube clip, that says the following:
Making up data, the old hard way.
Fudging the numbers, day by day.
Totally inventing the hockey stick chart.
Hide the decline.
Ignoring the snow and the cold and a downward drop.
Michael Mann thinks he’s so smart.
Just look at that last line. Honestly.
In my senior year of high school the book, “Subliminal Seduction,” was published and it was the cool thing for everyone to be hip to. It had a sort of, “I bet you didn’t know how people are fucking with your mind,” edge to it. On the cover was a picture of a cocktail drink with ice cubes in which you could see the letters, “SEX.” It suggested that advertisers had figured out how to seduce your brain with subliminal signaling which you could neither detect nor resist. The classic urban myth was the idea of splicing frames of a shot of popcorn randomly into a movie where you wouldn’t be able to visually notice it, but your super-duper brain would pick it up and you’d find yourself in the lobby salivating for a box of stale popcorn. If only it really were that easy. That was also at the time of the movie “A Clockwork Orange,” and Marshall McLuhan riling the masses into pondering exactly how this mass media stuff really does work.
Anyhow, I NEVER bought into any of that subliminal mumbo jumbo, and recall getting in a heated argument with my sociology professor in college over it. But what we’re talking about here with this news clip has nothing to do with any of that. This isn’t anything subliminal — this is messaging that is practically shouted at the viewer. What do you think they were saying in the editing suite that afternoon as they decided to end the segment with the line, “Michael Mann thinks he’s so smart.”
I can’t see any other way to assess it other than to say it is unprofessional. Imagine if I made a Youtube video about Rush Limbaugh being a child molester, posted it on Youtube (which anyone can do) and then a major news show picked it up, ran a similar segment, then ended with a scene from the video with the on screen text saying, “Rush Limbaugh likes to fondle little boys.”
They would never do that. Never in a million years. And it would be grounds for legal action over defamation. And yet that’s what the CBS News bit does by presenting text that says, “Making up data.” It couldn’t be any more blatant.
HOW COULD CBS DO SUCH A THING?
It’s easy to be shocked that CBS would do such a thing, but the ugly truth is that there’s almost certainly plenty of climate skeptics working at CBS News. ABC News, for example, has John Stossel, a major on-camera skeptic who has repeatedly used his, “Give Me a Break,” segments to attack global warming science. And on another note, the final step for me to get my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” aired on Showtime involved my having to endure a half hour tongue-lashing from the head of programming who was an anti-evolutionist and wanted me to know how hard he had fought to prevent their acquisition of the movie, but had been over-ruled (the guys responsible for over-ruling asked me, as a favor, to just let this guy vent to me). The point is, these anti-science guys are indeed all through the media world.
So to return to my opening definitions, the bottom line is that, no, you really can’t trust the media, even with the scientific truth. You don’t have to be hostile to them. You just really need to know how they work. A couple of years ago a number of major evolutionists got duped into being interviewed and appearing in an anti-evolution movie that they never would have agreed to had they known who was doing it. You can bet those scientists will never again be so blindly trusting of a camera crew. It’s a shame that we don’t live in the more innocent and trusting world of fifty years ago, but we simply don’t. It’s a new media environment, and knowing that there are journalists even as supposedly reputable as CBS News who are using their position to push their own politics is simply part of the game these days.
Sadly, the fact is, you can’t trust the media. Which makes me think of a moment I had in Venezuela many years ago. My hosts pointed out their two most widely read newspapers and said, “You can’t trust either — one is the government voice, the other is the rebel opposition, they both lie.” One of the people in my group said, “What a shame to live in a country where you can’t trust your newspapers.” To which one of the Venezuelans immediately replied, “What a shame to live in a country where you do.”
On Thursday I will present the interview I’m doing with Mike Mann and we’ll get to hear his thoughts on this CBS News segment, on the Climategate mess, and his overall impression of how he’s been treated by the media throughout this and his previous dealings with the news. Be sure to tune in!
THIS JUST IN: Last night on 60 Minutes they did a segment about scams and suckers. The main character in the piece was magician/sleight of hand expert/actor Ricky Jay. In one of the most joyous quotes I’ve ever heard on prime time television he said, “As someone who does sleight of hand for a living, to me the ideal audience would be scientists or Nobel Prize winners who are incredibly smart in their one area, and often, often, not always, have an ego with them which says, ‘I am really smart so I can’t be fooled.’ No one is easier to fool!”