Pre-Election Reading: Wen Stephenson on Climate Self-Censorship

I am still in only shaky post-hurricane connection to the Internet, so here is one update before catching up on a variety of other topics soon:

By all means read Wen Stephenson's impassioned essay* in the Phoenix today on what he views as the tyranny of complacency and business-as-usual in the media's approach to climate change.

It is one thing for politicians to decide that they simply can't touch certain issues. Politicians need to keep raising money. They're vulnerable to concerted opposition campaigns. They are acutely aware of the tiny distance they can afford to get "ahead" of the sometimes-uninformed center of public opinion on any issue.**

Thus we've come to recognize the inch-wide boundaries of political argument when it comes to anything involving guns (as I argued at length here). Stephenson says that, even if politicians have come to a similar calculation about the impossibility of discussing climate policies and therefore climate change itself, the media should not accept their definition of what "can" and "cannot" be discussed.

That is: It's the politicians' fault that neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama mentioned climate change during their debates. It's the press's fault that they weren't asked.

For cultural, commercial, intellectual, and political reasons, it is tricky for members of the press, especially those in organizations that still quaintly think of themselves as "mainstream," to decide that they, rather than elected leaders, should announce what "matters" to the public. But they do it all the time. The push-and-pull of the press "leading" versus merely "reflecting" public opinion has gone on for a very long time, on a very wide range of issues.*** In this article Stephenson admits all the difficulties but still argues, fiercely, that it's time for the established media to do more.

This is an angry, polemical piece, which says both good and bad things about many specific people in the media -- including us here at The Atlantic, where Stephenson once worked (he was deeply involved in the creation of The Atlantic's original web site) and still has many friends. At a time when both parties are saying that this is an "exceptionally important" election, yet neither will even discuss an issue that (I contend) will loom larger in historical accounts of this era than 99 percent of what is discussed in speeches, news analyses, and debates, this article is worth reading and thinking about. And after a "historic" hurricane, following a historic drought and heat wave, following historic rains .... Stephenson said in a note to friends that it was the "hardest thing I've ever written." It is not comfortable to read, and I have various things to say about the Atlantic's long-term performance on this issue; but I am glad he wrote it.

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* The Phoenix unfortunately portions the piece out in eight separately clickable chunks, with no "single-page" option. You could support their online ad model by clicking through all eight. Or you could try the "article print" ruse.

** Still-relevant historical example: LBJ's decision to go ahead and support civil rights legislation in the Martin Luther King era, despite the likelihood that it would switch the previously Democratic "Solid South" to a solid Republican stronghold.

*** It's more than I can get into now, but in widely varying ways the press has "led," "reflected," and "lagged" on issues ranging from slavery, to worker mistreatment and workplace safety, to immigration, to environmental protection, to race relations, to today's "debt crisis." The history of press "leadership," good and ill, on the sequence of U.S. wars from the one against Mexico in the 1840s, through the Civil War and the war with Spain, through the two 20th-century world wars to Korea and Vietnam, and on to the CENTCOM wars of the moment and the open-ended "war on terror," is its own important both heartening-and-discouraging theme. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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