Clamoring for Kyoto

The Networks’ One-Sided Coverage of Global Warming

Scolding Bush on Carbon Dioxide and Kyoto

In addition to their nearly complete one-sidedness on the scientific questions, the networks also heavily skewed the debate over President Bush’s global warming policies in favor of his environmental critics. The President’s first major decision, announced on March 13, was his refusal to include carbon dioxide among a list of gases whose emissions would be strictly regulated by the government. The Bush administration cited a study conducted by the Department of Energy last year when Bill Clinton was President; that report concluded that such rules "would lead to considerably higher energy prices for consumers." ABC and FNC mentioned the Energy Department study in their coverage, while CBS, CNN and NBC did not.

On the March 14 Evening News, CBS’s Dan Rather darkly hinted that the decision was rooted in campaign cash, not the national interest: "President Bush insisted today that he was not caving in to big-money contributors, big-time lobbyists and overall industry pressure when he broke a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. But the air was thick today with accusations from people who believe that’s exactly what happened."

0504011Overall, the networks gave critics of Bush’s anti-regulatory stance twice as much airtime as supporters. Only FNC and CNN showed soundbites from individuals other than Bush administration officials supporting the decision not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. When all statements from reporters and sources are considered, the three broadcast networks offered the most skewed coverage, where Bush’s critics outnumbered supporters by a nearly three-to-one ratio. Those who wanted more regulation also dominated CNN’s coverage, although by less than a two-to-one margin, while FNC’s presentation was the most balanced. (See chart at right.)

After the President’s decision on the Kyoto Protocols was announced, only CNN and FNC informed viewers that Bush’s decision was more of a formality than a radical break from past policies. "Only one nation has ratified that treaty," CNN’s Candy Crowley explained on March 28, "and in 1997 the U.S. Senate signaled unanimously it wouldn’t agree to it anyway."

But NBC’s Campbell Brown ignored those facts, instead trumpeting that "the outcry over the President’s decision on global warming is not just coming from Democrats but also U.S. allies, and the President is expected to hear more complaints tomorrow when he meets with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder."

0504012On this issue, the networks were tilted even more in favor of Bush’s critics. CNN was the most balanced, followed by FNC, which gave Kyoto proponents twice as much airtime as Bush supporters. Once again, however, the three broadcast networks were the most one-sided, showing a total of 14 condemnations of Bush’s decision on Kyoto compared to only 4 positive statements. (See chart on right.)

One reason the debate on both of Bush’s decisions was so lopsided: pro-regulatory comments from environmental activists vastly outnumbered statements from free market opponents of new restrictions on economic activity. While the number of quotes from Congressional Democratic critics roughly equaled statements from Bush and other administration officials, representatives from environmental groups — such as the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Environmental Trust — were shown 20 times, compared to just three soundbites from two conservative groups, the Competitiveness Enterprise Institute and the industry-backed Global Climate Coalition.

The environmentalists featured by the networks were uniformly critical of Bush’s actions. For example, the CBS Evening News on March 29 showed Robert Higman of the group Friends of the Earth claiming, "What we’re seeing here is oil man Bush putting his, the interests of his particular backers — Exxon Oil Corporation and other fossil fuel producers — over and above the interests of the U.S. economy, over and above the interests of the people of the world at large, and over and above the future of the planet." On March 14, a story by reporter Brian Wilson on FNC’s Special Report showed Dan Becker of the Sierra Club protesting that "the polluters got what they paid for in electing President Bush."

However, that same story by FNC’s Wilson also showed Myron Ebell, a representative of the free market Competitiveness Enterprise Institute, explaining the Bush administration’s reasoning: "They realized with the new information from the Department of Energy that [the carbon dioxide regulations] will be extremely expensive and that it would eat up between 35 and 70 percent of the tax cut."

While the Fox News Channel offered a balance of praise and criticism for Bush’s position, CBS chose to just pile on the criticism. In his March 29 report, correspondent Mark Phillips quoted an official of Britain’s Labor government who joined in Higman’s complaining of Bush’s Kyoto decision: "This short-termism and this isolationism is profoundly flawed and misplaced." (With Real Video)

The President’s policy choices were also criticized as political errors. "The Bush administration is looking for ways to clean up its image," CNN’s Candy Crowley reported on April 3, "following a series of high-profile decisions on the environment involving carbon dioxide, arsenic levels in water, and an international treaty on global warming, all decisions criticized as hostile to the environment." Crowley found a former Bush aide, Ed Gillespie, who she said agreed with the point that the political rollout of Bush’s policy decisions wasn’t well organized. But Gillespie’s sound bite made a different point: "The liberal side and some of their charges, some of which were unfounded and false, got out ahead of us."

Indeed, those liberal critics of the President’s global warming policies were granted favored access to the airwaves in the wake of each of those decisions, while scientists who supported Bush’s anti-regulatory stance were not. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal published April 19, Frederick Seitz, a past president of the National Academy of Sciences and current chairman of the George C. Marshall Institute, commended Bush’s decision to scrap the Kyoto Protocols.

"The science of global warming tells us this self-inflicted economic damage is unnecessary," wrote Seitz. "According to enhanced greenhouse effect theory, when CO2 in the atmosphere increases, the earth’s atmosphere always warms more rapidly than the surface. But actual temperature measurements show the atmosphere is not warming more than the surface; in fact, there has been no significant atmospheric temperature change over the last two or three decades."

Similarly, climatologist Fred Singer, head of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, praised Bush’s rejection of environmentalists’ demands for greater regulations. In a column published in Canada’s National Post on March 17, Singer wrote:

Scientists skeptical of the science behind the Kyoto Protocol were greatly encouraged by the statement in Mr. Bush’s letter that the science of global warming is "incomplete," by which he meant that it was insufficient as a basis for taking action. This is a position that many of us have maintained for some years, pointing out that the actual observations do not support the climate models that predict a strong warming in the future

The evidence against a warming trend is overwhelming: Weather satellite observations, the only truly global measurements, independently confirmed by weather balloon data, show little if any rise in mean temperature. The well-maintained network of U.S. stations, after removal of urban heat-island effects, shows no appreciable rise since about 1940! Non-thermometer data from various "proxies," like tree rings, ice cores, ocean sediments, etc., all show no warming trend in the past 60 years.

Yet neither Singer nor Seitz nor any other scientist who disagreed with the environmental establishment was given a chance to lend their weight to the point of view that neither the carbon dioxide rules and the Kyoto limits on emissions were foolish restrictions that would harm Americans’ standard of living for no good reason. Instead, the networks gave favored treatment to environmental critics complaining about Bush’s decisions, and then blamed the President for the damage to his image.

"Fairly or unfairly," Dan Rather told viewers of the April 17 CBS Evening News, "critics of President Bush’s environmental policy believe the only green policy he’s displayed is the color of big business money." The story, by John Roberts, explained how the President’s image came to be tarnished: "Activists have pummeled him for diluting rules on arsenic levels in drinking water and abandoning curbs on carbon dioxide emissions."

Many independent scientists and free market economists would have argued that Bush’s decision to spare the United States the heavy costs of the Kyoto Protocols was neither a policy error nor a political error, but was in fact a reasonable and meritorious act. The heavy tilt of the coverage in favor of Bush’s critics created the misleading impression that his anti-regulatory steps had few supporters outside of the ranks of his own government, when in fact the U.S. Senate’s unanimous (95-0) rejection of Kyoto’s main elements indicated that his opposition to the treaty was more "mainstream" than the environmentalists’ support for it.