The Left commentator Edward S Herman once (applying a phrase from the anthropologist Lisa Peattie) usefully described a key function of the corporate mass media as “normalizing the unthinkable.” Another and related function of that media might be called “de-contextualizing daily and current events.”
An excellent example of both functions in operation at the same time has been provided for many years by the nightly news weather reports on local American television. Those reports regularly transmit the latest unseasonably warm and often record-setting temperatures and forecasts and related rising incidents and intensity of extreme weather (tornadoes, floods, droughts, typhoons, cyclones, wildfires, heat waves, winter storms, mudslides) events as if there was nothing noteworthy about the broader historical pattern indicated by the ever hotter and more volatile weather record.
Typically delivered right after the sports each night, the ever warmer meteorological facts of the day become the “new normal” in the evening news. The smiling local television weatherperson makes no reference to the grave and underlying problem of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), rooted in contemporary capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels and endless growth – a problem that raises serious questions about the near term viability of the human species (not to mention other sentient beings and living things on Earth). Weather broadcasters typically make no reference to climate change at all, or of course to the many Earth scientists who have for many years predicted and documented the increase in extreme weather events resulting from global warming, which the preponderant majority of serious climate researchers root in homo sapiens’ excessive emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide and methane above all.
“All of Your Questions”
Which brings me to nightly “P”BS Newshour host Gwenn Ifill, who proudly tells viewers in a frequently run “P”BS advertisement that her job involves asking “not only all of my questions.” Three nights ago (I am writing on Thursday, November 21, 2013), Ifill was tasked with giving a Newshour “P”BS report on an event that many older Midwesterners would certainly once have found unthinkable: a giant spate of deadly tornadoes concentrated especially in Illinois but spreading as far east as western New York – in mid-November. Right before this truly unusual outburst of extreme weather, which took 8 lives and wiped out hundreds of homes, St. Louis registered a temperature of 80 degrees – this in mid-November, on the cusp of winter and nearly a week out from a late Thanksgiving.
After providing the usual terrible details (houses blown off their foundations, cars flipped over, casualties and more) from one of the worst-hit towns in Illinois (Washington), Ifill turned for answers “about the intensity and the volume of the twisters, as well as the unusual timing” to Howard Bluestein, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma.
It was not an impressive discussion. Bluestein agreed with Ifill that it was highly unusual to see a wave of tornados across the Midwest in November. “I think this sets an Illinois record for the number of tornadoes in November,” professor Bluestein noted, adding that “This time of the year, in mid-November, we expect to see snow starting to fall….”
Also unusual, Bluestein agreed, was the time of day when the storms occurred – the early morning rather than the late afternoon.
Bluestone agreed that there had been a high quantity of storms last Sunday morning. He told Ifill that “the Weather Service will probably go out and do damage surveys, and after the damage surveys, we should know how many tornadoes there actually were.”
Bluestein also agreed that fatalities were kept down because the recent tornado wave was forecast well in advance by the National Weather Service, which issued an early warning of extreme weather.
“Just One Unusual Event”
Half way through Gwenn Ifill’s discussion with Bluestein one could almost make her asking him the money question: what the Hell is going on? I’ll paste in the question (somewhat awkwardly advanced) and the answer as it appears on the Newshour Web-site:
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font-weight:normal;mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>“GWEN IFILL: margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height:150%;background:white”>
Gwenn Iffil, who says she asks not only all of her questions but also and above all, all of our questions, did not follow up with a query on how 80 or so heat-driven tornadoes across the Midwest nearly a week out from a late Thanksgiving might have been related to climate change of any sort, not to mention the highly documented human-caused variant understood to exist and to be fueling an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events by the dominant consensus of contemporary climate science.
Coping (and Collaborating) With (Corporate-Imposed) Climate Change
“P”BS’s choice of Bluestein (who already had a long record of denying that climate change has any meaningful relationship to killer tornadoes in the U.S.) as an expert commentator is consistent with my occasional suspicion that the letter “P” in “PBS” really stands for “Petro-capitalism” or just “Petroleum.” Also consistent with my suspicion, “P”BS derives much of its financial support from grants and advertisements from the petrochemical industry – including an April 2013 Newshour commercial in which BP celebrates “the commitment…the people of BP” made to “the Gulf” (of Mexico) “more than two years ago” (in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster). George Orwell would have nodded in dark admiration.
In fairness, I should note that the “P”BS Newshour did have some decent experts on who linked climate change and carbon emissions to Haiyan last week. (If I recall correctly, one of those experts actually said that humanity needs to drastically reduce its carbon emissions if it wants to avoid the deadly and costly weather chaos resulting from climate change) I guess connecting the dots in relation to the American heartland is just too much.
The Newshour also occasionally broadcasts a regular segment titled “Coping With Climate Change,” dedicated to showing different ways human and other sentient beings are finding ways to survive and “even profit” under the threat of an environmental catastrophe that they and other sections of corporate and state-capitalist mass media work to normalize and make banal and boring even as it portends the end of a decent future on Earth. The series relates interesting stories about businesses and people who have found clever ways to survive and even make money out of the ever-accelerating destruction of natural systems, including the rapid melting of Arctic ice and permafrost. There are pieces about intelligent efforts to mitigate the consequences of climate change on cities, eco-systems, shorelines and so on. There’s nothing, of course, about the deep social-systemic and cultural changes that are required for us go beyond “coping” with climate change to ending it. There’s nothing about the need for us to form social and political movements to resist AGW and the corporations and the state-capitalist system that have created a grave and epic environmental catastrophe in the making in blind pursuit of endless profit and growth. “Coping with Climate Change” is, at the end of the day, about normalizing the unthinkable, deadening us to the grave existential dangers posed by contemporary carbon capitalism, currently dedicated to the Greenhouse gas extermination of life on earth.
At some point, the sooner the better, we the people who wish to save livable ecology and hence a decent future must join with others in the project of normalizing something that many have been led to see as unthinkable and unimaginable: revolution, what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. near the end of his life called the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” questions: “the radical reconstruction of society itself.”
Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).
1. Edward S. Herman, Triumph of the Market: Essays on Economics, Politics, and the Media (Black Rose Books, 1997), 97.
3. Other candidates for the real meaning of the “P” in “PBS” include “Presidential,” “Pentagon,” “Propaganda,” and “Prozac.” For the first alternative, see Paul Street, “‘With All Due Respect’: Alan Grayson v. ‘P’BS on Obama and Syria,” ZNet (September 7, 2013), http://www.zcomm.org/with-all-due-respect-alan-grayson-v-p-bs-on-obama-and-syria-by-paul-street.html