A version of this commentary originally appeared on Environmental Health News (10/19/16).
On Wednesday evening during the final presidential debate of the campaign, Hell did not freeze over. Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, where climate denial plays nothing but home games, passed on the final opportunity to ask Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about climate change.
This presidential campaign has been a catastrophe for American democracy and for American political journalism.
Amid the relentlessly tawdry campaign news, most Americans haven’t even noticed the absence of virtually any high-level campaign discussion of environmental issues, let alone what many have called the biggest challenge of the 21st century.
But I invite you to think ahead to that “oh crap” moment that awaits us all, five, ten or 25 years from now, when America looks back to reckon with our self-imposed climate silence in the debates.
Journalism—and the memes of our day—have failed us.
I don’t mean to condemn all journalists, or even all political journalists. This campaign has seen Pulitzer-worthy investigative work, notably by old-media giants like the New York Times and Washington Post, on both major party candidates and their respective problems with veracity and transparency. But the horse-race coverage, driven by Twitter, bluster and clickbait, has predictably left important issues in the lurch.
Those who are interested in climate change, environment and energy shouldn’t take it personally. Income inequality, housing costs, guns, privacy, prisons, drugs, national security, food and agriculture, and just about everything overseas that’s not ISIS, are in the same neglected boat.
The presidential debates used to be the best opportunity to shed some light on all these things. But as the debates have gone from substance to show biz, it doesn’t work that way anymore. Let’s look at why.
Aside from the “Town Hall” debates—where carefully selected members of the public get to ask questions—you have to go back to 1992 to find a non-TV journalist doing the interrogating at a presidential debate. That was the last election year in which a panel of reporters posed questions to the candidates. Perhaps print journalists don’t fare as well on TV, but it could also be argued that TV journalists don’t always fare well with journalism.
Since then, every journalist’s debate question has come from a network TV anchor or political correspondent. That’s six election cycles, 18 presidential debates, where every question came from a well-compensated news celebrity based in New York or Washington. They conduct the debates under the auspices of a nonpartisan commission that’s currently led by former Republican National Committee chair Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton’s former press secretary. If that’s not an inside job, I don’t know what is.
I read every debate transcript back to 1960. Let’s take the October 28, 1980, debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan: The moderator was from ABC, and the questioners were from US News & World Report, the Oregonian, the Christian Science Monitor and ABC. The questions were on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; defense spending; politics in the Persian Gulf; inflation and unemployment; balancing the federal budget; crime, urban blight and race relations; the Iranian hostage crisis; terrorism; nuclear weapons; oil imports and OPEC; air pollution; Social Security; Medicare; and women’s rights.
The transcript notes no interruptions or petty feuds between the candidates. Ronald Reagan did not threaten to jail Jimmy Carter if elected, nor did President Carter dwell on the topic of pussy-grabbing.
What a snooze. But until this year’s three presidential pie fights, it was the biggest presidential debate audience in US history. So the argument that American viewers can’t handle substance when it’s offered to them doesn’t hold up.
For the record, the last, and one of only two, climate-change questions ever posed by a journalist at a presidential debate was October 15, 2008. Bob Schieffer of CBS asked about “energy and climate control.” Props to Sen. John McCain for gently correcting the moderator and realizing that the question was not about commercial property storage facilities. Then both he and Sen. Barack Obama pretty much ducked the climate part of the question and talked about reducing foreign oil imports.
What was the question again?
This year’s second debate offered prime evidence of how easily we’re distracted by bright, shiny objects. Audience member Ken Bone came closer to anyone in asking a climate-related question: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly, and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
Clinton mentioned climate change and clean energy in her response; Trump touted the heavily damaged concept of “clean coal,” and promised a thousand years of coal mining—a prospect that even many miners find to be hallucinatory.
The internet blew up—not because an energy question was asked, but because Citizen Bone, a walking, talking Russian nesting doll in a bright red sweater—was so damned adorable.
Bone appeared with CNN’s Carol Costello the morning after. She asked about his red sweater, his Internet fame, his recent weight gain, and the poise and body language of the candidates. There was no mention of his bringing a substantive question to the party.
Same deal on Fox & Friends, where Ken was declared to have “won over all of our hearts.” Bone tried gamely to raise his energy concerns, but host Steve Doocy deftly steered the discussion back to The Sweater.
NBC’s Today show added that Ken Bone’s red sweater had sold out overnight on Amazon.com, presaging an outbreak of Ken Bone Halloween costumes.
Bone did a CNN encore with Anderson Cooper Monday night. Since Cooper was one of the debate moderators, it might have been a good opportunity to disclose that Ken Bone is employed by the Prairie State Energy Campus in southern Illinois, a struggling “clean coal” project. But the clock ran out before The Sweater discussion did. No time here for an energy chat, or even standard journalistic full disclosure.
On Tuesday, ABC’s Good Morning America played a clip from the previous night’s Jimmy Kimmel Live—all sweater, but they cut out the part where Kimmel made a fleeting reference to energy.
Wait, what was the question again?
Pee tests, flag salutes and draft-dodging
Ephemeral, fatuous issues are surely nothing new. In the 1980s, candidates were pressured to submit urine samples to confirm that they weren’t drug users. In 1988, George H.W. Bush pounced on the hapless Michael Dukakis for a clumsy-but-legally-correct stance on the Pledge of Allegiance. And in virtually every modern presidential race through 2008, military service—war heroes, draft dodgers and swift boaters—loomed large. Those three are among many issues that have vanished completely. But at least they shared the stage with more substantive talk, instead of hogging the stage as they often do now.
The decision by news organizations—particularly TV news—to flee from informing the public in favor of holding their attention through fear or diversion isn’t the only reason that things have gone downhill. But it’s a major reason. Our collective attention span for serious issues is so small it can no longer be seen by the naked eye. The way the news is delivered, particularly on television, enables this.
When debates veer off into petty conflict, and literally he-said/she-said combat, two entities benefit: network ratings and candidates who don’t bother to prepare for substantive questions.
Our nation is already paying. A few decades from now, when the realities of climate change have hushed even the loudest, densest deniers, we may look back on October 2016 as the month political journalism died because we couldn’t bring ourselves to have a serious national conversation on topics that affect our lives.