On Tuesday, Jeff Bezos visited the edge of space. Upon returning, he said a bunch of inane things, from wanting to send all polluting industry off-planet to thanking “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this.”
It was a cringey and painful reminder that what we witnessed was not some grand human endeavor but a joyride that was basically the equivalent of “area man takes Tesla out for a spin” at a billionaire scale. And yet, the TV media lapped it up and dutifully vomited it back out, even as the world literally burned.
An analysis by Media Matters found that the NBC, ABC, and CBS morning shows devoted 212 minutes to Bezos’ little jaunt. In comparison, those same shows spent 267 minutes covering climate all of last year.
“The corporate TV news business model relies on capturing and holding viewers’ attention through entertainment and outrage,” Evlondo Cooper, senior researcher for Media Matters for America’s climate and energy program, wrote in an email. “This is a big problem as the news that should be driving daily coverage, such as climate change and its impacts, is often deemphasized or ignored as a result. The heavy coverage of Bezos’ vanity space flight launch is a clear illustration of this trend.”
More than 8.5 million viewers combined tune into these shows. Morning shows tend to be more human interest-oriented and a little lighter in terms of their coverage generally.
Bezos did bring along Wally Funk, a woman who was banned from being an astronaut by NASA and became the oldest person to go to space, and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student, son of a wealthy investor, and youngest person to visit space. Whether a cynical ploy to deflect criticism or a heartfelt urge to show space is for everyone, having them onboard certainly gave news outlets uplifting stories if they wanted to tell them.
But, one could perhaps argue if one were so inclined, the continued fate of humanity and the biosphere is slightly more in the human interest category than “richest guy on Earth goes to space, hoots and hollers for a few minutes.” Last year saw record-breaking wildfires, record-breaking hurricanes, humanitarian disasters, and extreme heat. Covid-19 also intersected with climate concerns in very real ways; coal miners, for example, feared for their lives after decades of inhaling toxic dust underground. There was no shortage of human interest stories when it comes to climate disasters where TV morning shows could make the connection feel more real. (The same is true for any number of topics not prominent in the news but certainly worth reporting.) Climate stories are all around us, just waiting to be told. And some of the most powerful media companies on Earth would rather pass them up even as they devote hours to Jeff Bezos’ flight.
Of course, fluffing up billionaires’ moneymaking endeavors isn’t exactly anything new. Another view of the phenomenon—let’s call it Billionaire Stockholm Syndrome—was on display less than two weeks ago when Bezos’ billionaire bête noire, Richard Branson, blasted into space for a few minutes on his rival company’s spaceplane. Wall-to-wall coverage ended up meaning that climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe got bumped from CNN to talk about the heat wave millions of people stuck on Earth were living through. While Branson was floating mid-air, Death Valley registered the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth and hundreds had died in a heat wave that hit the Northwest the week before. But Branson’s little trip was deemed more newsworthy.
At the time of Branson’s flight, a TV news producer told Earther that one issue was ratings just aren’t as good for climate stories. That’s taken as proof viewers don’t want to watch those types of segments, which is then used as an excuse to keep breathlessly covering the likes of Branson and Bezos instead. But to me, it’s a sign that maybe TV news and morning shows just haven’t told climate stories with the urgency they deserve.
“Research has shown that good climate reporting can galvanize public action,” Cooper said. “It’s not a zero-sum game: cover Bezos or cover climate. Corporate TV news must commit to sustained climate coverage that informs the public about climate change and viable solutions. That’s the only way we hold polluters, and public officials dragging their feet on climate action, accountable.”
Update, 7/21/21, 3:50 p.m.: This post has been updated with comments from Evlondo Cooper.