Jeff Bezos Got as Much Morning Show Coverage in a Day as Climate Change Got All Last Year

The morning broadcast TV news cares more about a billionaire's few minutes in space than the fate of the planet.

A screenshot of Jeff Bezos giving a high five after landing from his Blue Origin flight.
Suck it, Earth.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

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.”

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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.

A graphic showing that Jeff Bezos' flight to low Earth orbit received 212 minutes of coverage from TV morning shows on July while climate change received just 267 minutes all of last year.
Welp.
Graphic: Media Matters
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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.

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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.”

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Update, 7/21/21, 3:50 p.m.: This post has been updated with comments from Evlondo Cooper.

DISCUSSION

By
DragonBreath

So, this got me to thinking about something that happened more than 40 years ago. During the Vietnam War, the Nightly News would briefly display a casualty count. How many dead and wounded in the last 24 hours. It is believed that this had a significant effect on public opinion about the war. People across the US were presented with a daily remind of the human cost of the war.

We need something like this for Climate Change. I am not sure what it would be, because it is hard to see a daily cost of Climate Change. It doesn’t get hotter every day. The trends are seen across years, and decades, but the changes are real.

It’s hard to remember that the world is getting hotter when the temperatures start dropping in the Fall.

If there were something that would be a daily reminder that the situation is getting worse, then it might finally hit home, though I doubt it because the daily difference would be small enough for most people to ignore.

We might be able to use something that compared each day to the same day a year ago, and ten years ago, and fifty years ago.  Unfortunately, even that is not truly reliable, because not every day is a record high.