A recent report from American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet examined the apparent decline of the environmental movement in recent years. For all the questions raised by the report over what happened to the moment, it does answer a pair surrounding the debate as it pertains to bias in the media.
First, the media was a force for, not against, liberal environmental policies. That will likely shock no NB reader, but many on the left are still convinced that the media is a force for conservatism, or at the very least against leftist political change (stop laughing). The AU report undercuts those claims, at least as they pertain to the environmental movement.
"[T]he major national news organizations overwhelmingly reflected the consensus view on the reality and causes of climate change," Nisbet concluded in his analysis of media coverage. The "consensus view," in this context, refers to the view that climate change is occurring and that human activity is responsible for it.
Regardless of one's views on that position, it is clear that to the extent the mainstream press contributed to the debate over climate change, it was not a force against carbon regulation. On the contrary, it actively reinforced the view of the problem that contributed to efforts to enact carbon regulations, according to Nisbet's study.
Nisbet went on to discuss the Climategate scandal. He found that, contrary to claims by the environmental left that the scandal received outsized media coverage (that it was not as significant as the media made it seem), "with the exception of The Wall Street Journal, the event received scant follow-up from the other news outlets."
Media coverage, in short, was a force for liberal environmental policies, not against them.
Nisbet's report also belies a liberal narrative concerning the environmental movement that often pops up in media coverage on climate change: environmental groups pushing for cap and trade regulation were, in fact, far better resourced than industry groups combating that effort. The environmental movement is often painted as a David to industry's Goliath. Not so, says this postmortem.
"[T]he effort to pass cap and trade legislation," wrote Nisbet in the report's conclusion, "may be the best financed political cause in American history." The $1.7 billion environmental advocacy groups spent in their efforts to enact regulations on carbon emissions "rival the most expensive presidential campaigns in history and the combined earnings of the world’s richest sports franchises."
Elsewhere in the report, Nisbet writes: "perhaps no other social movement in U.S. history matches the size, diversity and financial resources of the environmental movement."
Furthermore, while the pro-cap and trade narrative often paints the environmental cause as combatting the outsized influence of "the rich," Nisbet reported that for many prominent environmental groups, "the significant proportion of contributions are from ultra-wealthy donors."
While environmentalists are quick to point out that because most environmental groups are 501(c)(3) non-profits, and hence are restricted in their political activities, Nisbet notes that many of those groups, beyond spending millions on "general education" activities and massive astroturf campaigns, were able to channel their political activities through corporations themselves.
National environmental organizations have also invested significant resources in building coalitions with major corporations, entities that can spend unlimited amounts on direct lobbying and legislative campaigns. Environmental groups have coordinated their activities in support of climate action through formal partnerships with religious, labor, national security, clean energy and minority rights groups. The environmental groups’ efforts at communication and lobbying also have been aided by the activities of allied think tanks and media watchdogs.
In short, the pro-regulation political forces were no David. Their resources were considerable, and their political campaigns were massive.
Nisbet's report is a fascinating look at the decline of a political movement that was, only a few years ago, apparently on the verge of major legislative victories. But regardless of what else one takes from the report, these two facts should be noted: the American press routinely promoted a political climate friendly to liberal environmental policies, and those policies were advanced by groups that outmatched their opponents both financially, and in terms of political muscle.