Opinion

Jack Shafer

Why we’re so blase about global warming

Jack Shafer
Aug 29, 2014 15:26 UTC

Graffiti art is seen on a wall next to the Regent's Canal in Camden in London

If you don’t regard global warming as a serious problem, your company is growing. According to the survey jockeys at Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who think global warming is “very serious” or “somewhat serious” has declined since 2006 (from 79 percent to 65 percent). While a firm majority still considers global warming to be very or somewhat serious, the numbers show that public alarm over the topic has receded over a period during which the scientific, journalistic, and political consensus on the topic has surged the other way.

Over the same 8-year period, fewer respondents agree that the earth is warming and fewer agree that human activity causes warming. These figures must give cognitive whiplash to those who dismiss the public as a herd of easily driven sheep. The scientific establishment, the press, and politicians have a flimsy grasp of mass opinion.

Americans’ blasé and wishy-washy attitudes toward global warming may be related to the positive short-term effects of environmental policies that they observe daily. Our air and water is cleaner than it was a generation ago, as the federal government likes to crow, we’re recycling more and we’ve cleaned up more of the designated Superfund sites. Even U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined, though not by the margin that will undo the harm predicted by global warming theorists. Most Americans have witnessed social and technological progress in their lifetimes and they see evidence of future progress, so they’re optimistic. It’s only human nature that they might reject the apocalyptic impulse.

What else has nudged America’s global-warming opinion needle in the direction of the doubters and I-don’t-care crowd? Perhaps opinions on global warming are driven by the volume of press coverage, not necessarily the content. Today volume is down: A Nexis search of the five top newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times) shows that 2,286 pieces mentioned global warming in 2006, compared to 1,353 in 2013. That’s a measurable decline, but great enough to move opinion? I doubt it.

Or maybe the public conserves its supply of “concern” and rations it out when the pollsters come knocking. Intense worries about Topic A are displaced by intense worries about Topic B when events conspire to bring its profile higher. Call it crisis fatigue — your mind can handle only so much at a time. For example, 2006 was a time of a thriving economy. If you needed to worry about the cataclysmic, you couldn’t do better than worry about the planet frying on its own skillet. Soon after that survey, the prospect of losing your home and job became very possible. As President Obama likes to say, the economy is the top concern on Americans’ mind right now. Yet the Pew polls don’t seem to support the idea that people have limited supplies of concern.

This month’s ultimate enemy — the Islamic State

Jack Shafer
Aug 26, 2014 00:42 UTC

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At an Aug. 21 Pentagon press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that the Islamic State “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”

Perhaps sensing that his comparison hadn’t reached sufficiently hyperbolic velocity to escape earth orbit, Hagel immediately amended himself.

“Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything,” he said [emphasis added], thereby vaulting the brutal Islamic State over the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese, and all other entrants into the Number 1 slot in our ever-churning power-ranking of international enemies.

The Islamic State buys itself a day of horror, little else, by killing James Foley

Jack Shafer
Aug 20, 2014 22:35 UTC

By uploading a video of its execution of journalist James Foley to the Web on Tuesday, the Islamic State achieves the impossible: It re-executes him every time somebody presses play.

The horror of perpetual re-execution was obviously the Islamic State’s goal. Nobody with a soul—knowing what’s coming—can listen to Foley’s speech without their hearts going full-throttle and shuddering at the murderous climax. For its troubles, the Islamic State has gotten a sliver of what it wants today. The story dominates the news. The video has become available on every desktop, laptop, and smartphone in the world. People are beseeching one another not to link to the video. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has announced the suspension of accounts that tweet the graphic images, and the New York Post and Daily News are suffering a boatload of criticism for printing screen-grabs of the murder on their morning covers.

And yet, video-beheading seems to be a strategy to nowhere. Al Qaeda attempted similar contamination of our dream pools more than a decade ago with its 2002 video killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, which was also disseminated on the Web. Like the Islamic State video, which proclaimed it was a “message to America,” Al Qaeda’s video was designed to deter the U.S. government from continuing to intervene in Iraq and to shift American public opinion. But had the Al Qaeda strategy been successful, the United States wouldn’t be bombing in northern Iraq today. More likely, the videos, which our Western eyes tell us are staged for our benefit, are really aimed at the video-makers’ constituents to attract maximum attention, showcase the groups’ power, attract recruits, and build cadres – all things that the video may actually do.

If you must quote anonymous sources, make sure they say something!

Jack Shafer
Aug 14, 2014 21:11 UTC

A decade ago, both the Washington Post and the New York Times conceded that they had lost control of the use of anonymous sources in their pages and each set up new guidelines to police the practice.

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. promised in a 2004 piece that his paper would “explain to readers why a source was not being named” inside stories, and the Times similarly resolved to tame the anonymous monster.

Both efforts ran out of steam before they even reached pressure, as I and Erik Wemple (then at Washington City Paper) gloated. Ever since, Post ombudsmen (Deborah Howell and Andrew Alexander) and Times public editors (Daniel Okrent, Clark Hoyt and Byron Calame) have rebuked their respective papers for the unchecked use of anonymous sources, but to little avail. The Post no longer employs an ombudsman to wrangle the anonymice scurrying through coverage. The Times‘ current press cop, Margaret Sullivan, still walks the beat with her AnonyWatch feature, which highlights “the more regrettable examples of anonymous quotations in the Times.” She swings a mean stick, but nobody packs sufficient wood to regulate anonymous sources, as a review of the past week’s coverage in the Times and Post indicates.

All the myths that are fit to print: Why your news feels familiar

Jack Shafer
Aug 12, 2014 22:46 UTC

Has some wise guy flipped a switch and thrown the news into summer reruns?

Everywhere you look in your news feed is a story you’ve seen before. In northern Iraq, conquering jihadists have the Kurds calling on the United States for more help. North Korea is again stating its desire to nuke the White House. A virulent contagion abroad has Americans worrying when it will break out on our shores. And, in a rerun of a rerun, a Gaza war of tunnels, rockets, invasions, ceasefires, withdrawals, broken ceasefires, and shuttle diplomacy is claiming a record harvest of headlines.

At home, Hillary Clinton has commenced another presidential campaign as her party’s presumptive nominee. A new iteration of the iPhone has the press jabbering, and police everywhere seem to be overreacting to imagined threats by killing citizens. Even ancient stories, such as the Rwandan genocide and the start of World War I, have yo-yoed their way back into the news, but only because they are marking anniversaries that end in zero (Rwanda’s twentieth and the hundredth of the start of WWI).

Sometimes the news actually repeats itself, as in the case of Clinton. Such man-made cycles as elections, the Olympics, and wars lend themselves to retreaded coverage, as do the natural cycles of hurricane and tornado seasons, droughts and floods, and summer forest fires. Reporters and editors pack new events into old, familiar templates.

The dangers of deputizing Google to bust child pornographers

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2014 23:03 UTC

Illustration file picture shows a man typing on a computer keyboard in Warsaw

“Don’t be evil” — the first sentence of Google’s “Code of Conduct” — has served as the technology company’s corporate motto since its earliest days. But given Google’s role in the arrest late last month of a Houston man on child pornography charges, perhaps we’ve been misreading it. Perhaps the motto is aimed at its customers, as in, “Don’t you be evil or we’ll have you busted.”

Google, obviously, isn’t the first Internet company to alert investigators of a user who might be transmitting or be in possession of child pornography images. Since the late 1990s, the law has required service providers to report apparent violations of child pornography laws. In 2004, for example, AOL provided a tip that resulted in a child pornography conviction. In 2007, Yahoo took similar action that helped earn a child pornography defendant a 16-year sentence. So far, the courts have rejected Fourth Amendment challenges to these prosecutions, and are likely to continue to do so. No credible sources have appeared to denounce the prosecutions as overkill, and I doubt if any will.

The Houston bust, in which John Henry Skillern allegedly sent explicit images of a young girl to a friend via email, comes a year after Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond renewed his company’s commitment, which he dated to 2006, to expunge child pornography from the Web and identify its traffickers. As the company’s email policies state, “Google has a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery. If we become aware of such content, we will report it to the appropriate authorities. …”

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