The gist of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, as I understand it, is to dramatize Jon Stewart’s takedown of Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson on CNN’s Crossfire. The febrile whining claptrap passing for public discourse in the U.S. these days, Stewart famously charged his shocked hosts, was at least partially caused by cable news networks on which febrile whining claptrap passes for political commentary and sometimes masquerades as news. Sorkin’s solution is to call for a new, in-your-face style of journalism that will speak truth to power and will avoid the stagnant discursive pool that is—everybody now, in your best Jon Stewart voice—hurting America. And thus shall Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy be transformed from a passive milquetoast news reader into an active macho news creator. And thus shall Edward R. Murrow be reanimated, and thus shall America be saved. Or something like that. I’ve only seen the pilot. I’ll leave it to political communication researchers to argue the viability of Sorkin’s vision and I will leave it to television critics to judge its execution, but there is at least one aspect of the news for which Sorkin’s vision is wrong-headed: science journalism. Case in point: this recent exchange between CNN’s Carol Costello and television personality Bill Nye, standing in for science-with-a-capital-S. (He is The Science Guy, after all.)
In the clip, Costello points out that Nye has recently become The Controversial Science Guy for his statements on climate change. Costello, with a wry smile that suggests she’s about to make trouble, asks Nye about the political ramifications of his statements and asks him to “defend” himself. Nye notes the multitude of weather-related records broken in recent years, including the tragic fires that have consumed Colorado in the last two weeks. Costello then interrupts him, presumably to hold his feet to the (wild)fire, countering that experts have suggested that mismanagement of Colorado forests might be to blame. (Of course, there isn’t a single cause for the forest fires in Colorado. It’s not an either/or situation. I suppose one could also blame forest fires on the unfortunate fact that forests are made out of firewood). Costello’s problem isn’t her strange inability to entertain the idea of multiple contributing factors, however. It’s that she is obligated to keep the conversation going by any means necessary, a way to make minutes go by until the next commercial break. And in the case of Costello, the ultimate goal—having something to talk about—is cloaked in what appears to be the style of journalism that would make Aaron Sorkin proud: confronting a public figure (in this case, the bowtied cheerleader for science education) with some “uncomfortable facts.”
What Costello is actually doing, however, is fueling what rhetorician Leah Ceccarelli has called a “manufactroversy,” which she explains as:
- A manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute.
- An effort that is often accompanied by imagined conspiracy theory and major marketing dollars involving fraud, deception and polemic rhetoric.
Ceccarelli is largely talking about the religious opposition to evolutionary biology and the opposition to climate science that has emerged from the GOP, fueled by deep-pocketed, oil-stained donors with a huge financial stake in the debate. It is worth pointing out, however, that cable news networks are not merely one medium by which such manufactroversies grow and spread, but they also stand to benefit from their perpetuation. Manufactroversies, like all controversies, give the talking heads something to talk about. All of this talking, however, hasn’t stopped the planet from warming. In fact, it may have made the situation worse. As the infamous 2003 Frank Luntz memo outlining the GOP’s communication strategy on the environment made abundantly clear, the best way to do nothing about climate change is to debate the science and keep the conversation going as long as humanly possible.
Debate is good. Deliberation is good. Conversations—even long, heated ones—are the heart and soul of public life and the essence of political action. The problem with Carol Costello and other purveyors of manufactroversies is not that they are engaging in debate about climate change. The problem is that they’re debating the wrong thing. Agents, even unwitting ones, of the manufactroversy over climate change are like magicians, in that they excel in the art of misdirection: they stall the debate on what ancient rhetoricians would call the stasis of conjecture (what is) rather than the stasis of policy (what we should do). Arguing about what we should do is what politics does best, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. To paraphrase Arendt again, Between Past and Future this time, arguing about facts is what politics does worst.
“Let’s talk about the political aspects of this,” Costello demands of the avuncular Science Guy, who admirably attempts to defend himself and the Science for which he speaks. But what Bill Nye should have said was, “Thanks, Carol, but let’s not. There are people who are suffering from heat exhaustion right now on the East Coast. Crops are failing. The ocean is rising. Let’s not debate why. Let’s talk about something else. The planet is getting hotter. Let’s talk about what we should do.”