Viewer’s guide to: MEET THE PRESS, Feb. 16, 2014. Scientist Bill Nye and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., discuss the politics of weather emergencies and climate change with host David Gregory. (Transcript, news story.)
Gregory wanted to elude a criticism he thought he could anticipate: that he would give undue forum to the climate change resistance forces by letting Marsha Blackburn do her thing on Meet the Press. He had a plan for that. He also wanted to avoid getting lost in the weeds, which is why he picked Bill Nye, a television communicator, rather than ask a climate scientist to debate Blackburn. As the Washington Post put it: “Perhaps Nye — who has perfected communicating complex subjects to children — will have more success.”
Earlier, a simple count by Media Matters showed that Meet the Press had almost entirely avoided the subject of climate change for a year. But now they had a news peg. “This extreme weather moment… is there new urgency to act?”
Embedded in that frame was the show’s design for avoiding a cartoon debate about climate change, in which the existence of any scientific consensus is disputed and the segment is overtaken by reactions and counter-reactions, with the host looking weak for not pushing back hard enough on the denialism when it appears, leading to charges of false balance.
Gregory saw all that coming. His plan was to push back hard, and insist that the discussion “move on.” Meet the Press was going to transcend the dispute over “is it happening?” by asking: what are we going to do about it? The lead-in referred to a “new focus on the need for action,” as against another fruitless exchange about whether the earth is warming and human action is the cause.
Having ignored the debate, Meet the Press figured it would step in and advance the debate. But in order to push back, as David Gregory self-consciously planned to do, you had to have someone pushing, first. You needed as a Meet the Press guest a figure whose way of flirting with denialism was to go there on camera: a show off. Only against that ground could Gregory show up as a figure of resistance.
His resistance included quotations from the Atlantic magazine about consensus in the Republican party moving off the rejection of climate science toward a focus on the costs to address it, and from a large corporation that had begun moving toward acceptance. (Message: Meet the Press is Advancing the Debate.) Other resistance moves included saying before he asked his first question, “In the scientific community, this is not really a debate about whether climate change is real. The consensus is that it is,” responding to Blackburn by reminding her of that consensus, and interrupting at one point after Blackburn tried to say, “There is not consensus there” to re-assert what the real issue is: not whether the earth is warming due to human action, but what to do about it. He also cut Bill Nye short to inject: “I want to stick to the point about what’s going to happen in the future with policy.”
Blackburn’s gambit was to smile and nod and say “that’s right” or “you’re exactly right” when David Gregory said the issue was what to do about climate change — playing along with the Advance the Debate premise — and then slip in when she could the denialist message: the science is unproven, there’s disagreement among scientists, what about the benefits of more carbon in the atmosphere? This naturally led Bill Nye to object, bringing on the very discussion that Advance the Debate was meant to transcend, which then allowed David Gregory (the adult) to continually re-focus things on “what to do.”
Gregory thought he would outwit his critics by accepting the validity of the false balance critique and becoming the enforcer of scientific consensus. Of course, there’s a simpler way to accomplish that: just don’t put on the air political figures who flirt with denialism! The problem with that: David Gregory doesn’t get to interrupt and set things right. He can’t vivify his intention to Advance the Debate and show off what he’s learned from the critics.
Finally, in his self-awareness David Gregory overlooked one big thing. Creating confusion works just fine as a mode of resistance to the scientific consensus he thought he was advancing. (See this study.) Because his Advance the Debate segment required that denialism make an appearance, so that it could be visibly gotten beyond, and because no one on Meet the Press had any intention to stick with the topic long enough to sort out the confusing things Blackburn injected (like the benefits of more carbon) the actual result was an informational mess. Which advances nothing.
That’s what I recommend you watch for. Now watch: