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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Forget the Anthropocene. Welcome to the Idiocene.

By Peter Dykstra for Environmental Health News

Image result for trump & fake newsThe first glimpses of a Trump Administration in action have, to most citizens in America and abroad, been quite unnerving. Appalling. Unsettling. In other words, everything that his pre-election conduct promised us.

On an almost everyday basis, a new media maelstrom leaves us staring slackjawed at something new: The Wall. The Muslim Ban. Disputes over inaugural crowd size or millions of alleged illegal voters – those two important if only to show an Oval Office capacity for deep self-delusion. His accusations that real journalists publish fake news, while re-tweeting news that is truly fake.

Launching Twitter attacks – by one pre-inaugural estimate once every 42 hours – on reporters, news organizations, sovereign nations, beauty contestants, Gold Star parents, Meryl Streep, Samuel L. Jackson, John Lewis, and at least two future members of his own cabinet, Ben Carson and Nikki Haley. A prime time Supreme Court appointment.


This is a bonanza for some constituencies: Late-night satirists. Tea Partiers. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

But it also plays to the news media’s worst instincts to follow, en masse, the brightest, shiniest object of the day.

And while we’re doing that, the real work of dismantling government – including efforts on health, climate change, and environmental protection – are free to continue without scrutiny, or even in relative secrecy.

Image result for climate news disappears
Climate news coverage disappearing faster than polar ice.
The liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America has tracked the demise of climate reporting on network newscasts for years.  I can't see that trend changing under Donald J. Trump.

Traditional print media and online sources haven’t been nearly as negligent as commercial broadcast news. Old-line media like the Washington Post, New York Times, and the Associated Press have, if anything, upped their game.

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AP science and environment stories are particularly widespread, but for hardly the best of reasons: Stories from the sprawling news nonprofit are being scooped up by daily newspapers whose in-house environment reporting has vanished in the industry-wide meltdown. 

New media and nonprofit news sites are performing nobly, but let’s face it: Collectively, we don’t rate a mention when the administration talks about war against the media.

A prominent industry newsletter, the Tyndall Report, chronicled the steep drop in issue-oriented coverage in TV news during the 2016 campaign. They saved this remarkable line for the exclamation point:
“No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits. To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates' terms, not on the networks' initiative.”
This past week, while the news media obsessed over two genuinely important stories – the “Muslim Ban” and the Supreme Court appointment – here’s what fell into the shadows:
  • Congress rescinded a rule requiring transparency in oil companies' payments to foreign governments.  Let's assume Secretary of State Tillerson is okay with this.
  • An EPA transition team leader floated the notion of firing two-thirds of the agency’s staff.
  • The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pushed its “Doomsday Clock” thirty seconds closer to midnight.
  • The leading U.S. diplomat on the Arctic quietly walked away from the Chairmanship of the multi-nation Arctic Council
  • An executive order directed federal agencies to abolish two regulations for every one new one it creates – a sort of buy one, get one free for the Koch Brothers.
  • Trump promised pharmaceutical executives that the Food and Drug Administration would face a regulatory purge.
  • The Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects were revived by Executive Order.
  • Congress voted to overturn the Stream Protection Rule, which guards 6,000 miles of American streams from surface mine runoff.
  • The potential gutting, or outright abolition, of the Endangered Species Act.
  • The House Science Committee announced a hearing titled “Making the EPA Great Again.”
Each of these items got covered. Then they went away, while the national conversation from network newscasts to trending Twitter stories featured the Ban, and such Earth-shattering figures as LeBron James, Beyoncé and Punxsutawney Phil.

And chances are that someone who reads an environmental page like this one would already know these things. But beyond the small circle of us who follow this stuff closely, the rollbacks, science purges, and outright denial of scientific fact will continue, buried at the bottom of a broad heap of absurdity.

Don’t rely on the nation’s political press to give a rip, or have a clue.

Case in point: In the pundit-fest following President Trump’s Tuesday prime time special announcing Neil Gorsuch, there was little mention of the Gorsuch family’s Washington DC pedigree.

Image result for Neil gorsuch & anne gorsuchGorsuch was branded as a westerner even though he spent much of his adolescence in the capital, watching his mother Anne stage a previous attempt to dismantle EPA.

A CNN reporter named Pamela Brown speculated that many conservatives, for whom “your Momma was an EPA Administrator” would be the highest of insults, would mistrust the nominee.

History much? Of all the Reagan-era appointees, Anne Gorsuch Burford would have been one of the best fits in a Trump cabinet. Her Trump-ish attempts to cripple the EPA were thwarted by a Democratic congress, and her career ended in scandal. The type of scandal that pretty much happens hourly, with little notice or no consequence, in the current administration.

But there’s no need for an ambitious Washington reporter to have known that. Being steeped in knowledge of the environment beat rarely furthers your political journalism career.

Jake Fuentes on the Medium.com offers another angle on this: Many of us presume that our new President is outwardly disjointed in his public utterances. But his media success, so far, is unquestionable. Could the Muslim ban be a conscious headfake to throw the press and public into an uproar while our system of protections is dismantled?

Maybe.

But don’t expect the denial, the harassment of scientists, or the relentless contempt for environmental protection to impress very many people. When the Commander-in-Chief launches a 3 a.m., 140-character hissyfit at an environmental journalist, I’ll know we’ve arrived.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

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