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Chris Hayes and Ali Velshi on How TV News Covers Climate Change

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Interrogating the planet's most important climate thinkers.

On September 23, the United Nations will open is Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, will sweep through thousands of cities across the globe. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer will be publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful themselves.)

Today, MSNBC will host the first half of its two-day Democratic-primary forum on climate change — a full day of climate programming, followed by a second full day tomorrow. Earlier this week, I spoke separately with hosts Chris Hayes and Ali Velshi about the state of climate coverage on television and how each sees the state of the race and the state of the planet. The following Q&A combines the two conversations.

David Wallace-Wells: I look at the last year of climate politics and things seem so different now than they did a year, 18 months ago. Does it seem that way to you?

Ali Velshi: Yeah, I think it’s moved from the kind of thing that people believe is true into the kind of thing people believe is a crisis. There’s definitely been a change in energy. Suddenly, people are talking about this as an imperative. And where the biggest move has come, in full, is from personal behavior into trying to influence institutional and governmental behavior, which I think is where the answer lies. There seems to have been a lot of emphasis on what individuals can do about it. And I think we’ve now understood that if all of us drink from paper straws and drive electric cars, we’re still not going to come close to dealing with our targets. I don’t know what has caused that shift to occur, but it seems to have occurred.

DWW: Has there been any similar change in the way climate is covered on TV?

AV: It was community service a little while ago. Up to a year ago, I was doing hurricane coverage, and when we started doing it in earnest at MSNBC, either Chris or I would insert the discussion about climate change into the coverage. We would sometimes get pushback from people to say, “Now’s not the time to talk about that,” in the same fashion that people, when you cover a shooting, would say, “Now’s not the time to talk about it.”

DWW: Chris, at least in my corner of Twitter, that tweet you sent a year or so ago about climate change being sort of a ratings killer was — that’s been like a talking point ever since.

Chris Hayes: [Laughs] Good God, yes, let’s talk more about that tweet!

DWW: Do you still see things that way? Do you think in general TV news views climate change that way?

CH: The first thing I’d say is I think that people inside media tend to underestimate how much power they have over people’s attention. You’re trying very hard all the time, under incredible pressures of metrics and ratings, to get people’s attention, and sometimes you fail. So it feels like you have very little control over what people pay attention to. And in a corollary fashion, people outside media tend to overestimate how much people inside media can focus attention. They think, like, Oh, if you just cover this, everyone will watch. That’s just not true. There are topics and things that you will do and people just turn away.

But people are paying more attention, and I........

© Daily Intelligencer