Have you noticed that most mainstream news media coverage of the climate change summit in France stresses that any agreement will burnish, establish, enhance or cement the legacy of Barack Obama’s presidency?
It’s absurd to conjecture that Obama will be judged by one conference after almost seven tumultuous years in office. He shaped and passed healthcare reform, ended torture, led us in two, and now maybe three wars, had massive budget fights with Republicans, arranged the capture and immediate assassination of than man most responsible for the 9/11 attacks, oversaw an economy that went from 10% unemployment to 5% unemployment, and initiated an immigration plan that the courts may or may not approve as constitutional. Plus he has already made his mark on global warming with his semi-tough regulations and his rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Despite the apparent silliness of the statement, lots of mainstream news media are peddling it, including The New York Times, The Hill, Huffington Post, CNSNews, Washington Examiner, and Politico, among many other media outlets.
What would cause so many editors to pursue what is truly a trivial concern?
I suspect it’s a combination of reasons, mostly venial, including:
It’s an easy story to write. It’s relatively easy to write a story on a legacy. You can build much of the article on a recap of Obama’s past accomplishments and losses in the environmental area, analyze his statements on climate change, as the polite euphemistically call human-induced global warming, and get some experts to chime in about the President’s legacy. It’s much harder to analyze the technicalities and implications of proposed initiatives or to compare the various climate change and economic impact models.
It’s a personality story. As much as possible, the mainstream news media likes to turn all issues into personality stories: Obama versus Boehner; Marco backstabs Jeb; Bush II motivated by Saddam’s diss of his dad; Reagan and O’Neil govern as pals. Donald Trump received enormous media coverage from the very start of his campaign because his obnoxious personality and personal comments about others enabled the media to write about personality without really touching the issues.
It takes our mind off the problem. Focusing on the legacy issue instigates conversations about what Obama’s legacy should be. Those opposed to actions to slow down and address the ravages of climate change should be delighted. They can no longer call into question the facts of global warming, at least not with a straight face. The latest research puts the lie to their long-time fallacy that transitioning from fossil fuels will hurt the economy. But no matter, the mainstream media helps to distract people from the gloomy facts by creating another controversy: what does a conference on climate change mean to the legacy of the widely if unfairly despised first black president? If the talks fail, Obama has in part failed. If Republicans can block any agreement to which Obama agrees in Paris, they have taken down the man and tattered his legacy. The main attraction is no longer what to do about established facts, but a political cat fight.
There are misinformed voters who don’t want the government to take over Medicare and others who don’t like food stamps and other social welfare programs because they wrongly believe that the money goes almost exclusively to blacks. Similarly benighted individuals who support action to address climate change might root against Obama achieving anything of substance at Paris since what is at issue is not preserving the world as we know it for 7.3 billion human inhabitants and our fellow travelers, but something far more important—the legacy of this one man who has attracted so much unwarranted animosity by virtue of being the first black president.