The news media sets the agenda for public conversation by determining what stories it will cover outside of hard news such as wars, mass murders and celebrity breakups. This week we have a perfect example of the great disservice that the news media does in the way it currently determines what issues to make the focus of discussion in the marketplace of ideas.
The other day I told you about the survey that found that about half of television weather personalities don’t believe in global warming. The news media used the study, which was really an analysis of a barrier to communicating about global warming to the public, as a platform for keeping the question of if there is or is not global warming on the table. Of course the funny but disheartening problem with this line of reasoning is that half of all TV weather personalities are not meteorologists and meteorologists for the most part never study climatology, the science involved in predicting global warming.
As of yesterday, the second day after the release of this study, there were 96 stories that you could pull up on Google news. When I checked while writing this blog entry, it was the third day and the number was up to 108.
Compare those numbers to a study of 800 registered voters commissioned by Transportation for America and Smart Growth America, two groups in favor of more mass transit. The study, released yesterday, found that 51% of those surveyed would pay more in taxes for more and better public transit.
Wow! In the privatized car culture of this (still) Age of Reagan, that finding is stunning: Slightly more than half of all Americans will pay higher taxes for mass transit.
More study results: Transportation for America poll
- 59 percent said public transportation was a better way to reduce congestion than building or expanding roads.
- 57 percent said they would like to spend less time in their cars.
- 82 percent said America would benefit from expanded transit.
This poll shows that the U.S. is hungry for mass transit, which has ramification on key decisions we have to make concerning how we address global warming, the predicted shortage of oil and public investments and tax credits to stimulate job growth. By the way, some 73% of the survey takers say they currently have no access to mass transit.
To my way of thinking, this poll is important enough to appear on the front page of the New York Times, just as the study on TV weather personalities did. But clearly I’m out of sync with the mainstream in my belief that arguing over public transit is more important than arguing over a proven scientific theory. The New York Times did not cover the story at all.
In fact hardly anybody did. Today, the second day of the study, Google News showed only 17 stories about the public transit survey. That’s about 18% of the number of stories about what TV weather personalities think of the theory of global warming.
The mainstream news media has been delighted to give voice to non-experts on scientific matters, so ready to publicize the illogical rants of the sliver of the population in the original “Tea Party” movement. Yet as a group they have completely ignored what appears to be a sea change in the will of the people regarding public transportation. Of course, there is an array of special interests aligned against mass transit, including those who benefit from the sales of automobiles, those who don’t want to raise taxes ever and those who are suspicious of anything having to do with city life. Evidently these opponents are so strong that they manage to keep issues of public transit out of the media for the most part, except for the occasional “gloom-and-doom” stories when public transit systems have to cut back service because they have been starved for funding since the Reagan administration.
To truly understand the absurdity of this situation, let’s take a hypothetical trip back to the 1940’s and ask ourselves: Would we rather have seen public debate on whether or not Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was really true OR on if the U.S. should be developing an atomic bomb? I think the answer is obvious: whether to build an atom bomb or not involves complicated issues of military, economic, political, political philosophy and ethics, just like building more public transit does. Whether or not Einstein was right or wrong can only be decided by analyzing scientific data, not by gathering opinions, just like the theory of global warming.
Let’s put the comparison in the coverage these two studies have received into a broader context of hard news. There are currently more than 9,000 stories about the Moscow Metro bombings and their aftermath on Google News.