Murdoch's News Corp Plays Both Sides of the Green Game
"Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats," Rupert Murdoch declared in a 2007 speech announcing News Corp.'s new climate initiative. "We may not agree on the extent, but we certainly can't afford the risk of inaction."
"We can do something that's unique, different from just any other company," said Murdoch. "We can set an example, and we can reach our audiences. Our audience's carbon footprint is 10,000 times bigger than ours.
"That's the carbon footprint we want to conquer."
Four years later, News Corp. has achieved its goal of carbon neutrality. Yet no media outlet in the United States does more to aggressively undermine climate science than Fox News. The network regularly distorts data, fabricates controversies, and smears climate experts. One of Fox's top editors has even ordered reporters to cast doubt on the basic fact that the planet is warming. And Sean Hannity has used his Fox show to tell viewers that global warming "doesn't exist."
The contrast between what News Corp.'s chairman says and what its employees actually do is a stark illustration of the company's attempt to play both sides of the climate issue.
When Murdoch launched his company-wide initiative to radically reduce News Corp.'s carbon footprint and combat climate change, one business expert said that it "could be one of the most brilliant strategic moves I've ever heard of."
With Fox News, explained Joe Priester of the University of Southern California, News Corp. had secured a lucrative spot with conservative consumers but had alienated those at the opposite end of the political spectrum. By launching its climate initiative, the company could make a play for more liberal consumers too.
But now Murdoch's attempt to promote -- and profit from -- contradictory messages on climate change could put News Corp. on a collision course with its green-conscious advertisers, as environmental organizations that have partnered with the company start to speak out on the damage being done by Fox News.
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Both Murdoch and his son -- heir-apparent James Murdoch, who has cultivated an image as an environmentally-savvy businessman -- have heralded the financial benefits of News Corp.'s climate initiative. The company's focus on energy efficiency has, they say, saved it millions of dollars while simultaneously cutting carbon emissions.
But News Corp.'s climate program -- officially named the "Global Energy Initiative" -- boosts its bottom line in another important way: it's very appealing to advertisers.
During his 2007 launch speech, Murdoch said the initiative was, in part, about "how we develop relationships with advertisers," later adding, "Our advertisers are asking us for ways to reach audiences on this issue."
Three years after Murdoch's kickoff event, Liba Rubenstein, the director of the initiative, made a similar case at a conference hosted by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "[W]e see great opportunity in incremental revenue from various companies who want to promote their own green practices on our platforms, and so it's important for us to be a legitimate platform for that, if they're going to spend their dollars with us," she told attendees.
There's an undeniable disconnect between the climate-activist image News Corp. promotes at a corporate level and the skepticism Fox News dishes out to audiences on a regular basis.
Successfully profiting off of both, therefore, requires some serious spin from corporate representatives.
In News Corp.'s annual report, shareholders are told Fox News is an "unstoppable" profit machine, with ever-increasing affiliate and advertising revenues, and a reach that spans "over 98 million Nielsen households."
Similarly, in the run-up to negotiations with cable distributors this year, News Corp. chief operating officer Chase Carey told an investor conference, "Fox News Channel, in terms of finding a channel that has the enormous importance to its segment of the market is second only to ESPN."
Setting the stage for significant fee increases, Carey said, "That's what you live for in the cable business to have a channel that a sizeable segment of the audience needs to have. We head into our renewals on Fox News later this year in a big way. We have an opportunity to move Fox News to a place where we are able to capture the inherent value and importance of that channel to the marketplace out there."
But when speaking to a different constituency -- environmental advocates -- News Corp.'s message changes significantly. At last year's Pew Center conference, for example, Rubenstein actually downplayed the reach of Fox News.
In a panel discussion, the Pew Center's Katie Mandes asked Rubenstein how News Corp. "interface[s] with Fox News," which Mandes described as "particularly representative of the skepticism" on climate change.
In her response, Rubenstein did not deny that Fox News promotes climate change skepticism. Rather, she said it was an issue of "corporate versus editorial" and that the company would never "mandate" content in any of its businesses. Rubenstein then suggested that relatively speaking, the network wasn't watched by very many people.
"Fox News," said Rubenstein, "only reaches a few million":
It's also important to remember, we are -- everyone here is very focused on the U.S., certainly the world is looking at the U.S. from a political perspective to be a leader, but for us, when we think about reaching a billion people, Fox News only reaches a few million, so, in the grand scheme of things for my initiative, when we're talking about penetration and awareness, what we do in India and China, is also very important. I'm not going to say more important, but it certainly reaches a lot more people. So Fox News is obviously influential, but it's not large, compared to Avatar, compared to our films and our TV shows. So, that is, for us, a lot of where we spend our time because the reach is much broader.
News Corp. has built an extremely successful cable news brand around a variety of high-profile personalities -- such as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck -- who broadcast climate misinformation on a regular basis.
These hosts tell their audiences: "The debate's over. There's no global warming"; "We're in a cooling period"; and "Do I believe scientists? No. They've lied to us about global warming."
This misinformation campaign has spread across the so-called divide between Fox News' "news" and "opinion" programming. An internal directive straight from the top of Fox's Washington news bureau -- sent by Washington managing editor Bill Sammon in the middle of global climate change talks in December of 2009 -- ordered the network's journalists to "refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question."
The Sammon email prompted harsh criticism from the Union of Concerned Scientists, former Vice President Al Gore, and groups cited by News Corp. itself as authorities on climate change. The Los Angeles Times editorialized: "Instructing reporters to treat such facts as controversial is like telling them to question the laws of gravity when discussing plane crashes. The only reason for doing it is to further a partisan agenda, in this case an attempt to cast doubt on climate science in order to fend off government efforts to limit greenhouse gases."
All of this may pose problems for News Corp.'s strategy of pursuing environmentally conscious audiences and advertisers.
Professor Kim Sheehan -- an expert in advertising and brand planning at the University of Oregeon who has worked on issues related to environmental messaging -- told Media Matters that certain green-conscious advertisers could do damage to their brands by advertising on Fox News.
In an email, Sheehan said, "If a green message talks about efforts to combat climate change and it airs after a Fox News report on climate change being a sham, that is clearly not good. Since this is out of advertisers' control (ie placement relative to content) it would seem like smart brands with that particular type of message would avoid Fox News. A different type of message, like the SunChips compostable bag, might be less risky and so those brands might be OK."
Shortly after Sammon's email was publicized, Zoe Tcholak-Antitch of the Carbon Disclosure Project -- a non-profit climate organization that has partnered with News Corp. and other companies seeking to reduce emissions -- told Media Matters, "It is very disturbing to hear of [Sammon's] e-mail because it just goes further to sow seeds of doubt among the American population then makes it more difficult for the politicians to stand up for any type of legislation on climate change if they want to get elected."
She added, "It obviously does have an impact on the American public. We are facing an issue that needs to be dealt with in a timely fashion. The danger is that this delays action."
(Lawmakers apparently share this concern. Last year, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham reportedly feared a Fox News-led backlash against cap and trade legislation, urging Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Kerry to advance the ill-fated climate negotiation process as much as possible before Fox could find out about it.)
In an interview, the Pew Center's Mandes also outlined the damage Fox News' inaccurate reporting does, telling Media Matters over email that "any major network has the potential to impact public perception" and that "[m]ajor news outlets, such as Fox News, which is trusted by so many Americans, therefore have a special responsibility to translate and present this information factually and with as little ideological bias as possible."
"Unfortunately, while the Pew Center has participated in a couple of straight-forward, fact-based news interviews with Fox News journalists," said Mandes, "I have seen too many examples on Fox of inaccurate coverage of climate change science and economics."
The Pew Center, which is widely regarded as a trusted source on climate change, is also touted by News Corp. as one of its energy initiative partners.
Asked if Rupert Murdoch's stated commitment to addressing global warming -- particularly through audience engagement, which the company maintains is its most powerful outlet for affecting change -- can be taken seriously if the company refuses to rein in Fox's misinformation, Mandes responded: "If News Corp. meets its commitments to limit its carbon footprint through the use of more clean energy, that's a good thing, but the organization would likely have a much greater impact if it reported the news of climate science and economics in as factual and unbiased a way as possible."
Mandes said that Fox News has contributed to the continuing partisan divide over global warming in the U.S. -- a trend that was documented in a recent Pew Research Center study (an organization independent from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change).
"Much of Fox's coverage ... mischaracterizes the fundamental scientific facts of climate change," Mandes said. "Whether by accident or design, these mischaracterizations tend to mirror the mischaracterizations repeated by many leading Republicans. Given that people gravitate to those news sources that affirm their already held views, that Fox News is favored by most Republicans, and that Republican leaders have been using climate change as a wedge issue, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Fox News is contributing to the partisan divide over global climate change."
A University of Maryland study released last December found that those who "watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it" to believe -- mistakenly -- that "most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring."
According to Clay Ramsay, one of the authors of the study, "Among those who reported that they watch Fox News 'almost every day,' a higher 60% had these beliefs -- compared to 30% who said they never watch Fox News."
Asked about Rubenstein's comment at the Pew conference that "Fox News only reaches a few million" people, Ramsay told Media Matters, "It is possible that the characterization of the Fox News audience as 'a few million' is meaningful from the standpoint of advertisers focused on steady, loyal viewers. Another standpoint is to focus on people's sources for factual information.
"In our study, 34% reported that they used Fox News as a news source 2 to 3 times a week or more. Projected onto the US adult population (approximately 185 million), this is 63 million people."
News Corporation and Rubenstein did not respond to requests for comment.