A note: This will be my last Media Mayhem column. My friend Ken Edelstein will take over next Monday. Ken is the former Editor of Atlanta’s weekly, Creative Loafing. If you’re from these parts, you already know his talent, and if not, you soon will. 

Here’s a little memory for Memorial Day, but fair warning: There won’t be all that much specific environmental content in here, but what applies to how the world is being covered by the media certainly applies to how the Earth is being covered.

Back in the early 1990s, MTV played music videos, the Weather Channel gave you the weather all day, TBS balanced old movies and Andy Griffith reruns with a healthy slate of wildlife documentaries from Cousteau, Audubon, and others, and TLC and the Discovery Channel were steadily focused on making people smarter.

Now MTV shows cribs and booty, but few music videos; the Weather Channel often suspends meteorology to show prime time destruction documentaries (or as an esteemed colleague of mine calls it, “Disaster Porn”);  the only wilderness on TBS is in Cosmo Kramer’s hair; and TLC and Discovery have pimped out to reality TV with shows like American Loggers -- soap operas with a whiff of the great outdoors.

Also, there’s been something of a merger between two other stalwart genres of the cable world: Increasingly, the news of the day is reported, debated, and shouted about by cartoon characters whose guests are summarily interrupted if they don’t issue pre-approved answers. The only thing that’s missing is having the classic movie channels do the news -- maybe an animatronic Edward G. Robinson or Bette Davis telling us about Darfur and the Somali pirates.

Meanwhile, droves of younger Americans who have written off newspapers, broadcast, and all manner of the “mainstream media” are turning to The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Two shows that exist to make light of the news, and the news business, are now a primary source of news, rivaling their ostensibly more serious rivals for both audience numbers and Emmy and Peabody Awards.

All of this goes high on my list of things I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime, along with:

1) An African-American President embraced by a solid majority of Americans.

2) The Red Sox winning two World Series.

3) The mild-mannered geek who started CraigsList inadvertently becoming the executioner of the newspaper industry while also inadvertently becoming the Wal-Mart of the prostitution industry. Definitely didn’t see that one coming. That’s quite a to-do list, Craig Newmark.

4) A multi-year reenactment of Vietnam in the Middle East.

5) An anti-gay senator (Republican from Idaho) and an anti-prostitution governor (Democrat from New York) getting busted for violating laws while seeking to violate fellow taxpayers while taking hypocrisy to new heights.

And while these are deeply and truly sad (except for numbers 1 and 2), the decline of the media could be the saddest and most costly. Cable’s just the start. With few exceptions, American newspapers are empty shells. Many have died, and the survivors have lost key staff, expertise, and institutional memory. Story count is down, and many advertisers will likely never come back.

Seemingly-unrelated issues like the auto industry’s struggles could be a death blow for many small papers. Last week, GM and Chrysler announced they’d cease dealing with about 2,000 dealers: That’s 2,000 businesses that were probably all key newspaper advertisers in their markets. A few weeks ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution issued a whistle-through-the-graveyard report saying that its online circulation rose enough to make up for the 19% of its hard-copy audience that it lost in a year. Nineteen percent in a year. Replacing paying readers with free readers isn’t a business plan; it’s a death wish. Stacy Shelton, the AJC’s first-rate environmental reporter, took a buyout and left the paper, leaving the beat uncovered not just at Atlanta’s paper, but throughout the state.

The network TV broadcasts are gamely hanging in: Anne Thompson at NBC files environment stories fairly frequently. This story on the status of Antarctic ice cover, runs about a minute and a half, which is actually a long story for nightly network news.

Bill Blakemore at ABC has done a great job following the climate change story. But ABC also lets John Stossel get away with pontificating, editorializing, and hawking books and personal appearances to push his libertarian, evidence-free agenda opposing environmental regulation and denying climate change. All this while holding the “anchor” title at ABC’s 20/20 show. Stossel was forced to make an on-air apology for fudging facts and ignoring evidence in a segment he did attacking organic foods. His ethically-cleansed official ABC biography ignores this, but mentions that he was soon after promoted to anchorman.

And a shout-out for two friends and former colleagues: Daniel Sieberg of CBS frequently does environmental stories while also focusing on technology. Miles O’Brien, who was bounced from CNN along with five producers and myself last December, focused on climate change regularly. Scott Pelley of CBS News’s 60 Minutes also frequently focuses on environmental issues.

NBC’s Thompson has her work frequently featured on MSNBC; CNN has run an annual multi-part special called Planet in Peril for the past two years. Fox News frequently gives a fawningly high profile to environmental skeptics, without offering either a hint of their own journalistic skepticism, or an opposing view.

There are bright spots in this generally bleak landscape: Websites like this one, and blogs like those done by Andy Revkin of the New York Times can offer solid information. Note that Revkin, the Times’ lead environment writer, says that he now spends 50% of his time on the blog, rather than the newspaper. For both, the question remains whether their audience reaches beyond the already-converted.

There’s a great professional organization, the Society of Environmental Journalists. I’ve been a member since 1992, and a board member for three years. SEJ provides an anchor for environment reporters who are usually the only ones in their newsrooms who understand these issues, or appreciate their importance.

Environmental journalism has been around long enough to have its own strong track record. Like any similar endeavor, there have been conspicuous blunders. But looking at the cumulative track record, from Rachel Carson to beat reporters like Phil Shabecoff  -- Revkin’s antecedent at the Times); or Casey Bukro, his contemporary at the Chicago Tribune -- to recent stars like Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker, it’s a track record that looks smarter with each passing day.

My concern is that despite the bright spots and the track record, we’re still dealing with an easily distracted, easily-anaesthetized public that not only doesn’t get it, but frequently doesn’t want to get it. A failing planet is a terrifying concept that invites denial. And denial is one area where human nature has inspired us to excel. When it comes to an informed public in a democracy, ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s toxic.

A note: This will be my last Media Mayhem column. My friend Ken Edelstein will take over next Monday. Ken is the former Editor of Atlanta’s weekly, Creative Loafing. If you’re from these parts, you already know his talent, and if not, you soon will. 


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.) 

Media Mayhem: The state of eco-media
In his final "Media Mayhem" column, Peter Dykstra looks out across the environmental journalism landscape and reflects on what he sees. Is he happy? Sad? Or a h