Talk delivered at the Ceres Gallery, New York City, December 13, 2018
Thinking about propaganda, I turned to one of the world’s authorities, Hannah Arendt, who wrote, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” The parallels to our world today are simply frightening. I thought also about the words of the former Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels, who said, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”.
We are living through a different kind of propaganda in our time. Although Trump and other deniers, like James Inhofe, have repeated many times that climate change is a lie and a Chinese hoax, what we are witnessing today is the suppression of truth—scientific truth. It is almost as if we are inhabiting a new Dark Age in which the observations of science are relegated to the status of superstitions. What we don’t know can hurt us—because we are rendered impotent.
This quilt took the covers of three urban newspapers as evidence of this suppression of science in our time. After Hurricane Harvey, the organization Public Citizen documented that, in more than 2000 news items drawn from the nation’s major newspapers, news magazines, and national TV news program, news coverage mentioned “climate change” only 136 times. Further, the study found that just four US news sources accounted for 72 percent of the pieces that did mention climate change—the Washington Post, CNN, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. Only 43 percent of Americans report hearing about climate change in the media at least once a month. We are being propagandized by the absence of information.
Why is this important? In a 1972 study of the 1968 presidential election, McCombs and Shaw demonstrated that the most important issues in the minds of the public were directly related to what the local and national news media reported as the most important issues. Since climate news is rarely reported, we can look to contemporary polls that examine the issues deemed important by today’s public. According to a 2017 Associated Press/NORC poll, Americans identified health care, jobs, immigration, and education as most important, with the environment and the economy tied in fifth place place.
The IPCC’s October 2018 special report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C,” gives humanity twelve years to mitigate climate change before catastrophic feedback loops in the climate system pass the tipping point of remediation. It also reports that the ocean has absorbed thirty percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide, resulting in ocean acidification and changes in carbonate chemistry to the detriment of all ocean species, from algae to fish. The 2018 National Climate Assessment—which New York’s Newsday covered—identifies changes in atmospheric and ocean temperatures, melting glaciers, diminishing snow cover, shrinking sea ice, rising ocean levels, and increasing atmospheric water vapor, a greenhouse gas. How did the editors of the other two newspapers decide that this information wasn’t important?
Do we still have a free press? Or has the American press given itself over to advertisers? Is the press obligated to the public interest or to their shareholders? I think we know the answers and our democracy is in jeopardy.
M. Annenberg is a conceptual artist. Detail from her artwork “No News is Good News” was featured on the cover of Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fateful Times, edited by Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth (Seven Stories Press). Annenberg recently organized a panel entitled “Art, Activism and Global Warming” with Dr. Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. That talk and more available on www.mannenberg.com.