BLOG POST

Live Earth: Two Billion Tune In, but the World Press Tunes Out

July 09, 2007
The Audience at the  London Concert From Sunday's Irish Times Web site:

"An estimated two billion people around the world watched yesterday's Live Earth concerts to highlight the problem of climate change. The 24-hour music marathon spanning seven continents saw rappers, rockers and country stars taking to the stage. … U.S. and British media were generally underwhelmed today by Live Earth, the mega-concert organised by former U.S. vice president and green campaigner Al Gore, which, though built on the model of Live Aid and Live 8, created a less positive buzz."

The U.S. and British media were in good company. From a scan of world top-100-circulation newspaper Web sites, here are papers that basically ignored Live Earth as news Sunday morning (circulation in ‘000): Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan (14,067); Bild, Germany (3,867); People’s Daily, China (2,509); The Sun, United Kingdom (2,419); The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea (2,378); USA Today (2,310); The Wall Street Journal (2,107); Times of India (1,680) Thai Rath, Thailand (1,200) New York Times (1,121) Al-Ahram, Egypt (900) Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia (817) The Washington Post (708). KT Tunstall at the New York Concert And here are the world top-100-circulation newspapers that gave Live Earth significant news billing in my quick scan of other Web sites: ZERO. That's not a misprint -- none. Globo Brazil did highlight the Rio concert, but Globo's not in the world top 100. Perhaps, you may think, it's because the media had weightier things to convey Sunday morning. Well, for example, the Washington Post joined Fox News in giving front-page billing to the Roswell UFO Festival in New Mexico, while relegating Live Earth to the Style section. A picture strip in the Post, along front-page-bottom, identified some Live Earth stars but said nothing about the event. Fox News' Web site contributed a picture of Shakira pulling up her tank top at the London concert, and a reference to polluters in Madonna's investment portfolio. What's up here? If two billion people watch anything at the same time, it's surely news.

And Live Earth's what-you-can-do spots between songs undoubtedly constituted the largest mass tutorial ever conducted on a topic of global interest. The spots were consistently interesting, practical and to the point, and Whoopi Goldberg delivered them with class. On these grounds alone, the world press should have tuned in. I learned (or was reminded) about some things myself, and made a couple of changes overnight. 12 Girls Band at the Shanghai Concert

So what's with the press mavens? Maybe the Post policy reporters fancied themselves too high-brow to share a seat with the "common herd," and the U.K. Sun reporters were too busy flashing on Shakira's belly-dancing. But Live Earth got minimal Web site attention even from USA Today, which usually likes low-key/didactic. In the Drudge Report, on the other hand, Live Earth was all over the lead section Sunday, albeit with predominantly (but not entirely) negative/skeptical spin (it's Drudge, after all). But at least Drudge got it -- this was definitely news.

Is this more evidence that the traditional news media have lost touch with the new mass global audience, particularly the youth audience? Is their dismissal of Live Earth equivalent to harrumphing from the upper deck of the Titanic about the commotion in steerage? Does the reaction to Live Earth herald a dying press, or are the print media the last bastion of reality as the globe goes virtual?

In some ways, I think this meta-story is as interesting as the story itself. My own take is that it's about the sometimes-perverse politics of symbolism. Live Earth was intended to be symbolic as well as catalytic, and the press push-back has also been symbolic (big carbon bills for the stars' jet travel, Madonna's polluting investments, etc.). But Live 8 was also symbolic and star-laden, and it received more favorable treatment from the press. To reinforce the point, today's New York Times quotes Bob Geldof, the organizer of Live 8: "'Live Earth doesn't have a final goal,' he said in May, adding that it would be useful only if it forced politicians and corporations to announce concrete environmental measures." This has to mystify anyone who heard Al Gore recite the Live Earth pledge on Saturday. It has clear final goals: a target for rapid carbon emissions reduction, and election of politicians who will follow through. It's tempting to conclude that the press still doesn't view the climate crisis as co-equal with global problems that have inspired past music festivals. Live Earth may also be haunted by the quest for symbolic purity in environmental discourse, which sometimes risks invoking Groucho Marx: "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member." The invocation of purity in the global climate quest is all very well, but it implies that we can afford to wait for something better to come along. Suppose, on the other hand, that the press mavens perceived the climate crisis as Godzilla, and right offshore at that. Then, without doubt, they would advocate riding with the devil himself to do battle.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.