The Silencing of Science in the American Press
According to the comedian Stephen Colbert, we live in an era of “truthiness”: a gray zone between truth and lies.
My investigation of the under-reporting of climate news and scientific studies in the mainstream American press has revealed a contradiction between our climate emergency and the role of our press in its elucidation. My artwork documents this lack of reportage by deconstructing whether major scientific studies, such as the National Climate Assessment and the IPCC Assessments, were reported close to the front page by major national news outlets, if at all.
American democracy is skating on thin ice, when the potential loss of drinking water for one billion people because of melting glaciers, is not considered news. With the Arctic Circle warming faster than the rest of the world, retreating glaciers will affect agriculture, industry, consumption, and population displacement, even if the goal of one and a half degrees warming is met. The Guardian newspaper stated, “A Third of Himalayan Ice Cap Doomed.”
Was this hyperbole or fake news? It was neither—a close reading of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Assessment finds that even if the rest of the world limits emissions, the Himalayan mountain range will heat 0.3 to 0.7 degrees higher.
Why should we, in America, care? The Himalayan glacier feeds the Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Yangtze, Huang He, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, and Salween rivers, which provide drinking water and irrigation for 1.5 billion people in nine countries. Where will people go? If emissions are not kept under 1.5 ppm, potentially two thirds of the Himalayan glacier could melt. My mixed-media installation Hush my Kush reveals the lack of editorial urgency to get this information to the American people. It compares the reporting of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Assessment by the New York Times and seven other leading national newspapers, which did not report the assessment.
My quilted artwork, It’s the Agenda, Stupid, documented the absence of the reporting of the National Climate Assessment. The lead author of that assessment was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This report clearly stated that the burning of coal, gas, and oil and the clearing of forests have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. New York’s Newsday, included in this quilt, made The National Climate Assessment a full-page headline on their front page. Where were the rest of America’s editors?
Because we have been raised to think that our press is the envy of the free world, we believe it to be so. On closer examination though, one must conclude that this is no longer true. In fact, the 2022 World Press Freedom Index places America at number forty-two in press freedom. According to agenda-setting theory, outlined by McCombs and Shaw in 1968, if a news item is covered frequently, then the American people will regard it as important. The lack of climate-related news, documented in Public Citizen’s 2018 report, Storms of Silence, states that because so little climate news is reported, we are at a loss to understand the gravity of global warming. According to the 2022 Yale study, Climate Change in the American Mind, 41 percent of our population is dismissive, doubtful, disengaged, or uncertain whether global warming is human-caused.
Welcome to the brave new world of inverse propaganda! News that is unreported can hurt us.
Freedom of the press has come to mean that the press is free not to report the news. The irony is that the press is not the “enemy” of the people because of news that is reported—it’s the enemy of the people because of news that is withheld.
Coming clean in acknowledging influences when presenting a completed work of art
No artist works in an environment devoid of all influences. It is certainly known that through the early ages many inventions were conceived independent of any awareness of another person working on the same concept. Some self-taught artists evolve their craftsmanship as they work, somewhat isolated, through experimentation and trial and error, and do not look elsewhere for guidance or ideas.
When an artist’s style, palette, brushstroke, or subject matter is emulated or highly influential on another artist, at what point does professional etiquette direct the artist to give acknowledgement to that fact? Homage can be incorporated into the title, referencing the artist dead or alive.
In this vein, when the inclusion of “after (an artist’s name)” follows the work’s title, should that be the acknowledgement of the “influenced” rather than the labeling of a gallery, curator, or other authority who scrutinized the authenticity of the work in question?
Trends run freely through art communities and are frequently embraced by artists as they evolve and are easily recognized in contemporaneous works of art. This reality is so much a part of most artists’ evolution, to learn or be impressed by someone else’s technique or process, its essence incorporated in subsequent works intentionally or subliminally.
I grew up in the state where Louise Nevelson and Bernard Langlais have become the most renowned assemblage artists from the state of Maine. Because I work with assemblage, am I obliged to give homage to them because I put things in boxes or create representations of animals, when I personally feel there has been no direct co-opting of style or methodology?
This photo is funny and was created to push the idea of what is actually true. Could a fish be smoking that cigarette? No, but it was staged to look that way. Much of the world around us in social media is staged as well. Does that make it true? Now, with AI, it’s becoming harder and harder to see what is true and what isn’t.
Reality is overrated most of the time. Then there’s the concept of multiple realities all operating at the same time in eleven different dimensions, as they posit in string theory in physics. So, who really knows! Reality seems relative to one’s perceptions and privilege, I’m realizing as I age.
Even with photography, I want to mix it up with the abstract. The imaginary world is the one that I mostly create in, it seems, or by adding imaginary things to real situations and landscapes; hello Photoshop, my old friend.
Picasso once stated that “art is the lie that reveals the truth.”
My recent paintings use deception to tease the mind and excite the eye. They confront the viewer with layered imagery that presents sliding color planes and shifting spatial forms so that ambiguity triumphs over stability. As my artist/wife observes, “There is no fixed perspective, no unifying horizon line, no single center point. All is in anxious flux: up/down, back/forward, left/right, which provides no hierarchy of interest.”
How does one understand one’s place in our visual world of contradictions, along with the cacophony of sound that bombards us in daily life? Do my artistic expressions unconsciously provoke a need to understand contemporary society? Are they metaphoric in content? In visual art, the frame can provide a stopping point, a place of demarcation or orientation. Once again my wife would comment that within each of these paintings “there is an urgent need for reconciliation, a desire for community, a hope that in the finite space of each frame’s containment, there is a collaboration to bring all the divergent elements together in a greater harmony.”
As I now surmise, my works are an outward manifestation of an inner recognition of what life demands of each of us in the 21st century. Today, there is an urgent need for a greater tolerance and appreciation of multiplicity.
Image at top: M. Annenberg, Hush my Kush, mixed media, 66 x 66 in., 2019 (photo: Jean Vong).