Monday, October 17, 2005

Accountability and penguins


I regard Bill Moyers as a national treasure. He is without question one of the more outstanding 20th century American journalists. Though his penchant for rhetoric has been aggressively (and fairly) criticized in the last few years, he remains an active and vital personality. In the course of the last decade, Moyers has become an outspoken defender of sensible environmental standards.

However, reading the transcript of his recent speech at the Society of Environmental Journalists Convention in Texas (found via Sustainablog), I was dismayed to discover a glaring natural history error.

In the speech, Moyers discusses "March of the Penguins," the popular film released earlier this year. He suggests that the filmmakers make a terrible mistake in not including a segment on global warming. Moyers reminds his audience of "...those reports...that the Arctic has suffered another record loss of sea ice."
"This summer, satellites monitoring the region found that ice reached its lowest monthly point on record - the fourth year in a row it has fallen below the monthly downward trend. The anticipated effects are well known: as the Arctic region absorbs more heat from the sun, causing the ice to melt still further, the relentless cycle of melting and heating will shrink the massive land glaciers of Greenland and dramatically raise sea levels. Scientists were quoted saying that with this new acceleration of melt the northern hemisphere may have crossed a critical threshold beyond which the climate cannot recover."
Of course, all of this is true, but what does it have to do with penguins? Moyers continues:
"If you've seen the film 'March of the Penguins,' you know it is a delight to the eye and a tug at the heart. The camera follows the flocks as they trek back and forth over the ice to their breeding ground. You see them huddle together to protect their eggs in temperatures that average 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. So powerful and beautiful a film can only increase one's awe of our small neighbors far to the north."
Oh, no he didn't! "Our small neighbors far to the north"? Given my opinion of the man, it pains me to point out that penguins don't live in the Arctic, or anywhere near it. They are creatures of the southern hemisphere, concentrated in Antarctica. The Arctic is home to many species endangered by the accelerating melting associated with global warming - the polar bear is the most notable example - but penguins, no matter the species, are not one of them.

Folks who think this an innocent, trivial slip by Moyers are also likely to feel that I make too big a deal out of natural history ignorance, but considering that the relationship of Arctic melting and penguins is central to Moyer's speech (in fact, the title of the speech references it), I find it appalling. Where is the journalist who checks his facts so that he can not be taken to task for what he sets down or announces? This is sloppy work; there is no way around it, and I imagine quite a few of the journalists in the room were mortified on Moyers' behalf. I've been tearing my hair out about it since I read it.

Photo credit: New York Times, 2004

1 comment:

Devo said...

Best penguin resource ever:

http://www.bowdoin.edu/~dbensen/Spec/Sphenisciformes.html

Favorite penguin:
Screaming Ninja Penguin of DEATH!!!
(Mortipinguis shinobi)

On a more serious note, I still honor and revere Moyers, even if he does regularly sacrifice chunks of integrity in for vitriolic hyperbole. He's still a bulwark of fournalism and an awe-inspiringly intelligent man.