Journalists As Prophets: From the Climate Change Story to the Great Flood

August 15, 2008


Editor's note: We are fortunate to be able to excerpt a small bit of The Environment and the Press: From Adventure Writing to Advocacy, by Mark Neuzil, that many SEJ members will find interesting, a history of environmental journalism and its roots. We have removed the footnotes from this section, taken from Chapter Two, "Journalism's Prophetic Voice." 

A modern-day environmental journalist, perhaps as much as any reporter, is called on to write stories about what might happen in the future. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the number of words filed on the subject of climate change. Scientists, the journalists' primary sources on these stories, are in agreement that global warming (an increase in the planet's mean atmospheric temperatures as a result of human activity) is of major concern.

Ross Gelbspan, a former special projects editor with The Boston Globe, has focused on the climate change story. His 1997 book, The Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle over Earth's Threatened Climate, was read by President Clinton and attacked by the fossil fuel industry. The book's opening sentences seemed to conjure ancient images of disaster: the city of New Orleans, after going through the winters of 1990 to 1995 without a killing frost, was overrun by mosquitoes, cockroaches, and termites who were biting, infecting, and chewing their way through town. Other images that recalled biblical disasters, including floods, heat waves, heavy rain, snowstorms, and droughts, were all vividly described in the first few pages.

Although Gelbspan's book described modern climatic events and the political machinations surrounding the greenhouse gas issue, some of his reporting was predictive (and still heavily sourced). For example, he wrote about what could happen in coastal communities around the world should sea levels rise (twenty-six million refugees from Bangladesh, twelve million from the Egyptian delta, twenty million from India, and as many as seventy to one hundred million from China would be forced to evacuate). Many scientists quoted by the author relied on computer models to estimate what might take place. In his conclusions, Gelbspan departed from a more traditional standard of objective journalism by offering remedies to the problem ("a change in our energy technologies") and by criticizing foot-dragging politicians ("partial and inadequate measures"). "The pervasive denial of global warming that so frustrates the reporter in me could perhaps change with equal suddenness," he wrote. One reviewer, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called Gelbspan "impatient." At least one conservative critic called him a false prophet. (Gelbspan anticipated such criticism in a forty-one page appendix.)

In his way, Gelbspan was following a path of prophesying that has its roots in ancient texts. The prophets for whom books are named in the Bible—Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and the others—began appearing about eight hundred years before Christ; many of them used stories about nature to get their points across. Prophets often appeared during times of great social agitation, which probably helped them get more attention and get their ideas more widely dispersed. Prophets also wrote and spoke both in metaphoric and literal ways to help their audience understand the message. Isaiah is a good example. Although not much is known about him, Isaiah is considered to have been highly educated and from a prosperous if not high-status family, perhaps in Jerusalem. (Scholars debate how much of the book of Isaiah was written by the man himself—not all of it was, because although he prophesied for nearly sixty years, some of what is written in the later chapters describes political circumstances that happened 150 years after his death.) Like the other prophets, Isaiah suffered his share of criticism— the label of false prophet was often thrown at him.

Among the biblical prophets, Isaiah had much to say about the natural world. One of his most famous passages is from chapter 24, in which it is written:

The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.

Isaiah was a product of his time. It would be a mistake to think of him as a journalist, of course, but his words about pollution from 2,800 years ago seem remarkably modern. Many of the ancient writers loved the Earth and its creatures because God created them all, and one way writers would emphasize the consequences of sin was to speak in terms of the destruction of God's landscape. They could imagine little worse in the way of disaster and accountability. Most of what Isaiah wrote (and he and his followers wrote a lot; their book is one of the longest of the prophetic books of the Old Testament) covered the political turmoil of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. The foregoing text was taken from the chapters called "Apocalypse of Isaiah," so described because of the use of themes found in later apocalyptic writings. In verses like those in chapter 24, Isaiah was painting a picture of the destruction of the Earth, not unlike the warnings of modern works like The Heat Is On or The Population Bomb, which in 1968 predicted catastrophe for humanity because of starvation and overpopulation.

Like the job of a journalist (or an economist, or a stock trader, or a meteorologist, or other occupations that traffic in the future), the business of being a prophet was a profession in ancient times. (People who asked for predictions sometimes paid for them.) Although prophecy is a special call by God, some prophets also had a sort of socialization—scholars note that they often used similar language, wore the same types of clothes, and congregated with each other, and many had a self-inflicted scar on the forehead. God was their primary source, and he was quoted through visions, dreams, and other appearances. "Biblical prophets occasionally made predictions about the future course of events, but they never did it to demonstrate how insightful or divinely inspired they were," wrote theologian Barry L. Bandstra. "Their predictions were basically extrapolations from the present state of affairs into the future, based on their knowledge of what God demanded." Prophets were the intermediaries between the human and the divine realms; prediction was part of their job description but not all of it ...

Prophets and the Flood Myth in New Orleans

Few prophesied, dramatic, and near-apocalyptic events in the United States received as much attention as Hurricane Katrina (and three weeks later, Hurricane Rita). On Monday, August 29, 2005, the city of New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf Coast were smashed by a major hurricane that killed at least 1,300 people and left hundreds of others missing and presumed dead. On the Mississippi coast, the storm surge was twenty-eight feet. Lake Pontchartrain rose eleven feet in nine hours. In Pascagoula, Mississippi, winds reached 124 miles per hour. Within a day, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water. Mass media from all over the world focused their attention on the U.S. Gulf Coast and told gripping stories of tragedy, despair, and death. In the days that followed, attention fell on the local newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Notably, the newspaper continued to publish, online, for two days even while its journalists were forced to evacuate their offices due to the rising waters. (The newspaper reported thirty million hits on its Web site per day for four days after the hurricane hit, and that was with its popular "Bourbon Street Webcam" inoperable.) After publishing online only, the paper set up shop in Baton Rouge and trucked papers around the region from a printing plant in Houma. It never missed a publication day. The newspaper won Pulitzer Prizes for public service and breaking news.

Amid the attention paid to Louisiana's largest newspaper was the prophetic work that reporters John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein had done three years earlier, in 2002. In a five-part series of fifty thousand words entitled "Washing Away: How South Louisiana Is Growing More Vulnerable to a Catastrophic Hurricane," the journalists eerily predicted much of what would happen to the city if it was struck by a powerful storm. "Hurricanes are a common heritage for Louisiana residents, who until the past few decades had little choice in facing a hurricane but to ride it out and pray," they wrote. Some people paid attention to only parts of the story (a common result for a prophet), other people ignored the message altogether, and some probably prayed. (Their editor jokingly called their investigative work "disaster porn.") The series estimated that, should a storm of a Category 3 or higher magnitude hit, levees would fail, numerous deaths would occur, evacuation would be difficult, and that as a result of human actions, the effects of a storm would make the area more vulnerable, not less. "We knew it was going to happen. They knew it was going to happen," Schleifstein said later.

McQuaid and Schleifstein are veteran journalists who shared a Pulitzer in 1997; they often work in the "moral order" investigative tradition as described by Glasser and Ettema. (Theologians also understand the work of the prophets as a form of moral discourse.)

Hurricane Katrina may have been "the most comprehensively predicted catastrophe in American history." In February 2005, National Geographic News reported that the ongoing loss of wetlands along Louisiana's Gulf Coast would make the region more vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. The story included comments from scientists. "With the rapidly depleting wetlands, people that have lived in south Louisiana can tell that, over the last 30 years, large storms now come in faster, and the water rises faster, which gives less time to respond and less time to evacuate," said Denise Reed, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of New Orleans. "In the next few years it's going to get worse." Reed was right—except that it got worse in the next few months. Other media, including Scientific American, National Public Radio's All Things Considered news show, Civil Engineering magazine, and the New York Times, also reported on the potential danger.

The Times-Picayune's analysis by McQuaid and Schleifstein suggested that St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans, to name two areas, were much more at risk in a storm than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had predicted. Among the accurate forecasts was this: "Evacuation is the most certain route to safety, but it may be a nightmare. And 100,000 without transportation will be left behind." And this: "Hundreds of thousands would be left homeless, and it would take months to dry out the area and begin to make it livable. But there wouldn't be much for residents to come home to. The local economy would be in ruins." In an unfortunate twist, Schleifstein lost his home to more than ten feet of water and, months later, herniated a disk in his back while moving garden bricks. For weeks, some of his journalism awards lay in his backyard amid the ruins, thrown out in hopes they might dry in the sun. One blog labeled Schleifstein a "Jewish environmental journalist as Jonah" and said "prophesy was not [his] intent," but it praised his accuracy.

In invoking Jonah, the blog writer took note of Schleifstein's reluctance to assume the mantle of preacher, rather than the outcome of his prophecy. The story of Jonah, who lived sometime in the fourth or fifth century B.C. (or earlier), is of someone called by God to preach repentance to the citizens of Nineveh. He refused and fled on a ship that was sailing as far away as he could get. A great storm hammered the craft, throwing the crew into panic. When the men found out Jonah was on board, running from his duty to his God, they—at his suggestion—threw the reluctant missionary overboard. God sent a giant fish to swallow him, and, after three days, the fish spat Jonah safely on shore, from where he sped to Nineveh and commenced preaching. Nineveh repented in the nick of time, God spared it, and Jonah's prophecy of doom did not come true. He became a prophet of God in spite of himself.

Understandably, the myth of Jonah and the big fish (often represented as a whale) has resonated through the ages. The seventeenth-century English author Izaak Walton, whom we will hear more from later, wove Jonah into The Complete Angler, his treatise on fish and fishing: "I might tell you that Almighty God is said to have spoken to a fish, but never to a beast; that he hath made a whale a ship, to carry and send his prophet, Jonah, safe on the appointed shore." Herman Melville and George Orwell made use of the story, as did Aldous Huxley and many other producers of cultural messages, including American minstrel singers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Grandpa Jones and Mike Seeger. Clarence Darrow mockingly used his opponent's literal reading of the story of Jonah in his questioning of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.

It may be more accurate to compare McQuaid and Schleifstein to the Greek mythological figure of Cassandra. The daughter of the king and queen of Troy, Cassandra was granted the ability to see into the future after she caught the eye of Apollo. She did not return Apollo's love, so Apollo placed a curse on her that resulted in no one believing her predictions. Schleifstein said he had heard such comparisons; he said he'd also been called Nostradamus. A sixteenth-century French prophet who has resonated in popular culture as supposedly predicting the rise of Hitler, 9/11, the French Revolution, and the atomic bomb, Nostradamus in fact did not mention any of those disasters in his vague and handily dateless writings. (And on several occasions he denied claiming to be a prophet.)

The prophetic impulse and the myth of the flood came together in the coverage of a major environmental disaster along the Gulf Coast of North America in 2005. There is a well-known phrase about a "prophet being without honor in his own land" that would sometimes apply to reporters. Journalists do not think of themselves as prophets, nor do they think of themselves as telling and retelling ancient myths. "Yet like myth tellers of every age, journalists draw from archetypal stories to make sense of events," (journalism scholar Jack) Lule wrote. "They draw from sacred, societal stories that celebrate shared values, counsel with lessons and themes, instruct and inform with exemplary models." Some of these stories were told by prophets.

Mark Neuzil teaches journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.,. and is a former SEJ board member. His new book, The Environment and the Press: From Adventure Writing to Advocacy, will be published July 16 by Northwestern University Press. 

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