By Amanda Griscom Little
16 May 2007
When Rupert Murdoch, the cantankerous and conservative owner of Fox News, enthusiastically joins the fight against climate change, you know we're past the tipping point on the issue. Think landslide.
Last week, the media mogul pledged not only to make his News Corp. empire carbon neutral, but to persuade the hundreds of millions of people who watch his TV channels and read his newspapers to join the cause. Messages about climate change will be woven throughout News Corp.'s entertainment content, he said, from movies to books to TV sitcoms, and the issue will have an increasing presence in the company's news coverage, be it in the New York Post or on Hannity & Colmes. Yes, as Murdoch told Grist in an exclusive interview on his climate plan, even Fox News' right-wing firebrand Sean Hannity can be expected to come around on the issue.
Murdoch's climate conversion marks a major turning point for a man who has made campaign contributions to numerous conservative Republicans, including recently ousted Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), both of whom have expressed skepticism about the reality of climate change. Now, as Murdoch told Grist, a willingness to address the climate challenge will be a "litmus test" in his political giving.
Still, Murdoch is hardly a sentimental do-gooder. "[A]cting on this issue is simply good business," he said during the launch of his climate plan last week.
Whatever the motivation, News Corp.'s global reach is immense, and its grand climate plan could, if faithfully implemented, have a seismic impact that makes that of An Inconvenient Truth look like a tremor.
I sat down with Murdoch in his midtown Manhattan office after the launch to discuss how he came to embrace the climate cause, what he thinks of President Bush's environmental record, and whether an action hero can drive a hybrid car. (Full disclosure: I have a book contract with HarperCollins, a News Corp. company.)
What motivated you to implement your climate plan? Was there a "conversion moment" when you realized this needed to be a priority?
I grew up in Australia, which is facing its worst drought in 100 years -- that has struck a personal chord for me. I've read about the climate issue over the years, but I was probably a bit more skeptical than my son, James, who's a complete convert, and who converted me. I saw what he did at [British Sky Broadcasting] and we said, well, let's make it company-wide.
So this is an example of younger-generation sensibilities trickling up?
Well, more twisting my arm, at first. But I've become more enthusiastic day by day. I don't think there's any question of my conviction on this issue -- I've come to feel it very strongly. The more I've looked into it, the more I've been able to see what we can do, not just from an operations standpoint but by subtly introducing [the climate issue] into our content.
What do you intend to achieve with your climate plan, and how will you meet your goals?
We want to help solve the climate problem. We'll squeeze our own energy use down as much as we can. We'll become carbon neutral for our own emissions within three years, and be entirely transparent throughout the process, publicly reporting our reductions and offsets. But that's just a start. Our audience's carbon footprint is 10,000 times bigger than ours, so clearly that's where we can have the most influence.
You're known for making business-savvy decisions. What's your bottom-line argument for your climate program?
Whatever it costs will be minimal compared to our overall revenues, and we'll get that back many times over, by running a more efficient company and by growing morale among our employees. This program is a huge morale builder.
What's the business logic of weaving the climate issue into your content?
From what we see within our own company and from reading polls, the younger generation gets the issue of climate change completely. I think it will grow our appeal to younger audiences and bond our programming to them.
What opportunities does it present from an advertising perspective?
There will be a lot of national and international marketers who will want to take advantage of the public mood around climate change. Car manufacturers are going to want to compete on fuel economy, for instance. It may not be the main thrust of their marketing, but we are certainly hearing from advertisers that they want to reach audiences on this issue.
Can you give some examples of how you'll infuse this issue into your programming?
Oh, the opportunities are endless. We own SPEED [a cable channel focused on cars and motor sports], for example -- that's got 60 or 70 million homes it goes into. We can get a lot of green programming in there. We're going to encourage this effort among the writers on all of our entertainment programming, whether it's sitcoms or movies or reality shows. Then there's the online arena, where we have MySpace, where we've already launched a channel dedicated to climate change. MySpace has got 175 million profiles on it, and that represents huge reach among the grassroots.
Do you worry that it will seem awkward to wedge the climate issue into your programming?
No, we've got to make sure it doesn't happen that way. There's got to be a certain degree of gradualism -- it has to feel natural, it has to make sense. Can a hero drive a hybrid car? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But what about a biodiesel SUV?
In your speech, you said, "We want to inspire people to change their behavior." Would you characterize this climate campaign as "activist media"?
There certainly is an activism element to it.
Might that complicate expectations of journalistic objectivity?
We're known for saying what we think in our newspapers. But this will in no way compromise journalistic independence. We're not a monolithic organization. We have on all our media outlets lots of columns representing many different sides.
But do you see Fox News and your newspaper outlets covering the climate issue differently as a result of this program?
Well, certainly giving it more attention. There will be more articles, more references, but the same broad range of opinions.
You said in your speech, "The debate is shifting from whether climate change is really happening to how to solve it." Doesn't that mean that the nature of the coverage would be changing, too?
Yes. I think when people see that 99 percent of scientists agree about the serious extent of global warming, it's going to become a fact of life.
Some of the commentators on Fox News have expressed skeptical views about climate science -- take Sean Hannity, for instance, or Bill O'Reilly. Have you heard any reaction from them to this program, or any backlash within News Corp.?
I haven't discussed it with them yet. And, no, I haven't heard any talk about it. Probably Sean's first reaction will be that this is some liberal cause or something, you know? But he's a very reasonable, very intelligent man. He'll see, he'll understand it. As will Bill -- he just likes to get debate going between people. And that has its benefits -- someone says "No there isn't," someone says "Yes there is," and they have it out for 10 minutes and it's entertaining and creates more consciousness.
You've been a longtime supporter of President Bush. What do you think of his climate strategy?
I've been a supporter and a critic of President Bush. I certainly supported his election. If you want my opinion, I think he's a greenie at heart, but they keep having committees and talking about what they should do, in some cases instead of doing it. I think he's a bad communicator; he should be getting out in front on this issue publicly.
But I think they're doing a lot behind the scenes, with ethanol and corn, for instance. This administration has put a huge amount of funding going toward climate research, and doesn't get any credit for it. It's typical of Bush -- I mean, he's tripled or quadrupled the money going to Africa for AIDS, and you never hear him talk about it.
Will you support, going forward, politicians who are trying to block action on climate change?
No. I think that that would be a litmus test, almost. If you had someone who is totally opposed to doing anything about climate change, I would oppose them.
Would you want them to support a mandatory cap on carbon emissions?
I would agree with that, to an extent. We have to be careful not to make this country totally noncompetitive, because it would just throw tens of millions of people out of work. Or worse, cause us to have to write a lot of tariffs, which would throw tens of millions of people out of work in other countries.
Do you have a favorite in the 2008 race?
I don't know who's sailing.
No, I mean the presidential race.
Ah! I thought you were talking about the America's Cup! [Laughs.] No, frankly I have fairly skeptical feelings about all of the candidates at the moment.
What are you doing on a personal level to reduce your carbon footprint?
Well, I got a hybrid car, which is a Lexus. It's a great car, but, I confess, I haven't learned how to read the dashboard yet!