Despite all of the controversy that preceded it,
Planet Earth 2000 ó the ABC News special that dispatched
actor-turned-activist Leonardo DiCaprio to interview President
Clinton ó was a ratings flop. When it aired on Saturday, April 22,
more Americans instead chose to watch repeats of Early Edition
on CBS, The Pretender on NBC or Cops on Fox. And while
Planet Earth tried to win teenaged viewers by featuring
poster-boy DiCaprio, a techno soundtrack and an overdose of MTV-esque
camera techniques, only a minuscule 168,000 teens tuned in.
matter. Since most kids wouldnít watch it on their own, ABC made it
available to teachers via Channel One, a classroom news service, on
May 1. According to the New York Times, 12,000 high school
and middle schools would receive the program.
Recalling that some broadcasters actually claimed a few years ago
that The Jetsons ó a cartoon about a space-age family with a
talking dog and a robotic maid named Rosie ó was educational, the
classroom merits of Planet Earth are still debatable. Given
the slim audience and the fact that most of the media buzz concerned
the DiCaprio-Clinton exchange that accounted for barely two minutes
at the end of the show, MediaNomics offers this summary of
the program as a public service.
First, the show was preposterously one-sided. During the entire
hour, which linked SUV-caused global warming with everything from
mosquito bites to dead Alaskans, only 41 seconds were given to the
view that any climate change that might occur isnít necessarily
"It may very well be that as we go into the 21st century,"
commented the University of Virginia climatologist Patrick Michaels,
"what we are going to see is the paradigm of fragile Earth evolves
into the paradigm of resilient Earth. In other words, you know, it
takes a licking and keeps on ticking."
Michaels point of view was buried, however, amid a litany of the
dire consequences ABC attributed to climate change, and a
sympathetic profile of an environmental activist who lived in a tree
for two years.
After the opening montage, in which DiCaprio said he became
interested in the environment after frogs vanished from a section of
the Los Angeles river near where he grew up, his co-host, ABC
reporter Elizabeth Vargas, warned that "Yes, the Earth is getting
warmer, about one degree Fahrenheit over the last century. It may
sound insignificant, but you should know the rate is increasing, and
over the last 10 years, we've had five of the warmest winters on
record. And those warm, wet winters means mosquitoes don't die out.
In fact, they breed in standing rainwater, so this summer, look for
more bug bites, more insecticide spraying and more outbreaks of rare
students would find out that bug repellant stock prices will soar in
the 21st century ó especially since thereíll be fewer frogs to eat
Later, ABCís Chris Cuomo reported from the Arctic Circle, where
he claimed "there is no question that Alaska is thawing....
Glaciers, permafrost and sea ice are all melting." Now, that might
seem like a good thing, but thereís apparently a dark side to
temperate weather: an Alaska state trooper told Cuomo that "last
year we had more fatalities, more people going through the ice, than
we had in previous years."
How many? Cuomo never said, but he did interview Jimmy Brown.
"Last year, Jimmy Brown lost his father, along with another hunter,
victims, perhaps, of unexpected thawing ice," Cuomo reported.
"They took off on a hunting trip to hunt seal," Brown told Cuomo,
"and just literally never came back. Some of the conclusions are
that the ice apparently must have gotten thinner from beneath the
Cuomo then asked Brown, the grieving son, "Do you think itís just
coincidence, or do you think weíre talking about the impact of
"I think weíre talking about more than coincidence," Brown
responded, "because itís actually changed the pattern of, you know,
how people relate to their hunting cycles and things like that."
So, teenagers will learn, global warming kills Alaskan hunters.
After an astrophysicist informed Cuomo that life exists on Earth
because we arenít too close to the Sun, like Venus, or too far away,
like Mars (is global warming supposed to move the whole planet
closer to the Sun?), Vargas reported on the bleaching of coral
reefs, which can be caused by bacteria, sunlight or the warming of
ocean water. According to Vargas, "just last month, government
scientists said temperatures had been rising for 40 years in oceans
all over the world, but nothing was worse than the year of El Nino."
This would be a good way for students to learn about
"tautologies," or redundant concepts. (The dictionaryís example is
"necessary essentials," but my favorite is "dangerous hazards.") "El
Nino" is the nickname given to a large area of warmer-than-usual
water in the Pacific Ocean, which can affect the weather, and itís a
phenomenon that is independent of global warming.
So all Vargas really said was that ocean temperatures were
warmest during the year of warm ocean temperatures. (That was 1998,
if youíre interested.)
Cuomo then detailed Atlantaís efforts to cut back on air
pollution. He told viewers "Atlanta has the biggest traffic problem
in the nation," but he really meant that Atlantans on average drive
more miles each day (35) than residents of other major cities. He
didnít tell viewers that Los Angeles is the city with the worst
traffic congestion, followed by Washington, D.C., San Francisco,
Chicago and Seattle. Most people would probably agree that itís
worse to be stuck idling in heavy traffic than to travel farther
with relatively fewer delays.
Cuomo then had a van compete with an electronically-powered
bicycle (an "e-bike") in a five-mile race through rush-hour traffic.
The e-bike, which has a top speed of 15 miles per hour, won the race
by five minutes. A scientist tested the van and said it had pumped
"about eight pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere" during
the trip, while the e-bike had produced "next to nothing in
emissions." The implication was that the e-bike is both faster and
cleaner than a van, but neither Cuomo nor the scientist discussed
what commuters should do on rainy days.
Cuomo also reported on Ford Motorís campaign to make both its
factories and new automobiles more environmentally sensitive by
using fuel-efficient technology. Cuomo blamed consumers for driving
SUVs. "Bottom line," he told viewers, "businesses will make whatever
consumers buy. If we want more environmentally sound cars to replace
the gas guzzling SUVs, weíve got to do one thing: actually buy
One of those environmentally sensitive hybrid gasoline and
electric cars, the Toyota Prius, will be available in the U.S. later
this year and it got a nice plug on a recent Earth Day episode of
CBSís Family Law, as my colleague Brent Baker reported in
a recent CyberAlert. But even at an expected $20,500 per car,
Toyota loses money, so itís making very few of them.
After blaming consumers, Cuomo reported the story of Julia
Butterfly Hill, who gained notoriety for living in a California
redwood tree for more than two years to keep it from being harvested
by a lumber company. The barefoot Hill was shown in her tree,
talking on her cellular phone, explaining "Iíve come to become one
The relationship of Hillís story with global warming? Cuomo
explained that "even here in New York, trees act as air filters by
taking carbon dioxide out and putting oxygen back in." So trees are
good. But any tree ó really, any green plant ó will oxygenate the
atmosphere and Hill wanted to save one particular redwood tree that
somehow acquired the name "Luna." But Cuomo seemed infatuated with
Hill ("Now, Julia travels around the country... telling her story of
personal power and responsibility"), who "won" her battle when the
lumber company was paid $50,000 in exchange for a promise to not cut
down "Luna" or any of the trees within 200 feet of "her" (Cuomoís
Finally, it was time for DiCaprioís conversation with the
President. Clinton showed DiCaprio how the White House had saved
$100,000 in its electric bills by changing the type of light bulbs
that are used, to which DiCaprio exclaimed "Wow." Omitted from the
interview (but included in the full transcript of the interview
which the White House released, was this question from the
"Now, Louisiana is the second largest consumer of fossil fuels
and the city most at risk for sea level rise. Canít something be
done like in Atlanta where the government withheld highway funds,
making it the model city for environmental responsibility?"
DiCaprio should thank ABC for removing this portion of the
interview, since he doesnít look like a dunce for twice referring to
Louisiana as a city (Clinton eventually realized that he meant New
Orleans). At least students across America wonít be misinformed
about geography, just science.
DiCaprio closed the program with a personal plea. "Thereís a
concept in the scientific community that goes something like this,"
he said. "Complex systems or large phenomena like El Nino can be
started by a fluctuation as gentle as the flapping wings of a
butterfly. Itís a metaphor called the butterfly effect. Now, if we
take that a step further, that means that the slightest action could
have a negative effect on the planet or in turn, it might result in
something positive. Simple fact is thereís nothing to lose if we
take preventative measures right now to save our planet, but thereís
a whole lot to lose if we donít."
Now, thatís an activist appeal that fits with DiCaprioís position
as chairman of Earth Day 2000, but itís hardly reflective of the
objectivity still claimed by news organizations such as ABC.
At the start of Planet Earth 2000, DiCaprio warned viewers
that "some of what youíll learn will scare you, a lot will surprise
you." It may not be all that surprising that ABC News produced a
one-sided special on the environment ó replete with the zany
zealotry of tree-climber Julia Butterfly Hill ó but the fact that it
gave a committed activist an hour of airtime to promote his cause,
and then distributed it to the nationís schools as educational
material, sure is scary.