But who versus?
James Fallows's cover story on clean coal in this month's Atlantic is, like everything Fallows writes, informative, smartly argued and a joy to read. That said, David Roberts raises good points about the piece's framing. The article is packaged to rebut the view of many climate hawks that the idea of "clean coal" is little more than coal industry propaganda. In response, Fallows argues that coal's overwhelming role in current energy production makes abandoning it impossible, and that cleaner ways of producing and burning it are possible.
But, as Roberts notes, climate hawks aren't in charge. Because of the filibuster, and now GOP control of the House, the balance of power rests with people who deny the need to take just about any action to stop climate change. So why is Fallows concerned with rebutting them, rather than trying to win over people to his right, who are actually in a position to change things?
In fairness, Fallows, like any journalist, has to target a specific audience, and chances are that the average Atlantic reader believes that manmade global warming is a serious threat, and are skeptics about clean coal insofar as they have views on the matter. Presenting the piece as a defense of coal makes more sense as a response to them than as an attempt to influence the political system.
But this creates a dangerous cycle. Longform articles published in places like the Atlantic may not be primarily targeted at policymakers, but policymakers do read them, and they can be influential. In the middle of the health-care reform debate, President Obama held multiple meetings centered around Atul Gawande's New Yorker piece on health care in McAllen, Tex.
So, if there is pressure for pieces that challenge liberal readers' assumptions, magazines are going to run more pieces that take liberal views as their target. If policymakers are paying attention, the views the articles are reacting against will be increasingly seen as wrongheaded and marginal among people in power. Perversely, catering to a liberal audience would then lead to that audience's views being shut out where it counts.
Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.
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