The business of reporting the weather has always been complicated, and getting it right really matters. Consider hurricanes, flooding, deadly heatwaves, and the fires that come from dried-out, drought-inflicted regions.
While there are many ways to get weather information, the simple truth is that most of the data comes from the federal government. The National Weather Service (NWS) is a group of nonpartisan professionals that work to get forecasts right. But as climate issues put the planet at risk, the job of forecasting is increasingly facing political headwinds.
You may remember that former President Trump jumped into “adjusting” facts when he personally forecasts the path of Hurricane Dorian, changing maps in what became known as "Sharpiegate." Now the Murdoch folks have decided that they want to have a hand in weather forecasting, announcing the soon-to-launch Fox Weather.
Set for a launch later this year, 24-hour Fox Weather promises "cutting-edge display technology," with "forecasting experts surrounding every major weather event," according to its press release.
This is no small matter. Scientific information about the climate is of critical importance now. And Fox has already made clear its version of “News” is populated by people like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, their prime-time mainstays. So, the question that must be asked: Does Fox plan to turn weather from science to political fodder for its mill?
The history of the NWS is worth a moment to consider. Until the mid-19th century, local knowledge and almanacs drove people's information about weather. The first federal attempt to provide weather data was the U.S. Army Signal Service. The weather service became a civilian agency when the Weather Bureau was created within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1890. But its long-range forecasts weren’t trusted overnight.
Over the next decades, government weather forecasting advanced rapidly, thanks to new scientific theories about fronts and atmospheric waves, increased research funding during World War II, technical innovations in numerical weather prediction and computer-based modeling, and the introduction of the probability of the precipitation forecasts (like 30% chance of rain) that we rely on today.
After World War II, meteorology was a firmly established profession in both the government and private sectors. Private forecasters competed with the federal scientists. By 1962, firms like AccuWeather repackaged freely available government weather data, and in the 1980s, the Reagan administration tried to privatize the NWS.
So battles over weather -- who predicts it, and how trusted they are -- has a long history. Today as climate change intensifies, climate science finds itself in political crosshairs.
This brings us to Fox. "Fox News has access to and is highly trusted by a wide range of conservative Americans -- which is precisely the audience that least well understands the serious threats that climate change poses to the safety, security, and health of all Americans," Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, told The Guardian.
"If Fox chooses to use its access and credibility to inform viewers about the realities of climate change and its impacts on the weather, it could be a game-changer. Conversely, if it opts to perpetuate misinformation to advance political goals, it will be a huge disservice to all Americans -- conservative, liberal and moderate," Maibach said.
And the idea of politicizing weather is already popular at other Fox channels. Laura Ingraham has been pontificating on such things, saying in part the planet is in a "natural" cycle of warming -- raising concerns that Fox Weather will fill its viewer's heads with alternative facts about the cause of the rise in global climate and the rapidly melting glaciers.
Nonprofit think tank Public Citizen has been tracking the Fox weather reporting trends. In 2019, Fox News provided 247 segments on the climate crisis, but of those, "212 (86%) were dismissive of the climate crisis."
So here's the question that I think is worth serious consideration. If Fox News isn't really news, but rather a commentary and option channel, then why am I forced to pay for it as part of my basic cable package? And, will Fox Weather also get another dollar or two out of my cable bill without my having to choose the channel in my cable package?
The one-two punch of Fox News and Fox Weather has the potential to amplify inaccurate information about climate change to fully half of the country, putting the nation and the planet in terrible peril. Certainly, weather forecasters get it wrong, but their attempt is always to get it right. Will Fox Weather promise the same? If history is any guide, the answer is a clear "NO."