NEW YORK — It's no surprise that environmental activists Laurie David and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are involved in a new documentary about global warming airing this Sunday. But the fact that the special was produced by Fox News is more unexpected.
The top-rated cable news channel has long rejected its reputation for having a conservative slant. Nevertheless, the network's involvement in the special has pleased environmentalists and piqued some conservatives, who have lobbed an unusual criticism of the network: that its program only offers a liberal viewpoint on the issue.
"The Heat Is On: The Case of Global Warming," which airs on Fox News Sunday at 5 and 8 p.m., is devoted to assessing the effect humans have had on the environment. Hosted by anchor Rick Folbaum, the one-hour show, which includes interviews with top scientists about evidence of climate change, offers practical tips on how to conserve energy and features a trip David and Kennedy took to Montana's Glacier National Park.
Bill Shine, the network's senior vice president for programming, said Fox decided to do the special because global warming is a significant news story.
"There are at least 10 big issues out there today, and that's one of them," Shine said.
But there's no question that global warming is also a politically charged topic, and the network's approach to it is being carefully scrutinized. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think thank based in Washington, D.C., wrote a letter to the network this week complaining about Kennedy's involvement in the project.
Meanwhile, some environmentalists were startled to hear about Fox's involvement. When Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global-warming program, got a call from the network this summer asking him to be interviewed for the documentary, he initially thought it was a prank call.
"I asked whether they were joking," said Becker, who participated and noted that he was ultimately impressed by the network's questions.
Shine said he hopes viewers watch the program with an open mind.
"It's a 24-hour cable channel," he said. "Not everyone agrees with every bit of news every day."
"The Heat Is On" is the result of an unlikely partnership between two well-known liberal activists and Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, a former Republican political operative.
In March, David -- wife of "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David -- arranged for former Vice President Al Gore to give a Power Point presentation on the science of global warming for New York media executives. Kennedy, a longtime personal friend of Ailes, invited him to attend the function, held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. "We don't like each other's politics, but Roger is very smart and very charming," Kennedy said.
Ailes attended, and also agreed to meet several weeks later with Kennedy and David.
"I made the point to him that this should not be a political issue and that the Republican Party has a strong conservation tradition," Kennedy said.
The pitch worked. Ailes agreed the subject merited coverage, according to the activists. (The Fox News chairman was not available for comment.)
"I think Roger is an agnostic on it," Kennedy said, "but he was convinced it was an issue that deserved a fair public debate."
Shine said that the network sees the program as fitting squarely in its mission to deliver the news. Fox has not devoted substantial time to global warming in the past, he said, and felt it was a good time to do so.
David and Kennedy view the Fox News program as a key part of an effort to depoliticize global warming, which has long been embraced by the left side of the political spectrum.
"This cannot be the domain of any one political party," said David, who is organizing a comedy special on TBS later this month devoted to raising awareness about global warming.
"Fox News is a big part of the media coverage in this country," she added. "People watch it, and if you want to get a message out, you want Fox News to be talking about it."
After watching a screening of the documentary earlier this week, David said she was impressed by the network's handling of the issue.
"I think people are going to watch this special and say, 'OK, we need to start doing something,' " David said.
While Sunday's special focuses largely on the science supporting climate change, the network is running a disclaimer at the beginning of the program noting that there is a continuing debate over the topic. Shine says that future programs will be devoted to other perspectives on global warming.
"We take a lot of pride around here to present things in a fair and balanced way," he said, "and just because this hour may have some points of view that some disagree with doesn't mean we're not going to present their side at another time."