Reporting on Eastern European Pollution
The environment and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe were two of last year’s hottest stories. And the two issues came together in the aggressive, graphic reporting on the severe pollution behind the “Iron Curtain.”
There was no dearth of coverage: In the ten major publications studied by Extra!, there were 37 stories on the subject in the nine months following the opening of the Berlin Wall. The articles were long, prominently displayed and featured attention- grabbing headlines: “Poland Left Choking on Its Own Wastes” (Boston Globe, 12/18/89); “East Bloc’s Environment a Nightmare” (Atlanta Constitution, 3/11/90).
The imagery drove home the seriousness of the ecological damage: A town suffered “festering wounds” (Washington Post, 4/16/90); East Germany was compared to “a country after chemical warfare.” (New York Times, 6/23/90) The Christian Science Monitor (4/18/90) epitomized the coverage when it described Eastern Europe as “a surrealistic, devastated landscape reminiscent of scenes of hell painted by Hieronymus Bosch.”
Although the news peg for these stories was the end of the old division of Europe, reporting on pollution in the former East Bloc was coated with a residue of Cold War thinking. The subtext: Now that environmental degradation has replaced nuclear warfare as the planet’s worst menace, the Soviet Union and its former satellites are still the focus of evil in the modern world. Indeed, the anti-Communist and free-market truisms sometimes made articles appear as if they were penned by the team of Jesse Helms and Milton Friedman. An ecological double standard subtly served to exonerate the West for its own share of blame for harming the environment.
Some pollution more equal
In analysis of Eastern European pollution, reporters are adamant about laying blame with the Communist system: For one Boston Globe news story (12/17/ 89), “the lessons for the East are ones of failure of Marxism and Stalinism, of centralized planning and socialist economics.”
In an article (1/22/90) headlined “Stalinist Legacy of Foul Air,” the Los Angeles Times reported that Eastern Europe’s environmental problems “share a common cause—the Stalinist model of economic development that demanded rapid growth of heavy industry and made no provisions for environmental concerns.”
Said U.S. News & World Report‘s David Gergen (4/30/89): “Communism was supposed to be a worker’s paradise. But as in so many other ways, its leaders betrayed their people by sacrificing them on the altar of forced industrialization.”
This “accumulated filth” is treated as “an inevitable by-product of a centralized, totalitarian system,” as an Atlanta Constitution editorial charged (2/24/90).
While in the past, “pollution was blamed on communist ineptitude and sloppiness,” now East Block pollution is treated as a deliberate government policy: A New York Times story about East Germany (9/9/90) reports that “the region was poisoned willfully in a scheme to raise money for the state.”
While the examination of systemic causes helped to deepen the analysis of Eastern Europe’s environmental problems, it contrasted sharply with the way reporters usually cover pollution in the Western world. Corporate pollution is often treated as an isolated, tragic mistake, like Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez or Three Mile Island. It would be highly unusual for a mainstream Western reporter to attribute the ultimate responsibility for U.S. ecological devastation to the capitalist system, which puts profit before social responsibility, encourages a consumerist lifestyle, and requires perpetual growth.
Peter Dykstra, communications director for Greenpeace USA, noted the double standard in East/West environmental coverage. “Under Marxism, economic pressure is the villain; under capitalism, economic pressure is a mitigating circumstance. Under Marxism, the environment is ‘sacrificed’ to production goals; under capitalism, the environment is ‘balanced’ with production goals.”
Displaying rare insight, one Boston Globe article (12/17/89) noted: “In the real world, there is not much difference between a production quota and the profit motive. Both tend to focus on production at any cost.” But this observation, which could have led to an examination of the lessons Eastern Europe holds for the United States, was not followed up by the Globe or other media outlets.
Excusing Corporate Pollution
Tracing the extent to which Communist ideology has created Eastern Europe’s pollution might have stimulated reporters to ask the same questions about their own society.
Instead, Eastern Europe’s problems were often treated as if they somehow vindicated capitalism. The Boston Globe reported (12/17/89) that the East suffered “the inherent contradictions between state-run economies and effective pollution control” because “socialist industry…had less incentive than capitalist ones to use resources efficiently, since they were not penalized for waste.” The converse of this argument, that capitalist industries also have an incentive to “efficiently” dispose of waste through cheap and dangerous means, was not addressed.
“There is a special irony in this particular failure of communism,” New York Times columnist Flora Lewis wrote (“The Red Grime Line,” 4/16/90). “Markets, cost consciousness, the need to please the customer, turn out to be more effective than central command even on such a basic social question as pollution.” And an Atlanta Constitution op-ed (4/23/90) gloated, “Corporations are often accused of despoiling the environment in their quest for profit…. Perhaps free enterprise is not so incompatible with environmental protection after all.”
Journalists seemed compelled to create excuses for Western pollution. “Some compare the pollution with what Pittsburgh did to itself 50 years ago,” U.S. News‘ Gergen wrote (4/30/90). ‘The analogy does not hold: The leaders of Pittsburgh didn’t know they were killing people.”
“The U.S. learned years ago that man runs a major risk tampering with nature,” according to a Boston Globe article (12/19/89). Our pollution “was stopped after it was uncovered,” and “there is still debate about whether anyone was hurt.”
In another story (12/17/89), the Globe reporter claims that “Times Beach and Love Canal are notorious because they are the exception, but what happened at [Poland’s] Wroblin is symptomatic.” Apparently the other 27,200 unsafe toxic waste dumps targeted by the EPA’s Superfund program are also exceptions.
While most reports gave the impression that Eastern pollution is immeasurably worse than that of the United States, in some important measures the waste produced is comparable. While the sulfur dioxide produced by burning high-sulfur coal is a serious problem in Eastern Europe, those countries together (excluding the U.S.S.R) actually produce less sulfur dioxide than the United States alone. U.S. output of nitrogen oxide outstrips Eastern Europe even on a per capita basis. (See Green Revolutions by Hilary French, World-watch Institute.)
The Free Market “Solution”
Based on the view that Eastern Europe’s environment makes the West look good by comparison, it was asserted that the “free market” and other Western largesse—an “ecological Marshall Plan,” as several papers called it—was the only answer to pollution. As Flora Lewis put it, “This is another area where Western experience, Western technology and Western help will have to be supplied to enable the East to dig itself out of its pits.” Her assumption that Western intervention will be pro-environment is questionable; an austerity plan mandated by the International Monetary Fund, for instance, required Poland to scrap a plan for an environmental protection fund (In These Times, 4/11/90).
But many environmental stories reflected this same chauvinism: The Christian Science (miter (3/16/90) wrote of the difficulty West Germany will have in bringing East Germany “into the modern, civilized world.” The New York Times (6/7/90) reported that Germany’s problem was “how the orderly and scrubbed half of the country can help clean up the disheveled and polluted half.” Papers downplayed West Germany’s shipping more than 10 million tons of toxic waste to be buried in East Germany since the 1970s (Scientific American, 8/90).
In rare contrast to this pro-Western spin was the viewpoint of an Eastern European environmentalist quoted in the Boston Globe (12/18/89), who said his colleagues “want a free market but we want it to protect the environment…. We are very afraid that a market economy will produce new dangers for the environment, so we want some constraints.” This view was missing from most articles, and the Globe did not seriously pursue the theme.
Voices of (Some of) the People
The press also showed a double standard about who was considered an authoritative source. The media often gave voice to victimized citizens, environmental activists, whistle-blowers and anti-industry scientists—but only when they were from the East Bloc.
U.S. sources for these stories were largely limited to federal government officials, industry leaders and establishment academics. Predictably, spokespersons for the U.S. EPA found vindication for capitalism in the East’s ecological disaster: “Socialist ideology also supported the notion of man prevailing over nature,” one quoted in the Boston Globe theorized (12/17/90). U.S. environmentalists, who were almost never quoted, might not have been so quick to congratulate U.S.-style environmental protection.
Some exceptional stories did move beyond the Cold War dichotomies. Time’s “Soviets Clean Up Their Act” (1/29/90) took into account all the task’s complexities, analyzing some of the pros and cons of both Western and Eastern economies. The Los Angeles Times (5/7/90) discussed Soviet worries that American industry may bring new pollution problems.
But the press rarely strayed that far from Cold War assumptions. If the media truly want Eastern Europe to serve as a lesson to the rest of the world, they need to adopt a single standard for environmental reporting: Pollution is pollution, and it crosses all borders.