May 1 1988

The Media and the Environment

Redefining National Security

Media and the environment

Beyond a doubt, the state of the environment—from local toxic dumps to global ozone layer depletion—is a subject of urgency and complexity, with ramifications for our planet’s future as far-reaching as nuclear war. In the 18 years that have passed since “Earth Day,” which coincided with the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Congressional passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, few would dispute the ever-increasing importance of ecological concerns.

Yet, as Phil Shabecoff, the Washington-based environmental reporter for the New York Times, told Extra!, “I certainly don’t think that media coverage of the environment recognizes the significance of the issue—not only in terms of aesthetics and public health, but in terms of national security. As Lester Brown [director of the Worldwatch Institute] and others have said, increasingly national security is not going to be defined by the number of weapons we have, or the military budget, but by the state of our natural environment and the quality of our resources. We need more time and more space for coverage.”

Shabecoff’s comments were echoed by many on the environmental “beat” in wide-ranging interviews with prominent print journalists and network correspondents. But what does this tell us about the institutions for which they work— institutions that are increasingly dominated by corporations with a vested interest in maintaining a status quo that has perpetuated many environmental problems? (General Electric, the corporate parent of NBC, severely contaminated the Hudson River with PCBs during the 1960’s and early 1970’s.)

There is a disturbing lack of attention and expertise being devoted to the environment by the mass media—less overall coverage than during the previous decade, when the severity of the situation was not as apparent. Among the major national media, only Cable News Network (CNN)—produced by owner Ted Turner—probes with any in-depth consistency the steady deterioration of the natural world.

“For starters, we need a ceasefire against the environment,” Turkey declared:

If you shoot yourself in the foot with a .44, you’re still gonna bleed to death. It doesn’t have to be in the head or the heart. That’s what we’re doing to ourselves. It’s all going—the topsoil, the forests, the oceans, the air and the water supplies. We’ve got to take a holistic approach.

(For more of Turner’s comments, see page 11.)

Experts within and outside the national media, continually cited an insufficient number of journalists tracking the regulatory agencies, or offering any perspective beyond a reactive “crisis mentality” that swings into action over sudden disasters like Chernobyl or a major oil spill. Lack of time, staff, and budget constraints; lack of expertise to comprehend the increasingly complex overlapping of science, economics, politics and ecological issues; a tendency to shy away from long-range and often depressing scenarios; and an unwillingness to assume any kind of leadership role were all mentioned as problems with environmental coverage.

“You don’t see the presidential candidates talking much about the environment,” says Larry Stammer, one of two reporters covering local environmental issues for the Los Angeles Times. And journalists aren’t pressing the issue. While the media devote hours of analysis to the candidates’ economic and defense policies, has anyone probed Michael Dukakis’ sorry track record on the clean-up of Boston harbor? Or Jesse Jackson’s tough-talking, but unspecific approach to dilemmas like the ozone layer? Or George Bush’s ties to not only President Reagan’s woeful environmental policies but to the nuclear power and chemical industries?

The answer is no. “Real environmental stories are inherently critical of corporate priorities and governmental subservience to those priorities,” says James Weinstein, editor of Chicago-based In These Times, an alternative national weekly which has devoted 5 covers to the environment this year. “Therefore, the owners of the networks and big corporations that run our print media are hostile to [doing] them…. When a small publication like ours does a three-part series (March 9, 16, 23, 1988) on Jacksonville, Ark.—site of the worst dioxin contamination in the US—the knee-jerk response at the NY Times or Washington Post is to claim we don’t have enough data to prove our case.”

Or, as Will Collette of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes argues, “Reporters too often have to deal with fat-cat editor-publisher types who play golf with Peter Grace, Armand Hammer and other industry tycoons. There is considerable frustration with getting their pieces aired or printed.”

It is widely acknowledged that the print media do a far better job of reporting on the environmental crisis than network television. But there is little consistency among newspapers and newsweeklies that have the biggest impact on policy-makers. The Washington Post offers scant coverage of the federal regulatory and scientific community, preferring to send reporter Michael Weisskopf on the road. The Times’ Shabecoff largely devotes his efforts to the DC bureaucracy, but often lacks time and space to provide perspective on trends. The EPA’s recent systematic deregulation of a number of toxic chemicals, for example, was duly reported one by one over a two-month period—but without any comprehensive analysis of what it all might mean.

When it comes to local stories—like Chesapeake Bay pollution on the Post’s turf, or Hudson River problems on the Times’—both newspapers are faulted by media-watchers. By contrast, the Los Angeles Times is considered heads above most big city papers in covering local stories (two full-time Metro reporters assigned), but has no regular staffer covering the national environmental scene. The Wall Street Journal has stepped up its coverage but, as former Christian Science Monitor environmental editor Bob Cahn noted, “its editorial pages often take exactly the opposite position of a lead story which may be very good in probing an environmental subject.”

Peter Borrelli, editor of the Amicus Journal, the quarterly publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council (which received the first-ever Polk Award for environmental coverage in 1983), faults the big media for “always going to sources who have power and authority, not necessarily information. They don’t go to the researchers who are on the cutting edge of knowledge in these areas, where the stories are if you want real news.” Borrelli, once on the staff of Time, also takes reporters to task for not probing corruption:

Look at the extent to which the regulatory process has become co-opted by the polluters, a theme we harp on a great deal. The IBT lab in Chicago, for example, was doing most of the testing on chemicals that affect the entire nation—and falsifying the results. The NY Times didn’t touch it until those guys were indicted, then it was covered like a drug bust in Miami.

Sierra Club chairman Michael McCloskey adds: “What is still lacking is an understanding of the inadequacy of the policy response to these problems. In other words, trying to assess the trends at a higher level than just the latest controversies over a particular report, or which agency isn’t doing what, or whose budget has been cut.”

During the past two years more attention has focused on long-range world crises such as global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, and the destruction of tropical rainforests. The Boston Globe sent one of its two environmental reporters, Dianne Dumanoski, to all twelve days of the Montreal treaty-signing conference on the ozone problem last fall (compared to only a few days’ attendance by the NY Times). As Dumanoski points out, “The ozone layer situation far surpasses AIDS as a threat to the future of the planet, but that’s not usually reflected in the way stories are played. Because nobody sees the ozone layer, there isn’t the immediacy.”

Says Lester Brown, director of the Worldwatch Institute: “The major media look closely at monthly economic reports in virtually every country in the world. But few pay much heed to what’s happening to the earth’s forests or soils or biological diversity.”

Except for an occasional revival, Time Magazine no longer runs a weekly “Environment” page that appeared regularly in the 1970’s. Newsweek has never had a full-time environmental reporter. It was Business Week (10-12-87), in fact, which offered the strongest look at ocean pollution last fall in its cover story, “Troubled Waters.”

As for the TV networks—segments on wildlife, particularly in exotic locations, remain a staple of the evening news. (ABC News correspondent Roger Caras estimates about 20% of his pieces deal with “hard-line environment,” the remainder being “natural history.”) The editor of one environmental magazine remembers a CBS producer telling him not long ago that “the environment is no longer chic.”

Fred Briggs, who handles environmental coverage in the  Northeast for NBC News, says the recent cutback of news personnel at all three networks means “we don’t have the resources to devote to stories that we did even two years ago. I don’t see this trend changing, sorry to say.” Briggs adds that

a lot of people in management don’t perceive the environment as a sexy topic unless it’s something utterly horrendous. I think it’s a reflection of our times, a matter of people being more concerned about the pocketbook. There’s a perception that people don’t want to be bored with a story about how that land is washing away or this species is becoming extinct. They want to know about interest rates going up.

Linda Ellerbee recalls that if environment was covered at all during her stints at NBC and ABC, “it came under the heading of ‘health/environment/medical’….Basically it’s an area that requires a great deal of work for very little visual payoff, exactly the kind of story TV was created to ignore.”

PBS, through its Nova series and regular National Geographic and Cousteau programs, has zeroed in on pesticides, biotechnology, and ocean pollution. Its Frontline program (4-5-88) conducted the first TV investigation into “Poison and the Pentagon,” which chronicled pollution surrounding military installations. But even PBS, says Vicky Markell, public relations spokesperson for the Better World Society’s “Only One Earth” series, is often watchful of offending corporate sponsors like Mobil by taking an advocacy role. (In 1985 Gulf + Western withdrew its support from the PBS flagship-station in New York after a documentary on world hunger displeased the company.)

With network documentaries at al all-time low, increasingly the field is left to independent producers. Some have come up with remarkable programs—like the cable-aired “Dark Circle” (by San Francisco’s Independent Documentary Group) which examined plutonium pollution in Colorado’s Rocky Flats and the ties between the nuclear power and weapons industries. Ted Turker’s TBS featured “Dark Circle” after PBS rejected it as too partisan.

A small Boston-based production company, Chedd-Angier, is now embarked on a three-year effort for PBS called “State of the World.” Working in conjunction with the Worldwatch Institute, it is assembling 10 one-hour documentaries on such subjects as biological diversity, soil erosion, climate, energy, waste and recycling. “We will be emphasizing positive approaches that the individual can take, rather than just ringing alarm bells,” says executive producer Linda Harrar.

In print, smaller progressive periodicals have taken the lead. The Nation and Utne Reader run periodic reports on significant new trends with the environmental movement—deep ecology, bioregionalism, the Greens—which receive virtually no attention in the mainstream. After In These Times (8-19-87) broke a cover story on nuclear waste being used for fertilizer near a Kerr-McGee plant in Oklahoma, editors passed the piece along to the New York Times—which three months later (11-16-87) did a very similar page-one article without crediting In These Times. The Progressive and Mother Jones also have increased their environmental investigations.

And there are numerous journals put out by environmental organizations. While Sierra Magazine maintains the outdoors orientation of the Sierra Club, its pages often carry reports on toxics sites and grassroots activists battling to remedy such problems. The quality of the Greenpeace magazine has improved dramatically. Greenpeace has also expanded a video operation that provides hard-to-get footage of events like the slaughter of dolphin in tuna fishermen’s nets to the networks—which resulted in recent segments on NBC and ABC nightly news (3-15-88) that helped spark congressional hearings. Besides the lavishly-produced Aubudon, National Wildlife and Oceans magazines, a host of other organizational periodicals—Environmental Action, Citizen Action, Earth Island—should be must reading for reporters covering the environment.

Amicus editor Peter Borrelli takes an admitted advocacy approach, one that he believes should be adopted by the major media as well. “The role of the press is to draw a conclusion that is societally responsible,” says Borrelli. “It doesn’t necessarily do a great service to simply present controversies. How can citizens jump into a debate that’s portrayed in the press as purely a matter of conjecture, opinion or scientific dispute? Advocacy journalism takes the discrepancies as a challenge that must be resolved in some way, leaving the reader with some sense of direction.”

While Borrelli notes that there used to be a reluctance by local media to go after city industries and businesses, the toxics issue has forced far greater scrutiny. Crusading local reporters like Tom Harris of the Sacramento Bee won a Peabody award for exposing pollution by the military, and Bobbi Ridlehoover of the Arkansas Democrat has been taking on a local chemical company for nearly 10 years. The Atlanta Constitution’s Scott Bronstein, who left the New York Times and a position as its number two environmental reporter, has put together an excellent series on the South’s pollution woes. The Fort Lauderdale Sentinel recently exposed the seamy practices of Waste Management, Inc. The Lincoln Star-Journal (NB) and Des Moines Register both offered extensive series in the last two years on agricultural groundwater pollution. And Long Island’s Newsday turned an epic-length series on the nation’s garbage crisis into a special supplement.

But there are instances when journalists meet editorial resistance. A Beaumont, Texas reporter attempted suicide out of frustration over editorial policies that kept his toxic probes out of the newspaper. In Arizona, Kathleen Stanton left Phoenix’s major paper to cover environment for an alternative weekly, New Times, for similar reasons.

Some of the best coverage is now happening in small-town dailies, weeklies, even shoppers, One example is the Vineyard Gazette, an island weekly off the coast of Massachusetts, whose impact is considerable in a media haven where luminaries such as Walter Cronkite, Anthony Lewis, Mike Wallace, Kay Graham and Anatole Grunwald spend much of their summer.

The Gazette, edited by Dick Reston (son of the Times’ James Reston), was instrumental in stopping the development of local South Beach. It also “inspired” the creation of a competitive Chamber of’ Commerce-backed paper (Vineyard Times). “The issue our paper is arguing,” says Reston, “is does a community have the right to protect its own resources and control its own future? Or is it so paralyzed that it can be overrun at any point by narrow commercial interests, even if that means spoiling water, air and coastal reaches? The press rarely takes a strong stand on ecological issues—yet we’re talking life or death for some of these communities.”

For steady, in-depth reporting and analysis of environmental issues, one must look to community-based media, or even to a burgeoning environmental “underground press”— similar in many respects to the underground papers of the 60’s—like the bimonthly publication of Earth First!, a Tucson-based radical ecology group. Nobody covers wilderness development in the Western states better than Denver’s bi-weekly High Country News. Across the country, a network of’ “bioregional” papers, such as Raise the Stakes! (published by the San Francisco based Planet Drum Foundation), have sprung up, examining locally based efforts to restore watershed areas, native fish populations, etc.

Given the mainstream media’s “crisis” approach, little heed is paid to “prevention”—innovative technologies being pioneered for cleaner cars or beneficial was to utilize sewage sludge; the necessity for industries to reduce pollutants at their source; why and how individuals should recycle. Some of the most important stories, according to Keith Schneider, who writes about agriculture, energy and biotechnology issues for the New York Times, “are what’s happening in places like Islip, Long Island, where they just banned plastic packaging. Or in Iowa, where they have a rigorous groundwater protection bill, Or Wisconsin and Minnesota, where counties have banned fertilizers and pesticides. Or California, with its tough new toxics law.”

USA Today’s daily round up of events in every state often mentions four, sometimes as many as twelve, pollution-related developments. For the most part, however, the major media rush to look at effects, while ignoring the causes of environmental problems. Thus do government policies remain stalemated and beholden to industry, and isolated individuals fight continuing uphill battles to prevent their locale from becoming another unlivable Love Canal, Thus do impending global disasters find piecemeal, often token responses from Western leaders.

Yet the future of economics and politics, human and civil rights, are inextricably linked to the environmental crisis—and humankind’s willingness to make sacrifices and substantial lifestyle changes. “Think globally, act locally” (or personally) is a watchword of the environmental movement that the media must grasp. “If they continue to lag,” says Andre Carothers, editor of Greenpeace magazine, “environmental stories will eventually crowd out other news simply because things are getting so desperate.”

Perhaps it would be wise for media professionals to re— consider the words of Edward R. Murrow in a 1958 speech before the Radio-Television News Directors Association: “It may the that the present system can survive. Perhaps the money—making machine has some kind of built in perpetual motion, but I do not think so… We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television… is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late….

“I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.”

Dick Russell is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on environmental issues for numerous national publications.



ERIC SEVAREID, formerly CBS News:

“There was a time maybe 12 years ago when CBS Evening News had a series almost every night, titled ‘Can the world be saved?’ Walter Cronkite would introduce it and then give examples of ghastly things happening—acid rain, Lake Erie, etc. I told the producers they ought to use a carrot as well as a stick, do stories about some of the triumphs—like getting Lake Washington in Seattle cleaned up—although these admittedly are limited. I think people need to see some light, not just be frightened all the time….Unfortunately, we don’t do many serious hour-long documentaries anymore, and we should. It’s the ratings rat-race. The big media are afraid of one box-office bomb during prime time that can lose huge sums.”



“I think I’m the only professional naturalist ever retained by any network—with the title of special correspondent for animals and the environment. When I did a 9 day series for Good Morning America awhile back on ‘the nine dirtiest places in America,’ I ended with the comment that this was the biggest story of the century. This raised eyebrows in the news department. They said I was crazy. I said, you want to take body counts? More children died of diarrhea in the Third World in the last hundred days than all the Americans who died in World War II.

“In this country we tend to look where the enemy isn’t and turn our backs. Our environment is rotting and our people are rotting from drugs. I’m far more concerned about that than about the Russians. If we destroy our infrastructure of soil and water and wood and fish and edible resources, as well as the natural beauty that can restore our souls, then worrying about the Communists is literally a red herring.”


JAMES RESTON, New York Times:

“I think there is more consciousness of the environment from the major media than ten years ago, but not nearly enough. It’s very spotty, and only in those areas of immediate peril do they seem to pay any attention to it at all….It’s like the national debt. Editors and producers say, ‘Well, it ain’t gonna hurt me today, so I’ll think about it later.’ If they were choking on carbon monoxide gas when they went home at night, they’d do something about it. But it’s a slow process that kills the plants and the lakes; hence the lack of attention.

“The networks will only cover environment when you get a picture of a forest that died. If you asked Dan Rather, ‘Do you have an environmental reporter,’ he’d laugh at you. Of course not. If they were to raise hell about it, you’d get the stockholders meeting and the corporation would answer: ‘If it’s going to cost us a lot of money to worry about the environment, you won’t get enough dough at your end.’ So it’s just the old story of money and greed.”