Jul 1 1993

The New York Times and Environmental Cleanup

Green is the color of money

There’s good news and bad news, America. The good news is that toxics in the environment are much less dangerous than once thought; the bad news is the government’s exorbitant over-regulation of chemicals. The solution? Wait patiently for more definitive data and then apply strict cost/benefit analysis. That’s the growing consensus among a new “third wave” of environmental philosophy–according to the New York Times. The Times‘ 239-paragraph, five-part series “What Price Cleanup?” appeared the week of March 21, timed for the eve of renewal of major environmental initiatives including the “Superfund” toxic clean-up program. Prominently placed (three of the articles appeared on page one), the strikingly one-sided series proceeded from foregone conclusions that favored polluters and the gutting of environmental regulations.

The Times‘ thesis, that environmental lawmaking has been more driven by politics than by sound, dispassionate science, was stated in the opening article, by environmental reporter Keith Schneider (3/21/93). “Many scientists, economists and governing officials have reached the dismaying conclusion that much of America’s environmental program has gone seriously awry,” Schneider wrote. “As a result, many scientists and public health specialists say billions of dollars are wasted each year in battling problems that are no longer considered especially dangerous.”

This “tangle of regulations” is all the more troublesome because “some scientists and public health specialists say” that some of the laws–notably for waste dumping and asbestos–“were based on little if any sound research about the true nature of the threat.” The article referred to (but never specified) “a wealth of new research [that] shows that some of the nation’s environmental protection efforts are excessively costly…and devoted to the wrong problems.”

A big part of the problem, according to Schneider’s report, is that leading environmental groups “are in danger of becoming the green equivalent of the military lobby, more interested in sowing fear and protecting wasteful programs than in devising a new course.”

Undocumented Assertions

The Times‘ series relied on government sources–politicians and bureaucrats on the federal, state and local level–as well as industry representatives, airing the gripes of the regulated and the regulators (i.e., those who created the problems in the first place) nearly to the exclusion of anyone else.

And while the Times urged more attention to science and scientists, the opinions attributed to scientists–whether actual individuals or unnamed “many scientists”–were a small fraction of the citations in each article. For example, Part 1 cited unnamed officials and experts 25 times and specific government sources or agencies 16 times, but scientists (seemingly unaffiliated to the government) only four times. Part 4 contained 38 citations, eight of whom were scientists. Only three were named; two of those worked for the government.The rest were vague entities, e.g. “many radiation and health specialists.”

The Times did not require its reporters to back up sweeping claims with documentation–or even, in many cases, to name sources. The final article in the series (3/26/93), also written by Schneider, based its conclusions (for example, that businesses and cities should have “more flexibility to decide how to comply with environmental standards, ending the expensive and rigid approach demanded under most laws”) on statements like these: “Current policies had already controlled 90 percent of the pollution,” so why spend more “to get that last little percent?” (Source: Sen. John Chafee–R-R.I.) Or: “As many as two-thirds of the compounds deemed carcinogenic would represent no danger to humans.” (Source: “scientists who conducted the [unnamed] studies.”)

Undocumented assertions like these are stitched together into Readers’ Digest-style anecdotes, such as a story about a Nebraska town’s budget woes caused by a required radon-removal water treatment plant (3/24/93). In Keith Schneider’s words, “the government was trying to prevent someone from getting lung cancer from their morning showers.” The EPA (a named source, at least) had said radon was a cancer-causing “menace”–but not to worry. “Many radiation and health specialists”–an unnamed source–“have called [the cancer estimates] unscientific and wildly exaggerated.” No further substantiation followed.

The Color of Money

While few actual scientists were quoted, a number of businesspeople and economists were cited by name–to the extent that the issue of ensuring environmental safety was set in an economics frame. Huge figures and mantra-like references to “costs” dominated each piece in the series, along with harsh denunciations of how ill-spent these funds were. Part 1 had 21 references to money; Part 4 had at least 30.

While attacking a lack of hard science, the Times recommends greater reliance on a very soft science: cost/benefit analysis. Part 4 even included a chart of figures on the price per life saved of various environmental and safety laws.

Throughout, the Times neglected to mention the vested interests of these exasperated bottom-line watchers. Obviously, representatives from certain states will argue for regional interests–be it grazing land in the West (Montana Sen. Max Baucus is quoted several times in the series) or chemical-manufacturing in Louisiana–regardless of scientific merit. Ditto municipal administrators–it’s their job to be cost-conscious, not model environmentalists.

The Times similarly failed to disclose which scientists were consultants to industries seeking to convince the public that chemicals are benign. For example, a Dr. Richard Goodwin quoted in Part 1 of the Times series as “a private environmental engineer…who has overseen more than 20 toxic waste cleanups” also happens to be, according to Rachel’s Hazardous Waste Newsletter (3/24/93), “a consultant to the incineration industry who has conducted a campaign to have toxic ash exempted from federal and state regulations.”

Banishing Dissent

What sources were left out? Nearly everyone concerned with matters other than money and deregulation, be they independent scientists, ordinary citizens (particularly pollution victims) and environmentalists. Indeed, the series was notable for the absence of dissent, lacking even a superficial effort to seem “objective” or “balanced.”

The rare objection from an environmentalist was buried at an article’s end or tossed off in passing. For example, the one citation of environmentalists in Part 4 (3/24/93) was a brief reference to “leaders of the major environmental groups are fighting this idea [of applying cost/benefit analysis to regulations]. They argue that it would set a level of proof so difficult to meet that the government could not write new regulations until people start dying.” This extremely important point was followed by three more columns of balking about costs and wasted efforts.

If environmentalists had been given an opportunity to explain their viewpoint, they might have pointed out that the interest in deregulation and cost/benefit analysis is not a “new wave of environmental thinking,” but a philosophy that harkens back to the early days of the Reagan administration, which was responsible for much of the poor management and waste that Schneider et al. complain about.

As John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, pointed out to the Times (published 4/21/93), the actual latest wave of environmental thinking in environmental circles is pollution prevention, carried out “by means of energy efficiency, safe substitutes for toxic chemicals, whole-ecosystem land-use planning,” etc.

The series also would have benefitted from a perspective like that of Linda Price King, executive director of the Environmental Health Network, who wrote in an unpublished letter to the Times, “The environmental health crisis…is not the result of politicians reflexively reacting to the emotions of the public. The average citizen has actually had very little say about how these issues are regulated, compared to the large influence traditionally held by big business interests such as the oil, chemical and pharmaceutical industries.”

Conflicts of Interest

What prompted the Times to run this series now? With major environmental programs up for renewal, the chemical industry (whose representatives are quoted as neutral observers by the Times) has begun a major effort “to try to convince the American people that industrial poisons in our food and water are safe,” according to Peter Montague, head of the Environmental Research Foundation (Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News, 4/8/93). If so, the Times‘ series must be considered a major success: “Dozens of newspapers have reprinted the Times‘s recent unsupported claims that low levels of chemicals harm no one,” Montague wrote (4/15/93).

The Times also has a more personal interest in exonerating dioxin and other toxic chemicals. As Hazardous Waste News pointed out (4/8/93), “the Times itself is a major polluter that was sued in August 1991 for $1.3 billion by two Canadian Indian nations who accused the Times of polluting their waters and their fish with dioxins spewed from a paper mill the Times partly owned.”

Reporters’ personal agendas may also have colored the series. On a panel at last fall’s conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Keith Schneider described the Wise Use movement, which opposes environmental regulation in the name of private property rights, as “one of the most important and interesting movements to arrive in environmentalism in a long time,” contrasting it with the “moribundness and intellectualism within the environmental movement.” He repeatedly praised the “new ideas” of the Wise Use movement–a phrase that dominated the Times series four months later.

Schneider became the Times‘ main environmental reporter after his predecessor, Philip Shabecoff, was yanked off the beat for being too “pro-environment.” Shabecoff said the only example his bosses cited was that he had referred to the “slaughter” of dolphins in a story on tuna fishing (Washington Post, 5/6/91). That such an offense can cost a reporter his job, while a one-sided polemic against environmental regulations wins one a place on the front page, indicates where the Times‘ priorities on the environment lie.

Miranda Spencer is a copy editor and research assistant at The Nation who writes about environmental reporting for Extra! She serves on the executive committee of the Hudson County Sierra Club. Research assistance: Christal Smith.