Another Year of the “environmental decade” is upon us: Acid rain and ozone depletion are household words; nature calendars, dolphin-safe tuna and neighborhood recycling programs are a part of everyday life; and the “environmental president” is running for reelection. Surely, since Time magazine named the Earth “Planet of the Year” in 1989, the environment has been a premier media issue avidly pursued by journalists. Or has it?
Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, suggests too much so. In a Jan/Feb 1991 cover story, conservative syndicated columnist Warren Brookes asserted that the “news media have been taken in by environmentalist scare scenarios over the last three years,” turning journalists into “press agents” for the environmental “overkill” prescribed by well-financed green groups. A Lehigh University journalism professor quoted in the Chicago Tribune (4/22/90) claimed that in environmental reporting, “We…find industry extremely underrepresented and the environmental side more represented.”
But in examining nearly 900 print articles and well over 100 network news stories on the U.S. environment, FAIR found nearly the opposite to be true. Seven newspapers (Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today), three national newsweeklies (Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report) and the three major TV networks were studied from April 1990 to April 1991. All U.S. environmental coverage was examined during seven intervals—the second half of April 1990; June, August, October and December 1990; February 1991; and the second half of April 1991.
Mainstream environmental reporting took its cue not from press-hungry environmentalists, but from the government, corporate and (often non-science) academic establishments. While the press was quick to tout a feel-good brand of “new American consciousness” about the environment, the only widely circulated “doomsday scenarios” emanated from the economists and CEOs who cried wolf at every new environmental initiative.
In an effort to avoid advocacy, the media often framed multifaceted issues around the “two sides,” a zero-sum game that did little to clarify matters. “The issues are reduced to ‘He said, she said,” observes Gary Souci, a former environmental reporting professor at New York University and currently the environment editor of National Geographic.
Print media often displayed an ample dose of cynicism about the claims and motivations of both political and economic elites (particularly President Bush) and environmental advocates—but still mostly limited the discussion to clashing opinions, rather than facts gathered by the reporters themselves. Network TV news, on the other hand, seemed more emotion-driven: Anchors and reporters tended to maintain an ominous or scolding tone about the environmental problems they reported, and a sentimental optimism about efforts to ease these problems.
How Big a Story? How Important?
Coverage of environmental stories tended to be reactive, focusing on events and disasters, or on government announcements—which were followed by a brief increase of spot news and commentary on the environmental issue involved.
For both print media and TV, an environmental reporting glut clustered around the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 1990. Thirty percent of the print stories (271 out of 900) occurred in the two weeks around Earth Day—about 10 percent of the time studied.
While there were 171 print stories in June, coverage then drastically tapered off—partly in response to massive Gulf Crisis coverage. In August, there were 105 articles; 120 articles in October, 74 articles in December, 74 articles in February, and finally riding to 82 articles in the second half of April 1991.
During the period studied, about 267 minutes of network news shows’ time was devoted to some aspect of the U.S. environment. Nearly a third of this coverage (about 80 minutes) was devoted to oil tanker spills; more than 40 percent (about 115 minutes) was in the two weeks around Earth Day 1990.
Environmental stories tended to be isolated rather than followed consistently, particularly by the TV networks. Some papers did have “pet” topics whose development they updated—and editorialized on—fairly regularly. For example, the Washington Post pursued (and opposed as too costly) the Clean Air Act; the New York Times warned about global warming.
Environmental topics most often turned up in stories primarily about other things—in the business or entertainment pages, or in law or politics or consumer columns (rarely in science or personal health sections). Based on their placement, most U.S. environment-related stories were considered of only moderate importance, seldom on page one and even more rarely a lead TV news segment.
Both print media and TV initiated some investigative pieces whose findings had sweeping ramifications. The LA. Times, for example, reported on state and federal rules that allowed polluters to supervise their own cleanup or certify toxic sites as safe. (The EPA changed the practice not long after.)
But much investigative reporting was then forgotten, seldom incorporated into the body of knowledge and perspective that informed the beat as a whole. The Christian Science Monitor (8/17/90) exposed that reduced emissions levels reported by the nation’s 29 largest polluters were “illusory,” based on paperwork tricks (8/17/90). But this information did not affect the way the Monitor or other outlets covered the Clean Air Act.
Ecology vs. Economy
Regardless of topic, U.S. environmental stories were framed in remarkably consistent ways–ways that often precluded portrayal of a complete picture of environmental issues or serious consideration of alternatives to pollution-as-usual.
One of the most popular frames for stories about the environment was an economic hook. Thirty-two print stories dealt solely with financial aspects of environmentalism—pollution taxes, pollution-control stocks, costs of environmental standards, etc. Scores of other environmental stories focused on the economic angle—often in the lead (“Tough new anti-pollution standards pending in Congress could cost the Chicago-area transit system more than $150 million”—Chicago Tribune, 6/10/90) or the headline (“Clean Air Accord…May Cost Industry $25 Billion a Year”—Wall Street Journal, 10/23/90).
Stories continually pitted a cleaner environment against “jobs”; environmentalists against labor (rather than, more accurately, management); Big Government (whose rules are often said to “force” adjustments) against the Little Guy (small business).
Free-market capitalism and traditional theories of cost/benefit analysis were the familiar bed into which a procrustean press tended to thrust all environmental issues. Stories incessantly asked how improving or preserving the environment would impact the economy. And the consensus seemed to be that new regulations, policies, technologies, etc. would cost too much. Most reporting missed the obvious: The enormous pricetags on ecological cleanups are the result of pollution, not “environmentalism.”
What one might expect from the Wall Street Journal—that any environmental issue must be assessed in terms of business-as-usual—turns out to be true across the board for most news reports. Non-staff-written opinion pieces sometimes portrayed other perspectives: The L.A. Times (4/20/90) carried a column by environmentalist Barry Commoner pointing out that the federal government, “the nation’s single largest consumer,” could use its huge purchasing power to “persuade producers…to shift to clean technologies.” But news stories usually treated existing socioeconomic systems as a given.
While the media were willing to dispute dire environmental predictions, they were more accepting of dire economic projections—citing enormous anticipated job losses while rarely asking how the figures were derived, or if plant closings and layoffs were the only options. And they willingly promoted analyses concluding that the costs of restoring the environment outweighed the benefits. For instance, the New York Times (8/15/90) reported on a study that concluded that amendments strengthening the Clean Air Act “will double the current $30 billion cost of the air quality regulation. But the benefits will probably be worth just $14 billion”–a figure derived in part by estimating that a human life is worth $3 million.
Ultimately, changes on behalf of the environment were portrayed as valid only if they were seen as “affordable” by those interviewed (business people and economists, who naturally take bottom-line perspectives) and won’t disrupt “our lifestyle.” Benefits were often portrayed as marginal—the Washington Post reported (6/11/90) that positive effects of the Clean Air Act might “include…removing some of the pollutants that create the thick haze that hangs over Washington on a hot summer day and probably improving health, according to environmentalists.” Or benefits were simply, as USA Today put it (4/18/90), “a guessing game.”
Oddly, the economic damage caused by pollution—to personal property, real estate values or public resources, for example—were downplayed in these fiscal discussions. (Fishermen whose business suffered because of oil spills did garner sympathy.)
The economy-versus-ecology framework was challenged every so often by other pieces describing how environmental cleanup and pollution prevention can benefit the economy (e.g., “White House Group Reports Pollution Fight Won’t Hurt Economy,” New York Times, 6/7/90). After all, every dollar spent on smokestack scrubbers or recycling motor oil goes into another pocket—not, as one environmentalist pointed out, “down a rat hole” (Washington Post, 6/10/90).
The existence and extent of pollution—surely a fundamental aspect of most environmental stories—was downplayed in favor of wrangling over remedies. This tendency, believes environmental journalist Souci, “reduces all environmental stories to a political controversy—which misses the point.” A couple of years ago, the media told in excruciating detail of a ravaged environment in Eastern Europe. But in the U.S., the debate seems to assume that environmental cleanup would only provide a small extra margin of safety.
The purity or safety of air, water, chemicals, etc. was gauged in terms of whether government standards had been met, rather than whether those standards are adequate. Coverage of Southern California’s air quality plan, various pesticide and herbicide restrictions, and the resettling of Love Canal, often featured those who were required to clean up arguing that the standards were excessive. One article (New York Times, 10/7/90) even opened, “Can drinking water be too clean?”
Pollution on a local level did get regular, aggressive coverage. The L.A. Times, for example, published a massive five-part analysis of the intricacies of Southern California’s smog-control plans. Local environment stories documented air and water pollution, grassroots fights against incinerators, toxic waste and local polluting industries— who were often named (e.g., “3 Kerr McGee Sites to Be Placed on Superfund List,” Chicago Tribune, 8/28/90). In national coverage, corporate polluters were often not named.
Other Frames for Environmental Coverage
Political Stalemate. U.S. reporting sometimes seemed less about the environment than a rampant political force called environmentalism. Using a vocabulary of antagonism (in particular, constant use of the term “battle” and summing up issues in terms of “winners” and “losers”), the media emphasized controversy and polarized environmental debates into environmentalism vs. status quo, animal vs. human, ecology vs. economy.
This conveyed the implication that various environmental issues are at an impasse or stalemate that can only be overcome if each “side” will “give ground.” This emphasis on compromise between two rigid extremes obscures other perspectives and alternatives.
Ethnocentrism. No environmental problem is uniquely American. One nation’s environmental contaminants and degradation—from pesticides and ocean dumping to deforestation—impacts many other nations and the Earth as a whole. Yet U.S. environment stories were typically told from an isolationist perspective, as if they were America’s private concern. (Time and Christian Science Monitor usually strove to portray the larger planetary context.)
There was little discussion of where the U.S. fits in the greater ecological scheme of things—such as the fact, cited in Time‘s “Planet-Saving Report Card” (4/20/90), that the nation is “a primary producer of CO2” and “the world’s biggest per capita garbage producer.” Comparisons of U.S. environmental solutions with those of other countries (and the fact that in some areas we lag far behind) got only passing references. The U.S. role as superpower that can set a global agenda was barely touched on. One exception was Bush’s “foot-dragging” (Christian Science Monitor) on the greenhouse effect. (The global economy did appear in a couple of April 1991 stories—e.g., “Environment Versus Freer Trade: Protecting the Ecology Sometimes Creates Unfair Competition,” New York Times, 2/11/91.)
Anthropocentrism. As well, U.S. environmental stories tended to separate humans from their environment, pitting civilization against nature rather than as part of it. A New York Times article (4/24/90) on the proliferation of lawsuits over the classification of farmland as wetlands barely mentioned why wetlands need protection. A CBS segment (4/16/90) on a landmark Supreme Court case over developing public lands was framed as a “confrontation” between business and environmental groups that want to preserve wild places so “their members” can use it for recreation. In the segment, an interior department spokesperson called environmentalists a “special interest group” with no standing.
Although the issues were presented as highly polarized, the sources chosen to represent each side were seldom very much so—no Earth First!ers vs. James Watt, for example. Most quoted sources, including the environmentalists, were from groups the media carefully identified as “mainstream.”
Environmental groups of this type were referred to in a Washington Post article (4/19/90) as “generally conservative,” “politically moderate,” “low key,” or as advocating “market-based principles.”
Federal entities—from the Office of Technology Assessment to the Coast Guard—were some of the most frequently cited sources, as were corresponding state and local authorities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its studies were the most prominent. The EPA sometimes served as switch hitter, cited to represent environmentalists in one story, and to refute them in another.
But how reliable a source is the EPA? Not very, according to Jim Sibbison, who served as an EPA press officer in the 1980s. In a Columbia Journalism Review article (12/88), Sibbison wrote that “a principal occupational hazard in environmental reporting from Washington [is] relaying…self-serving statements by EPA officials as the truth.” Sibbison asserts that “the key question—why, after nearly twenty years, the EPA still allows polluters to violate the law—was never asked.” Almost all outlets, however, tattled on the agency in isolated stories, as when the New York Times reported (10/18/90), “Agency Flaws Linked to Loss of Some Species.”
Other most-cited sources included industry coalitions and any government or company spokesperson with “environmental” in its title. These include groups with pro-environment names but pro-business agendas, such as Resources for the Future, a conservative think tank one paper called an “environmental” organization. While industry sources may be knowledgeable about their own fields, they are hardly independent or uninvolved.
Perhaps only in the U.S. could market researchers, industry analysts and economists be considered primary authorities on, say, sewage runoff. A logging company manager got a full page of Newsweek to insist that clearcuts are better for wildlife (10/22/90).
Outside of polls, ordinary people affected by, or working to challenge, environmental pollution were heard from the least on major issues. Most such interviews took the form of “How will YOU celebrate Earth Day?” questions, or appeared in local stories on, say, citizen action against a neighborhood dump.
In all this, environmentalists certainly had their say…during Earth Week. Rank-and-file activists and leaders like Barry Commoner and Lester Brown were profiled or sought out for their platform. USA Today‘s “Weekend” magazine had a two-page interview with activist actor Robert Redford (4/20/90); the Chicago Tribune lionized National Wildlife Federation chief Jay Hair (4/25/90); and Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes was ABC‘s “Person of the Week” (4/20/90).
During the rest of the year, environmental advocates seemed to participate in the discussion less and less. The media often skipped soliciting human voices in favor of generalizations about what “environmentalists say” or “environmentalists want.” Material from environmental magazines, such as E or Earth Island Journal, was never quoted. (The Wall Street Journal did run an article-6/29/90—on environmental magazines as a new publishing niche.)
During the period studied, despite repeatedly declaring that this once “fringe” issue was now mainstream, the press sometimes hinted it was merely a fad—”as popular as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” according to the Christian Science Monitor (4/19/90),or “the oat bran of the ’90s.” (USA Today, 6/28/90) The word “hype” was often used in reference to both Earth Day and environmental concern, without much awareness of the media’s own role in treating it as hype.
The term “environmentalist” was used indiscriminately, describing anyone from an angry family downwind of a contaminated site to a staff scientist at Friends of the Earth. And the “green” label—derived from a progressive European political movement—was rendered nearly meaningless by its overuse. “It’s Not Easy Being Green”—originally Kermit the Frog’s line—was a headline or subhead for articles on various topics.
The press was happy to give a forum to anyone who publicly championed the Earth—rock stars and politicians in particular—but then snidely dismissed them as simply trying to improve their image. As a CBS segment on the environment and show business (4/19/90) put it, “No matter how much acid rain falls, you’ll always be able to see the stars.”
The environment was also introduced into the “political correctness” debate. Pollution solutions were referred to as “environmentally correct” rather than a good or bad idea. The Wall Street Journal in particular focused as much on the perceived “holier than thou” attitude held by these “enviros” as on the wisdom of their prescriptions. (Its editorials called environmentalism a “religion.”) Almost all outlets demeaned such acts as riding a bike to work or recycling as “a way to feel good about yourself.”
Environmentalists were often portrayed as a special interest group with a private agenda and a sense of “greener than thou superiority” (USA Today, 6/28/90) whose opinions don’t represent mainstream America (despite poll data to the contrary). They make “demands,” incite “hysteria,” and want to “go too far.” Environmentalists were portrayed— particularly in various anti-Earth Day op-eds—as naive romantics who yearn for a “pristine” pre-industrial world (the phrase “the old ways” was often used), “granola-crunching” purveyors of “doomsday dogma” (USA Today), and “tree huggers” (Newsweek, Wall Street Journal) who expect us to eschew all chemicals and conveniences. An op-ed by Stephen Chapman (Chicago Tribune, 4/22/90) sneered at those “ascetic zealots who would like us all to live in log cabins, grow our own food, stop having children and swear off anything disposable.”
Worse, environmentalists are elitists. A number of stories about the disproportionate impact of pollution on minority communities spent most of the time denouncing environmental organizations for their racial composition and for devoting more attention to “air, land and water…than…the people who were being poisoned.” (Newsweek, 10/15/90). These articles aimed less ire at the polluters or local officials who created the situation in the first place. The L.A. Times pitted preservationists against the poor: “Walden Pond Inspires Combatants” (4/26/90) was subtitled, “Two causes, affordable housing and the environment, clash.”
Finally, environmentalists may be the enemy. “Do you know the difference between an environmentalist and a terrorist?” quipped a timber executive writing a Newsweek op-ed (10/22/90). “It’s easier to reason with the terrorist.” They may even be part of a left-wing anti-democratic plot: George Will, in a column published in both the L.A. Times and Washington Post (4/19/90), declared that “the hidden agenda of some environmentalists is to expand the dominion of some people’s political will over others….The traditional agenda of the left…has one constant: the expansion of state direction over society.”
CASE STUDY #1: Earth Day
The 20th anniversary of Earth Day in April 1990 was the catch-all news peg for the greatest number and diversity of environment-related stories in the entire period studied. In just two weeks, for example, USA Today had 43 Earth Day-related stories; 23 appeared on Earth Day itself, including an entire section devoted to the environment, complete with a national cross-section of information on pollution scandals and practical tips for effective activism. The Chicago Tribune, which through most of the year focused on local environmental stories, had 34 stories hooked to Earth Day; Time’s special Earth Day section included 11 different pieces; the TV networks offered more than 109 minutes hooked to Earth Day itself.
Part love affair with the Earth, part environmental movement roast, coverage ranged from fluffy roundups of fun weekend activities (“Put on your earth shoes and organically grown T-shirt and jump on the…bandwagon,” Newsweek urged on 4/23/90) to substantial syntheses of U.S. environmental history and statistical data, such as the Chicago Tribune‘s weeklong series.
The message of most of the coverage was reassurance–that business and the public alike are aware and care; our nation’s air is more breathable and water more drinkable, the bald eagle back in its nest.
Typically, media coverage was framed as a comparison between Earth Day ’90 and Earth Day ’70, whose anniversary it celebrated. Back then, we were told, ecology was a “fringe” issue and focused on cleaning up our own backyards. Today, the line went, the world has awakened to its wasteful ways and shivers at global warming. Media images of Earth Day ’90 showed thousands of smiling, dancing people, while stock footage of Earth Day ’70 showed angry protestors chanting slogans.
Overall, we were told, the environment is in better shape: Laws control new pollution, the Superfund cleans up old mistakes and the EPA guides it all. Stories showed the “greening” of corporations, like NBC‘s “Assignment Earth” segment (4/20/90) on “The Corporate Role.”
One emphasis was on how much “muscle” (Chicago Tribune, 4/23/90) the environmental movement has; countless stories maintained that business and Bush know they must listen to environmentalists and at least maintain the appearance of greenness. For example, the Washington Post (4/19/90) subheaded a piece, “Environmentalists Set Policy Agenda.”
The environment was portrayed as better today than in the 1970s by the Washington Post (4/22/90) and the Christian Science Monitor (4/16/90), which published separate essays by EPA chief William Reilly on the benefits and progress U.S. government programs have achieved. A USA Today editorial (4/20/90) beamed, “Earth Day (1970)…pushed the environment toward center stage. What followed was stunning: The people of USA dished out $1 trillion over two decades…to make things right. Congress passed the first Clean Air Act, which brought about cleaner cars and industry.”
The New York Times‘ page-one Earth Day story (4/22/90) led, “Twenty years after the first Earth Day, the Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire…and bald eagles, once threatened by DDT, have increased nearly sevenfold….Everywhere, it seems, the thinking has changed; many corporations have dropped their old arguments…[and] are scrambling instead to demonstrate how green they are.”
Media often focused less on the actual status of the environment than on how people felt about it. The TV networks reeled off statistical surveys showing people feel the earth is in worse shape. CBS‘s broadcast on the Earth Day anniversary (4/16/90) opened with poll results showing 42 percent of the public say their own neighborhoods are polluted.
The “on the one hand/on the other hand” frameworks of such segments forced viewers to decide for themselves whether the situation had actually been made better or worse. According to CBS (4/16/90), Americans are “consuming more energy, cutting more trees and generating more waste than 20 years ago,” but there’s been a “big change in the way ordinary people think and act about the environment.”
The many opinion columns scolding Earth Day as useless hype or harmful hysteria had a placating message: Our system is fine, it will take care of itself, no need to hyperventilate. A Wall Street Journal essay (4/18/90) quipped, “The planet is more livable than ever. Neanderthals…lived an average of 29 years.”
Sweeping environmental problems remain, most of the press cautioned. But their solution is “up to all of us.” Individual actions by other ordinary people will save the day, as one network put it, “one tree at a time.” The major corporations cutting them down one forest at a time were less in focus.
Every outlet had suggestions of what you, as a consumer, can do to save the planet. USA Today‘s Earth Day section was entitled, “The World is in Your Hands.” A Washington Post news story (4/18/90) misstated the position of most environmentalists: “Environmental activists have begun to shift the environmental burden for saving the planet away from polluting industries to individual citizens.” The article continued with a quote from a physician: “We seem to have reduced the worst sins of industry, but we’ve replaced these with the sins of the consumer.”
The stress on individual action included a focus on eco-heroes, both famous and lesser-known–like an 11- year-old quoted in the L.A. Times (4/23/90) who proclaimed she had “switched from using aerosol hair-spray to a pump-activated formula.”
The many Earth Day reports touting rallies, teach-ins, recycle-a-thons, and vegetarian cookouts created the image of “countless citizens doing their part,” observes former Greenpeace representative Peter Dykstra. He calls the media blitz, and its subsequent falling off, part of an “Ethiopia syndrome”: The world rushes to a noble cause, then perceives the problem as solved. Meanwhile, starvation and environmental degradation continue.
Some reports bluntly challenged the notion that “the problem is being solved.” As a Chicago Tribune news article (4/16/90) put it, we now face crises, such as the ozone hole, that “scientists could not even detect” 20 years ago.
After all the concern displayed in the second half of April ’90, Earth Day ’91 came and went with hardly a flicker. Only USA Today, which again had a special section, even came close to matching the attention bestowed the year before.
CASE STUDY #2: The Clean Air Act
The 1990 Clean Air Act, considered one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in a decade, was followed closely by print media during the period studied, with some 60 stories appearing. It received only two and a half minutes of nightly TV time during the period studied, however. The act was updated to regulate new hazards like acid rain, ozone depletion and airborne toxics.
Media generally let government and business frame the discussion. The act was portrayed as a test of the political sway of various special interests; coverage focused on the wrangling between Bush and Congress members and the claims of polluters. U.S. News (4/16/90) called it the “Clean Air Sweepstakes” and “the Superbowl of lobbying.” Most participants in the media debate were lawmakers: Republicans vs. Democrats, pro-ethanol champions of Iowa’s corn belt versus Michigan’s auto industry guardians.
Before the act was passed, the media promoted worry not over blackened skies, charred lungs and skin cancer, but of business going belly up. What was arguably a public health issue became a vehicle for economic alarmism: Could the U.S. afford to implement more air quality laws?
Stories emphasized short-term dollar costs of cleanup and conversion to “greener” technologies. Uncle Sam was said to want to “force” industry to spend billions, which in turn would gouge Americans with higher prices and threaten competitiveness. Headlines warned, “Breathing Easier Has Its Price” (Washington Post, 6/10/90) or “Clean-Air Bill Carries Painful Side Effects” (Chicago Tribune, 10/23/90). A USA Today box (10/29/90) cautioned that the act “could cripple some.”
The media often let federal efforts to detoxify the skies become a math problem. Columns like “Using Benefit Cost Studies to Set Regulatory Policy” (L.A. Times, 4/3/90) and “What Price Cleaner Air?” (New York Times, 8/15/90) spotlighted studies grappling with variables—X number of asthma attacks prevented minus Y possible plant closings. These studies were said to prove the act’s costs would overwhelm its benefits. Government experts estimating the act’s aggregate expense to the economy (variously $22 billion, $25 billion, $35 billion, even $60 billion) figured prominently in news stories.
Not merely pricey, this government aggression against the ravages of smog was overstepping its bounds: A Wall Street Journal column (10/8/90) painted an Orwellian future of statist control, as foreshadowed in local California laws already in place. A New York Times news story (10/18/90) made it sound as if Washington invented the dangers of air pollution: The new rules regulate “emission of toxic chemicals that the government contends cause cancer.” (Emphasis added.)
Throughout, media took business leaders and economists (all of whom seemed to come from the strict Free Market school) at their word, rarely challenging cost figures and job loss statistics. Rarely quoted were people who maintained the new act was not strong enough. Environmentalist input was mainly limited to the obligatory Natural Resources Defense Council attorney commenting, “a good first step” or “it’s inadequate.” Almost no scientists or public health specialists were quoted.
And with costs emphasized over content, significant elements of the act were left undebated. Questions were rarely raised about the issue of “pollution credits,” which will allow companies to buy and sell the “right” to pollute.
Meanwhile, little was said about why the Clean Air Act was needed in the firstplace—except in some in-depth print stories not hooked to the act. A New York Times piece in its “Your Health” supplement (“On Ill Health and Air Pollution,” 10/7/90) declared, “A consensus emerges that…problems reach much farther and are more severe than had previously been recognized.”
The act was ultimately passed on Oct. 22, bringing headlines such as “Clean Air Accord Is Reached in Congress That May Cost Industry $25B a Year” (Wall Street Journal, 10/23), and the Chicago Tribune‘s “Clean Air Could Carry High Price for State” (10/31). Continuing the battle metaphors, many articles couched the approved bill in terms of “winners” and “losers”
But as government and corporate officials’ tunes changed, so did the tenor of articles. The regulations that days earlier were going to strangle the U.S. economy were suddenly a triumph for statesmanship and the planet. Just before the act’s passage, William Fay, “administrator of the Clean Air Working Group, a coalition of nearly 2,000 industries,” told the Christian Science Monitor (10/26/90) that the act would cause “job losses and dislocations…increased electricity bills…changed lifestyles, and slower economic growth.” But two days later, Fay was telling the New York Times (10/28/90) that industry supported the act: “There are parts of the bill that we don’t like, but…it’s part of the cost of doing business.”
Even after the act passed, media focused more on finance than ecology. Articles began to appear on the jobs that would be created and the industries, such as natural gas, which were in for a windfall. The Wall Street Journal (10/29/90) reported after the act passed, “For Each Dollar Spent On Clean Air, Someone Stands to Make a Buck.” Facts like these should have been obvious before the act passed, but were rarely mentioned.
CASE STUDY #3: The Spotted Owl
On June 22, 1990, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Northern spotted owl as a threatened species. Problem: Its habitat is the old-growth forest of the Pacific Northwest, the heart of the U.S. logging industry. As framed by media, the issue pitted the tiny bird’s survival against the traditional livelihood of loggers.
Called “one of the bitterest environmental fights of the last decade” (New York Times, 6/14/90), the controversy over protecting the owl (“what the tiny snail darter was to dam builders—a symbol for environmentalists, only cuter,” according to Time, 4/16/90) received continuous and prominent coverage, including an eight-page cover story in Time (6/25/90). The owl controversy garnered relatively heavy TV news coverage during the study period: ABC and NBC had three stories each, while CBS devoted more than nine minutes to the issue.
Vanishing habitat is one of the nation’s most urgent environmental problems, according to a December 1990 EPA study. But the threatened bird’s plight was portrayed as a trivial annoyance compared to the dire consequences to humans of saving it. It was the loggers and their “way of life” that were really “threatened” or “endangered,” outlet after outlet reported.
In this man-versus-nature framework, 600 pairs of birds (and their environmentalist champions) contended with the government-provided figure of 28,000 lumber workers (industry estimates ranged as high as 100,000) whose jobs would be lost if trees were made off-limits.
The rugged loggers got tremendous sympathy compared to the diminuative owl. Newsweek‘s coverage in the period studied consisted of a one-page opinion piece by a tree-farm manager, who accused environmentalists of trying to destroy loggers (10/22/90).
Several stories profiled logging towns with real-life Capra-movie names like Sweet Home and Happy Camper. An L.A. Times feature, “Spooked by an Owl, Town Fights Its Future” (4/23/91), called the bird in question a “Trojan owl.”
While stressing the jobs-vs.-habitat theme, some outlets added their predictable spin to it. For the Washington Post, this was political maneuvering (interagency and White House bickering on how to save both owls and jobs); for the Wall Street Journal, it was the dreaded economic protectionism. Politicians who want to save owls, one column (6/12/90) went, really want to halt log exports to Japan–they “barely give a hoot about ecology.”
TV coverage displayed the prevailing jobs vs. habitat slant. ABC and NBC‘s 6/22/90 stories on the owl’s designation emphasized the loggers’ lament.
While ABC led with community reaction to the government’s decision, CBS discussed both owl and loggers equally, even naming other forest creatures impacted by logging.
Only a few outlets gave the forest the space they gave to the trees. As an exceptional New York Times editorial (6/29/90) pointed out, the key environmental issue was not saving the bird, but its home. (Old-growth forests help counteract air pollution, stave off the greenhouse effect, and regulate soil and water, among other things.) And as one environmentalist noted, the owl is an indicator species—like a coal-mine canary, its demise indicates an entire ecosystem is askew (Washington Post, 6/23/90).
Time magazine’s “Owl vs. Man” cover story (6/25/90) provided an exceptional view with its in-depth, sometimes lyrical refutation of conventional economic versus ecology wisdom. Cataloging the wholesale desecration of the ancient northwest forest (“less than 10 percent…remains”), it asserted the timber industry brought its problems on itself and had “exploit[ed] community fears for its own ends.” The piece positioned the crisis as an example watched around the globe “as America tries to influence other nations to husband their natural resources.”
While seeming to be an owl/forest advocate, Time still gave plenty of voice to the anger of potentially displaced timber workers. There was even a box profiling a longtime logger, an “Artist with a 20-lb. Saw,” while a box about a radical forest advocate was headlined “Terrorist in a White Collar.”
For the rest of the year, the owl was cited as the perfect metaphor for environmentalist excess in the economy vs. ecology debate. Although the media did begin to question standard logging practices, seeds of discussion on ways to cut demand for virgin wood products were never planted.
CASE STUDY #4: Green Products
“Only [the United States] would define environmentalism as a new way to shop.”–USA Today, 12/14/90
Consumer products were a recurrent environmental theme in the period studied, as companies tried to promote their products as earth-friendly—recyclable drink boxes, “degradable” plastic bags, ozone-friendly deodorant, etc.—and/or their “responsible citizenship,” as demonstrated by planting trees, etc. FAIR found some 45 print and one TV story on trends in “green” products, not including the many pieces on reformulated gasoline and electric cars touted near Earth Day, or the stories on dolphin-safe tuna and the great diaper debate (cloth versus disposable).
Green products were framed as a marketing trend akin to the “lite” craze of the ’80s, focusing on business courtship of the “green” shopper as a large new demographic group. Indeed, two of the most-quoted sources on the issue were a household products conglomerate (Procter and Gamble) and a package design firm (the Michael Peters group).
To the media’s credit, rather than taking the “isn’t this wonderful” tone the companies would have liked, stories debunked questionable claims about the biodegradability or purity of their products, exposing the lack of a uniform standard for greenness.
Some articles, however, didn’t accept the concept of green-conscious shopping. Stories stressed consumer confusion over what is most environmentally sound (the eternal “paper or plastic?” debate). Green shopping breeds alienation, and, in the words of a New York Times piece (4/21/90), will soon “guilt trip [consumers] into lethargy.”
Emphasis was on the difficulties created by green products—with a subtext that environmentalism is making life more difficult. In its lifestyle pages, a New York Times column (8/4/90) opened with a reference (worth a full feature) to a 1987 EPA study concluding toxic chemicals are at two to five times higher concentration inside the home than outside. It then gave a rundown of green product catalogs, with the caveat that alternatives often “cost more…[are] not widely available, or…must be made from scratch” and that they themselves aren’t “risk free.” A vegetable-based toilet cleaner, for example, “may cause eye irritation.” Well, so will the Dow variety.
Stress on the higher cost of some truly alternative products such as fluorescent bulbs reinforced the notion that a clean environment is “too expensive.” A Wall Street Journal article (6/29/90), for example, raised the specter of lesser performance and much higher cost from green products in “Home Products Revamped to Curb Smog Could Leave Frustrated Users Fuming.”
Some companies received sympathy from the media for being unable to please unreasonably demanding environmentalists. A piece in the L.A. Times (8/13/90) portrayed activists as opposed to promising developments in degradable plastics. The Wall Street Journal (8/21/90) reported that furniture makers were cutting back on rainforest hardwoods, “but some environmentalists aren’t satisfied”—a sentiment echoed by the Christian Science Monitor, which wrote (12/5/90), “Despite progress in making products biodegradable, some environmentalists are unconvinced.”
A disposable lifestyle was often viewed as a given. For example, the New York Times (6/3/90) explored whether batteries can be manufactured using different metals to make them less toxic (toxicity is “a concern to environmentalists”—as opposed to the rest of us?). Recycling, considered not cost-effective, was not treated as a serious option in the article.
Green products coverage often ignored the role of producers in reducing consumers’ options. The switch from milk in glass bottles (and home delivery), for example, to milk in plasticized cartons was a “choice” largely imposed on consumers by the milk industry.
Much of the media concluded green shopping was almost futile. As one Chicago Tribune article (4/22/90) concluded, “the ultimate…pro-environment, anti-waste consumerism [is]: Don’t buy it at all.”
SIDEBAR: Environmental Reporting Can Be Hazardous to Your Career
Glynn Wilson, an award-winning reporter for the Islander, part of a chain of small newspapers serving the Gulf Coast of Alabama, never thought covering the environment beat would get him into trouble. “Over the last three years,” Wilson told Extra!, “I have done a tremendous amount of environmental reporting and gotten a tremendous amount of public support.”
But when Wilson started covering EMPRESS II, a Navy research project in the Gulf of Mexico that would simulate the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear bomb, he learned that there are some toes that can’t be stepped on. After writing a three-part series (Islander, 12/21/91, 12/28/91, 1/1/92) on the possible health and environmental consequences of the project, he took a vacation; he returned to find that his desk had been taken over by a newly hired editor, an ex-Navy officer with an intelligence background.
The new editor told Wilson that his series was “garbage” and that the paper had received “a number of complaints” about it, although public response was heavily positive. Wilson began hearing that local Republican officials were telling the Islander’s publisher that they were unhappy about his reporting. The last straw came when Wilson wrote an article on Alabama’s U.S. representatives (2/19/92) headlined, “Alabama Delegation Gets ‘F’ on Environmental Scorecard.” That same day, he was given written notice that he was fired; in the space provided for an explanation, his termination slip was marked “no information provided.”
Wilson is only one environmental reporter who has riled sacred cows. David Mitchell, managing editor of the New Mexican, was dismissed after the paper ran an expose of nuclear contamination at Los Alamos laboratories (Extra!, 11-12/91). The Montana Missoulan took Richard Manning off the environmental beat after timber companies criticized his series on timber clearcutting. The series won an award for investigative journalism, but Manning left the paper to write Last Stand: Logging, Journalism and the Case for Humility (Peregrine Smith Books).
One reason smaller papers are vulnerable to pressure on environmental issues is that the area they report on is often dependent on one or two key industries. “Newspapers…are loath to criticize the heart of the local economy,” Manning argues (E Magazine, 3-4/92).
But it isn’t only journalists at little papers who have to be careful: Phil Shabecoff, who covered the environment for the New York Times for 14 years, left the paper after being switched to the IRS beat. “I was told my coverage was considered pro-environment, whatever that means,” Shabecoff told the Washington Post (5/6/91). The only example the Times gave him of what he was doing wrong: He used the word “slaughter” to describe the mass killing of dolphins.
SIDEBAR: The TV Spectrum: Capitalism Boosters vs. Volcano Opponents
On a Feb. 4 segment about the environment, Nightline asked whether “this country can afford to save the world at all costs.” Continuing a tradition featuring right-wing ideologues as experts on scientific questions (remember Jerry Falwell, brain scientist?), the show featured talkshow host Rush Limbaugh, who argued that volcanoes do more harm to the ozone layer than chlorofluorocarbons. Balancing Limbaugh was Sen. Al Gore, who argued that the answer to ecological problems was more “capitalism.” In an introduction to the show, Nightline presented the Bush administration as “caught in the middle” between these two extremes, as an Interior Department spokesperson stated that “growth and development and environmental protection have to come together.”
These sort of match-ups are common on television discussion shows. The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour managed to do seven segments on the Exxon Valdez oil spill without including a single guest from an environmental organization (Extra!, Winter ’90). Instead, one program (3/30/89) featured Exxon chair Lawrence Rawl and Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper, who had little disagreement with Rawl: “The chairman of the board of Exxon, I think, has been too heavy on his own company…. Obviously Exxon’s skipper caused this accident, but after it took place, I think that Exxon did a good job under the circumstances. I really do.”
In all MacNeil/Lehrer’s discussion segments on the environment for a six-month period, only one of 17 experts represented an environmental group. Most were government or corporate officials.