John Stossel plays by a different set of rules than other journalists, as demonstrated most recently by "Tampering with Nature," a one-hour special that aired on ABC on June 29.
Taking advantage of the unusual leeway the network gives him, ABC's favorite free-market zealot used the special to attack environmentalists, who are caricatured as "preachers of doom and gloom" whose extreme anti-technology views would have us all "running around naked, hungry for food, maybe killing a rabbit with a rock, then dying young, probably before age 40." As is often the case, Stossel's reporting relied on biased sources, twisted facts and the exclusion of information that might conflict with his thesis.
Central to Stossel's argument is that schools are overrun with green propaganda, leaving him to wonder: "Is this education or environmental boot camp?" To hear Stossel and his carefully chosen guests tell it, kids are being brainwashed when in fact there's little reason to worry about the environment.
Deforestation, for example, is a non-issue, according to one of Stossel's main sources, Patrick Moore, a former director of Greenpeace who now works for the timber industry. Moore explains that "the forest cover in the United States today is about the same as it was in 1920." Stossel chimes in, "I don't read that in the Greenpeace fundraiser," suggesting that groups like Greenpeace are part of a "huge industry" that profits by manufacturing a crisis.
It's true that total U.S. forest cover has been roughly stable over the last century. But taking total acreage as the sole indicator of environmental well-being is a simplistic approach. It discounts, for example, that the U.S. has logged most of its old-growth forests, which are crucial to biodiversity. Deforestation is a global crisis with global impact-- most of the forestry work done by Greenpeace, for instance, focuses not on the relatively well-protected U.S., but on Brazil, Canada and other areas where forest loss threatens the climate, endangered species and indigenous peoples. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization finds that deforestation is running about 22 million acres per year, an estimate many environmental groups say is too low, since it counts new tree plantations the same way as older forests (Environmental News Service, 3/12/01).
And are you worried about pollution? Then you're no better than those brainwashed schoolchildren: "Why don't they know the facts? The EPA says over the past 30 years, the air has been getting cleaner.... Every major pollutant the government measures is decreasing."
Stossel's implication that EPA data shows environmental improvement across the board is clearly incorrect. In fact, the EPA's website states that "total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions"-- which include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride-- have risen significantly over the last several years, to 11.2 percent above 1990 baseline (as of 1998), and that emissions per person in the U.S. "have increased about 3.4 percent between 1990 and 1997." These emissions certainly qualify as "major pollutants" in terms of their environmental impact.
Stossel's discussion of global warming was highly selective in the information it presented. Instead of reporting the increasingly strong scientific consensus on global warming, Stossel chose to highlight the views of so-called "skeptics," giving center stage to three dissenters from among the 2,000 scientists of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which recently released a report stating that global temperatures are rising almost twice as fast as previously thought.
To back up the skeptics' claims, Stossel presents some deceptive evidence: "You may have heard that 1,600 scientists signed a letter warning of 'devastating consequences.' But I bet you hadn't heard that 17,000 scientists signed a petition saying there's 'no convincing evidence' that greenhouse gases will disrupt the Earth's climate."
The implication is that 10 times as many scientists question global warming. What Stossel doesn't note is that while the first petition was circulated by a group well-respected in the scientific community, the second petition has been famously discredited.
The first, smaller petition came from the Union of Concerned Scientists and its signatories included 110 Nobel laureates, including 104 of the 178 living Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, along with 60 U.S. National Medal of Science winners. The latter petition was a project of the George C. Marshall Institute, whose chair, Frederick Seitz, is also affiliated with the Global Climate Coalition (an industry group calling itself the "voice for business in the global warming debate"), in conjunction with the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine, a lesser-known group whose leader, wrote columnist Molly Ivins, is a biochemist who "specializes in home schooling and building nuclear shelters" (Los Angeles Times, 8/17/98).
Though OISM's signatories did include reputable scientists, it also included dentists, nutritionists and others with no expertise in climatalogy; the only requirement for signing on was a bachelors degree in science. In fact, OISM's screening process was so lax that for a time the list also included a number of gag names added by environmentalists, including Ginger Spice and Michael J. Fox. The OISM petition also came under fire for being deceptively packaged: The petition was accompanied by an article purporting to debunk global warming that was formatted to look as though it had been published in the journal of the respected National Academy of Sciences. The resemblance was so close that the NAS issued a public statement that the OISM petition "does not reflect the conclusions of expert reports of the Academy."
None of this controversy was mentioned in Stossel's report.
Stossel also cites an Energy Department study that "says if we try to reduce global warming by restricting emissions, gas prices will go up 50 percent. Electricity 80 percent." Stossel doesn't say exactly what study he's citing, but the numbers are most likely from the Energy Information Administration, which supplies data for the Energy Department.
In October of 1998 , the EIA predicted that if the Kyoto Protocol were implemented, electricity prices might rise anywhere from 20 percent to 86 percent by 2010, while gasoline prices might rise 11 percent to 53 percent. But the report also predicted that prices would decline "as energy markets adjust and more efficient, new technologies become available and gradually penetrate the market." The report also cautioned: "The amount prices must rise is uncertain.... Forecasting technological change and public response to it under various pricing scenarios is an inexact science." It becomes even more inexact when Stossel picks the numbers he likes best out of a broad range.
During the program, absurd contentions from the guests Stossel favors pass without comment: "The average person hears the temperature has changed a half degree," says Richard Lindzen of MIT. "So what? Changes more than that while they wait for the street light to change." It's obvious that local temperatures have a wide range, yet even small changes in average global temperatures can have profound effects (Los Angeles Times, 7/13/01). Stossel lets this sophistry pass, but activists he doesn't agree with are not treated so kindly. "You're a scaremonger," he scolded genetic engineering critic Jeremy Rifkin, "Why should we listen to you?"
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the piece was Stossel's use of children. ABC had filmed interviews with schoolchildren from Santa Monica, California. The childrens' parents originally signed consent forms, but later withdrew them, citing concerns over Stossel's leading questions, and the fact that Stossel's participation had not been mentioned until the last minute.
Stossel's strategy was to get the students to make inaccurate statements about the environment, then blame the environmentalist propaganda that is taught in the schools. The tactic is demeaning and absurd; one could imagine Stossel quizzing students on spelling or math, and explaining incorrect answers as the result of a propaganda campaign. Stossel doesn't mention the fact that actual propaganda-- paid for by industries bent on improving their environmental image -- is increasingly used in place of materials designed by educators in America's classrooms (USA Today, 6/23/98).
In the end, Stossel took a fair amount of criticism for his manipulative tactics, and ABC forced him to pull the original interviews from the broadcast. One can't say he learned from the incident, though: He merely interviewed a different set of children to achieve the same results.
It's hard to imagine another journalist getting away with what Stossel does. It's ironic that a report on the evils of "propaganda" relied so heavily on misinformation and selective omissions-- tried and true propaganda techniques-- to prove its points.
ACTION: Let ABC News know that Stossel's manipulative interviews with children for the "Tampering with Nature" special were not the only things that should have concerned them. Ask them to provide airtime to advocates for the points of view Stossel attacks in his reporting.
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