In 1995 they told us that Yucca Mountain was going to explode in a nuclear firestorm. It won't. In 1998 they told us that nuclear-weapons installations were making people sick. They weren't. In 2000 they weren't concerned with arsenic in the water. In 2001 they were. This year they have claimed that the Pentagon is worried about global warming and that phosphate mines are harming Floridians. "They" are journalists, and the issue is the environment. What makes this particular issue so susceptible to had journalism'?
At least part of the answer has to be politics. If you followed the controversy over arsenic in drinking water in 2001, you could he forgiven for thinking that the Bush administration was plotting to poison the reservoirs. Yet in fact the Environmental Protection Agency had simply chosen to revert to standards that were changed only in the last few days of the Clinton administration. The press had gone almost eight years without noticing that Carol Browner and the Clinton EPA were happy to allow these "dangerous." standards of arsenic in the water.
In other areas too, the press deliberately changed its tune. In 1987, the Washington Post had editorialized in favor of oil exploration in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, saying, "That part of the Arctic coast is one of the bleakest, most remote places on this continent, and there is hardly any other where drilling would have less impact on the surrounding life." By 2000, when George W. Bush had made drilling in AN WR part of his proposed energy policy, the Post became concerned about whether "the oil to be gained is worth the potential damage to this unique, wild and biologically vital ecosystem." The New York Times similarly reversed its position on the issue between 1989 and 2001.
As strong environmentalism is one of the defining characteristics of the modern liberal, it should come as no surprise that the media lean toward environmentalism in their coverage of key issues.
Hence the pivotal role of Britain's leftist bible, the Guardian, in so many recent stories. low that the Internet has made it possible to read other English-language papers daily. the Guardian has become a regular stop for those who find the New York Times too conservative. Given the highly politicized nature of most British papers, it is hardly surprising that its combative style has won many admirers on the American left (just as a whole new audience of American conservatives has come to appreciate the stance of the Daily Telegraph).
So when Fortune magazine ran a story in January about the Pentagon's investigation of the potential security impacts of global warming, no major American newspaper picked it up. On February 22, however. nearly a month after the Fortune story. the Observer - The Sunday sister paper of the Guardian ran with the preposterous headline "Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us." The sub-heads ranted, "Secret report warns of rioting and nuclear war:" "Britain will be 'Siberian' in less than 20 years:" "Threat to the world is greater than terrorism."
This is appalling journalism. The Pentagon had judged that the S100.000 report did not "meet its needs- and so rejected it. In any case, the report was not secret and was by no means "suppressed by U.S. defense chiefs and obtained by the Observer''—presumably by the furtive and dangerous method of asking the Pentagon for it. The report's only mention of Britain relates to its being a nuclear power; and the comparison to terrorism is actually made not by the Pentagon hut by British scientists on their own crusade to terrify America into adopting the Kyoto Protocol. Far from concluding that global warming "will destroy us," the report actually concludes that such a dramatic event as the sudden onset of an ice age would present "new challenges" for the United States.
It was only after the Observer's scaremongering that environmental groups over here noticed the story. After they made a fuss about it, it entered the journalistic lexicon to the extent that it seemed every other review of the silly disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow contained a reference to it. The Guardian has gone on to break other environmental scare stories later picked up by the American media. such as allegations against the effectiveness of genetically: modified rice in preventing blindness in the Third World. Yet polities cannot be the whole answer. Sensationalism and ignorance are also to the fore. In 1995.
for instance. Neu. York Times science writer William Broad publicized speculation by two Los Alamos physicists. Charles Bowman and Francesco Niemen, that nuclear-waste materials stored beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada might explode. Their view was dismissed by other researchers as fanciful, and in any event would not occur for thousands of years. The front-page treatment by the Times was clearly inappropriate. Why did they do it?
One important insight comes from the admirable environment correspondent of the Times. Andrew Revkin. He says "environmental issues—at least the most profound ones --are generally the antithesis of news. They are subtle, slow-moving, complicated shifts that often hide in plain sight." To get the news value Out of the issue, sensationalism is always a tempting option.
Just as egregious was a series of investigative reports in the Tennessean in 1998 that alleged "mystery illnesses" were plaguing people who lived near, or worked at. nuclear-weapons plants. Yet the evidence provided was a self-selected, self-reported sample. Just this year. as the Statistical Assessment Service has pointed out, the Tampa Tribune has been doing something similar in no fewer than 119 articles about Coronet Industries, owners of a phosphate plant in Plant City, Fla. The paper's claims of elevated health hazards associated with the plant have not been borne out by the state's independent scientific review. The Tribune's response was illuminating: Its campaign had been "an exercise in journalism, not science. We wanted to know what ailed people, not what caused it."
When journalists are happy enough to junk the well-established scientific tools that help us separate truth from fiction in favor of their own methods, there's a problem. Whether they are motivated by politics, sensationalism. or a strange mixture of ignorance and arrogance, journalists the world over are painting a misleading picture of the environment. Small wonder that the issue is of little importance to Americans. in a Gallup poll for "Earth Day" this year, they ranked it second-last in importance from a list of no fewer than twelve major political issues.