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The Planet

It's All in the Language

The Planet, October 1995, Volume 2, number 7

by Jean Freedberg
Director of Communications

"Reform." Such a neutral word. So much easier on the ears than "pollution." Americans hate pollution and those who cause it. So what's a polluter to do for cover? Sell the public the idea of "regulatory reform" instead. Most Americans want to protect the environment? Sell them the "Contract With America," which guts green programs but never mentions them. Want to rewrite laws to give corporate giants power over public lands; Trot out "wise users" to bemoan the loss of "private property rights" to Washington bureaucrats.

The 104th Congress has shown how much defends on who sets the terms of public debate--and on finding messages that resonate in the public mind. In recent years, polluters and their allies have been calling the rhetorical tune in the headlines and on the airwaves. Their message is simple: "Regulators are taking property owners' land! Federal bureaucrats are smothering well-meaning corporations and local governments with needless, costly rules! The new congressional leadership wants to give government back to the people! " And so on. The strategy is a cousin to the Big Lie--call it the Big Euphemism. It's based on the media's love of catchy slogans and easy handles After al wise use" is not just misleading, it's the opposite of what it suggests. Yet it fits neatly in a headline and rolls easily off a news anchor's tongue. Reporting the truth --that "wise users" are shock troops for corporate polluters who want virtually exclusive use of public lands--is more difficult.

"Scaling back the power of big government and making it more cost effective" sounds like a good idea But the truth is, the "reform" touted be polluters will result m a huge bid to the taxpayers. "Risk assessment" provisions will require expensive, often unnecessary studies--and "takings" measures will result in billion-dollar payouts from government to individuals and corporations.

Exposing the Truth, the Sierra Club Way

The first few months after the Republican electoral victory were especially frustrating for environmentalists. Our message was simple: At the behest of corporate polluters, Congress is gutting our environmental protections! In spite of our efforts, the media did not carry that message--in fact, there was virtually no discussion of the environment by the press.

But now, after months of hard work, we have shattered the media's silence. Americans are waking up to the fact that there is a War on the Environment They're realizing that "regulatory reform" translates into dirtier air and water. That slashing the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by one-third is an attack not on faceless bureaucrats, but on their own health and safety That handing public lands to the states could mean turning our precious resources over to extractive industries and polluters.

This enormous achievement is due in many ways to the extraordinary persistence of Sierra Club activists. Despite the media's apparent indifference, Club volunteers kept siting letters to the editor, setting up editorial board meetings and using seat-of-their-pants creativity to get the message out.

When a New York Times editorial entitled "House of Environmental Horrors" referred to the House's "cruel handiwork"; a San Francisco Cbronicle editorial's headline read "D-Day in Congress' War on the Environment"; and a St. Petersburg Times editorial admonished anti-environmental extremists for voting to gut the Clean Water Act we knew we were making progress.

When President Clinton called the budget appropriations bill that slashed EPA funding a Stealth attack on our environment" and a "polluter's protection act"; ABC News ran a three day series on what Congress is doing to environmental protection; and the nationally syndicated cartoon "Doonesbury" featured a series about Bob "E. coli" Dole's risk-assessment legislation, it seemed certain our message was finally getting through.

The challenge now is to keep that message rippling across the nation-- and to continue exposing She ugly truth behind polluters' rhetoric. If we can persevere until the November 1996 elections, the American people might finally get the environmental Congress they want and deserve.

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