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
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
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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