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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Television Misses the Picture

Self-interest or just self-absorption? Why TV ignores the War on the Environment

by Carl Pope

Since Sam Donaldson of ABC News owns a ranch in New Mexico, it's not surprising that the conversation turned to the environment when he appeared recently as a guest on the David Letterman show. Donaldson took the opportunity to rail against plans for the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf: "Now the people who live in New York City, God love you all, think it would be fun to have wolves in New Mexico. You'll never see a Mexican wolf on my land," he promised. "You may see newly spaded ground."

It's hard to imagine a print journalist so candidly advertising his or her biases. Even former New York Times environmental reporter Keith Schneider, who lionized the anti-environmentalist Wise Use movement and claimed that exposure to dioxin was no worse than sunbathing, still zealously presented himself as an objective journalist. But Donaldson doesn't have to worry because Donaldson is a celebrity, and in television celebrity is more important than objectivity.

Therein lies a dilemma for the environmental movement. Media coverage is the single biggest factor shaping the political debate on the future of the planet. In the print world, with the Republican leadership of the 104th Congress in deep trouble over its attempt to dismantle the country's major environmental laws, the environmental beat is suddenly hot again. Reporters who cover it can get their stories on page one, and editorials and editorial cartoons have been flaying the wreckers and polluters as they haven't since the heyday of James Watt.

But aside from a few shining exceptions like Ted Turner's outlets, television still finds the environment a big yawn. Environmental coverage on the three networks has declined 60 percent since 1989, and in fact TV's hardest-hitting environmental reporter is found in newspapers: the cartoon character Roland Hedley in Doonesbury.The decline certainly isn't due to a dearth of visual material or a lack of conflict. Is it then, as viewers might reasonably conclude, something about the cowboy-chic opinions of Eastern celebrity newspeople with weekend ranches in the West?

It's not that simple. Ted Turner has a large ranch in Montana, and so does Tom Brokaw, who recently spoke on the Tonight show about his strong environmental feelings and his love of the land. And, surprisingly, the environmental reporting on Donaldson's ABC has been marginally better than that on CBS or NBC, which devoted nearly 40 percent of last year's evening news to the O. J. Simpson trial. Television's obsession with celebrity has grown at the same time that the resources it devotes to news and current-affairs programming has declined; tabloid TV and "infotainment," once embarrassing anomalies in the broadcast world, are now becoming the norm. Why bore people with corporate America's assault on environmental protection when they can be entertained instead?

What we see or don't see on television is governed by a complex chemical reaction of influences. Yes, the personal attitudes of reporters and editors matter; Brokaw and Donaldson, even while striving for objectivity, will flavor the debate differently. But even more important are the attitudes of the owners. Ted Turner's cable outlets cover the environment and population issues in much more depth than the competition because Turner has made it clear that he cares and is interested in these subjects.

But there is little room for independent voices in an industry increasingly dominated by impersonal forces, as media operations and entire networks are swallowed into larger and larger corporate empires. Recently, House Speaker Newt Gingrich advised these media conglomerates to make sure that their news coverage reflected their business and economic interests. It is easy to see evidence that his advice is being followed. At the same time that CBS was merging with Westinghouse, for example, it spiked a 60 Minutes segment on the health effects of tobacco, citing fear of lawsuits from the tobacco industry. A short while later, CBS's parent Loews Corporation purchased six cigarette companies.

Corporate radio fares no better; ABC canceled former Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower's weekend radio talk show, one of the few progressive efforts to challenge the monopoly of Rush Limbaugh and his clones. (Before he was canned, Hightower had criticized the takeover of ABC by the Disney Corporation, demonstrating that it is unwise to bite the mouse that feeds you.) Hightower's departure leaves the commercial radio world as a self-reinforcing market for right-wing talk: hosts tell anti- environmental listeners and corporate advertisers what they want to hear, and they in turn support the programs with their wallets.

Another factor shaping environmental coverage on TV and radio is that our opponents take these media seriously. Right-wing funders pour money into media operations (the Reverend Sun Myung Moon alone subsidizes an entire newspaper, The Washington Times), while most foundations that give to environmental causes fund no media at all. The other side also puts great energy into influencing reporters and editors, down to critiquing their choice of words. In the Medicare debate, for instance, when news anchors or correspondents used what Newt Gingrich and Company considered the "wrong" word, they received chiding calls from Republican PR flacks. "White House aides express admiration for Gingrich's communications monolith," the Washington Post reported, "marveling especially at the way the Republicans pressured the news media."

What the White House marvels at we can learn from. Media people are subject to persuasion, as the Sierra Club has demonstrated over the last year in its letters-to-the-editor campaign. Generating thousands of letters from Club members all over the country has gotten hundreds of them published. More importantly, it convinces assignment editors and editorial boards that their readers care about the environment and want to read about it. So do visits to the editorial board, and calls suggesting local environmental angles. It is partly due to such pressure that the print media have covered the environment as well as they have.

Our next challenge is to confront the electronic media and find their pressure points. We need to speak out to the managers, editors, and, yes, anchors and reporters of radio and television news shows, and let them know that we are more concerned about our children's future than about the latest celebrity scandal. If we don't make our voices heard, the critical environmental issues of the day will remain buried as deep as a wolf who makes the mistake of trespassing on Sam Donaldson's ranch.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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