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Sierra Magazine
Ways and Means: Press Passes

When candidates get a free ride, the public pays

by Carl Pope

The presidential primary season is effectively over. Environmentally, it wasn't very illuminating, and the pundits will doubtless soon conclude that the environment really wasn't part of the national debate.

But was it because the voters don't care about the environment or because the national press corps doesn't think it's worth pursuing? The candidates themselves are skilled at bobbing and weaving in response to pointed questions, but the media regularly oblige them by neglecting to ask the critical follow-up.

John McCain, for example, made a fetish of being available to the media, but tended to dismiss the more complicated questions with a wisecrack. Al Gore would stay up till the wee hours addressing every last point with staccato lists of government programs. Neither Bill Bradley's abruptness nor George W. Bush's rapid resort to his last canned speech provided much enlightenment either.

When asked, for example, why the air in Houston is now dirtier than in Los Angeles, Bush blamed inadequate federal regulation of cars and fuels. No one ever asked the obvious follow-ups: "So why were your own state lobbyists working to reduce the EPA's authority to clean up the air?" or "Will you now support raising corporate average fuel economy standards?"

Bush got points for conceding (unlike his supporters in the Senate) that global warming is a real problem. But when he joined the know-nothings in opposing the Kyoto treaty, which obligates the industrial nations to do something about it, no one in the press asked, "If you don't like Kyoto, what would you put in its place?"

McCain told Republicans that they needed to burnish their environmental credentials. He was surprised to find how important the environment was to young people, he said, and suggested that the environment could be the sleeper issue in the campaign.

But sadly, reporters never thought to ask the obvious: "Why then, Senator, if this issue is so important to you, did your environmental voting record slump to zero in 1998? Were environmentalists really wrong about every single bill that came to the Senate floor in 1998?"

In New Hampshire, McCain got off his "Straight Talk Express" and tried to have it both ways on the role of the federal government. He blasted the Clinton administration for not canceling offshore-oil leases in California, and then attacked the president for declaring new national monuments. "The idea that Washington knows best and that local residents cannot be trusted to do what's right in their own backyard is the epitome of federal arrogance," McCain said.

No reporter asked McCain why this concern hadn't stopped him from voting repeatedly to maintain provisions in the 1872 Mining Law that freeze local people out of decision-making on new mining operations on federal lands in their communities. Nor was McCain called on his vote to force a poorly tested nuclear-waste dump at Yucca Mountain on the uniformly opposed citizens of Nevada.

Instead, the media allowed McCain to assume the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt, even as he opposed Roosevelt-s greatest environmental legacy--the concept that the American people, who own the public lands, are all stakeholders, with an equal say in their protection and management.

On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley compiled a commendable voting record in the Senate. During that time, he worked hard to master public-lands issues, especially the problems facing the national parks and the complex environmental ramifications of California's major waterworks, the Central Valley Project.

Even so, in the crucial New Hampshire primary he came out against applying the president's initiative to preserve roadless forests in Vermont's White Mountain National Forest. Bradley had staked his candidacy on his refusal to pander, yet no one in the media asked, "Doesn't the way you're handling the White Mountain issue make it look like you're coddling New Hampshire voters?"

While Bradley is a strong supporter of NAFTA and the WTO, he also argued that they need reforms to safeguard environmental and public-health protections. Yet in Iowa, when asked about the regulation of genetically engineered foods, Bradley said, "I think we have to continue to push, under the remedies that are available to us under the World Trade Organization, to get access to markets for our agricultural goods." Sadly, reporters never pursued the issue by asking, "Does your vision of a world trade system respect the rights of nations to implement their own environmental standards, even if they are tougher or more cautious than our own?"

For his part, ever since Earth in the Balance, Vice President Gore's major environmental issue has been global warming. This was one issue, Gore told reporters, where he was going to push for action even if he thought the public might not be ready to hear his message. No reporter responded, "But in the 1992 Rio Treaty, the Bush administration committed the United States to reducing greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels. Why haven't you followed through with mandatory measures to meet our treaty obligations?" And when the debate turned to tearing down the salmon-killing Snake River dams in the Pacific Northwest, the press let Gore slip away without taking a position.

It's hard to blame the candidates here. Politicians, after all, want to offend as few voters as possible. The problem is the press, which insists on framing politics as a horse race and not as a choice about how we are to be governed. We can have a national debate on environmental issues--but only if the press does its job.

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

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