Environmental Movement Alive and Well ... but what about the media?

by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Winter 2005

Gossip, pseudo porn, terror and distorted reporting have turned Americans into the best-entertained and some of the least-informed people in the world.

Hotly debated articles in national journals including The New York Times have recently proclaimed the "death of environmentalism" and blamed the movement's lack of success on ossified leadership, tired strategies and, above all, the tendency of environmentalists to exaggerate crisis.

Suggesting that environmentalists have hobbled their movement by exaggerating is like blaming racial prejudice on the stridency of some civil rights activists. Environmentalism is a broad social movement encompassing millions of Americans and thousands of organizations.

No doubt, some use hyperbole. But the leaders and professionals with whom I work, at groups like Waterkeeper Alliance, National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are more often conservative to a fault in their scientific and economic pronouncements.

And far from dead, the movement is vibrant, financially robust, with sound strategies and exploding memberships. The NRDC, for example, has nearly doubled in size since 2000, with 300,000 new members and 500,000 more e-activists.

The movement's failure to achieve its larger goals – like pressing the government to sign a global warming treaty to restrict mercury emissions or to protect the Arctic Refuge – is more aptly blamed on the financial and political power of polluting industries and the negligence of the American media. Polluters spend hundreds of millions every election cycle on lobbying and campaign contributions to control the political process, and millions more on phony think tanks and deceptive advertising to hoodwink the public and manipulate the national debate. Environmental groups lack the financial resources to compete in those vital arenas.

Traditionally, public interest movements have relied instead upon the political intensity they can generate by public participation. This success is highly dependent on an independent, vigorous and responsible press willing to speak truth to power. Therein lies the problem.

America's negligent and indolent media seldom covers environmental issues and rarely intelligently. Last autumn, I took part in a 20-state tour touting my book on George W. Bush's miserable environmental record, and invariably heard the same refrain from Republican and Democratic audiences: "Why haven't I heard any of this before? Why aren't the environmentalists getting the word out?" But there is no lack of effort on our part to inform the public. We simply often hit a stone wall: the media.

Gossip, pseudo porn, terror and distorted reporting have turned Americans into the best-entertained and some of the least-informed people in the world. Most Americans know more about Scott Peterson than they do about the mercury and asthma that are making them sick.

According to the Tyndall Report, which analyzes television content, of the 15,000 minutes of network news that aired in 2002, only 4 percent was devoted to the environment, and many of those minutes were consumed by human-interest stories – whales trapped in sea ice or a tiger that escaped from a zoo.

Broadcast reporters participating in the presidential debates were so disinterested in real issues that they neglected to ask the candidates a single question about the president’s environmental record.

The Fairness Doctrine, passed in 1924, required broadcasters to serve the public interest and advance democracy by airing issues of public interest and telling both sides of critical debates, and encouraged diversity of ownership and local control of broadcasting by avoiding corporate consolidation. Ronald Reagan's abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine in 1988 ushered in the era of right-wing broadcasting, corporate consolidation and the elevation of shareholders' interests over the interests of the public. Twenty-five percent of broadcast stations have since dropped all local news coverage and public affairs programming.

Today, environmental injury caused or aggravated by White House policies has dramatically diminished the quality of life in our country in ways that affect every American. For example, while all freshwater fish in 19 states are now unsafe to eat because of mercury contamination, and one in six American women has dangerous levels of mercury in her womb, the White House dramatically weakened mercury emissions standards in March of this year.

The mercury and other pollutants that cause acid rain and provoke most asthma attacks come mainly from the smokestacks of a handful of outmoded coal-burning power plants – the kind that President Bush has relieved from complying with the Clean Air Act. But overworked journalists routinely print a press release by the environmental community warning of some dire new environmental rollbacks next to the White House’s often patently false denial – and let the reader take his pick. They sit back, satisfied they've achieved "balance". Generally, they've made little effort to ground in truth the White House's easily discernable lies.

An uninformed public is the bane of democracy, providing easy pickings for demagogues, tyrants, religious fanatics and polluters who seek to privatize the public commons.

In December 2004, Bill Moyers declared, "We have an ideological press that's interested in the election of Republicans, and a mainstream press that's interested in the bottom line. Therefore, we don't have a vigilant, independent press whose interest is the American people."

By diminishing the capacity for voters to make informed choices, the breakdown of the American press is threatening not just our environment, but our democracy.

About the Author

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, is the author, most recently, of Crimes Against Nature.