The Environment Beat in the Nation’s Capital
Reporters sort through promises of politicians and claims of advocates.
During the late 1960’s, an environmental activist known as “The Fox” made headlines in my hometown of Chicago when he took action against corporations that he charged were polluting local waterways. During his rein of civil disobedience or ecoterrorism, depending on your point of view, The Fox plugged the sewage system of Armour-Dial Co., now Dial Corporation, which he said was discharging polluted waste into Illinois’ Fox River. And he dumped sludge and dead fish in the lobby of U.S. Steel’s Chicago offices, accusing the company of fouling Lake Michigan’s waters.
By 1976, when I became a general assignment reporter in the Chicago suburbs, the environmental movement was maturing, and The Fox went into retirement. By then, Congress had passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and a list of other bedrock environmental legislation that lawmakers promised would solve many of the nation’s major environmental problems. As the government responded to the nation’s newfound environmental concerns, environmental reporters increasingly focused on the government’s fledgling efforts to regulate polluters. During that second wave of coverage, I got my feet wet in environmental reporting by writing about the decidedly unsexy issues of sewage treatment plant construction and city recycling projects.
The Evolving Environment Beat
Thirty years after the environmental movement began, the environmental reporting beat has gone through several transformations. Sure editors are still interested in media investigations proving that corporations are dumping toxic chemicals into rivers. But thanks to state and national laws, many of the most acute environmental problems raised by figures like The Fox have been alleviated. America has made impressive strides in curbing the pollution that once turned Lake Erie into a vast, dead pool and caused Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River to catch fire in 1969.
As they’ve made progress against the highest profile environmental problems, however, scientists have unmasked more complex environmental headaches that are far harder to solve—and to write about. Some of today’s worst water quality problems, for example, are caused by polluted runoff from farms and cities and require extensive education and financial assistance to solve.
To understand such complexities, environment beat reporters need to become experts on—or at least willing students of—science, government policy, economics, business practices, health impacts, and civil rights issues. Writers must analyze the tradeoffs between a community’s economic and environmental needs, examine regional planning issues that impact suburban sprawl, and delve into the racial and cultural problems that result when polluting facilities locate in low-income neighborhoods.
Environmental reporters also end up being arbiters of competing science, a difficult dilemma at a time when the Bush administration’s scientific statements and policies are at odds with most of the other industrialized nations on such things as global warming and genetically modified foods. Since September 11, I’ve also had to become an instant expert on the national security problems facing nuclear power plants and chemical manufacturing facilities.
Covering Environment Issues in Washington, D.C.
During the 22 years I’ve written about environmental issues in Washington, D.C., environmental policy has changed with the times. Congress is no longer writing big new environmental laws. In 1990, Congress dramatically strengthened the Clean Air Act and, in 1995, lawmakers rewrote the pesticides control law. Since then, I’ve specialized in examining how government officials apply, fine-tune, and reinterpret the nation’s existing environmental laws.
Untangling the bureaucratic red tape is far less exciting than covering the landslide of legislation of the 1970’s. Little wonder then that The Washington Post and some other major newspapers only sporadically dive into such meat and potatoes environmental policy issues. Occasionally, regulators in Washington take dramatic actions that draw significant media coverage. During the late 1990’s, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Carol Browner cracked down on companies that had expanded operations at their old, coal-fired power plants, but had not installed modern pollution control equipment. When the Bush administration took over, the EPA made news proposing to sidestep Browner’s tough policies. In fact, the Bush administration’s environmental policies appear to be based on the White House’s National Energy Strategy, which places a higher priority on energy development than environmental controls and land preservation. Bush’s EPA has been just one of many government bodies at the table when new environmental policies have been developed. In many cases, EPA regulators have been overruled by pro-business factions in the White House.
Environmental reporters struggle to call attention to the federal government’s changing emphasis on environmental policy. But it’s tough to compete for space at a time when the government, the public, and our editors are far more focused on terrorism, the economy, and Iraq. In addition, environmental problems are less visible than they were in the 1960’s and 1970’s when toxic sludge and belching smokestacks provided dramatic visuals for print and broadcast stories. As today’s environmental problems become more “invisible,” some reporters find it hard to get their stories published or broadcast. For example, how do you photograph endocrine disruptors, those man-made chemicals that interfere with physical development in humans and animals?
For their part, the public appear to trust that government officials are protecting America’s air, water and wild lands. They view a clean environment as a universal right, much like freedom of speech and the right to vote. Public opinion polls show that voters rarely think about environmental issues when they go to the voting booth, unless they perceive that their environmental wellbeing is under attack. This public mindset puts Washington environmental reporters in the critical position of sorting through the promises of politicians, who assure that they are doing everything they can to protect the air and water, and the claims of environmental advocates, who contend the environment is in crisis.
During the national elections, even the most conservative candidates tell voters that they have strong environmental records. That’s been easier as the term “environmentalist” has been watered down over the years. During the 2002 congressional elections, for example, Republican Colorado Senator Wayne Allard told voters he was the most environmentally sensitive senator in that state’s history because he had backed several Colorado land preservation projects. He didn’t mention, however, that he had voted against national air and water pollution control measures. Often such claims are not thoroughly analyzed because many media outlets have their political reporters, not their environmental writers, cover the charges and counter charges of elections.
Writing about the environment from Washington carries some unique dilemmas. Inside-the-beltway reporters run the risk of losing their perspective on environmental problems and the impact of federal mandates on the American heartland. One of the worst pitfalls is relying solely on the he-said-she-said quotes of Washington industry and environmental lobbyists. The best way to keep a more realistic perspective is to get a firsthand understanding of the issues by traveling to mining sites, nuclear power plants, superfund sites, and regions hit by forest fires. Because of declining newsroom budgets for such travel, I’ve stayed connected to real world environmental issues in part through field trips offered during the Society of Environmental Journalists conferences and by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, which provides weeklong, on-site seminars for working journalists.
Washington reporters also grapple with continual efforts by the White House and other government officials to manipulate environmental coverage. The Bush administration, for example, has taken to releasing many of its most anti-environmental policies late Friday night in an effort to bury coverage in weekend newspapers, which attract less attention. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz quoted White House spokesman Ari Fleischer as also acknowledging that he likes to leak presidential proposals the night before an official unveiling so that the stories do not “become shoehorned into a ‘Bush vs. the environmentalists’ formula.” Essentially Fleischer’s aim is to get the President’s positions in the newspapers before the environmental community has time to react. And reporters who are eager for a scoop go along with the less-than-balanced coverage that results.
Writing about the environment from Washington has put me in a good position to see trends and predict changes on the horizon for government policies on pollution control and federal land-use policy. During the next two years, it’s likely the Bush administration will ramp up its efforts to change the nation’s environment and land-use policies. Currently Bush regulators have been actively reinterpreting the laws. Next on the agenda is to rewrite such critical statutes as the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. The challenge for all environmental reporters will be to give the Bush administration credit when it comes up with new approaches for protecting the nation’s environment, while also shining the spotlight on proposals that would cause harm.
Much has changed on the environmental beat since the nation’s air and water pollution laws were enacted in the 1970’s. Perhaps the most important shift has occurred as Americans have embraced environmental policy as a quality of life issue. As a result, they are relying far more on accurate, informed environmental reporting. Environmental coverage is not as black and white as it was in the days of The Fox. To keep up with the times, reporters are expanding their perspective and knowledge in their quest to paint lively and coherent portraits of today’s environmental issues.
Margaret Kriz is the National Journal’s staff correspondent for environment and energy. She is on the board of directors of the Society of Environmental Journalists and writes a bimonthly column on federal environmental issues for the Environment Law Institute’s magazine, The Environmental Forum. The May issue of American Journalism Review identified Kriz as one of Washington journalism’s “Unsung Stars.”