NBC's Lauer 'On the Prowl for Victims' in Environmental Crusade

     Just when you thought it was safe to grocery shop …

     Armed with “Today”-branded tote bags and environmentalist talking points about paper and plastic shopping bags, “Today” show host Matt Lauer pestered shoppers at a Manhattan grocery store for the last installment of the “Today Goes Green” series on January 25.

      “Paper or plastic? Turns out the right answer should be neither,” Lauer said, adding that Americans dispose of 100 billion plastic bags every year. “And where does it all go? Everywhere. Just about every piece of plastic we’ve every used still exists, clogging up landfills, spilling over the landscape for washing out to sea.”

      “I’m on the prowl for victims, converts in our growing movement,” Lauer said while roaming the aisles of an upscale Food Emporium store in the Bridgemarket neighborhood of New York City. He stopped shoppers to ask questions like, “Do you have any idea how many plastic bags you accumulate in the average month?”

     “A lot, a lot,” one unidentified female shopper responded. “Probably during the given week maybe five, at least.”

     Lauer didn’t mention the possibilities for reusing plastic or paper bags. He only suggested they could be brought back to the store. But they also make great home trash bags, sacks for carrying lunches, or even cheap gift wrap. He also didn't shed any light on how much energy it takes to manufacture canvas bags.

      “Do you always get plastic bags?,” Lauer demanded of a man carrying his groceries in plastic. ““No I don’t normally. I usually bring a, I have one of those,” the man said, pointing to Lauer’s stash of canvas bags. “Yeah but I was lazy this morning so I rushed.”

     “If you think that we throw away a hundred billion plastic a year, it’s like taking 12 million barrels of oil and dumping it down the drain,” Lauer told another female shopper, who relented and said, “Okay, all right, I’ll take a bag.”

     For a little context, the United States imported more than 10 million barrels of crude oil per day in 2006. Even if Lauer’s figure is accurate, plastic bags account for only 0.32 percent of the oil imported into the United States every year.

     Lauer also interviewed an unidentified sales clerk – at least she was dressed as a sales clerk and stood behind the cash register – who said about 16 percent of Food Emporium shoppers bring their own bags. But, she added, the reusable bags they have for sale are so very popular.

      “We can’t keep enough of these bags here,” she said, prompting Lauer to praise her for being “a great sales person.” He eventually bought a few bags of his own, which he later distributed to co-hosts Ann Curry and Al Roker on the “Today” show set, where, for some unknown reason, they were surrounded by probably hundreds of fresh paper bags.

     Lauer didn’t mention how much Food Emporium’s reusable canvas bags cost, or the environmental implications associated with growing and harvesting the cotton used to manufacture them. (The only canvas bag on the NBC Web site is an organic tote bag affiliated with its “iVillage” show. It sells for $19.95.)

     Lauer’s hit piece on plastic and paper gave one whole sentence to the industry. “A trade group for plastic bag manufacturers told us they’re working to fight pollution by helping reduce wasteful bagging, urging people to reuse bags where appropriate and getting the word out to shoppers about in-store recycling programs,” he said at the end of the report.

     The “Today Goes Green” series was supposed to be a light-hearted way to encourage viewers to be more environmentally friendly. But the fact that the hosts made jokes and acted silly during the segments doesn’t make their misleading reports any more accurate or fair. Ann Curry threw her hands in the air and said, “Save the world!” promising that she would go out and buy a grocery tote.

     The January 22 segment on carpooling exaggerated the potential benefits of carpooling and largely ignored the downsides to depending on other people for a ride to work. Lauer even mocked the idea by comparing daily carpooling to living in a tree!

     The January 23 segment on compact fluorescent light bulbs found Meredith Vieira praising a government mandate which effectively bans cheaper incandescent bulbs for the more expensive, yet more efficient, fluorescent bulbs. She also forgot to mention that GE, which owns NBC, is a major manufacturer of the new bulbs.

     Then Lauer’s final segment January 25 found him accosting innocent shoppers and demanding to know – even if jokingly – if they would switch to canvas bags and claiming the “green” movement as “our movement.” Objective journalists? It wouldn’t seem so.