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MediaWatch: December 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 12

The "Nonpartisan" Kyoto Cheerleaders

The "environmentalist" agenda is easily classified as liberal: regulation reigns at the center of their proposals. At the recent climate conference in Kyoto, Japan, environmental groups proposed the U.S. cut its emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels, a drastic, government-supervised suppression of American energy output.

But news reports drain the ideology out of the debate, casting it as "environmentalists" vs. industry instead of liberals vs. conservatives. In 1990, a MediaWatch study of labeling in three major newspapers from 1987 to 1989 found that in 2,903 news stories featuring ten "green" groups, analysts found only 29 ideological labels, or less than one percent. (Subtract 22 labels in 83 stories for the radical group Earth First, and the total was seven labels in 2,820 stories).

To update that research, MediaWatch analysts used the Nexis news data retrieval system to locate every news story in 1995 and 1996 on ten liberal environmental groups, and compared that to conservative groups in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post. The story remains the same: in 1,089 news stories, liberal environmental groups were described as liberal in only five stories (or 0.5 percent).

By contrast, the largest "free-market environmentalist" think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute drew eight "conservative" labels in 29 stories (28 percent). In most of the stories in which they weren’t labeled, they were described as "anti-regulatory," "pro-business," or "promoting private solutions over government action." Only the radical-left group Earth First, whose literature may have inspired the Unabomber’s selection of bombing targets, rivaled to CEI’s labeling percentage, with nine "radical" labels in 25 stories (36 percent).

Not only do reporters leave out any description of ideology motivating "green" groups, they fail to describe them as partisan activists in Washington seeking to overrule and overthrow Republicans. Reporters used advocacy labels (such as "activist," "advocate," and "lobbyist") in only 78 of 1,089 stories (7 percent). Among the liberal groups getting the "nonpartisan" treatment:

The Environmental Defense Fund, a very active proponent in the global-warming fight, was never called "liberal" in 121 news stories, and only carried advocacy labels in six articles. The New York Times did call them "mainstream" in a June 25, 1996 story on a intra-liberal debate on dolphin safety. A February 19, 1996 Washington Post story noted 37 "environmental, medical, religious and consumer groups, led by the Environmental Defense Fund urged oil companies not to use a manganese-based gasoline additive."

The Environmental Working Group is a network TV favorite, with its regular studies declaring the nation’s drinking water unsafe. Its Web site touts the group’s Clearinghouse on Environmental Advocacy and Research (CLEAR) for information on the "anti- environmental lobby," including a campaign by the "radical right" to "defund the left." But EWG inspired no liberal labels in 46 stories, and were only labeled as advocates in seven pieces.

Greenpeace is perhaps the best-known environmental group, due to its radical tactics, like interrupting nuclear tests and hanging banners from smokestacks. But in 178 articles, it never once attracted a liberal label — but The New York Times did include them in the "mainstream" faction on dolphin safety. Reporters tagged Greenpeace with advocacy labels in only 22 stories. A June 23, 1995 USA Today story did call Greenpeace "one of many groups fighting the GOP on several fronts."

The nonpartisan approach is most inaccurate with the League of Conservation Voters, which spent $1.5 million in 1996 on ads, mass mailings, and door-to-door campaigns against GOP candidates. But reporters gave it only one liberal label and ten advocacy labels in 62 stories. The January 27, 1996 Washington Post broke the mold in a story on the LCV helping to elect Sen. Ron Wyden with the headline "Candidate’s Backers Hope to Make Oregon a Liberal Proving Ground."

The National Audubon Society successfully buries its liberal agenda beneath its bird-watching activities, drawing no ideological labels and only three advocacy labels in 64 news stories. A 1994 fund-raising letter scared donors by claiming they could "project with some accuracy the eventual end of the natural world as we know it."

The Web site of the National Wildlife Federation claims "Unless worldwide action is taken, we may be witness to the fastest warming of the climate since the last ice age." But NWF acquired no liberal labels and one advocacy label in 31 stories.

The Natural Resources Defense Council ran ads in 1996 claiming Republicans aimed to "block programs to protect our drinking water from deadly parasites, arsenic, and radioactivity." In 211 news stories, analysts found one liberal label and 14 advocacy labels. That one label was indirect: on April 2, 1995, Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz noted the Sierra Club and the NRDC aired ads "assailing the GOP for attempting to weaken environmental laws. Other liberal groups are joining the fray."

The Sierra Club spent $7.5 million to defeat GOP candidates in 1996, including ads calling Republicans "eco-thugs." Nevertheless, in 325 stories, the Sierra Club collected only three liberal labels (all in the Washington Post) and only 14 advocacy labels. They were also in the New York Times "mainstream" coalition in one story. In five New York Times stories and three Washington Post stories, reporters did underline their affinity for Democrats with terms like "almost always supports Democrats," "sympathetic to Democratic candidates," and "a potent force in Democratic primaries."

The World Resources Institute’s founder, James Gustave Speth, is now the most powerful American official of the U.N. environment program. No labels of any kind were forthcoming in 27 news stories — unless you count The New York Times describing them in two articles as an "independent" monitor.

The Worldwatch Institute releases an annual "State of the World" report that Ted Turner has handed out to his CNN employees. They attracted no liberal labels in 24 stories, and only one advocacy reference. On January 14, 1996, the Washington Post didn’t use a liberal label for a liberal proposal: "Environmental activist Lester Brown calls for a new tax on polluters in the annual environmental almanac released yesterday by the Worldwatch Institute, the think tank he heads."

Balance in environmental journalism requires at least two obvious remedies: liberal groups should be described as liberal more often, and their conservative counterparts ought to be consulted in more than a small fraction of the stories in which liberal groups and their research are promoted.