Flat Earth Environmental Reporting

Flat Earth Environmental Reporting
by L. Brent Bozell III
July 10, 1997

Here we go again. The network news is taking another complex environmental issue and molding it, for public consumption, into the only formula it seems to understand - noble activists concerned about health vs. greedy capitalists and economists worried about money. Rather than examine the policy, the focus is only on the politics, a formula that always works to the Clinton administration's advantage.

The issue this time around is the Clinton administration's attempt to impose radically stringent new air-pollution standards. After ignoring the entire issue for months - when the policy, the science, could be analyzed - reporters are now focusing on the fierce political debate, even within the White House, over the economic costs of the standards. They've chosen to ignore the equally fierce debate, also within the White House, over the very scientific basis for the new rules. Instead the networks are simply accepting whatever "science" liberal environmentalists choose to give them.

"On one side, the Environmental Protection Agency is pushing implementation of tougher air quality standards," reported John Roberts on the June 15 CBS Evening News. "On the other side, economic officials argue the new limits would be a burden on business." Roberts' analysis was typical. According to ABC's Bob Zelnick, on the June 16 Good Morning America, the new standards are part of EPA's "battle against asthma and other sometimes fatal respiratory diseases," but at the same time big city officials "fear tough new standards will drive existing businesses away."

On the June 25 CBS Evening News, correspondent Rita Braver followed the same formula, contending that "the president acted despite a multi-million dollar campaign against the new regulations by utilities, the oil industry, auto manufacturers and other businesses" and reported uncritically the highly debatable administration claims that the new rules would save 15,000 lives every year and improve the health of 125 million Americans. ABC's Anderson Cooper, in a fawning June 22 World News Tonight interview with Adam Werbach of the Sierra Club, failed to once challenge Werbach on the questionable science behind the standards, and didn't even flinch when Werbach made the preposterous statement that the new rules would increase worker productivity.

And over at NBC, on the June 25 Nightly News, Brian Williams announced that "President Clinton today took on the atmosphere and picked a fight with some American industries in the process." Then correspondent David Bloom reported that the new rules would be aimed "at tiny soot particles which scientists blame for a rise in childhood asthma and for respiratory infections among the elderly."

So what's wrong with all this? The working assumption is that scientific evidence points to the necessity of the new air standards when nothing of the sort is true. Michael Fumento, writing in the Weekly Standard, reports that the Environmental Protection Agency's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee "said there was no scientific basis for choosing a new [ozone] standard" and that, regarding particulates, only six of the 21 committee members agreed with EPA's proposal. Fumento quotes Rosina Bierbaum of the White House Office of Science and Technology: "Current data do not support clear associations of [premature mortality] effects with either fine particles (PM2.5), inhalable particles PM10 or PM15." Fumento also quotes Robert Phalen, a biomedical scientist who directs the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratories at the University of California, Irvine: "It's a cruel hoax to lead parents to believe their children will be protected from having asthma if only the EPA clamps down on outdoor air pollution."

Ouch. One supposes that responsible journalists would be thoroughly embarrassed to learn that the environmental emperor wears no close. But these reporters are so driven by ideological zeal that facts, and truth, are irrelevant. Back in 1995, for instance, they were just sure the new Republican Congress was bent on destroying the world. Peter Jennings introduced a series of reports about the environment "which will tell you precisely what the new Congress has in mind: the most frontal assault on the environment in 25 years. Is this what the country wants?" NBC was equally alarmist. "Safe food, safe water, safe air, safe transportation. You have this protection now, but you might be about to lose it," declared one promo spot. And Bryant Gumbel, after lamenting that "Republicans are looking to gut the Clean Water Act and also the Safe Drinking Water Act" wondered: "Are we now forced to boil water because bottled water is not an economically feasible option for a lot of people."

When even the EPA's own scientists and some White House officials are questioning the validity of environmental activists' so-called science, is it too much to ask that network reporters be just a bit skeptical, too? Apparently, yes.