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Saturday, May 18, 2002

Journalists on Themselves

I recently attended a panel discussion of environmental journalism, featuring two well-known environmental reporters and one editor. They evidenced a frightful ignorance of both the substance and theory of their work, overlaid with a patina of experienced wisdom that was all the more irritating. In order to protect the guilty, I will refer to them as Grizzled Graybeard, Smug Susan, and Meek Molly.

A message they endeavored to convey was how hard they work, which they did with the insistent tone of someone who, being acquainted with no other type of employment, has deluded himself into thinking that his work is somehow more taxing than that of other professions. Interestingly, the allusions to difficult work were always adjacent to an anecdote that suggested the opposite. Smug Susan, for example, explained that she came upon a story of which she is proud when an environmentalist called and gave her the information: "So I made a couple of phone calls, and found out it was true. You really have to dig."

Now, I know she did more; she probably made lots of phone calls. She probably had to weigh arguments, and consult experts. But let's be clear -- she didn't dig this story up, any more than I "hunted" last night's cheeseburger; it was handed to her by someone who had done the actual digging. A recent study of Freedom of Information Act filings found, by way of evidence, that journalists are far down the list of people who request sensitive government information. James Fallows published a related critique of national journalists a few years ago, noting that in contrast to their predecessors, many today simply rely on information from others who do the work of gathering it (and putting their own spin on it in the process). So please, Smug Susan, spare us the Woodward and Bernstein routine.

Another thing that stood out was their shared, unstated paradigm that news is an exogenously determined entity, and they its neutral handmaidens. They conveyed not a hint of awareness that their choices in part shape not only the framing of events, but also which events attain the status of "news." At the same time, Smug Susan confessed that "you have to decide where you come down on an issue before you write about it."

What is more, they were highly cognizant of their effects on the thinking of their readers. As Smug Susan explained, she writes "for real people" (as opposed, one presumes, to her competitors, who apparently write for mannequins, Barbie dolls, and Al Gore). Susan feels a duty to awaken the benighted masses. She recounted a story she did about a large western town whose mayor opposed more stringent standards on arsenic in its water supply. Now, this topic has the peculiar effect of exposing the source of knowledge used by people with an opinion on it; some base their opinions on knowledge of costs, benefits, and toxicity levels, others base their opinions on Agatha Christie novels ("He's dead, Bertram, and it appears to be arsenic poisoning.")

Smug Susan, being a woman of letters, is in the second tribe. "Believe it or not," she revealed, sounding for all the world like an anthropologist lecturing on a primitive tribe, "some people actually want arsenic in their drinking water."

This is silly on multiple levels. Of course nobody wants arsenic in his drinking water, a fact verifiable by the simple experiment of making it available as a condiment at the dinner table. The question is how much people are willing to pay to have a trace of it removed from their drinking water. Rational people who work for a living, at jobs almost as hard as journalism, might reasonably ask to what extent leaving the trace of arsenic, given the high cost of removing it, will affect their health.

Leaving aside this question (the answer to which is: probably not much), Smug Susan's framing of it reveals a great deal about her approach to environmental issues. If she can't look at the debate over arsenic in drinking water and summarize it with anything better than, "some people want poison in their water," then she is, I think, seriously deficient in both her analytical and informative skills, two capabilities which I was under the impresssion are conducive to a successful career in journalism.

Grizzled Graybeard was just as simplistic. He told, for example, how he investigated a story on the environmental effects of cellular phones (yes, this is "news" despite the absence of data substantiating such an effect, while Al Gore's extended harassment of scientists who question global warming was not news). Like Susan, his account of "digging" entailed lots of phone calls. Because he is above the fray of partisanship, Graybeard likes to hear from all sides. Thus, he explained, after he got his environmental "facts" together, he "called the cell phone industry."

Those of you with an understanding of economics, business, or politics will recognize the absurdity of such a statement, which is akin to treating Jesse Jackson as a spokesman for "black people." Only someone who views a diverse group with mulitple competing interests through the simple lens of Capitalists vs. The Environment would imagine that he can "call" an industry. A sampling of Greybeard's articles (or those of most other environmental journalists), however, will reflect just such a mentality. One is likely to find quotes from several environmental groups with different perspectives (ranging from those who want markets outlawed, to those who want the participants executed), and one or two quotes from a single hack representing some moribund, centrist industry association. This isn't balance, it is pretense.

Graybeard was also proud of his practice of quoting politicians he "knows" are lying, and then placing immediately after their words a "fact" from some group that exposes their stupidity. Given that neither Graybeard nor the other panelists have a science or math background (a fact they ruefully admitted to a shrewd questioner), one wonders how he determines who to "expose" (hint: his examples were all Republicans).

This, of course, was the 800-pound gorilla in the overcrowded conference room. Grizzled Graybeard has a bit of theater in him, which led him to re-enact his anecdotes by speaking as if he were the key participants, replete with artificial voice and exaggerated facial expressions. Here's a sample:

"So one side might say (adopts gruff, Colonel Blowhard voice), 'drilling here won't hurt the wildlife.' The other side, however, might point out (adopts calm voice of reason), 'we aren't so sure their science is accurate.' My job is to represent these sides fairly and accurately."

Fat chance, Graybeard.

Smug Susan had a similar tell, as we say in poker, which was most clearly on display as she answered a question from someone with the audacity to ask how she knows the difference between real science and junk science. Susan furrowed her disapproving brow and replied: "Well, I can trust the coal mining industry who says they aren't hurting animals, or I can trust this guy in the woods who has studied animals his whole life." Perhaps instead of Smug Susan, I should call her Simplistic Susan. Or Self-serving Susan. Or Sour Susan, based on the look she gave her questioner.

Susan didn't always frown, however; she had plenty of smiles and winks for her ideological kinfolk in the audience. My favorite moment came when someone from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which in 1988 advanced the fraudulent claim that apple juice was going to kill our children, prefaced his question with, "We at the NRDC are scrupulous about getting our facts right..." His question was how the panelists "keep politicians honest."

Susan explained, "if I know his facts aren't true, I won't put them in my story . . . if someone tells me something that sounds made up, I won't print it." Just how Susan, a Russian studies major, can determine scientific fact from fiction isn't clear, although I'm pretty sure it involves reading breathless faxes from NRDC flacks.

This is a profound problem, because environmental issues are not best viewed through the lens of Capitalists vs. The Environment, or Business vs. The Children. They are best viewed as a conflict between competing values, needs, and resources, in a probabilistic environment. This requires an understanding in turn of what tradeoffs are, and how risks should be assessed, analyses best enabled by economics. When asked why they don't incorporate more economic analysis into their articles, however, the panelists' responses can best be summed up by Meek Molly, who replied, "we do write occasionally about appropriations bills."

In other words, for the panelists, as, I suspect, for most environmental journalists, economics is about money. The notion that costs and benefits are to be weighed, rather than caricatured in selective quotes from spokesmen who best fit the preformed trope, is alien. In fact, it is probably unappealing, because the two reporters on this panel are clearly captured. They exude respect for the environmental left, and distrust of and dislike for any other voices. This is evidenced not just at the level of the individual environmental reporter, but at the organizational level as well. At least one major national newspaper, for example, upon realizing in late 2000 that Bush would be our next President, hired several additional environmental reporters. In their minds, with a Republican in the White House, there was simply going to be more "digging" to do. Thus stories that weren't written during the Clinton years about politicized EPA cases against corporate opponents of Gore's failed energy tax, or Administration claims of "cleaning" Superfund sites that were simply delisted once the science showed they shouldn't have been listed in the first place, well, these just weren't really news. Environmental news only happens when Republicans are in charge, and it's usually bad.

I'm not sure if most Americans are fooled by all this. Journalists are finding their public evaluation rapidly sinking to the level of trial lawyers and child molesters, yet at the same time they offer a cynical simplicity that seems to feed the willfully ignorant American news consumer. And this is at heart the problem -- the claims of the left are always easier to explicate; they can fit on a bumper sticker, and they are based on emotional appeal rather than data or logic. The former is the stock in trade of the lazy journalist, while conveying the latter requires a skill and expertise that many journalists seem not to have. Perhaps our saving grace will be the fragmentation of the news media, which is allowing, in the past decade alone, numerous diverse voices access to American news consumers who in the past were captive to a few big news outlets.

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