Monday, December 15, 2008


Environmental Journalism Now has morphed into CEJournal — the blog of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. You can find it at

Comments have been closed on Environmental Journalism Now posts, so please head over to CEJournal and join in the conversation.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Saving Our Fisheries

Within five minutes of opening my new issue of National Geographic over the weekend, I was thoroughly depressed. The April issue features a series of stories on the global fish crisis. Most depressing were the stunning photos and the online multimedia content documenting the ever-mounting slaughter of fish — and subsequent waste of huge quantities of unwanted fish, or "bycatch" — along with practices that decimate marine ecosystems.

Then I started reading a a new report from Environmental Defense, titled "Sustaining America's Fisheries." In line with the National Geographic stories, it notes that worldwide, as many as 90 percent of large predatory fish species are gone. In the U.S., the report states that 54 fish stocks are overfished, and many others are in decline. By Environmental Defense's calculation, 72,000 fishing jobs have been lost just in the Pacific Northwest. "Despite decades of management," the report states, "fisheries and fishing communities are still suffering. Something is wrong and must be changed.

According to Environmental Defense, allocating a specific percentage of a fishery's total catch to individual fisherman (so-called "catch-shares") can dramatically improve the situation. From the report: "This study shows that we can simultaneously protect the environment; increase profits; provide higher quality fish; create more full-time jobs; and save lives."

It sounds too good to be true. But after seeing just how dire the situation has become worldwide, thanks to National Geographic's incredible coverage, I'll let myself hope that it's not.

-- Tom Yulsman

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Holy War Over the Environment

“I believe the purpose of life is to glorify God, and we can’t do that if we’re heaping contempt on the creation.” So said Al Gore in his testimony last week before Congress.

On NPR this past Sunday, Richard Cizik, the vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, had this to say: “Supposing we allow coal burning utility plants to emit mercury into our air that’s then absorbed by fishes, and taken in by women, pregnant, who then transmit that, let’s call it that toxin, to their unborn babies. Isn’t that a sanctity of human life issue? Absolutely. Evangelicals know this. And thus we have to be speaking out about the impacts of our environmental degradation, as much as we need to be speaking out about the degradation of the taking of human unborn life.”

Is the ‘global warming: yes or no?’ debate, played out for decades in a debate over science, giving way to a holy war over the environment?

For many years, environmental debates in this country have been framed predominantly in scientific terms. Are humans responsible for ozone depletion? How much of a threat does mercury from coal-fired power plants pose? Is global warming happening and are we to blame? That’s not to say that other concerns, such as morality, fairness, and intergenerational equity, have not played a role. But science has dominated the terms of the debate. Now we may be witnessing the beginnings of shift toward values-based debate on these issues at the expense of science-based debate.

To the extent that environmentalists succumb to feelings of rapture over this turn of events — and their new-found evangelical allies in particular — they may be doing so at their peril. A values debate, particularly one focused on religious values, is likely to be much more caustic than a scientific one. So don't be lulled by the nice nice now being made between environmentalists and evangelicals.

Witness the well-reported split over global warming between the National Association of Evangelicals, and conservative evangelicals such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family. On the surface, it has centered on the usual question: ‘global warming: yes or no?’ But it has really been a more fundamental argument over religious values. This argument has in turn brought to the surface ideas that environmentalists — and environmental journalists in their coverage — could find much more difficult to deal with.

For Dobson and his contingent, global warming is just one battle in a larger holy war they are fighting against both the materialist philosophy of science (the idea that everything we observe is the result of material interactions), and New Age environmental spiritualism that worships nature itself. In both cases, they see themselves as waging a battle against the idea that humans are nothing special and responsible for the degradation of creation.

"I am today raising a flag of opposition to this alarmism about global warming and urging all believers to refuse to be duped by these 'earthism' worshippers," Jerry Falwell told his congregants in a sermon on Feb. 25 at his Lynchburg, Va., church.

Environmentalists who claim that humans are responsible for environmental degradation are advancing a “one-sided and unbiblical view of human nature,” states a joint paper of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. “Humans are seen merely as consumers and polluters of the Earth. The Bible describes human
beings as fallen along with the rest of creation, yes; but it still describes us as image-bearers of God, who can exercise dominion, produce wealth, and cultivate creation. The Bible claims that the Earth was shaped by a benevolent Creator to be the habitat that sustains and enriches human life even as humans sustain and enrich the Earth through our creativity and industry.”

The position paper acknowledges that humans cannot be fruitful and multiply forever, because the surface of the Earth is finite. But it says that we’ve not come even close to reaching those limits, and that God, through the bible, commands us to expand our numbers, and in this way improve his creation. This is what stewardship is really about — resisting abortion and expanding our population so as to exert our dominion over the Earth.

In the end, these folks believe that evangelicals like Richard Cizik have thrown in with the enemy. They are unwittingly helping to advance a Godless, materialist philosophy that demotes human beings to a status no greater than bacteria, and as a result sees no problem with killing the unborn in the name of population control. And all this, they believe, to preserve the environmentalists’ Gaian god.

Actually, there is something to the idea that environmentalism often takes on qualities of religion. As much as I hate to admit it, Michael Crichton made a convincing case for this in a speech he gave in 2003. “Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism . . . There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.”

That judgment day has been dramatically articulated by folks like James Howard Kunstler, author of the ”The Long Emergency”. No religionist is he. But in his scathing, puritanical language (see his bloglike diary: ”The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle”) he demonstrates that he is as convinced of the coming Apocalypse as Jerry Falwell.

On the other side of the holy war, those who see the quasi-religion of environmentalism as a direct threat to their own spiritual beliefs are girded for battle. Go to and you will find this: “Environmentalism is not about a desire to have cleaner water and air. It is now a full-fledged religion, and its main tenet is ‘raw nature’ as god-like, and Mankind as a plague infecting it. If you support environmentalism, the fact is that you're supporting an idealogy [sic] that promotes the destruction of Mankind - and concretely, that includes yourself and everyone you care about.”

Sometimes, the rage positively boils over. Last year, University of Texas ecologist Eric Pianka received death threats after he delivered a speech to the Texas Academy of Sciences, where he received the TAS 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist award. In his speech, Pianka made his long-standing case that humans have overpopulated the earth, and that sooner or later our population is going to crash, reducing our numbers by 90 percent, possibly because of a virulent contagion such as airborne Ebola. Forrest M. Mims III, a well-known anti-evolutionist, wrote an account of the speech in which he said that Pianka had actually issued a “call for mass death” — that, in fact, the ecologist actually advocates deliberate genocide through biological warfare.

Pianka says he did no such thing — that he simply was describing what he believes will happen if we do not control our population.

I would like to hope that thoughtful secularists and creation-care evangelicals will continue to find common cause and prevent extremists from recasting the issue as a holy war over the environment. But I don’t have my hopes up. And if you have enjoyed the debate over evolution versus creationism and intelligent design, you’re going to love this new holy war over the environment.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Goracle's Plan

I'm waiting for the second-day stories delving into Al Gore's policy prescriptions to tame global warming. I'm hoping they'll come Friday, or on the weekend, but I haven't got my hopes up . Gore made a radical proposal on Wednesday — enact a carbon tax and offset that revenue by eliminating payroll taxes. The sniggering classes in Washington no doubt dismissed the proposal as stillborn. But given the fact that this country will almost certainly commit to a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system as soon as Bush skulks back to Texas, I reckon it's worth a look by journalists.

For the record, David Roberts at Grist posted Gore's 10-point plan. But I doubt Washington correspondents will cover it in any detail, if at all. They're more interested in political theater. As glorified drama critics, that's what they do. Analyzing science and technology policy is just too complex and boring. Too much bother. Whereas the Goracle pinning the clown from Oklahoma to the mat is much more fun, and much easier to write.

According to Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post, Gore "was trailed by hordes of reporters" during his visit to the Hill. The New York Times gushed that he is "a heartbreak loser turned Oscar boasting Nobel hopeful globe trotting pop culture eminence." And as Kurtz noted, "Boy, coverage like that could have gotten him those last three electoral votes last time."

Of course, coverage like that is not how the Times usually treats Gore, as William Broad's piece last week demonstrates. And the Washington press corp's current love affair with Gore won't last long. As Kurtz notes, " . . . let's get real--it's the mere possibility that he might run for president again that is tantalizing the same media establishment that was long dismissive of Gore. In fact, many reporters seem to be rooting for Gore to jump in and ignoring his repeated denials that he has any such intention. But if he did take the leap, the honeymoon would end within nanoseconds."

I doubt that a second-day story examining Gore's policy ideas — or any other proposals for grappling with global warming — can compete with that political theater. The closest we'll get, perhaps, is yet more stories examining whether Gore got the science right in "An Inconvenient Truth."

We already got one on Wednesday. Hewing to it's usual pattern, NPR slavishly followed the lead of the New York Times with a report from Richard Harris on that subject. Harris reported that "a couple" of scientists approached him after Gore got a standing ovation at December's American Geophysical Union conference to say that "he didn't exactly get the science right." (THE HORROR!) Does any one else find it bothersome that not one of those scientists is actually named in Harris's report? In fact, not a single interview is referenced at all.

To be fair, it must be said that Harris treated Gore much better than Broad did. Overall, the report concluded that Gore did a pretty good job in "An Inconvenient Truth," and that scientists generally are grateful to have such an effective popularizer out there talking about climate change. Also, I'm guessing that Harris's editors twisted his arm to do this report — as a studio interview with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne.

Let's hear it for NPR's original and in-depth reporting!

-- Tom Yulsman

Monday, March 19, 2007

Today a Teardrop, Tomorrow Weasels at the UN

What's the difference between these two cover pages? The one in the New York Post is much less of an outrage than the bogus image used on Time magazine's cover this week.

That tear on Reagan's cheek was added electronically. Reagan wasn't actually crying when the photo was taken.

I had to come back to this issue because it astounds me that it is not generating outrage — among both journalists and the public. I wrote about this in an earlier post. In a comment to that posting, Barbara Woike, a picture editor at the Associated Press, notes that we are indeed heading down a slippery slope. (Credit goes to her for digging up the Post cover.) In fact, some publications, like the Post, long ago ended up at the bottom. If that cover photo is not enough for you, check out the lede: "Weasel so-called allies France and Germany will hear fresh evidence today of Iraqi stonewalling, at an 11th-hour showdown with the United States in the U.N. Security Council."

This is no joke. (It's not April 1 yet.) The Post really did run that photo, and that lede. But what they did is less egregious than what Time magazine did. Most folks know that the Post is a screaming tabloid and generally is not to be taken too seriously. And no one who saw the cover photo was misled into thinking that the French and German ambassadors to the U.N. really are weasels. By contrast, hardly any readers are likely to realize that Ronald Reagan really was not crying when that photo of him was taken. Hardly any will know that the tear was added electronically. And very few indeed will understand that the editors of Time intended for the cover to be taken symbolically, not literally. The N.Y. Post did not try to hide what it was it doing. Time hid it very well.

Where are we headed if journalists shrug their shoulders when confronted with the doctoring of a photo in the way Time magazine did? I won't reiterate the arguments I made in my last post. But I submit that mainstream journalism will be headed to a much worse place than the Post — a place where facts are optional and the truth is malleable.

Does anyone out there care about this? Where is your sense of indignant outrage?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Large Majority of Americans are Worried About Global Warming

A new poll by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy finds that 83 percent of Americans consider global warming to be a “serious problem” —up from 70 percent in 2004. Eighty-one percent agree with the following statement: “It is my responsibility to help reduce the impacts of global warming.” And nearly two thirds say that new laws are needed to increase energy efficiency.

Some bad news for environmental journalism here: Just 45 percent of Americans say they trust newspapers as a source of environmental information — down from two-thirds in 2004. Twenty-seven percent say they don't trust major newspapers one iota. Nightly television news also has declined significantly in its perceived trustworthiness on environmental news.

Why is journalism taking such a hit in audience confidence? This week's cover in Time magazine suggests part of the answer. In a reprise of the O.J. Simpson cover debacle (in which Simpson's photo was electronically doctored to make him look more sinister), Time's editors decided to run a bogus picture of Ronald Reagan crying. The problem is that Reagan wasn't crying; the tear on his cheek is a Photoshop facsimile. Check it out in the posting below.

-- Tom Yulsman

Saturday, March 17, 2007

There They Go Again

I know this doesn't have anything to do with the environment, but it is reflective of how low we've sunk in journalism. I'm talking about The March 26 cover of Time magazine, which features a photograph of Ronald Reagan with the cover line, "How the Right Went Wrong. What would Ronnie do? And why the Republican candidates need to reclaim the Reagan legacy." What's most arresting about the photo is a tear running down from his right eye and over his rosy cheek. After the OJ Simpson cover debacle, you'd think they would have learned their lesson. But no. You have to look in the small print — the cover photo credits — to learn that the photograph is by David Hume Kennerly, and the "tear by Tim O'Brien." I take this to mean that the tear was added by Tim O'Brien, electronically.

Tear by anyone is an outrage. Time is a bloody news magazine, so presumably they should be dedicated to telling the truth. Well apparently, the truth is that Reagan wasn't crying when the photo was shot. The photo is a lie. Most readers will see the photo and think Reagan really was crying when it was taken. That was my first reaction. How many people will look like I did to see whether it was Photoshopped? Not many.

And this is the first cover of a redesigned magazine. In a one-page note to reader, managing editor Richard Stengel goes on piously about the redesign. "Every issue of Time tells a larger story about the world we live in, and we wanted to create a design that would best present that story," he wrote. Lower down he says, "We offer clarity in a confusing world, explaining not only what happened but why it matters." That tear on Ronnie's cheek shows up with stunning clarity. It's looks hyper-real, in fact. And that's because it's not plainly real. It's a fake. What does this suggest to readers? That their journalism is fake as well? That wouldn't be such an unreasonable conclusion.

You could argue that it doesn't much matter. Reagan did cry from time to time (on demand, like an actor, some say), and that the image is symbolic, not meant to be taken literally. Such nonsense. Where do we stop? Why not doctor all news photos to increase their symbolic power? In fact, why not doctor all stories to suit our purposes? What matters is a higher truth, right?

Wrong. We tell the truth. That's our job. And when some of us don't, the credibility of journalism overall is eroded.

If one of the world's leading news organizations doesn't see what an outrage this is, what does that say about the future of journalism?