A Question for Journalists: How Do We Cover Penguins and the Politics of Denial?

A Question for Journalists: How Do We Cover Penguins and the Politics of Denial?
by Bill Moyers
Keynote Speech to the Society of Environmental Journalists Convention
Austin, Texas - October 1, 2005

Thank you for inviting me here today and for counting me as a colleague.

I don't fit neatly into the job description of an environmental journalist although I have kept returning to the beat ever since my first documentary on the subject some 30 years ago. That was a story about how the new Republican governor of Oregon, Tom McCall, had set out to prove that the economy and the environment could share the center lane on the highway to the future.

Those were optimistic years for the emerging environmental movement. Rachel Carson had rattled the cage with Silent Spring and on the first Earth Day in 1970 twenty million Americans rose from the grassroots to speak for the planet. Even Richard Nixon couldn't say no to so powerful a subpoena by public opinion, and he put his signature to some far-reaching measures for environmental protection.

I shared that optimism and believed journalism would help to fulfill it. I thought that when people saw a good example they would imitate it, that if Americans knew the facts and the possibilities they would act on them. After all, half a century ago, I had walked every day as a student across the campus of my alma mater, the University of Texas and could look up at the main tower and read the words: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." I believed we were really on the way toward the third American Revolution. The first had won our independence as a nation. The second had finally opened the promise of civil rights to all Americans. Now the third American Revolution was to be the Green Revolution for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

Sometimes in a moment of reverie I imagine that it happened. I imagine that we had brought forth a new paradigm for nurturing and protecting our global life support system; that we had faced up to the greatest ecological challenge in human history and conquered it with clean renewable energy, efficient transportation and agriculture, and the non-toxic production and protection of our forests, oceans, grasslands and wetlands. I imagine us leading the world on a new path of sustainability.

Alas, it was only a reverie. The reality is otherwise. Rather than leading the world in finding solutions to the global environmental crises, the United States is a recalcitrant naysayer and backslider. Our government and corporate elites have turned against America's environmental visionaries - from Teddy Roosevelt to John Muir, from Rachel Carson to David Brower, from Gaylord Nelson to Laurence Rockefeller. They have set out to eviscerate just about every significant gain of the past generation, and while they are at it they have managed to blame the environmental movement itself for the failure of the Green Revolution. If environmentalism isn't dead, they say, it should be. And they will gladly lead the cortege to the grave.

Yes, I know: the environmental community has stumbled on many fronts. All of us in this room have heard and reported the charges: that the rhetoric is alarmist and the ideology polarizing; that command-and-control regulation produces bureaucratic bungles, slows economic growth, and delays technological advances that save lives; that what began as a grassroots movement has now become an entrenched green bureaucracy precariously hanging on in occupied Washington while passionate citizens across the country are starved for financial resources. There is some truth in these charges; all movements flounder and must periodically regroup.

Before we consider the case closed, however, let me urge you to take a hard look at the backlash. I didn't reckon on the backlash. If the Green Revolution is a bloody pulp today, it is not just because the environmental movement mugged itself. It is because the corporate, political, and religious right ganged up on it in the back alleys of power. Big companies fund a relentless assault on green values and policies. Political ideologues launch countless campaigns to strip from government all its functions except those that reward their rich benefactors. And homegrown ayatollahs are more set on savaging gay people than saving the green earth.

I especially failed to reckon with how ruthless the reactionaries would be. What they did to Rachel Carson when Silent Spring appeared in 1962 has been honed to a sharp edge aimed at the jugular of anyone who challenges them.

I felt the knife's edge some years ago when I took up the subject of pesticides and food for a Frontline documentary on PBS. My producer, Marty Koughan, learned that the industry was plotting behind the scenes to dilute the findings of a National Academy of Science study on the effect of pesticide residues in children. When the companies found out we were on the story, they came after us. Before the documentary aired television reviewers and the editorial pages of newspapers were flooded with disinformation. A whispering campaign took hold. One Washington Post columnist took a dig at the broadcast without having seen it and later confessed to me that he had gotten a bum tip about the content from a top lobbyist for the chemical industry and printed it without asking me for a response.

Some public television managers were so unnerved by the propaganda blitz against a yet-to-be aired documentary that they actually protested to PBS with a letter prepared by the chemical industry.

Here's what most perplexed us: eight days before the broadcast, the American Cancer Society, an organization that in no way figured in our story, sent to its three-thousand local chapters a "critique" of the unfinished documentary claiming, wrongly, that it exaggerated the dangers of pesticides in food. We were puzzled. Why was the American Cancer Society taking the unusual step of criticizing a documentary that it had not yet seen, that had not yet aired, and that did not claim what the Society said was in it? An enterprising reporter named Sheila Kaplan later looked into these questions for Legal Times. She found that the Porter Novelli public relations firm, which had several chemical companies as clients, also did pro bono work for the American Cancer Society. The firm was able to cash in on some of the goodwill from their "charitable" work to persuade the communications staff at the Society to distribute erroneous talking points about the documentary before it aired - talking points supplied by, but not attributed to, Porter Novelli. Legal Times headlined the story, "Porter Novelli Plays All Sides," a familiar Washington game.

This was just round one. The producer Sherry Jones and I spent more than a year working on another PBS documentary called "Trade Secrets." This was a two-hour investigative special based on records from the industry's own archives. Those internal documents revealed that for over 40 years big chemical companies had deliberately withheld from workers and consumers damaging information about toxic chemicals in their products. They confirmed not only that a shameless and amoral industry knowingly deceived the public. They also confirmed that we were living under a regulatory system designed by the chemical industry itself - one that put profits ahead of safety.

Once again the industry pounced. We found ourselves the target of another public relations firm - this one noted for using private detectives and former CIA, FBI and drug enforcement officers to conduct investigations for big business. One of its founders acknowledged that corporations "sometimes" resort to unconventional resources, including "using deceit." We were the target of a classic smear campaign and PBS felt the pressure. Still, the documentary ran, created a big impact across the country, and a year later received an Emmy from our peers for outstanding investigative journalism.

But this crowd never gives up. President Bush has turned the agencies charged with environmental protection over to people who don't believe in it. To run the Interior Department he chose a long-time defender of polluters who has opposed laws to safeguard wildlife, habitat, and public lands. To run the Forest Service he chose a timber industry lobbyist. To oversee our public lands he named a mining industry lobbyist who believes public lands are unconstitutional. To run the Superfund he chose a woman who made a living advising corporate polluters how to evade the Superfund. And in the White House office of environmental policy the President placed a lobbyist from the American Petroleum Institute whose mission was to make sure the government's scientific reports on global warming didn't contradict the party line and the interest of oil companies. Everywhere you look, the foxes own the chicken coop.

My colleagues and I reported these stories again and again on my weekly PBS series, to the consternation of the President's minions at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB Chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, turned the administration's discomfort at embarrassing disclosures into a crusade to discredit our journalism. Tomlinson left the chairmanship this week but the Rightwing coup at public broadcasting is complete. He remains on the board under a new chair who is a former real estate director and Republican fund raiser. She recently told a Senate hearing that the CPB should have the authority to penalize public broadcasting journalists if they step out of line. Sitting beside her and Tomlinson on the board is another Bush appointee - also a partisan Republican activist - who was a charter member and chair of Newt Gingrich's notorious political action committee, GOPAC. Reporting to them is the White House's handpicked candidate to be President and chief executive officer of the CPB - a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee whose husband became PR director of the Chemical Manufacturers Association after he had helped the pesticide industry smear Rachel Carson for her classic work on the environment, Silent Spring. Mark my words: if this gang has anything to say about it, there will be no challenging journalism to come from public television while they are around; no investigative reporting on the environment; no reporting at all on conflicts of interest between government and big business; no naming of names.

So if the environmental movement is pronounced dead, it won't be from self-inflicted wounds. We don't blame slavery on the slaves, the Trail of Tears on the Cherokees, or the Srebrenica massacre on the bodies in the grave. No, the lethal threat to the environmental movement comes from the predatory power of money and the pathological enmity of rightwing ideology.

Theodore Roosevelt warned a century ago of the subversive influence of money in politics. He said the central fact in his time was that big business had become so dominant it would chew up democracy and spit it out. The power of corporations, he said, had to be balanced with the interest of the general public. That warning was echoed by his cousin Franklin, who said a "government by organized money is as much to be feared as a government by organized mob." Both Roosevelts rose to that challenge in their day. But a hundred years later mighty corporations are once again the undisputed overlords of government. Follow the money and you are inside the inner sanctum of the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute. Here is the super board of directors for Bush, Incorporated. They own the Administration lock, stock, and barrel, and their grip on our government's environmental policies is leading to calamitous consequences. Once the leader in cutting edge environmental policies and technologies and awareness, America is now eclipsed. As the scientific evidence grows, pointing to a crisis, our country has become an impediment to action, not a leader. Earlier this year the White House even conducted an extraordinary secret campaign to scupper the British government's attempt to tackle global warming - and then to undermine the UN's effort to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. George W. Bush is the Herbert Hoover of the environment. His failure to lead on global warming means that even if we were dramatically to decrease greenhouse gases overnight we have already condemned ourselves and generations to come to a warming planet.

You no doubt saw those reports a few days ago that the Artic has suffered another record loss of sea ice. This summer, satellites monitoring the region found that ice reached its lowest monthly point on record - the fourth year in a row it has fallen below the monthly downward trend. The anticipated effects are well known: as the Artic region absorbs more heat from the sun, causing the ice to melt still further, the relentless cycle of melting and heating will shrink the massive land glaciers of Greenland and dramatically raise sea levels. Scientists were quoted saying that with this new acceleration of melt the northern hemisphere may have crossed a critical threshold beyond which the climate cannot recover.

Nonetheless, last year a Gallup poll found that nearly half of Americans worry "only a little" or "not at all" about global warming or "the greenhouse effect." In July of this year, ABC News reported that 66% of the people in a new survey said they don't think global warming will affect their lives.

If you've seen the film "March of the Penguins," you know it is a delight to the eye and a tug at the heart. The camera follows the flocks as they trek back and forth over the ice to their breeding ground. You see them huddle together to protect their eggs in temperatures that average 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. So powerful and beautiful a film can only increase one's awe of our small neighbors far to the north.

In the New York Times recently, Jonathan Miller reported that conservatives are invoking "March of the Penguins" as an inspiration for their various causes. Some praise the penguins for their monogamy. Opponents of abortion say it verifies "the beauty of life and the rightness of protecting it." A Christian magazine claims it makes "a strong case for intelligent design." On the website "lionsofgod.com" you can find instructions to take a notebook, flashlight and pen to the movie "to write down what God speaks to you" as you watch the film.

Fair enough. It would not be the first time human beings felt connected to a transcendental power through nature. But what you will not find in the film is any reference to global warming. Why is it relevant? Because to reproduce, the penguins must go to the thickest part of the ice where they can safely stand without fear it will break beneath their weight. Global warming obviously weakens the ice. If it becomes too thin, the penguins will lose the support necessary for reproduction. Yet the film is silent on this threat to these little creatures that conservatives are adopting as their mascots in the culture wars. The film's director explained that he wanted to reach as many people as possible and since "Much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global warming," he didn't want to go there.

Again, fair enough. I can't fault him for the aspiration to tell the story for its own sake, in the most simple and profound way. I can't fault him for wanting to avoid disturbing the comfort of viewers. I often wish that I were a filmmaker instead of a journalist and didn't have to give people a headache by reporting the news they'd rather not hear.

But what we don't know can kill us.

They say denial is not a river in Egypt. It is, however, the governing philosophy in Washington. The President's contempt for science - for evidence that mounts everyday - is mind boggling. Here is a man who was quick to launch a 'preventative war' against Iraq on faulty intelligence and premature judgment but who refuses to take preventive action against a truly global menace about which the scientific evidence is overwhelming.

Unfortunately, the people in his core constituency who could most effectively call on this President to lead are largely silent. I mean the Christian conservatives who gave President Bush 15 million votes in 2000 and maybe 20 million in 2004. Without their support, the transnational corporations who now control Washington would fail to have the votes needed to eviscerate our environmental protections.

Some of these Christian conservatives are implacable. They have given their proxies to the televangelists, pastors, and preachers who have signed on with the Republican Party to turn their faith into a political religion, a weapon of partisan conflict.

But millions of these people believe they are here on earth to serve a higher moral power, not a partisan agenda. They overwhelmingly respond to natural disasters like last year's tsunami or the AIDS crisis in Africa by opening their hearts and wallets wide. Alas, although many of them may believe Christians have a moral obligation to protect God's creation, most remain uninformed about the true scope of the environmental crisis and the role of the Republican Party in it. As a result, they typically vote their consciences on social issues rather than environmental ones.

Listen to this anguished moral missive from Joel Gillespie, a conservative Christian who recently wrote to On Earth magazine: "I'll admit that when I pushed the button for President Bush, I did so with some sadness, given his dismal environmental record. But many of us who love the natural world…feel we face an almost impossible either-or-predicament. Voting for pro-environmental candidates usually means voting for a package of other policies that we will never swallow. We're forced to choose unborn babies or endangered species, traditional marriage or habitat protection, cleaning up the smut that comes across the airwaves or the smut that fouls our air. And the fact that we are forced to make such choices has harmed the natural environment and the special places we love and cherish."

Many evangelical Christians face Gillespie's dilemma. They need to be challenged to look more closely at their moral choices - to consider whether it is possible to be pro-life while also being anti-earth. If you believe uncompromisingly in the right of every baby to be born safely into this world, can you at the same time abandon the future of that child, allowing its health and safety to be compromised by a President who gives big corporations license to poison our bodies and destroy our climate?

In his grandstanding during the Schiavo right-to-die case last spring, President Bush said, "It is wise to always err on the side of life," and he pleaded for a "culture of life." But by ignoring the wise counsel of thousands of environmental scientists, the President is not erring on the side of life. He is playing dice with our children's future - dice that we have likely loaded against our own species, and perhaps against all life on earth...

Here's an important statistic to ponder: 45 percent of Americans hold a creational view of the world, discounting Darwin's theory of evolution. I don't think it is a coincidence then that in a nation where nearly half our people believe in creationism, much of the populace also doubts the certainty of climate change science. Contrast that to other industrial nations where climate change science is overwhelmingly accepted as truth; in Britain, for example, where 8l% of the populace wants the government to implement the Kyoto Treat. What's going on here? Simply that millions of American Christians accept the literal story of Genesis, and they either dismiss or distrust a lot of science - not only evolution, but paleontology, archeology, geology, genetics, even biology and botany. To those Christians who believe that our history began with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and that it will end soon on the plains of Armageddon, environmental science with its urgent warnings of planetary peril must look at the best irrelevant. At worst the environmental woes we report may be stoically viewed as the inevitable playing out of the end of time as presented in the book of Revelation. For Christian dominionists who believe the Lord will provide for all human needs and never leave us short of oil or other resources, no matter how we overpopulate the earth, our reporting may be viewed as a direct attack on biblical teachings that urge humans "to be fruitful and multiply." It's even possible that among many Christian conservatives, our environmental reporting - if they see it at all - could seem arrogant in its assumptions, mechanistic, cold and godless in its world view. That's a tough indictment, but one that must be faced if we want to understand how these people get their news.

So if I were a free-lance journalist looking to offer a major piece on global warming to these people, how would I go about it? I wouldn't give up fact-based analysis, of course - the ethical obligation of journalists is to ground what we report in evidence. But I would tell some of my stories with an ear for spiritual language, the language of parable, for that is the language of faith. ..

A Question for Journalists: How Do We Cover Penguins and the Politics of Denial?


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