Magazines: Covering the Fate of the Earth


During the past year, magazines of all types competed to see who was best able to proclaim ecological doom and disaster. Perhaps the worst coverage of the environment was provided by the news magazines.

The environment is a particularly hard subject for these publications to cover simply because of their editing system, in which reporters' copy is repeatedly rewritten by editors increasingly remote from the subject. In the recent anthology A Yellowstone Primer, former Newsweek reporter Gene Lyons recounts how a cover story he proposed on Alston Chase's superb Playing God in Yellowstone was transformed into an "oddly pureed" account that rejected all of Chase's charges of National Park Service malfeasance without providing any evidence that Chase was wrong.

News-magazine journalism, Lyons argues, produces stories with "a certain slick, airless quality," in which simple assertions breezily triumph over fact. In environmental coverage, this means stories that confidently tell the reader that some sort of global disaster is certain and inevitable, while giving very little evidence to back up these allegations.

The worst offenders appear to be Time and its sister publications. In 1989 the powers that be at Time Inc. decided that the environment was a Problem that Time had to solve. Instead of being dispassionate observers, Time Inc. writers would act as unpaid assistants to environmental lobbyists. Time senior editor Charles Alexander freely admitted this at a conference held by the Smithsonian Institution in September, where he observed that on environmental issues, "we have crossed the boundary from news reporting to advocacy."

When Wall Street Journal editor David Brooks reported Alexander's comment in an article, 3,400 angry readers sent postcards of protest to Time. In the December 18 number, Time replied, not only endorsing Alexander's quote, but bragging about its bias: "We believe considered journalistic judgments are an important contribution to our society." Time Inc.'s "pro-environmental" articles were peculiar at best, boring at worst. Every Time Inc. publication dutifully pushed the environmental agenda. People named "Gaia," dear old Planet Earth, one of the 25 "People of the Year"; the planet could not be reached for comment. In People's December 4 issue, the magazine profiled Cheyney Ryan, son of actor Robert Ryan, who used tax dollars from the states of Oregon and California to support actors who traveled to migrant labor camps, where they told "simple family stories" about the horrors of toxic waste and pesticides.

Other Time Inc. publications also jumped on the bandwagon. Fortune published one relatively sound critique of the EPA by Anthony Ramirez on November 6 but "balanced" this with a piece in the October 23 issue by Shawn Tully that claimed that consumers "are increasingly willing to pay extra taxes or higher utility bills for cleaner air and water" without providing any evidence for this assertion. Even Sports Illustrated showed its caring and compassion, with a December 4 editorial attacking President Bush for not yielding to every environmentalist demand. What this rant had to do with sports could not be determined.

While its sister publications were straining to discover environmental stories, Time was endorsing every regulation and every tax it could find in its perfervid support of environmentalists, indulging in the December 18 issue in an orgy of what an earlier age would have called "goo-gooism." Time writers knew that the evidence for doom was flimsy. Here is Time writer Thomas Sancton on the subject:

"The earth's population [maintained] a growth rate that could double the number of human beings by the year 2025.…The global warming process could cause the average worldwide temperature to rise as much as 4.5°C within the next 60 years.…The ozone hole over Antarctica remained alarmingly large.…Whether or not all of the dire predictions come to pass, they underscore a chilling message: the planet is in grave trouble." (Italics added.)

Notice all the qualifiers in the last paragraph. No one knows if global warming is real, and "if this goes on" predictions about anything are rarely accurate. In another article in the same issue, Eugene Linden warns that waiting to determine if models warning of eco-doom are accurate will result in "many years of policy paralysis." What Linden calls "paralysis," cooler heads would call common sense. Remember the billions wasted on synthetic-fuels projects after models confidently predicted that oil prices would skyrocket?

But news magazines are a bad source for environmental news (or, for that matter, any other news). Five other magazines do a much better job of providing pertinent environmental information.

The Atlantic has the best writing about the environment of any American journal. Between November and January, the magazine ran a profile of Wes Jackson, an unusual agrarian-conservative farmer who wants to restore the American prairie to its original state; an excellent piece by William Rathje on trash; and a profile by Kenneth Brower of Grey Owl, a pioneer Canadian environmentalist who transformed himself from a penniless English wanderer into an "Indian" conservationist.

The Nation is the only journal that covers the Environmental Protection Agency in the way everyone covers the Defense Department—not as a circle of incorruptible knights, selflessly striving to do good, but as a sordid nest of corruption, scandal, and intrigue. This is admittedly due to The Nation's well-known biases against Republican political operatives. Stories that show Republicans profiting from government are, of course, raw meat for The Nation's socialist constituency, who would prefer that the pork be handed to their friends and political allies. Still, given that other magazines do not examine how the EPA works, the free-lance investigators hired by The Nation provide important and pertinent information.

In the November 20 issue, Murray Waas looks at Rita Lavelle's efforts to dole out millions in EPA grants to Republican senatorial candidates. Lavelle's favorite candidate was New Jersey's Millicent Fenwick, who was trounced in the general election.

The best Nation piece is an article in the November 6 issue in which Jim Sibbison looks at the large number of former EPA officials who are making millions working for toxic-waste handlers. Former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, for example, makes at least $1 million a year working for Browning-Ferris. Even more damning is Sibbison's revelation that the EPA hires contractors to tell EPA employees how to write contracts. This is scandalous information that, were it discovered about any other agency, would result in congressional investigations and banner headlines.

Two small-circulation public-policy journals also provide useful information on the environment. The fall 1989 Public Interest includes several interesting pieces about environmental regulation. I particularly liked Michael Greve's essay on how environmental groups get much of their income by suing the government and recovering court costs.

The winter 1990 Regulation was a special issue devoted to the environment, with essays on smog, air pollution, transferable pollution rights, and other topics.

The best essays in the issue were Frederick H. Reuter and Wilbur A. Steger's piece on how the EPA routinely exaggerates the risk from most pollutants, and J. Laurence Kulp's shocking revelation about acid rain—it's not all bad. Kulp points out that the lakes considered most acidic, chiefly in the Adirondacks, have been that way since the 1930s. He also reports that simulated acid-rain experiments have shown that most crops are not harmed by the rain. Indeed, acid rain provides nutritious nitrates, enabling farmers to reduce the amount they spend on fertilizer.

Lastly, I recommend Forbes as a reliable source of environmental information. In the past two months, I've enjoyed pieces in Forbes by Jerry Flint about how environmental regulations may wreck the car industry, since seven out of eight Americans prefer large cars to small ones; by Ronald Bailey on the Antarctic ozone hole, which probably won't expand due to ice clouds that block its growth; and by Peter Brimelow on how socialism has mutated into environmentalism, which he calls "neo-socialism."

Forbes also hires other writers on occasion, such as the Manhattan Institute's Peter Huber, who, when he writes on the subject, is one of the best environmental analysts around, and columnist Warren Brookes, whose December 25 piece on global warming is a thoughtful, meaty critique. (For another interesting article on global warming that complements Brookes's analysis, I recommend Robert Bidinotto's article in the February Reader's Digest.)

But the best advice for reading magazine articles on the environment is the old anarchist slogan: "Question authority." Big-govemment, pro-regulation environmentalists are the mandarins of our time; their pronouncements are largely unchallenged by the press. Like those of all mandarins, environmentalists' opinions should be questioned and questioned again. For only through constant debate will the truth about the fate of the earth finally emerge.

Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON.