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The Media and Reporting on the Environment

By David Mastio

Next time you read a magazine cover story like the one Time just published ("Be Worried. Be VERY Worried. Polar Ice Caps Are Melting ... More And More Land Is Being Devastated ... Rising Waters Are Drowning Low-Lying Communities... The climate is crashing, and global warming is to blame") you should remember one little fact: U.S. media companies, including Time Warner, donate more to the environmental movement than any other industry. Companies like The New York Times, Gannett, Tribune, ABC, CBS and NBC have donated more than a half-billion worth of ad space since the 1990s to raise money for some of the nation's most extreme environmental groups. And yes, that was billion with a B.

To put that number in perspective, America's media companies donate more to environmental groups every year than the much-feared Olin Foundation's spent annually in its effort to build the institutional foundation of the conservative movement.

The deal works like this: The Ad Council endorses and distributes ads that encourage people to give money to "Earth Share," a fundraising front group whose members include dozens of groups from the moderate Nature Conservancy to the radical Friends of the Earth. Media companies donate vast amounts of air time and ad space, assuming that Ad Council campaigns follow the charity's standards such as the rule that campaigns must be "non-commercial, non-denominational, non-partisan, and not be designated to influence legislation." (http://www.adcouncil.org/default.aspx?id=319)

That rule may be important to our non-partisan media, but the Ad Council treats it like a joke. Earth Share's Fall 2005 newsletter, released at the same time as the latest round of Ad Council ads, brags that its members helped "defeat numerous efforts to pass legislation." (http://www.earthshare.org/news_resources/sharing_news.html)

Environmental ads' dubious facts

And the ads sponsored by Earth Share, endorsed by the Ad Council and fueled by media donations are not exactly examples of truth in advertising. Here's the text of one radio ad released last fall:

"Place your hand on your heart ... measure the beats ... 1...2...3...4...5... That's how long it takes to protect your child's life. Five heart beats. That's how long it takes to learn about the dangers of pesticides that could be in your child's classroom. Asthma, lower IQ scores and cancer have all been linked to prolonged exposure to these toxins ..."

Want to know the number of national medical and public health organizations that consider classroom chemical exposure a significant cause of cancer. Z-E-R-O. Want to know the number of scientific groups that blame classroom chemical exposure for asthma and low IQs? Yep, zilch. (Indeed, if you take the time to look it up, average IQ scores are rising.)

An agenda bigger than environmentalism

By giving free space to environmentalists' fundraising campaign, the press is not just broadcasting deceptive messages that stoke public anxiety, they're also laundering the image of environmentalism. The Ad Council name gives the fundraising a patina of non-partisanship. The Earth Share name gives the campaign a soft-focus that hides the full agenda of its member groups.

If you've given money to Earth Share, you might believe, as Harrison Ford says in some of Earth Share's Ad Council sponsored ads, there's "one environment and one simple way to care for it" - give some cash to Earth Share.

The reality is less simple. There may be one environment, but there are many other causes that can hijack your money: Efforts to stop missile defense testing (Union of Concerned Scientists), running attack ads against Senators who opposed campaign finance reform (Sierra Club) and derailing global trade negotiations or trying to give Bill Bradley the Democratic presidential nod instead of Al Gore (Friends of the Earth) are all causes supported by Earth Share members.

Earth Share members also tend to take a knee-jerk anti-technology stance, even when the new technology may benefit the environment. For instance, Earth Share's membership is almost universally opposed to biotechnology because "Frankenfood" genes may contaminate the environment or harm someone, somewhere, somehow. Who knows, they may be right. But while they raise these hypothetical concerns, they ignore concrete environmental benefits. Genetic engineering has significantly raised crop yields, allowing farmers to feed more people with less land. That leaves more room for wildlife. Genetic engineering also increases resistance to plant pests allowing farmers to slash their use of chemicals.

And now onto global warming

Which brings us to the latest news from the nexus between extreme environmentalism and the "non-partisan" Ad Council: The launch of a new campaign aimed at raising public awareness of our global warming crisis. The web site for the campaign (www.fightglobalwarming.com) makes things pretty clear: "Global warming is the most serious environmental issue of our time."

If those are the stakes, then the Ad Council would surely want the most persuasive messenger to bring this important information to the public, right?

And since "most respected scientific organizations have stated unequivocally that global warming is happening, and people are causing it ...," it should be easy for the Ad Council to find a non-partisan scientific messenger, then right?

Well, for some reason, no. The Ad Council has given us exactly the opposite: Their messenger is Environmental Defense (formerly known as the Environmental Defense Fund), a group with a reputation for crying wolf. Right now on their web page, ED asks parents to click to find out whether their children are in "danger" from dirty air. Nowhere can parents find the more comforting fact that, no matter where they live, kids today are breathing cleaner air than they did 50 years ago.

Just to add to their credibility, ED also has a reputation for partisanship, regularly adding its name to anti-Bush administration attacks ads and featuring the wife of the last Democratic presidential aspirant on its board.

And true to form, Environmental Defense takes a reasonable case - we should do something about global warming - and turns it into a joke: "While the world itself will not end, the world as we know it may disappear," ED intones in a Q & A on the site.

Saving the climate by stopping wind power

And that's where this whole Ad Council/Earth Share/Environmental Defense tangle gets impossible to follow.

We know, because the Ad Council tells us so, that "global warming is the most serious environmental issue of our time." The world as we know it is at stake. We also know, because the Ad Council tells us so, that there is "one simple way" to care for the environment - give money to Earth Share.

We also know, that in the short term, there are four kinds of energy society can use that are a) widely available and b) will lower our impact on the global climate: Hydro-electric, wind power, nuclear energy and natural gas.

Yet in every case, the Ad Council is using its vast resources to raise money that makes turning to those sources of power harder, not easier.

Earth Share members, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, have filed complaints asking the government to shutter dozens of nuclear power plants across the U.S., they're standing in the way of opening a central repository for nuclear waste and they're opposing regulatory changes that would streamline the permitting process so that the United States could add new zero-climate impact nuclear power for the first time in a generation.

Today, the United States is among the top three nations in the world in producing climate-friendly hydro-electric power. It might not stay that way. In an effort to protect endangered trout and salmon, Earth Share members, such as Defenders of Wildlife, have pushed repeatedly - and in some cases successfully -- to "breach" hydro-electric dams as a way to restore fish habitat.

Of fossil fuel power sources, natural gas is the cleanest and, because it is also the most efficient, it has the least impact on climate. Yet all over the United States environmental groups both local and national are fighting to stop its use. In the mountain West, Earth share members are fighting to stop exploration for and production of natural gas. If we can't produce natural gas in the United States, then we'll need to import it. That can't happen either because Ad Council-funded groups such as the U.S. PIRG, People for the Narragansett Bay and Save the Sound, are fighting to stop the infrastructure projects that would allow that.

Which brings us to the most bizarre case of all - wind power. If there's one thing you'd think would be mom and apple pie for environmentalists, wind power would be it, but its not.

For the most part, environmentalists are embarrassed by the fact that they can't even stomach the development of wind turbines. For that reason, environmentalists are letting the local NIMBY's do most of the heavy lifting, while national environmental groups such as Earth Share's Audubon Society quietly push for greater regulations under the cover of protection for endangered bats and birds. If you talk to wind power executives, they'll tell you that one-two punch of angry locals and quietly influential national groups have stalled and scaled bank wind farms from Vermont to California.

It may be true that every single one of the environmental concerns raised to block hydro-power, wind energy, nuclear plants and natural gas development are all valid. But if global warming is really, really the "most serious environmental issue of our time," shouldn't environmentalists be willing to put their other concerns aside until we deal with the dangers of runaway climate change?

Maybe if our largest television networks, newspapers and magazines weren't the largest fundraisers for these same environmental groups, they'd be in a position to ask.

David Mastio has been an environmental reporter for The Detroit News, a speechwriter for the Bush administration, an editorial writer for USA Today and one of the founding editors of The Washington Examiner. He is also the founder of InOpinion.com.

(c) 2000-2006 RealClearPolitics


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