A Bias Crisis in Journalism
Shading the Truth Green II - the standing ovation
By John A. Charles, Jr.

In October I flew to Pittsburgh to attend the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). The conference was hosted by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and drew over 400 journalists, activists and exhibitors. This was my third SEJ conference. I had been a speaker at the Portland conference in 2001, and had attended the 2003 conference in New Orleans to write about it (see Brainstorm NW, January, 2004). My reason for attending was to see what kinds of bias, if any, could be detected from watching journalists discuss environmental policy for four days.

I decided to grade each presentation, and I used two criteria: (1) Panel balance; and (2) Discussion balance. Panel balance measures the degree to which multiple points of views were represented in specific panel discussions and among keynote speakers. Discussion balance measures the quality of the dialogue, taking into account not only the performance of speakers, but also the response of SEJ members.

Opening Session: Celebrities and the Environment

The opening panel featured actor Ted Danson (a CMU graduate); Franco Harris, former running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers; and Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The purpose was to discuss the involvement of celebrities in environmental issues. This was clearly designed as a fun session with some star power to get people to the conference on time, and was aided by the appearance of Teresa Heinz Kerry about halfway through. Danson, Harris and Heinz Kerry had all spoken at a John Kerry rally earlier that day at the Carnegie Mellon campus.

Franco Harris and Ted Danson were very thoughtful and stated repeatedly that celebrities can do more harm than good if they dip their toes into the waters of complex public policy issues without doing adequate homework. Heinz Kerry gave one of her short stump speeches, which was predictably gloomy in its treatment of various environmental issues, but not outrageous. Myron Ebell of CEI was obviously on the panel to give it political balance and did a nice job, but in most respects was under-utilized. His extensive knowledge of climate change would have been much more useful on one of the technical panels held later in the conference.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the evening was the adoring way Heinz Kerry was received by many participants. Obviously someone in that position deserves a certain amount of respect as a matter of protocol, and perhaps the fact that so many people stood up upon her introduction and again as she exited could be excused on those grounds; but a number of people from the audience shouted encouragement and referred to her joyously as the next First Lady. It’s hard to imagine that Laura Bush would have been received with as much enthusiasm by this crowd.

Grade: Panel balance -- A. Discussion balance -- B.

Field trip to Donora

The next day was set aside for field trips. I chose to go on a trip to Donora, the site of one of the worst air pollution disasters in American history. In 1948, a “perfect storm” of topography, industrial emissions and weather combined to trap such high levels of toxic pollution at ground level that 22 people died and many more were incapacitated during a three-day period in this mill town near Pittsburgh. Devra Davis, an epidemiologist who works at the University of Pittsburgh, grew up in Donora and wrote a highly-regarded book about the event entitled, “When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution.” Dr. Davis was the featured speaker on this tour.

On the way we also stopped at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the largest coking facility in the world, where we took a tour and discussed pollution issues with both management and unionized labor representatives. In Donora we walked around parts of town and then were hosted for lunch by the Donora Historical Society. We heard first-hand accounts of the Donora smog event by several people including a physician who was practicing at the time. It was a fascinating look at an event that most of us would find hard to comprehend today, but which was actually not considered particularly abnormal at the time. Most people living in the Pittsburgh region then (including my parents) had long regarded the chronic soot as simply “money in the air”, or “the smell of money.” It was considered the price of a family paycheck.

On the way back we stopped at the site of a famous labor clash between Andrew Carnegie’s Pinkerton agents and striking steelworkers at the Homestead works, in 1892. Three Pinkertons and seven steelworkers were killed in the clash. Today the site has been reclaimed as a mixed-use shopping mall.

Overall it was a fascinating day, but the schedule of events and choice of speakers created a distinct overtone of political correctness in terms of organized labor. A professional union representative rode with us on the bus the whole time, and at Dr. Davis’ insistence we were shown a short documentary about women in the steel industry labor force. The presentation we received at the Homestead site was from the perspective of organized labor. Most of this was only marginally relevant to environmental journalism.

Perhaps because of Dr. Davis’ successful book (which received a glowing review in the SEJ newsletter last spring), she was granted diva status by journalists who are probably a bit more skeptical in other circumstances. This meant that a number of biased political assertions she made (regarding the Bush administration and also about global warming) went unchallenged by SEJ members.

Grade: Panel balance, B Discussion balance, B-

Bobby Kennedy Takes on President Bush

The featured speaker that evening was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an environmental lawyer. Kennedy’s speech was to be a summation of his new book, “Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and his Pals are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy.”

I got a sneak preview of how this event would play out when I boarded the SEJ shuttle bus taking us from the Hilton Hotel to the speaking venue, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Kennedy was staying at the Hilton and as I boarded the shuttle I observed an ongoing conversation between Kennedy’s driver and four young women, who were entreating him to get Kennedy to come over. He was clearly enjoying his gatekeeper status but regretfully informed them that a personal appearance was unlikely. Indeed Kennedy came out of the hotel, quickly got in his luxury green town car and pulled away.

However, about 10 seconds later, Kennedy suddenly appeared at the stairwell of the shuttle and boarded, introducing himself and shaking hands with all six passengers. The four women were ecstatic, and two of them asked him to pose for pictures, which he did. After some brief conversation, he stepped off the bus and drove away.

This struck me as a richly stereotypical moment: the limousine liberal driving off in his chauffeured vehicle while the commoners took public transit.

After a pleasant cocktail hour at the museum, Mr. Kennedy was introduced by Dan Fagin, 2004 president of SEJ. Kennedy then launched into the most partisan, vitriolic, over-the-top speech I’ve ever heard in 25 years of attending environmental conferences. And strangely enough, aside from President Bush, the primary targets of Kennedy’s wrath were the journalists right in that room. He started off by saying, “The press has not done its job about informing the public regarding Bush and the environment. This is the worst President we’ve ever had in American history, without any argument.”

He then described Bush appointees by saying, “These aren’t individuals who’ve entered government service to promote the public interest; they’ve specifically tried to subvert the very laws they’re charged with enforcing. The press has been a negligent co-conspirator with the White House, especially the White House press corps who have been at best stenographers for the White House.”

In an effort to clarify his point, if it was not yet obvious, he used as an example the noted scientist (and global warming skeptic) Fred Singer, whom he described as a “biostitute for these phony think tanks in Washington and paid by the oil and coal industry,” and contrasted him with Robert Watson, “a genuine scientist.” He then argued that “Nightline” puts them up against each other and doesn’t explain that Singer is an aberrant nut case on the payroll of the industry. Journalism has a much tougher job, that of explaining the truth, which is not simply ‘balance.’”

By now Kennedy was fully warmed up. He asserted, without any evidence, that “the quality of life has diminished measurably in America. But people don’t know about it because the dots have not been connected for them.” Kennedy did not attempt to define “quality of life” in any useful way, but apparently he could not imagine that a majority of Americans are actually happy.

Not content to insult the President, the press corps, and federal agency managers, he then said that “White house people will lie and they will lie and they will lie and then they will tell half-truths. On the issue of air pollution especially they have not uttered an honest word.”

Kennedy attacked large corporations, especially those who have integrated various stages of operations by buying other companies. He said, “I am more frightened of these corporate integrators that are destroying your lives than I am of Osama Bin Laden. When corporations control government what you get is a government of plunder, and this is what you see under Bush is pure plunder. We have never seen anything like this since the 1880s.”

Kennedy’s idea of humor, which actually worked for this particular crowd, was to compare alleged corporate polluters with suicide bombers. He whined that polluters “aren’t even making a self-sacrifice like suicide bombers are; they’re just doing it for the money.” This elicited a lot of cheering.

When he finally finished he received a standing ovation from many members of the audience (which included both SEJ members and various outsiders) that lasted for nearly 30 seconds.

After insulting a room full of journalists for almost an hour, I expected that the questioning would be aggressive, but apparently the Kennedy charm is like Kryptonite with the press. The first questioner, a Pittsburgh radio journalist, tossed him a softball by asking why the public should vote for Kerry.

Kennedy’s answer was, “Two words: George Bush.” This drew more cheers from the crowd.

The next three questions were equally lame, and finally Seth Borenstein of Knight-Ridder Newspapers challenged Kennedy on his central argument. Borenstein said, “According to you I’m one of the people not covering the environment. You say that environmentalists have been marginalized; to what extent do you think speeches like yours on the far left do more harm than good?”

Kennedy disingenuously sidestepped the question by arguing, “I don’t think the fault is with the people in this room; the fault is the corporate structure.” That was about as useful as Hillary Clinton blaming the vast, right-wing conspiracy.

Kennedy then went on to state, with only tenuous relevance to the question, “I don’t think I’m a radical; I think I’m as mainstream as it gets; I’m probably more to the right than many people in this room.”

That should have been the biggest laugh line of the evening, but it seemed to sneak by everyone.

I kept waiting for someone to demand any evidence for Kennedy’s wild assertions (and I could not ask myself, as only SEJ members are allowed to pose questions), but the next questioner chose to defend the honor of journalism by blaming the public. He said, “It’s not our problem; the American public has no technical or scientific literacy.”

After a few more harmless questions, an editor with the left-wing High Country News, in a pathetic display of self-flagellation said, “I do see the problems in the news media that you identify and we can do all the good work that we’re doing and obviously it’s not working or this election would not be as close as it is.”

I was wondering at this point if that editor had grown tired of his day job and was auditioning to be a speechwriter for Kennedy. That was the last question and it was followed by another partial standing ovation that lasted 25 seconds. Kennedy then stuck around for extended glad-handing, but since I had already been touched by stardom on the shuttle bus I left to graze on the impressive trays of desserts.

Grade: Panel balance, B-. This rating is based on the fact that even though EPA administrator Mike Leavitt was given equal time at a plenary session the next morning, he is not as far-right as Kennedy is extreme left. Discussion balance: F. This grade reflects the unsubstantiated rhetoric of the speaker, the obvious partisanship of the audience, and the kid-glove treatment afforded Kennedy in the question session.

A Quiet Rebuttal from the Free-Marketeers

The next morning, I had a chance to observe a contrasting analysis of the Bush record when I attended a press briefing sponsored by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), the leading institutional proponent of free-market environmentalism. PERC released an “Environmental Report Card on the Bush administration”


Unfortunately, fewer than a dozen members of the press showed up. The poor turnout may have been due to the early hour (7:30 a.m.), inadequate publicity by PERC, or the fact that the briefing was not an officially-sponsored part of the SEJ agenda. It may also have reflected a lack of interest among journalists in markets or property rights. Whatever the reasons, it’s unfortunate that most SEJ members missed the event, because unlike the Kennedy tirade, the PERC briefing included a 115-page notebook with detailed discussions of Bush’s performance across 15 areas of environmental policy. Bush was graded in each area, with scores ranging from F to B+ and an overall score of C+. Short presentations by PERC

Senior Associate Jane Shaw and one of the report co-authors, Angela Logomasini of Competitive Enterprise Institute, were followed by a brief question and answer period.

Panel balance: N/A. This was not a sanctioned SEJ event. Discussion balance, A

Mike Leavitt Defends the Bush Environmental Record

The first big plenary session of the morning was a keynote address by Mike Leavitt, former Utah governor and Bush appointee to head up the Environmental Protection Agency in mid-2003. Since former politicians tend to speak in generalities I was not expecting a whole lot, but actually he was surprisingly articulate. Knowing that the President’s record has gotten poor reviews from mainstream environmental groups, Administrator Leavitt was clearly primed for a spirited give-and-take. He was especially eager to talk about the regulation of mercury, a hot-button issue in recent years. In fact he practically begged the audience to ask him a question about it. But no one did.

When it was over I had my camera out, ready to take pictures of the standing ovation. But there wasn’t one, of course. He received polite applause, but one could easily sense the tension in the room. The ensuing discussion involved questions about the Great Lakes, combined sewer overflows, global warming and tribal issues. Since no one asked him about mercury, he discussed it in his closing remarks. He made a rather unusual offer: he said that he would be releasing a mercury regulation by March 15, and that if any journalists were willing to come to Washington, D.C. for several days to learn about it, he would make

available the top scientists in the agency for briefings. His goal was to ensure that, even if journalists eventually disagreed with his proposed regulation, they would at least be well-informed about the subject.

Grade: Panel balance, B- (see above). Discussion balance, C

Muckracking, Crusading, and Objectivity: What Are the Rules Today?

The speakers on this panel were Derrick Jackson of The Boston Globe; Mark Schapiro of Center for Investigative Reporting; and Kathryn Schulz of Grist Magazine. Ms. Schulz began by stating, “Objectivity is not dead, but then I suspect it was never terribly alive. Pure objectivity is probably only attainable on a subject that you are totally bored about, and boredom is not a quality we want to encourage in journalists. We need genuine and sustained curiosity, along with skepticism.”

Mr. Schapiro followed and said he was “glad to hear that the notion of objectivity is on its death throes. It doesn’t exist, but it means nothing in terms of journalism. It’s a fake argument. You get the facts right, you go in and do your interviews, you get your sources, and you adjust your own perspective on the story depending on what they say.”

Mr. Jackson was a little more circumspect about the issue of objectivity. He said, “We have to be careful about glibly throwing out the term of objectivity and saying it doesn’t exist. Objectivity to me means fact and passion, which are not mutually exclusive.”

These guidelines made sense at a general level, but during the discussion several of the speakers made it clear that on the specific issue of global warming, they’d long since lost any sense of curiosity or skepticism. Both Schapiro and Francesca Lyman, the moderator (MSNBC.com), openly criticized the journalistic practice of presenting two sides of the global warming debate “when there is a growing consensus that it is a problem.”

Jackson opined that the “facts on global warming are overwhelming and we have to do something.”

Afterward I asked three of the panelists whether they thought the standing ovation given to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. the previous night was appropriate behavior for journalists. Lyman and Schapiro both demanded to know who I worked for and what the editorial slant of BrainstormNW was before answering (it’s not clear why this was relevant to a question about ethics), and both dismissed the issue out of hand. Lyman said, “There is no story there; it’s not a relevant question. I did not stand [for Kennedy] and those who did might not have been journalists.”

Schapiro’s curt response: “That’s not an appropriate question and it’s totally irrelevant to this panel discussion.”

Derrick Jackson had a different view. He had not attended the Kennedy event but based on my description said, “That’s wrong.”

He recounted a similar event he had attended at a conference for minority journalists in 1992 when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton arrived. According to Jackson “about 40 percent of the audience greeted him with a standing ovation, and I was offended by that.”

Grade: Panel balance, B. Discussion balance: C.

Middle-Aged Spread: Older Cities and Sprawl

This panel included Scott Canon, a civil engineer and president of the Pennsylvania Builders Association; Deb Lang, an expert on brownfields from CMU; and Tom Hilton, author of “Save our Land, Save our Town.”

Politically, the panel was skewed; Lang and Hilton were clearly disdainful of suburbia and made a lot of tired arguments about the alleged virtues of dense urban living and the evils of paving over rural farmland. They complained about how Americans are getting fat because we drive too much. But Scott Canon’s experience of actually getting housing projects approved, financed and built provided much-need realism to this panel. He pointed out that many of the politically correct brownfield projects are “not based in reality…there is too much risk and not enough return.” Anyone familiar with the massively subsidized boutique neighborhoods in Portland such as the Pearl District would have instantly understood his concerns.

He also made the important point that the very institution of zoning allows existing homeowners to impose dysfunctional zoning requirements on future residents for self-serving reasons, such as large-lot minimums that price lower-income people out of neighborhoods.

All three panelists agreed on some points, such as the problems big-city governments (Philadelphia being a case in point) create for urban redevelopment by imposing regulatory requirements that make projects financially infeasible.

Overall this was an informative and lively panel, in spite of its poor design.

Grade: Panel balance, D. Discussion balance, A-

Mass Extinction Today:
Does Anyone Care?

This panel was problematic from the beginning. All five of the panelists had the same gloomy perspective. Law school professor and author John Kunich was miscast as the “moderator” but in fact served as one of the policy experts. His opening statement was that we know of “at least five mass extinctions in history, and there is credible evidence that we seem to be on the verge of, or in the middle, a sixth mass extinction. All the evidence points to human beings as the number one cause.”

The rest of the speakers, including Stuart Pimm of Duke University, Thomas Lacher of Conservation International, John Kostyack of National Wildlife Federation, and Helen Fox of World Wildlife Federation, all echoed each other.

There were the obligatory attacks on President Bush: “The Bush administration has unleashed an unprecedented attack on species protection.” (Kostyack) And there were the routine forecasts of doom: “We’re going to lose a large portion of the world’s biodiversity in the next 20-30 years.” (Pimm)

But on the matter of actual evidence, the response of both panelists and audience members was comical. For instance, during the question period, a journalist said, “I do a lot of public speaking and I live in fear that someone will ask me ‘How do we know about mass extinction?’” (Which raises the obvious question of why she would be speaking in the first place if she had no data). Kunich responded, “The evidence is more anecdotal. You don’t see huge numbers of species tallied off every week on the nightly news. You know indirectly through habitat destruction.”

But then in subsequent comments Kunich contradicted himself: “We know so little about the 1.7 million species we’ve given names to. We have almost no basis for saying what happens when you extract one piece of the puzzle.”

On the good news front, Lacher stated: “We’ve exceeded our target of 10 percent of the world’s terrestrial surface being in protected status; the most recent analysis shows 11.5 percent.” But lest anyone get complacent, he immediately noted, “We’d love to get 20 percent and even that’s not enough.”

That comment affirmed the stereotype of left-wing environmentalists, which is that for them there’s no such thing as locking up enough of other people’s land.

Grade: Panel balance, F. Discussion balance, F.

Climate Change: What Goes Up…
Could Go Down

This was a panel about carbon sequestration. The speakers were Antonia Herzog of NRDC, Scott Klara of the US Department of Energy, and Edward Rubin, a CMU professor. The speeches themselves were adequate and the political balance appropriate. The most memorable moment came during a discussion of the regulation of carbon dioxide. When various audience members got too worked up about this alleged problem, Mr. Klara cautiously reminded them that CO2 is not actually a pollutant; we are attempting to sequester it simply as a preventive measure.

Before he had even completed his sentence, the audience started jeering. An editor from Environmental Science and Technology was sitting next to me and could not restrain himself. He shouted, “Stop Scott, stop Scott” as Mr. Klara was trying to finish his statement.

Panel balance: B. Discussion balance, D.

After the Conference:
The Kennedy Reaction Continues

An interesting postscript was the passionate debate that took place on the SEJ listserv in the week following the event regarding the different ways Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Mike Leavitt were treated. For a while there were hundreds of daily posts on the listserv—one journalist described it as “almost a religious catharsis.”

Seth Borenstein of Knight-Ridder Newspapers was one of the first people to post and he later summarized his views: “I don’t think any reporter should give any standing ovation to anybody. But I think the standing ovation for Kennedy was a reflection of the audience composition, which included nonmembers. My concern is that these actions tar those of us in journalism who try and walk a strict line of fairness.”

Dan Fagin of Newsday, SEJ immediate past president, knew that the Kennedy audience included many non-journalists including a contingent of students from Donora, and was not surprised at the reaction. He said “I don’t do standing ovations for speakers, but then I don’t try and impose my beliefs on others. There is no rigid code of conduct for SEJ members.”

A reporter for a prominent east coast daily told me that she was sitting with some friends and they were appalled when everyone in front of them stood up and started cheering wildly for Kennedy. She indicated to a colleague that if this behavior continued at SEJ conferences she would consider not attending.

However, putting aside the ovations for both Kennedy and Teresa Heinz Kerry, the hostility to President Bush was palpable throughout the conference, whether on bus rides, at meals, or in small-group discussions. One journalist told me that he had been an SEJ member for 13 years but that this was his first time actually attending the conference. He said, “I was surprised at how many attendees wore their politics on their sleeves.”

He was referring not just to the applause factor but to the nature of questioning at the sessions. He continued, “Many people posed questions from the perspective of being pro-green. These people aren’t being objective; they seem like advocates, not journalists.”

There are at least two steps that could be taken to address this situation. One would be better participation by free-market think tanks in the trade show at SEJ conferences. The exhibitor booths are dominated by industrial trade associations, governmental agencies, and left-wing activist groups. There is virtually no presence from groups such as the Cato Institute, PERC, Reason Public Policy Institute or the Heartland Institute. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is probably the only consistent exhibitor at the trade shows representing a free-market perspective. These groups have always been invited; now it’s time to get into the ring.

A second step would be a specific track of workshops at next year’s conference on free-market environmentalism. Journalists need both an overview about the philosophy, as well as case studies on specific environmental problems, such as species protection, transportation, climate change and urban growth management. Such panels would go a long way towards promoting intellectual diversity.

Sidebar: Oops, There It Is
Borenstein on Bias

In an item titled “Rousing ovation for Kennedy taints even those who sat” Seth Borenstein, a national correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers in Washington D.C., takes his fellow journalists to task for their behavior at the recent Society for Environmental Journalists conference. The item ran in the Winter 2004 SE Journal under SEJ News.

Says Borenstein, “I wanted to sink deep into the padded seats in the auditorium at the Carnegie Museum and disappear out of embarrassment…Journalists were giving a rousing standing ovation—complete with war whoops—for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The night before Teresa Heinz Kerry got a similar ovation.

“How could we?”

Credit Borenstein for his adherence to his journalism ethics and duties. “Number one on any ethical list has to be objectivity. Our duty is to remain OBJECTIVE, non-partisan reporters…When I cover an event, I don’t applaud for anybody,” writes Borenstein.

He is clear in his description of the event and the inappropriate behavior of fellow journalists in attendance. And forgive Borenstein, a seasoned reporter, for remaining hopeful that journalists can set standards in their own ranks, and hopeful too that perhaps not all who clapped were journalists.

Most amusing in the article was Borenstein’s warning to fellow journalists: “The reception to Kennedy (after an insulting, error-prone, exaggeration-laden speech at that) gives ammunition to all those media bashers. They’re out there.

“Last year one of them attended the SEJ conference and wrote a blistering piece…”

Oops, Mr. Borenstein, he was there again. But he’s no media basher—he’s a reporter, just like you, reporting just like you, and he saw exactly what you saw…media bias.

And we think it’s safe to say that had John Charles not reported truthfully about last year’s conference in BrainstormNW, the even more egregious example of media bias at this year’s conference might have gone unnoticed.

Nevertheless, hats off to Borenstein for his courage in constructively criticizing his fellows. The road back from bias will be rough.

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