A Bias Crisis in Journalism
Shading the Truth Green II - the standing ovation
By John A. Charles, Jr.
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.
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.
Session: Celebrities and the Environment
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.
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.
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.
balance -- A. Discussion balance -- B.
trip to Donora
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
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.
balance, B Discussion balance, B-
Kennedy Takes on President Bush
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.
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.
me as a richly stereotypical moment: the limousine liberal driving off
in his chauffeured vehicle while the commoners took public transit.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
answer was, “Two words: George Bush.” This drew more cheers
from the crowd.
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?”
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.
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
have been the biggest laugh line of the evening, but it seemed to sneak
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.”
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.
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.
Quiet Rebuttal from the Free-Marketeers
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.
N/A. This was not a sanctioned SEJ event. Discussion balance, A
Leavitt Defends the Bush Environmental Record
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
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
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.
balance, B- (see above). Discussion balance, C
Crusading, and Objectivity: What Are the Rules Today?
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
opined that the “facts on global warming are overwhelming and we
have to do something.”
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.”
curt response: “That’s not an appropriate question and it’s
totally irrelevant to this panel discussion.”
Jackson had a different view. He had not attended the Kennedy event but
based on my description said, “That’s wrong.”
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.”
balance, B. Discussion balance: C.
Spread: Older Cities and Sprawl
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.”
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.
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.
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.
this was an informative and lively panel, in spite of its poor design.
balance, D. Discussion balance, A-
Does Anyone Care?
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.”
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.
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
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
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.”
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
balance, F. Discussion balance, F.
Change: What Goes Up…
Could Go Down
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.
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.
B. Discussion balance, D.
The Kennedy Reaction Continues
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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
year one of them attended the SEJ conference and wrote a blistering piece…”
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
hats off to Borenstein for his courage in constructively criticizing his
fellows. The road back from bias will be rough.