Business/Finance

See no pollution, hear no pollution, speak no pollution — so no pollution, right?

Once again, the Discovery Channel is about to amaze its viewers with another “isn’t Nature wonderful” spectacular. The basic cable channel brought us “Planet Earth,” billed as “See the wonders of Planet Earth … from jungles to deep oceans, discover our stunning planet.” Remember “Blue Planet“? That series was an “epic journey” that served as “the definitive natural history of the world’s oceans, covering everything from the exotic spectacle of the coral reefs to the mysterious black depths of the ocean floor.”

In March, the Discovery Channel, teaming again with the BBC, plans to present “Life” — a “breathtaking ten-part blockbuster [that] brings you 130 incredible stories from the frontiers of the natural world … This is evolution in action.”

And again, viewers will be astonished by the remarkable videography done by the best pros in the world under arduous, even dangerous conditions. Viewers will park themselves in their Barcaloungers, appropriate beverage and salsa and chips in hand, and revel in the breadth and depth of the series. But are these series the most accurate portrayals of the state of the natural world? And do they desensitize us to reality?

Yet again, television will fail to remind viewers that the vast pollution and environmental degradation brought on by the needs and wants of those viewers and the industries that satisfy them are threatening to destroy much of what the viewers see.

In fact, viewers are hard-pressed to find videography of pollution anywhere on scheduled series on basic cable. Out of sight, out of mind. Check the lists of programming at National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. At least Nat Geo offers “Six Degrees,” but it’s a what-if, worst-case, disaster scenario special.

Pollution is ugly. It does not make for breathtaking television. Nor is televising the pollution of air, land, and water profitable. Corporate sponsors do not support programming of a topic whose root cause could often be laid at the sponsors’ doorstep.

In 1970, I was hired as an environmental writer, three weeks before the first Earth Day. Six weeks later, after the blush had faded from the environmental rose, the paper “promoted” me to full-time sports writer. But on every five-year anniversary of Earth Day, editors placed Denny back on the green beat for a few weeks. In those days, the green movement prompted newspapers to undertake science and environmental pages — and full pages at that. But such commitment to the cause faded, like my paper’s dedication to the environmental beat, because advertisers don’t like stories that paint consumerism as a root of all environmental evil.

As a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists for two decades, I’ve seen first-hand the decline of dedicated science and environment pages in the nation’s newspapers. Christine Russell, a former science reporter for The Washington Post and the president of the U.S. Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, lamented that those dedicated pages peaked at 95 in 1989 and dropped to 34 in 2005 — and they’re still declining. I’ve watched the number of members of SEJ working in print environmental journalism decline as members lost jobs or beats.

Every editor I ever asked about the fate of his or her paper’s science or environmental page said the same thing: “No advertiser support.” What companies would want to put their ads for airline travel deals or SUVs on a page dedicated to depicting accurately the consequences of both purchases?

We know, of course, that corporatists can’t control all breaking environmental news — especially if good video can be had. Spill oil on a highly visible beach, dump toxins into a river and kill thousands of fish, let a dam holding 2.6 million cubic yards of toxic coal sludge break and inundate hundreds of acres, and by god you’ve got a public relations environmental disaster guaranteed to sit on the front page or lead the nightly news … for how long? Modern news media generally have the same attention span as their corporate owners — short.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote “Unpopular Science” for The Nation. In that well-argued piece, they lamented the need for more, not less, critical writing about science and scientific issues, such as the environment:

We live in a time of pathbreaking advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology, of private spaceflight and personalized medicine, amid a climate and energy crisis, in a world made more dangerous by biological and nuclear terror threats and global pandemics. Meanwhile, advances in neuroscience are calling into question who we are, whether our identities and thought processes can be reduced to purely physical phenomena, whether we actually have free will. The media ought to be bursting with this stuff. Yet precisely the opposite is happening: even in places where you’d expect it to hold out the longest, science journalism is declining.

When Ted Turner was the financial muscle behind CNN and TBS, its environmental unit, led by Teya Ryan, Barbara Pyle, and Peter Dykstra, produced ground-breaking coverage. But that legendary green DNA has evaporated from CNN. Two years ago CNN whacked “its entire science, technology, and environment news staff, including Miles O’Brien, its chief technology and environment correspondent, as well as six executive producers.” Here’s the explanation from CNN’s flack:

We want to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a stand alone unit. Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is being offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is produced by the Anderson Cooper 360 program, there is no need for a separate unit.

Sure. More free-diving with great white sharks by the Silver Fox himself. O’Brien was a first-rate science reporter; Cooper isn’t. CNN has long since lost its moral compass regarding editorial decisions about content.

The New York Times still has its Tuesday “Science Times” page, but it’s an island in an uncovered ocean of environmental issues. So where does the public turn for science and environmental coverage if traditional media are bailing out? NPR’s Ira Flatow suggests that blogs and social media are filling the void. Perhaps, but where are they? Can viewers just point the remote and click and get environmental and science news they need? How is the credibility of online-only environmental and science writing unsupported by traditional media assessed? By whom?

Corporations that pollute without consequence the public goods of air, water, and land are no doubt pleased by the absence of serious, frequent, and thorough environmental and science news coverage. Between the newspaper industry’s self-implosion and the long-term lack of corporate advertising support for news and programming that depicts Nature as Soiled rather than Nature as Discoveryized, pollution will continue unabated.

Throw in deregulation. Throw in underfunding of federal and state staff needed to detect, correct, and regulate air, water, and land pollution. And throw in the Supreme Court of the United States:

Thousands of the nation’s largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act’s reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law, according to interviews with regulators.

In their Times story, part of a series called “Toxic Waters,” reporters Charles Duhigg and Janet Roberts trace the demise of the definition of “navigable waters” in the Clean Water Act. Supreme Court decisions may lead to exclusion of waters protected by Act from which 117 million Americans obtain drinking water. The pollution threat to water supplies is real — and ought to be far more compelling as a series topic for Nat Geo and the Discovery Channel. According to Duhigg and Roberts:

Companies that have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters are not being prosecuted, according to Environmental Protection Agency regulators working on those cases, who estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years. [emphasis added]

Try to keep this in mind as you park your fanny on that Barcalounger to watch the first episode of “Life” next month.

Ponder, too, the sources of the water and crops used to make that appropriate beverage and
your salsa and chips. Still taste good?

6 replies »

  1. Every year, that movie Idiocracy (remember all that garbage?) seems less and less broad a caricature of American society than it might have seemed on first viewing.

  2. That might be a tad unfair on the BBC. I’ve recently watched Life and, while certainly not as “preachy” as its immediate predecessor, Nature’s Great Events, it shares much of the same ethos. And the Beeb doesn’t shy away from discussing polution and human impact on the planet. A more recent documentary series called How Earth Made Us dedicated its entire final episode to how we are now “making” the earth, from the garbage swirl in the mid-Atlantic, to a mud volcano in Indonesia caused by drilling-for-oil gone wrong.

    What one chooses to take away from these series can be selective, but don’t dare say “It does not make for breathtaking television.” It really actually does….

  3. I grow cynicaler by the minute, Denny. Lately I’ve concluded that at a very basic level journalism in general is fucked because it is not profitable. ENTERTAINMENT is profitable, but not journalism. And enviro-J even less so.

    Since profit is the only logic left in America, console yourself with the thought that we’ll be dead before it gets too bad.

    If I had grandchildren I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep at night, though. I guess it hasn’t occurred to the corp types responsible for the mess that their descendants have to live on what’s left of the planet, huh?

  4. Great read. It’s a catch-22 though. How do you inspire future generations to marvel at nature and motivate them to want to protect it? You do so with vivid, jaw-dropping photography like this. Nature shows that seek to address the impacts of pollution and climate change do so at their own ratings peril. How do you get a slack-jawed populace to eat their vegetables when they’ve forgotten how to chew? How do you get large corporations to air commercials during such shows when they’re often the ones influencing Washington to scuttle investigations?

    I guess what I’m really getting at is that, in a time when people are no longer eating their vegetables, they’re also no longer thinking, critically or creatively. At what point does reporting need to violate its own unpublished tenet of non-interference and start suggesting courses of action to prod people into doing their duties as citizens of the Earth?

    If you really want to engage the heartland in the climate change/pollution discussion, tell them that climate change will push the arable land belts closer to the poles. Tell them the former Soviet Union has more of such land. Hint that it’s an old, cold war Communist plot and then just sit back and watch America roll up its sleeves.

  5. I really loved this piece. Dr. Denny is right on. I was wondering if anyone is aggregating the local coverage of pollution/toxin stories. Admittedly, there is no national narrative. But are any organizations or bloggers aggregating the local stories? Maybe the story is being told — but in tiny little pieces.

  6. But, but…pollution is an external cost, so we can safely ignore it. I want a new phone and a new car and a new TV and plastic bags to hold all of them. I certainly don’t want to conclude that my actions have consequences or contemplate those consequences. Cradle me in the soft corporate bosom of Madison Avenue. Tell me what i want to here…that sociopathic Randianism will make us all healthy, wealthy and wise.

    Just do not confront me with the unavoidable reality that what we put into the world we will eventually eat, drink or breathe.

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