The environment was very much a hot topic when I was reassigned to the Washington bureau of The New York Times in 1970, after spending most of the 1960’s abroad as a correspondent in Europe and Asia. Earth Day had been celebrated—if “celebrated” is the right word to describe the deep unease of the millions of demonstrators over the deterioration of their habitat—only a few months before. Insults to the environment such as a chemical-laden river bursting into flame, killer smogs, contaminated drinking water, beaches fouled by raw sewage, rusting drums of toxic liquids leaking into the countryside, and litter, litter everywhere, were regularly in the news. President Nixon had just created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order and Congress, in an astonishing burst of legislative energy, was beginning to churn out a series of landmark laws to safeguard the air, water, land and human health.
I’d long had a strong if uninformed interest in open space and pollution issues. When I arrived in Washington I asked to be assigned to cover the environment. The bureau chief said, “No.” Gladwin Hill was already writing about the environment from the Times’ Los Angeles bureau, he pointed out. Besides, he said, the subject was not important enough to warrant the fulltime attention of a Washington reporter. Never mind that Washington was now the epicenter of the national and, indeed, global effort to protect the environment.
In the early 1970’s, the environment was still not an established beat. Publishers and senior editors were not familiar with the subject and were uncomfortable with it. Only a few news organizations had assigned reporters to give much of their time to these issues. John Oakes, who later became editor of the Times’ editorial page, had started writing a column on environmental issues for the Times in the 1950’s—in the Sunday travel section, of all places! Only a handful of journalists were writing regularly on this topic, among them Robert Cahn of The Christian Science Monitor, Tom Harris of The Sacramento Bee, Casey Bukro of the Chicago Tribune, Paul MacClennan of The Buffalo News, and Ed Flattau, a syndicated columnist. Luther Carter addressed the issues in the journal Science and, in 1961, Gershon Fishbein had founded the Environmental Health Newsletter.
I was assigned instead to cover labor and the national economy and then the White House during the last few months of Richard Nixon’s presidency and throughout Gerald Ford’s administration. When I finished that fascinating assignment, the bureau chief, a new one, asked me what I would like to do next. “Cover the environment,” I told him. Okay, he said, but that wouldn’t require all my time. Why don’t I also write about other domestic issues including labor, consumer affairs, and health policy at the same time? It was not until Ronald Reagan became President and turned the environment into a major political story by seeking to roll back environmental laws and regulations and turn public lands and resources over to commercial interests that I was finally given permission to devote myself exclusively to this coverage.
Learning the Environment Beat
I spent 14 years reporting on the environment for the Times, a period I found to be the richest and most rewarding of my 32 years with the paper. Being a foreign correspondent and covering the White House, especially during the endgame of the Watergate fiasco, had been exciting and a lot of fun. But nothing was as intellectually engaging as learning, reporting and writing about the broad panoply of subjects and issues that comprise the environmental beat.
There was a lot to learn. If covered properly, the environment encompasses an astonishing range of subjects. I had to give myself crash courses in environmental science and environmental law and get to know the workings of the government departments and agencies that administered the laws. I had to become acquainted with the nongovernmental environmental groups and how they functioned and with the lobbying groups that spoke for business and industry in the often bitter and prolonged battles over environmental policy. Only after I plunged into the job did I begin to understand how much policy was intertwined with politics and economics and with ideology and broad social issues such as race and poverty. I knew virtually nothing about the history of environmentalism, and there was little in the literature to teach me—which was one of the reasons I undertook to write “A Fierce Green Fire,” a book on the history of American environmentalism.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the environment gradually became recognized as a legitimate subject for media coverage, both at the Times and in the industry generally. By the end of the 1990’s, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), a group created at the beginning of that decade to promote higher standards for and visibility of environmental reporting, had more than 1,000 members. For a time, at least, most major news organizations, including the television networks, had at least one full-time environmental reporter. Occasionally, as during the heat wave of 1988 when global warming emerged as a (forgive me) hot button issue, or during the Earth Summit on environment and development in Rio, environmental stories could dominate several news cycles.
Experiencing the Beat
Media managers were and, I think, still are ambivalent about environmental stories and their claim on the news hole. Unlike the assiduity with which every twist and turn of news about politics, economics, business, sports and the arts is given space or air in the media, environmental stories have to make a special claim of significance to be given consideration for inclusion in the report of many news outlets, then including the Times. Even when they do run, such stories are often treated negligently. When in 1979 I wrote my first story describing scientific findings about the imminence of global warming, the piece was held for several weeks and, when it finally did appear, it was on page 48 in the Saturday paper, about as deeply as a Times’ story can be buried.
The prevailing response to environmental stories among some of my editors was “What, another story about the end of the world, Shabecoff? We carried a story about the end of the world a month ago.”
In time I found, to my sorrow, that the misplaced suspicion some editors have of environmental stories hung over their views about environmental reporters as well. Toward the end of the 1980’s, I began to hear complaints about my coverage from editors, most of it from the national news editor, whose experience before her promotion to that job had chiefly been in business journalism. I was told I had grown too close to my sources in the environmental movement and that my reporting focused too much on threats to the environment. The Washington bureau chief advised me that “New York” felt I was writing too much about how economic activity was harming the environment and not enough about how the cost of environmental regulation was harming the economy. Funny, when I covered the national economy, nobody ever criticized me for not writing about how economic activity was harming the environment. On my previous reporting assignments, I’d been entrusted with some of the paper’s most important and sensitive beats; now my same approach to reporting was questioned.
Leaving the Beat
I was soon taken off the environmental beat and assigned to cover the IRS. I quit the Times shortly thereafter (officially I retired) to found and publish Greenwire, an online daily digest of environmental news. At the time, I thought what I’d experienced as an environmental reporter had been unique. But at the first national SEJ conference, several reporters assured me it wasn’t; what happened to me had also happened to them.
Why is environmental reporting so troublesome to management? I still don’t fully know. Part of the answer might be that the subject is not “traditional news” and media owners and managers are uninformed about and uncomfortable with it. Bill Kovach, who had been a great Times Washington bureau chief, told me that my problem with New York was that my coverage was “ahead of the curve.” I suspect, too, that unhappiness among advertisers to whom environmentalism is anathema is communicated to media marketing executives. Right-wing ideologues, organizations and lobbyists are also highly vocal in criticizing environmental reporting—they certainly were with mine.
Meanwhile, my immediate successor as environmental reporter on the Times duly began writing stories about how some environmental threats were exaggerated and about the alleged toll environmental regulation was taking on the economy. He did not last long, however, and top management of the paper’s newsroom soon changed. The Times, in my opinion, is once again doing a good job of covering the environment—one of the few major news organizations still doing so.
Philip Shabecoff covered the environment from 1977 to 1991 for The New York Times. He then founded Greenwire, an online daily digest of environmental news. He is the author of three books on environmental history and policy. A new edition of his first book, “A Fierce Green Fire,” a history of American environmentalism, will be published by Island Press in 2003.