Moving from a Backwater Story to a Front-Page Beat: From Homeland Security to Economic Growth, Energy Issues Weave Their Way into Coverage as Renewable Energy Sparks New Controversies

By Flattau, Edward | Nieman Reports, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Moving from a Backwater Story to a Front-Page Beat: From Homeland Security to Economic Growth, Energy Issues Weave Their Way into Coverage as Renewable Energy Sparks New Controversies


Flattau, Edward, Nieman Reports


Prior to the first official Earth Day on April 22, 1970, what news coverage there was of energy issues consisted primarily of technical analyses of industrial processes and stories about rate adjustments. These stories were not attractive fare for general assignment reporters, who usually lacked the necessary technical expertise to effortlessly translate the complex into the comprehensible, much less make it scintillating reading. Moreover, few journalists had either the motivation or time to acquire the know-how this assignment would require. The stories usually had little impact, even when accurate, given that such articles often seemed better suited for geologists, chemists, engineers and statisticians than John Q. Public.

During those days, an endless supply of cheap energy was taken for granted by Americans, so there didn't seem much raw material for general-interest stories about energy-related issues in daily newspapers. Fuel sticker shock was reserved for those who ventured beyond the borders of the United States.

But in the 1970's, it became increasingly evident that inexpensive energy might not be as infinite as we had originally thought. The 1973 Arab oil embargo was the first jolt. It was followed by the late renowned geophysicist M. King Hubbert's well publicized projections of oil deposits' finite nature. The "net energy" hypotheses of University of Florida ecology Professor Howard T. Odum--that it takes energy to produce energy--created additional trauma. Odum's deceptively simple, yet revolutionary, premise can be illustrated as follows: If nine gallons of fuel are required to operate an industrial process that produces 10 gallons of finished product, then only one (not 10) gallon of new fuel have, in effect, entered the marketplace.

Newspapers Reject His Energy Message

In a six-part series of columns I wrote in the final months of 1973, I explored potential ramifications of Odum's far-reaching theory. My reward for shining a spotlight on energy, specifically on Odum's perspicacity, was that 13 newspapers--representing approximately one-third of my clientele at the time--cancelled my nationally syndicated environmental column. Such a simultaneous cancellation was highly unusual, and even though these news organizations wouldn't directly say so, I knew their response was in reaction to this series.

What did they find so threatening about the topic of net energy? Most likely it was the suggestion of an end to the cheap, plentiful supply of energy that fueled America's great prosperity in the second half of the 20th century. Such a thought raised the prospect of some energy shortages, higher prices, and at least a temporary downturn in the economy at a later date. In this series of columns, I examined net energy's implications for lifestyle change, stressing the pressures to end conspicuous consumption. Continuing in that vein, I wrote of the need for us to put greater emphasis on recycling and reuse of materials. From the newspapers' perspective, all these changes raised the specter of a decline in advertising revenues.

Net energy's ramifications for agriculture and transportation were also significant. Our nation's farmers were among the most energy inefficient food producers in the world because of their heavy use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. This, too, was not something newspapers wanted to hear, especially those located in the farm belt. Net energy's lesson for transportation was greater emphasis on "people energy" in the forms of walking and biking, a switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles, and increased use of public transit. The message undoubtedly rankled those newspapers that relied on highly profitable automobile advertising supplements.

Odum argued that products should be priced by how much energy was needed to make them, not by some contrived dollars and cents measure. I guess my temerity at treating such a thought seriously was enough for some editors to relegate me to the loony bin. …

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Moving from a Backwater Story to a Front-Page Beat: From Homeland Security to Economic Growth, Energy Issues Weave Their Way into Coverage as Renewable Energy Sparks New Controversies
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