Cost/benefit Journalism

By Rauber, Paul | Sierra, September-October 1993 | Go to article overview

Cost/benefit Journalism


Rauber, Paul, Sierra


The problem with U.S. environmental policy these days, the nation's newspaper of record has concluded, is that it spends too darn much to save too few human lives. In an extraordinary turnabout showcased in a five-part series this spring, The New York Times lays the blame on U.S. environmentalism, accusing it of "sowing fear and protecting wasteful programs," and of supporting what George Bush's EPA administrator William Reilly called "environmental agenda-setting by episodic panic."

Chief finger-pointer is the Times' environmental reporter, Keith Schneider. "For too long," he said in an interview, journalism has relied on the claims of the environmental groups, particularly the large ones. We need to open the debate to more voices."

The repressed, shut-out voices Schneider is intent on amplifying are those of corporate America. Having found bias in the claims of environmentalists (whose interests Schneider identifies as "public fear and fundraising"), the Times now follows the lead of Procter & Gamble when reporting on disposable diapers (going so far as to reprint propaganda from the maker of Pampers without so much as an acknowledgment), Monsanto when reporting on dioxin, and the Wise Use Movement when reporting on publiclands issues in the West. "Many experts,' writes Schneider, "question the wisdom of spending billions of dollars to protect people from traces of toxic compounds ... [M]any scientists, economists, and Government officials have reached the dismaying conclusion that much of America's environmental program has gone seriously awry."

If something is awry, many other experts have reached the dismaying conclusion that it is the Great Gray Lady herself "It's disappointing and saddening," says former Times reporter Philip Shabecoff, "that The New York Times would use its news columns to stake out its editorial position."

Shabecoff, a veteran of 32 years at the Times, is in a unique position to appraise its lurch toward the boardroom. He spent 14 years at the environmental desk, the last 10 of them as the paper's first full-time correspondent in that field. In 1991, however, he was summarily yanked from his beat.

"One of the things the editors said was that I wrote too much about environmental problems, and not enough about the economic problems that environmentalism was causing," he charges. "They felt my coverage was too pro-environment, but the only example they could give was a story I'd written about dolphins being taken as part of the tuna harvest, where I said the dolphins were 'slaughtered' rather than |killed.'" Instead of accepting exile covering the Internal Revenue Service, Shabecoff quit. He now edits the electronic news service Greenwire.

Replacing Shabecoff was Schneider, a former free-lance writer whose work has appeared in various environmental journals, including this one. In light of his present reporting, his 1984 story for Sierra about the dangers of ocean incineration of hazardous waste now makes ironic reading. For once at the Times, Schneider's appraisal of toxic dangers shifted into sync with those of the editors irked by Shabecoff

Schneider now argues (with the approval, it is assumed, of the publication that gives him the run of its front page) that environmental regulation should not be considered apart from its economic cost. When put to the test, this assumption leads the paper to conclude that programs aimed at cleaning up toxic substances in the environment are mostly a waste of money.

Here's how the logic goes. Schneider calculates total national environmental spending at about $140 billion a year; $100 billion from the private sector, $40 billion from the government. This he balances on the cost/ benefit scale against the contention that "only 1 to 3 percent of all cancers in people are caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment." Even though he later admits that this works out to 5,000 to 15,000 excess cancer deaths a year, the implication is clear that this is an acceptable price of doing business. …

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