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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Earth Day Aftermath

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard joins host Steve Curwood to discuss the lack of media coverage on Earth Day 2000.


CURWOOD: Earth Day's thirtieth anniversary festivities drew millions worldwide from the star-studded event in Washington, D.C., to the first-ever Chinese celebration in Taiwan. But the media coverage was weak. It was upstaged by the Elian Gonzalez story and focused mainly on Earth Day celebrity spokesperson Leonardo diCaprio. Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard joins us now to talk about where the media was looking on Earth Day 2000. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, there was a lot of uproar from the media about Leonardo diCaprio being the Earth Day spokesperson, and then of course his interview on ABC television with President Clinton. Why are all those reporters so upset?

HERTSGAARD: I think that they were upset at the idea that a celebrity and an actor would be interviewing the president, rather than a so-called real journalist. Which is very odd, when you think of the fact that in America right now, so many of our so-called journalists really are little more than celebrities and actors themselves. Sam Donaldson, for example, big celebrity, took great umbrage at this. And it's not as if these mainstream journalists are so concerned or knowledgeable about environmental issues. Just look at the coverage that the Washington Post did on Earth Day morning. They covered Vice President Gore's speech in Michigan the day before, his first big environmental speech. Look in the second paragraph of that story and you will see a howler of a mistake, where they write that, quote, "Gore and other environmentalists argue that the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has created a hole in the ozone layer," unquote. Now, that is about like saying that a law that's passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives must go to the chief justice of the United States, rather than the president, for signing. Because of course, the release of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, is responsible for global warming, not the ozone hole. That story went out to 700 papers on the Washington Post syndication service. It got caught at the copy desk in the Washington Post itself, but 700 other newspapers picked it up, including my home paper here, the San Francisco Chronicle.

CURWOOD: There were a number of great celebrations of Earth Day all around the world. In this country, it seemed to me that the whole thing kind of got eclipsed by the Elian Gonzalez story, though.

HERTSGAARD: In this country, exactly, Steve. I'd emphasize that. It's hard for Americans to know what happened on Earth Day anyplace else in the world because the coverage here was so poor. In the Washington Post, again, for example, they covered that story on the inside pages. It didn't even make the front of the news section. CBS News dropped an entire special that they had planned on Earth Day for that evening in order to do all Elian all the time. Now of course, the U.S. government raid to retrieve Elian Gonzalez is a big story. No one's denying that. But the way that it blew out all of the other coverage, I think, is indicative of what has happened to the media in the last ten years. This sort of blockbuster mentality that any story that's big you put all your resources on, and especially a story like this. This was a soap opera story, the kind of story that the media has loved ever since O.J. Simpson. And as a result, you had a lot of coverage of Elian and almost no coverage of these other events on Earth Day, unless by the way, you looked on the BBC or the Toronto Globe and Mail. This was an American phenomenon that the Elian Gonzalez story got so much play.

CURWOOD: On Earth Day, it was interesting to see that Al Gore, Vice President Al Gore showed up at the Mall in Washington. That presidential contender Ralph Nader was in San Francisco and Berkeley, but no George Bush anywhere. Why do you suppose that was?

HERTSGAARD: Well, he certainly was asked. Denis Hayes, the organizer of Earth Day, gave Mr. Bush an invitation and he declined it. Hard to know why. It would seem a poor tactical maneuver.

CURWOOD: And speaking of Ralph Nader, looks like he might be picking up some significant endorsements along the way. What have you heard?

HERTSGAARD: Publicly it's already been announced that the Friends of the Earth organization is considering endorsing Nader. You remember, of course, Steve, that they endorsed Bill Bradley last fall over Vice President Gore, gave Mr. Gore a real wake-up call. But more importantly, I interviewed Nader in San Francisco, and he told me directly that Carl Pope, the head of the Sierra Club, had said to him that the Sierra Club might endorse both Nader and Gore. I called the Sierra Club about that and they are noncommittal. They say that's possible, we're not going to decide until July. But that would be a pretty big deal for Nader, because Sierra Club is much bigger and much richer than the Friends of the Earth. And if you had both of those groups endorsing you, that's a pretty strong foundation to run your campaign on.

CURWOOD: How would this affect the race? I'm thinking particularly of Mr. Gore, who reissued his book Earth in the Balance on Earth Day. He'd like to have this environmental turf.

HERTSGAARD: Absolutely, Steve. I think it's a real problem for Gore. If Nader starts to peel away those votes of the environmental world, and even more importantly, if Nader attracts the environmental activists, that's where it's really going to hurt Gore. He needs those people. He needs his signature issue to be strong on that, especially if he's looking at a close race with George W. Bush. So I would say that if Nader keeps going in this direction, it's going to push Gore to be more outspoken and more aggressive in his own environmental advocacy.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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