SEJ Austin Conference: Impressions
SEJ Austin Conference: Impressions
by Bob Wyss
AUSTIN, TX. -- It's not every conference that invites attendees to bring along a swimsuit and towel. But a number of people attending the Society of Environmental Journalists fifteenth annual conference enthusiastically responded to the invitation.
Swimming in the Pedernales River was only one way those on that Thursday field trip learned about the volatile Texas water rights issues.
The invitation caught the attention of University of Texas President Larry R. Faulkner, who noted it the next day in his welcoming address. Faulkner called the idea "recklessly optimistic." He said the same words apply to his university and to environmental journalists.
Consider for a moment some other observations from a conference held in the foothills of LBJ country and of Tom DeLay (R-Tx), and in the aftermath of storms called Katrina and Rita.
Sharon Friedman has a theory about the Thursday field trips that this year ranged as far as airplane trips to the Houston Ship Channel to half-day jaunts to East Austin. Take one featuring a short ride, advised Friedman, director of the Science and Environmental Writing Program at Lehigh University. The offerings are usually all so good that a shorter spell on the bus translates into more time learning something new about the environment in the field, she reasons.
Another journalism educator recalled in a session on teaching one of the most valuable lessons he learned from Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson. Len Ackland, co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, said he was preparing to begin teaching and he asked Knudson what is the most important characteristic of a good journalist.
Knudson replied, "You have to care."
Juliet Eilperin, a reporter for the Washington Post, said an editor approached her one day and said he had only one problem with her story about the Bush administration's policy on air pollution. The editor wondered if she was not skewing the story in favor of the White House by repeatedly using the phrase the administration had coin used for their new policy: "Clear Skies."
Eilperin replied that she did not recall similar concerns being voiced about other Bush initiatives such as "No Child Left Behind," which set new federal educational policy. But Eilperin eventually conceded that the phrase was politically charged. While it was necessary to identify the Bush policy, the story was reworked so that at times more neutral language was used. The story also clearly identified the phrase as coming from the White House.
She used the anecdote to launch a session designed to examine the Bush administration's environmental record. Often the session instead kept returning to the use of such catchy phrases and the role of the press in using them.
"Whether you talk about language such as 'No Child Left Behind' or 'Clear Skies,' that is the way members of Congress try to influence you in what it is called," said Rep. Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee. "If they use the name, you have to use it at some point."
Pombo added that it takes more than a catchy phase to get legislation through Congress.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, agreed with him, but worried that journalists too often give in to using such names. One favorite of Pope's: the Bush "Healthy Forests" initiative.
"We have to fight the name game," said Pope. Looking at journalists, he said "You don't do a good job of leveling the playing field."
Pat Parenteau, a law professor at the University of Vermont, said he thought the press had been effective a few years ago in "stopping the spin and name changes" offered by James Watt and Anne Gorsuch, Interior Secretary and EPA administrator respectively in the first term of the Reagan administration.
Judy Muller of the University of Southern California and ABC kept the quips running during the opening session. Among her best:
While riding in a taxi on the way to the conference Judy's 78-year old driver said he never watched television news. Why not, she asked him.
His reply: "I have a computer, don't you?"
Judy said she is also getting tired of hearing complaints that many viewers of her age have short attention spans. She is going to start a new website, geezernews.com.
Recently she was trying to interest editors back in New York on a story about the diminishing number of wild salmon in Alaska.
An editor responded: "I don't get it, there is plenty of salmon in my store."
Ed Nesselroad, director of communications for the U.S. Forest Service, was asked by Don Wall of WFAA-TV in Dallas if his answers to reporters change depending on what politician is in office at the time.
"No," said Nesselroad.
"Really?" said Wall, sounding surprised and skeptical.
Nesselroad hesitated and then said again, "No."
He added there are times when he can't please anyone. "No, there is not a political person who tells me what to say. I sometimes get a phone call, but that's after I said something."
Rich Marcogliese, a senior vice president of Valero Energy Corp., began his talk about energy by showing a slide of one of the company's refineries in the San Francisco bay area. The refinery was built in the 1960s by a predecessor company, explained Marcogliese, and at the time it consulted with environmental groups. The consultation resulted in the refineries' unusual colors. The lower tanks, piping, and other equipment is painted yellow, the stacks and higher equipment a forest green. The idea was to make the refinery more environmentally friendly, with the yellow merging with the nearby golden hills of California and the green with the surrounding trees.
This was one conference where those attending were reminded repeatedly of the frailty of human life and tragedies both personal and massive.
Kevin Carmody, a longtime SEJ stalwart and conference chairman until his death this past spring, was mentioned by several speakers. A memorial service for Kevin was held Sunday before the conference closed.
The Opening Plenary had been titled "Is Journalism – Environmental or Other – a Dying Idea?" long before hurricane Katrina struck. The storm served as a useful news peg, beginning with a video of television reports vividly portraying the suffering of hurricane victims and the incompetence of the government response to the hurricane. Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times Picayune joined the panel and told how his 2002 series predicting the destruction from a massive storm was nearly scuttled by editors on the pretext it was only more of "Schleifstein's disaster porn."
Schleifstein is only one of many journalists who sustained personal losses from the storm – his house was flooded when the levees gave way. His voice choked with emotions, Schleifstein took the mike at one point and thanked everyone for "the outpouring of gifts and support" to everyone who had losses.
He added, "That was an antidote that we needed."
Bob Wyss for many of his 28 years at The Providence Journal covered environment and energy. Since 2002, he has been teaching journalism at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs.