Slate Misrepresents Environmental Journalism

To dismiss "green journalism" as sensational propaganda is lazy, smug, and contrarian—not really the qualities you want in a media critic. Yet that's the thesis of Jack Shafer's latest "Press Box" column for Slate. The column begins with the casual assertion that environmental reporting is nothing but a type of yellow journalism, and goes on to argue that point with a handful of anecdotes and a lack of rigor.

To begin with, Shafer never explains just what he means when he tosses around the umbrella term "green journalism." There are some pretty substantial differences between, say, Silent Spring, a New Orleans Times-Picayune series on the destruction of Louisiana wetlands, and a New York Times Magazine story on solar-hydrogen-powered homes. They're all the same for Shafer's purpose though, which seems to be finding a sensational hook for a piece that is essentially a memo to his editors about a series Slate began running last year called the "Slate Green Challenge." Shafer is a smart guy, and I doubt he thinks all environmental reporting is so execrable. But it isn't until the very end of his column that he finally hedges his lede, admitting, "I don't mean to suggest all greenies are well-meaning dolts or propagandists." Thanks, Jack.

Part of the problem seems to be that Shafer just doesn't have his facts straight. "Carbon emissions," he speculates, "may indeed be causing harmful climate change, and dramatic reductions by Americans may actually do some good." The second proposition might indeed be debatable, depending on the degree of carbon reductions he's talking about and how far advanced the problem already is. But the first is as close to scientific consensus as it will ever be, certainly close enough to justify taking action to ameliorate the problem. Even many global warming skeptics agree that carbon emissions warm the earth. They just argue that warming isn't necessarily a bad thing, or that emissions only add slightly to a natural phenomenon, or whatever.

Being a media critic often means considering the story behind the story—the way an article is shaped by editorial expectations, time constraints, and the reporting that went into it. Since this story was posted on July 6, it seems reasonable to wonder just when (and where) it was written. Poolside on the Fourth? Dashed off the first day back in the office? Shafer's delivered much better in the past, and I'd be tempted to give him his holiday off if he hadn't gotten the story so spectacularly wrong this time.