Even after 18 years working in Seattle environmental politics, I am still amazed how often reporters celebrate eco-terrorists. Or, as one Seattle-area environmental activist called them, “eco-patriots.”
Those were the words of Paul Kennard in the spring of 2001 after eco-terrorists firebombed the University of Washington. The arsonists claimed the university was studying genetic engineering (it wasn’t) and deserved to be attacked. Writing to local newspapers, Kennard was upset that the firebombers were called “eco-terrorists.” This, he argued, did not reflect the “broader perspective of the issues.” He felt the term “eco-patriots” was more appropriate.
Who would trust the words of someone who can’t distinguish between firebombers and patriots? The National Park Service, for one. The Seattle Times for another.
Kennard is, and has been for many years, a geomorphologist working at the Mount Rainier National Park. What’s more, the Seattle Times considers him a credible source on climate change, citing him in a recent piece on shrinking glaciers.
That isn’t the first time reporters have ignored Kennard’s extremism. At the time of the U.W. firebombing, I was working for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Having lunch with a reporter who had quoted Kennard favorably, I pointed out Kennard’s support for the zealots. The reporter casually replied, “Well, I have some concerns about genetic engineering too.” With that glib dismissal, the reporter equated apologizing for firebombers with having “concerns.”
These memories came back to me recently when the New York Times Magazine published a long piece about a group of environmental activists who face prison time for sabotaging an oil pipeline. The headline quotes one activist bravely declaring, “I’m just more afraid of climate change than I am of prison.”
The language used by the reporter is wistful. Describing the moment Michael Foster prepared to shut off the pipeline, the Times reporter gushes, “What Foster didn’t expect was that once he’d broken through the chain-link fence, he would be briefly overwhelmed by the magnitude of what he was about to do. He faced away from the biting wind, and allowed himself to cry.”
The photo accompanying the piece shows five members of the group standing next to a creek, looking off into the distance like an indie-rock album cover. In many ways, the media treat them like rock stars.
Public policy is boring and slow. It is aggravating to watch the sausage-making of Congress and legislatures. Bold activists, however, who take action, risking prison time for a larger ideal, are appealing. It is easy to wash away questions about their behavior with the language of fear — they are more afraid of climate change, after all, than of prison. When questions arise, they simply demonize opponents to distract from their own transgressions.
There are many examples of the media’s romance with environmental extremism. When eco-terrorists firebombed a Seattle-area neighborhood (we like to firebomb stuff in Seattle), the Seattle Times environmental reporter wrote a front-page piece examining the attackers’ spray-painted claim that “McMansions r not green.” This is exactly what the arsonists wanted: media attention that treats their extremist views thoughtfully. When I pointed this out, the reporter responded that the firebombing was a “teachable moment” regarding urban growth.
She wasn’t the only one. A columnist for the Seattle Stranger, a weekly newspaper, asked outright, “Are the Terrorists Right?” Her answer was yes. Firebomb some buildings and we’ll write stories that, while containing the requisite weasel words about not condoning violence, treat firebombers as otherwise thoughtful scholars.
Ironically, environmental reporters often wonder why there is so much division on environmental policy. Gallup found that climate change was the most divisive issue facing voters today — not gun control or abortion. When reporters treat firebombings as a conversation starter rather than a crime, can anyone be surprised that conservatives believe environmental policy to be the domain of the slightly deranged?
When reporters treat firebombings as a conversation starter rather than a crime, can anyone be surprised that conservatives believe environmental policy to be the domain of the slightly deranged?
Sadly, this trend is unlikely to change. Environmental reporters are often activists themselves. When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer laid off most of its staff, its chief environmental reporter, Lisa Stiffler, went to work immediately for a local environmental group.
Spend a week following the Society of Environmental Journalists on Twitter and see for yourself. SEJ routinely tweets comments from left-wing activists calling on people to “raise the alarm” about Donald Trump’s budget. On the same day that SEJ retweeted articles from self-identified left-wing outlets such as ThinkProgress, the Sierra Club, and Mother Jones, it also tweeted a warning that “science deniers” had a “toehold in the UK’s mainstream right-wing press.” It takes remarkable blindness to feign concern about right-wing media bias when you act as a conduit for the Left.
Media bias is nothing new. What is disturbing is that previous boundaries, such as refusing to use vandalism and arson as an excuse to talk about public policy, are crossed without even a glib recognition.
Ultimately I try to remind myself that while extreme bias is a problem, it is also an opportunity. Despite the best efforts of some in the media, the great majority of the public sees firebombings and activists for what they truly are. The opportunity conservatives have is that as the Left becomes more extreme, it leaves a vacuum we can fill with reasonable environmental policy. Because, frankly, if you want to find a patriot, eco or otherwise, there are a lot of us on the right.