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April 26, 2005

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

Last January, I wrote a scathing blog entry attacking the mainstream media coverage of an issue that I believe perfectly illustrates the callousness with which corporate news outlets cover environment and health issues. We had published an in-depth piece by Jeff Shaw about the rocket fuel ingredient perchlorate, looking at the influence private industry and the Pentagon had on a National Academy of Sciences report about "safe" levels of the chemical in drinking water, and also addressing the massive misrepresentation of the NAS's findings by the government and, in turn, the corporate media.

One of the most egregious violators of journalistic integrity cited in that previous entry was the Associated Press. Despite its simply massive resources and responsibility for dictating and driving a huge portion of news in the US and worldwide, the AP has published only a few stories on perchlorate this year. The first two, by Erica Werner in Washington, hit the wire on January 10 and January 11 respectively. Those were whitewashes of the NAS's findings and the backroom dealings that orchestrated its relatively lenient judgments. (I call them "whitewashes" even though the latter story actually appeared to seriously address environmentalists' concerns, precisely because it acknowledged them but really just bowled over the public interest angle, allowing the corporate and military interest angles to dominate.)

Then there was an AP story filed by John Heilprin in February, noting that the EPA had set a new standard, almost 25 times as forgiving as their original rule. But this time the AP opted to gloss over the controversy even more smoothly. We saw that there are a few fringe environmentalists who are upset about the ruling, but we have forgotten about how the analysis the EPA used to draw its conclusion came about as a result of shady deals between industry, the Defense Department and our valiant defenders at the EPA.

Now, in an April 21 AP feature by Erica Werner, the story comes almost all the way back around again. This time, perchlorate is actually made out to be quite frightening. But this version is more of a human interest story about one town's perchlorate concerns, so we are spared any context really addressing the merits of the case against perchlorate, and this time we steer miles clear of any suggestion that corporate and Pentagon manipulation was involved in what public health advocates consider an absurdly permissive EPA standard.

It's difficult to read the Associated Press critically and not wonder how it can be that journalists and editors who so obviously have the capacity and skills required to tell the story right can get it so consistently wrong, time after time. The saddest part is that there are excellent public interest organizations like the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group that are very responsive to media and more than capable of helping reporters get the public interest perspective on complicated stories like these. Perhaps they are not as savvy as the NAS or the EPA, but there is every reason to believe their perspective is more honest and authentic, and thus more important and relevant.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.