MediaWatch: December 1990

Vol. Four No. 12

Janet Cooke Award: PBS: Planet Panic

Horror-movie scenarios of environmental destruction might have ratings appeal, but why does PBS, which prides itself on being above commercial influence, feel the need to stoop to hype in its documentaries? The ten-part PBS series Race to Save The Planet, which aired from October 7-11 and is continuing to air in reruns, urged viewers to support an "environmental revolution" of drastic government measures or face "enormous calamities in a very short time." For its one-sided campaign for government controls, Race to Save the Planet earns the December Janet Cooke Award.

1) The Problem: Man-kind. Based on the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World reports, a standard text for liberal activists, the series questioned the entire Western political and industrial system. The series' narrator, actor Roy Scheider, began by attacking the Industrial Revolution: "This new way of life brought the world many things: industrial diseases, the drudgery of factory work -- but above all, growth -- growth in wealth and in population, which nearly doubled in the 19th century, crowding into huge new industrial cities. This new urban and industrial world was a powerful threat to the natural world."

For expertise, the series relied on the usual cast of panic prophets, including Worldwatch Institute chief Lester Brown, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, climatologist Steven Schneider and alternative-energy guru Amory Lovins. In Florida, Biologist Larry Harris predicted that "the sea will come up about one foot within the next 25 to 40 years. That means that the edge of the sea we're standing on today will occur ten miles north of here by about the year 2010." Actress Meryl Streep declared: "By the year 2000 -- that's less than 10 years away -- the earth's climate will be warmer than it's been in over 100,000 years. If we don't do something, there'll be enormous calamities in a very short time." No scientist appeared to challenge these experts or to point out they predicted an ice age by the late 1970s.

The series dated the genesis of the environmental revolution to Earth Day 1970, which Scheider claimed "appealed to everyone," an allegation the writers backed up with footage of children singing "Oil drops are falling on their heads/And that surely means that soon they will all be dead." What was Earth Day's lesson? Organizer Denis Hayes explained: "We began to recognize our finiteness, and ultimately our vulnerability, that this was really something we as a species could adversely affect in a way that could in fact bring about planetary death."

The producers saw only an either/or relationship between industry and the environment. For example, Scheider stated: "The seals died for this: the luxurious lifestyle which consumes the endless products of modern industry -- the lifestyle of affluence...The consumer lifestyle stretches around the world, but wherever it's found, the environment always pays the price."

The series indicted the entire human race. Streep mourned "plants and animals which have been forced to retreat into ever smaller patches of wilderness in the face of our relentless march across the globe." Scheider agreed: "Now just one of these species -- humans -- is putting the clock back...Where human beings once coexisted with nature, now we have come to master and destroy it."

Larry Harris only saw humans as an impediment when the floods cover Florida: "Animal species, of course, would normally be able to move up the peninsula, if there weren't human habitation and human blockage. But with all the interstate highways and the chain-link fences and barking dogs and golf courses, the wildlife will be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea."

The series ignored all of the good things man has gained from technology. One series expert, Paul Papenek, even queried: "Do we have to have chrome, or petrochemicals, or benzene, or other chemicals in the environment? Instead of just saying 'Well, do more filters on the smokestack do the job for us? we really can take a step backward and day, 'Well in the first place, why are we making these things?...We're way beyond science at that point, we're into public policy." Scheider praised "A growing movement [which] has begun to demonstrate for better environmental enforcement and abandonment of destructive development projects -- dams, highways, and factories."

Scheider ended the first hour with a love letter to the caveman: "The environmental revolution had arrived, a revolution as powerful as the one which had transformed our hunting-gathering ancestors, who lived so lightly on the earth, into settled farmers, who used the earth more heavily, who began to find environmental limits, and whose numbers grew and grew until the industrial revolution; more growth, more people, the earth used more heavily still." He warned of the end of the world, declaring "Only the environmental revolution can save the planet from this fate."

2) The Solution: Government Controls. The series regularly advocated statist solutions, including the environmentalist's favorite: energy taxes. "Today, the prices of coal, oil, and gas are misleadingly low, because they don't include the potential cost of damage from global warming," Scheider declared, "But adding in this cost through a tax on fossil fuels would encourage conservation, and also give an economic advantage to alternative fuels which don't harm the atmosphere." Scheider advocated subsidized alternative fuels and compulsory car-pooling.

The series praised tired socialist models such as Sweden ("Life in Sweden may be the best that the modern world has to offer") and Zimbabwe. Streep pushed the "suggestion that money spent on defense could in the future go to help the environment....Maybe it's possible for us to think of national security in a new way, as no longer a question of military security but instead, of the security of a healthy environment."

When asked why PBS based a series on Worldwatch Institute reports, Senior Producer Linda Harrar explained to MediaWatch "When I was looking for an idea for Nova back in '84, I read the book State of the World. It did give me a view of the world which I had not had before and that was really the springboard for the proposal and indeed was the title of the series...for some time."

Why not air scientists who have challenged drastic environmental scenarios? Harrar claimed "We made no efforts to avoid particular points of view," but when MediaWatch suggested the series didn't include them at all, Harrar conceded: "I think that could come through...You could quarrel, certainly, with...what we chose to focus on." But Harrar defended the exclusion of balancing voices: "There are ways of confusing the public in putting ping-pong matches onto television which we did not particularly think was useful." Harrar repeated the point later: "I'm not sure it's useful to include every single point of view simply in order to cover every base because you can come up with a program that's virtually impossible for the audience to sort out." So: PBS thinks the public isn't smart enough to consider conflicting arguments in a policy debate which could change their entire way of life. Maybe during the next pledge drive, local PBS stations could use the slogan "PBS: You pay, we tell you what to think."