"Tampering With Nature," John Stossel's June 29, 2001, special, became a public relations problem for ABC when several parents demanded that interviews with their children be removed from the show, complaining that they had been misled into believing that it was to be an Earth Day special. What missed the media spotlight, however, was that "Tampering With Nature" was part of a five-year right-wing effort to discredit and defund environmental education.
Since 1996, Michael Sanera, a former adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has been going around the country preaching the message that kids in school today are being scared into environmentalism by their teachers. When Stossel decided to do a show on the subject, Sanera was there to help. A group called Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (which serves as a pesticide-industry front group, according to Sheldon Rampton, an author and editor at PR Watch), posted a message from Sanera that read: "I have been contacted by ABC News. A producer for John Stossel is working on a program on environmental education. He needs examples of kids who have been 'scared green' by schools teaching doomsday environmentalism in the classroom. He needs kids and/or parents to appear on camera. I have some examples, but I need more."
An ABC spokesperson said that as soon as they found out about the e-mail, they told Sanera to "stop and desist." John Borowski, a teacher from Portland, responded to the Sanera e-mail posing as an "upset parent" who agreed with Sanera's ideas. Stossel's producers contacted him within days. (They later dropped him out of the interview pool.) Sanera declined to be interviewed.
Sanera's "scared green" message is also the message Stossel used to lead his special. "He [Stossel] started asking leading questions, and it was very clear what he wanted to get," said John Quigley, executive director of Earth Day Los Angeles, who was present for Stossel's interviews with the children. After the interview, some parents contacted the network to withdraw the releases they had signed, and an environmental activist pointed out that Stossel's conduct violated the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, which calls for "special sensitivity when dealing with children." The program ran with the children's faces obscured and their interviews cut, but Stossel talked on camera about why that was done, and he went out on the talk-show circuit to defend his actions, telling Fox's Bill O'Reilly that schoolchildren were being "brainwashed" by their teachers.
Sanera was, until recently, director of the Center for Environmental Education Research at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank whose funders have included the Scaife Foundation, Ford, General Motors and Dow Chemical, and which hosts a website (www.savejohnstossel.com) set up after Stossel came under attack for his story on organic food. Sanera now teaches at a charter school and edits books with Jane Shaw, a senior associate at the Political Economy Research Center, which describes itself as "the center for free market environmentalism." Sanera and Shaw authored the book Facts, Not Fear: A Parents' Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment. Facts, Not Fear bills itself as "the first guidebook to help parents and teachers give their children and students a more balanced, science-based view of the many environmental controversies they encounter." The book, sold on Amazon.com and in bookstores nationwide, is a credible-looking organizing manual that raises questions about environmental issues and environmental textbooks. Common beliefs about rainforests, endangered species and global warming are all challenged. A panel of over 30 "acknowledged experts" reviewed each chapter.
What Facts, Not Fear leaves out is that many of its experts have ties to right-wing corporations and corporate polluters. Fred Seitz and Sallie Baliunas, for example, who review the chapter on ozone, have worked with the George C. Marshall Institute, which is funded by conservative foundations like Bradley and Scaife. M.B. Hocking, another of the experts, formerly worked for Dow Chemical. Donald Stedman has written for Heritage and worked for Ford Motor Company. The book, published by Regnery, also has ties to the religious right. The copyright belongs to the Alabama Family Alliance, part of the Focus on the Family network.
Citizen groups who have begun organizing and sharing information have called into question what Sanera and Shaw mean by balance. Jeff Sellen, co-director of Citizens for Environmental Education in Washington State, was part of one such effort. "The main argument is to return 'balance' to environmental education," Sellen said. "What Sanera wants to do to balance environmental education is to give equal weight to scientific opinions that say global warming is not a problem. Of course, only fringe scientists think that."
Shaw says she and Sanera have reviewed over 130 textbooks and that she thinks the environmental crisis is overexaggerated. "One of the books we reviewed had a visual where New York City was underwater," she said. "They are saying that this will happen in our children's lifetimes." While Shaw thinks global warming is "quite possible," she also thinks that "To say that it is getting warmer does not mean we will have any kind of severe negative problem." She thinks the Stossel broadcast was good and that it "had an impact." "John Stossel wasn't just saying your kids are being mistaught," Shaw said. "He was saying that we as the public misunderstand these issues. We read about them in the paper, and it is very sensational. Newspapers tend to emphasize the scary and the negative."
The Stossel special aired at an opportune moment, just as the reauthorization of the National Environmental Education Act was moving through Congress as part of HR 1, the education reform legislation. The bill had wide bipartisan support, as indicated by its Senate co-sponsors, Republican James Inhofe and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sanera and the Competitve Enterprise Institute actively worked against the legislation. "There were a number of items, letters and things that were written by Sanera and others that were sent directly to Congress," said Rick Wilke, University of Wisconsin distinguished professor of environmental education. In addition, Wilke says, "We were very concerned about the impact of the show."
Wilke's concern was well founded. The legislation was taken out of HR 1.