"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.