Where does The New York Times get its reputation for hard hitting investigative journalism? They must be coasting on James Risen’s reputation because they look like nose-in-the-sand pushovers when it comes to environmental issues.
Earlier this year I looked at their approach to bee reporting and found more spin than substance. I wondered if that was an accident of fate so I decided to do another test case. This time I looked at how they reported the issues surrounding the failing monarch butterfly migration.
Recommendations About How to Help Monarch Butterflies
Unless you’ve been hiding away on the space shuttle this year you probably know that the monarch butterfly migration east of the Rocky Mountains is in danger of collapse.
Over the course of 2014, five stories were published by The New York Times about monarch butterflies. Most off the content involved information about the migration and butterflies in general but two of the reports offered brief recommendations about what we can do to help.
But before they told us what we could do they made sure to set a limit. On February 14, they printed the following statement which turned out to be the key phrase for the whole year’s reporting. Above all else
“We can’t ask farmers to change their habits.”
Yet, isn’t that exactly what people did when faced with ecological catastrophe in the 1930s? Rather than pretending the dust bowl didn’t happen, people learned from the experience and stopped using damaging farming techniques. I have to wonder why change was possible then but unthinkable now.
But let’s go back to the action plan. As ‘the newspaper of record’ with vast resources and access to the wisest experts in the land The New York Times gave the public this advice:
In February: Let’s plant milkweed on roadsides and between fields. Maybe we could offer subsidies for farmers to set aside land that is free of herbicides.
By November the advice became: Gardeners should replace tropical milkweeds with native varieties. Make sure to cut them back in the fall. Oh, and we ought to do more experimental work.
Do you know how much tropical milkweed is grown in this country? I don’t. But I can give a rough estimate of how much land is used for GMO crops. The USDA reported that in 2012:
Corn fields took up 87.4 million acres
Soy fields used 76.1 million acres
Cotton fields used 9.4 million acres.
The total rounds up to 173 million acres of land. Of that land the majority was planted with Bt and Roundup Ready seed. Looking through the window at the lone tropical milkweed plant waving back at me from my backyard I am honestly astonished that anyone could think it poses any threat at all in comparison to all those millions of acres of poisoned land.
It really is a bit like living during a plague year in old London. All around us is a mass die off resulting from infected flea bites. Meanwhile some guy is making a profit from selling the death blankets to survivors. In the middle of all this drama someone else comes along hoping to start a debate in the town square about the relative merits of cotton vs linen bandages for buboes. I know which problem deserves my attention.
The New York Times disagrees with me I guess. They seem to think that plague sellers like Monsanto and Syngenta are the ones who need protection. I can tell because of the way they have portioned out their story real estate. And because they refused to investigate those who are accountable.
Unequal Story Space Regarding the Causes of the Problem
To be fair The New York Times did specifically mention on two occasions that habitat loss is the prime threat to monarch butterflies. But their phrasing of the problem is a bit disingenuous and a kind of deflection. The cause of all that shrinking habitat is known. Whenever I see ‘habitat loss’ in print I prefer to replace the phrase with ‘herbicide use.’
Knowing that they are aware of the main cause for the problem it is jarring to see which of the problem causes receives the most discussion space. (Please refer to the chart below).
The problem of herbicide use (orange) is dwarfed by an issue that at this time is only speculative — that gardeners growing tropical milkweed (blue) might cause harm to monarch butterflies. The two other causes are largely tangential issues since they have been largely solved (deforestation in Mexico) or impossible to control (severe weather). It is noteworthy that no mention is even given to climate change which has been named as a contributing cause by other publications.
These days people spend a lot of time reading stuff on the internet. Actually, they spend a lot of time looking at pictures and skimming text. Small facts buried in a wall of text don’t stand much chance of being remembered or even seen. As with the stories written about bees much of the stuff written about monarch butterflies this year seems designed to divert our attention from actually addressing let alone solving the problem.
News for the One Percent
The New York Times Public Editor recently answered a complaint that the paper is out of touch with most people’s realities and that its stories mainly address the needs of the one percent.
I have to agree with that complaint. If my two little case studies are indeed typical then The New York Times has a policy or culture that looks strongly pro-corporate and anti-environment. Maybe they really do think that the potential loss of the butterfly migration is trivial: merely the cost of doing agribusiness.
I do not think that loss is trivial. I think it is a canary. Who knows what is happening to less glamorous insect populations. And insects are Mother Nature’s favourite animals; if they go the whole life system could collapse.
I heard The New York Times may reinstate the Environment desk. If they do, I doubt it will make much of a difference to their anti-environment reporting agenda.
Though it is a bit early for end of the year predictions I am going to make one anyway. I think that new environment team will primarily look at climate change and mostly continue to ignore the other pressing issues. Even within the issue of climate change I think their focus will likely be on mitigation rather than actually correcting the problem. This means lots of green-washing articles (buying our way out of the problem) and plenty of profiles of people making money while supposedly ‘helping’ us fight carbon pollution. I seriously doubt they will provide us with good information to drive policy making.
In other words, reading the New York Times will remain pretty much a waste of time if you care at all about our environment.
How I made the Pie Chart
I used the search function at The New York Times website to identify the stories published about monarch butterflies and limited the time frame to the current year. I broke those stories into sentences (sometimes phrases where appropriate) and used Open Office’s word count to find out how much space was allotted. The word totals were sorted into various categories:
- monarch butterflies in general and the migration
- problem causes (which got sorted into the pie chart categories)
- other (mostly a profile about a scientist)