Robert Kennedy Jr. criticizes TV coverage of the Bush admin's environmental record

Environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. takes aim at the press, blaming the major TV networks for failing to focus on the environmental record of the Bush administration -- an administration he calls "the worst in history" for environmental protection. Join moderator Colin Sullivan and reporter Darren Samuelsohn for a very lively edition of OnPoint.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Our guest today is noted environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Darren Samuelson, senior reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Mr. Kennedy thanks for joining us.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Thanks for having me.

Colin Sullivan: In your book, Crimes Against Nature, you make an enormous number of allegations against the Bush administration, and basically call him the worst environmental president in history. And yet, Bush was re-elected. Does this mean that the environment doesn't matter, doesn't resonate with the voter? Is it not an important issue in general elections?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: No, the problem is that the public doesn't know what President Bush is doing to the environment. I always say that 80 percent of Republicans are Democrats who don't know what's going on. I don't believe that there's a big, philosophical gap between the red states and the blue states, because I speak in the red states all the time, and I think the values are the same. And all the data shows that the values are the same among Americans. We all have the same aspirations for our communities. We all want clean air and clean water. We want enriching, dignified landscapes for our children to grow up in. The problem is that the information of Bush's stealth attack on the environment is not getting through to the people who live in the red states, because they're getting their news from FOXNews, from talk radio. And then the corporate broadcasts, those are not publishing the news anymore. They're talking about their appealing to our interest of sex and celebrity gossip, so they can expand viewership. They give us Kobe Bryant, Laci Peterson and Michael Jackson. And people in this country know more about Laci Peterson today, than they do about the mercury that is in their fish, and in the bodies of one out of every six American women, and the wombs of one out of every six American women, at levels so high they're endangering their children. People don't know that in this country, and they don't know the connection between the mercury in our fish, the mercury in our women's bodies and our children's brains. And the policies of this president, who took $100 million from mercury polluters, and got rid of the laws that allow them, were meant to discourage them from putting mercury in our environment. And that's the problem. The problem is not that the American people are not interested in this issue. All the polling shows that 81 percent of Republicans want stronger environmental laws and want them strictly enforced. But if you ask those same Republicans, which the Pippin Report did, what do you think Bush is doing on this issue, they all think he's doing fine, because the press has let down the American people through negligence and indolence. The American press has devolved over the past 20 years, since the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine. So they're no longer giving us the news we need to make rational choices in a democracy.

Darren Samuelsohn: Current company notwithstanding, of course. There was an opportunity during the presidential election where Senator Kerry could raise this issue, and go after President Bush. You had 3-and-a-half, 4 years of President Bush's record. And the issue came up once in a presidential debate, but beyond that, there wasn't a lot of talk about President Bush's environmental record, or Bush going after Senator Kerry's record. I'm kind of wondering your thoughts. Do you think that environmental issues mattered to the candidates? And did they bother to try and make it work?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Well, John Kerry makes the point that he talked about the environment in every single stump speech that he gave. The problem was -- and this is the same thing that Al Gore told me about the 2000 election -- is that on those policies, the substantive policy statements were simply not getting traction in the press. The press was covering the red states versus the blue states, and the fist fight, and the polling, and the strategy. But they're not covering the substance. And actually, during the campaign, Paul Krugman did a wonderful article in The New York Times showing how almost none of the coverage on the campaign dealt with the substance of the candidate's positions, beyond kind of these very, very sound bite analysis of these. They're very kind of simplistic sound bite analysis of the candidate's positions. But you didn't see, listen, the press, there's virtually no investigative reporters left in the television press anymore. They've gotten rid of their documentary staff, the people who connect the dots between the president's policies, the money he took from corporate polluters, the corruption in this government, and the bad things, the severe diminution and quality of life in our country that has resulted from those policies. Most Americans don't make that connection. Most fishermen, when they buy their fishing license, I buy a fishing license every year. And I read, you get a little book with your fishing license. I pay 30 bucks for my fishing license. You get a little book, and the book says you can't fish in almost, you can't eat the fish from almost any of the water bodies in New York state.

Darren Samuelsohn: Are you including the Washington Times, and Washington Post, and the Internet, and magazines?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: You can still get relevant news, glean relevant news from the print media in this country. The problem is that most Americans are not getting news from the print media. Twenty-two percent of Americans now get their news primarily, in this last election, from FOXNews. Another 30 percent get it from talk radio. When you have 50 percent of the country getting their news from right-wing controlled radio stations that are carefully manipulating the message to shield out any kind of bad news about the president's policies, or any good news about progressive policies, then you've got a big problem. And that's what's happening today.

Colin Sullivan: All right, taking up another topic that you pick up in your book. You're fairly critical of the former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, which to me came as something of a surprise, because she's often noted as a moderate Republican on environmental issues, specifically. Why would you argue that she's not a moderate? You called her an "advocate of pollution-based prosperity." What does that mean, first of all, and why is Christie Whitman not a moderate Republican?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Well, you know I dealt with Christie Whitman because my home base is the Hudson River. Of course, the Hudson River, we share the Hudson River in New York where I live with New Jersey. And I saw that she was, I saw her record in New Jersey. And we tried to fight her appointment, the local grassroots groups in my part of the country who saw her firsthand. We knew that she wasn't a moderate on these issues. We knew that she was a radical. That she was, the first thing she did when she came into office was to fire every single attorney in New Jersey DEP that could do prosecutions. She cut the budget in half. And she announced that New Jersey was open for business. And by that she meant polluting businesses. She meant pollution-based prosperity, which, you know, you can do that. You can treat the planet as if it were your state, as if it's a business in liquidation. You can convert your natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, have a few years or pollution-based prosperity. And you can generate an instantaneous cash flow and make a few people rich in your state. But by doing that, you're making everybody else poor. And that was her philosophy in New Jersey. She was never an environmental moderate. She was moderate on the issue of abortion. So she was sold by this administration as a moderate to the American people. But her record on the environment was always radical, hard-line on short-term prosperity, versus the long-term good of the people in New Jersey.

Colin Sullivan: Still, she's come out and been fairly critical in her book of the administration's environmental policy, basically feeling like she was cut off at the knees. Specifically, she mentions Dick Cheney several times. Do you think, are you disappointed that Christie Whitman never took a stand? Do you think she didn't take a hard enough stand against the Bush administration?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I don't think she took a stand then, and I don't think her book takes a stand. I don't think she really takes a hard-line stand on these issues. Her book is mainly a series of excuses for the Bush administration. And she picks out a couple of people she doesn't like, like Dick Cheney, or Karl Rove, and gives them a couple of shots. But by and large, it's an apologia for these catastrophic policies that she's supported, including, ultimately the abandonment of the Kyoto agreement and the rejection of regulation of carbon dioxide, which she promised the American people, and Bush promised the American people he was gonna do.

Darren Samuelsohn: Whitman's book is titled It's My Party Too, and it's aimed at trying to explain that she's a moderate Republican. And I'm just curious, is it Republicans like her, kind of Republicans that you would like to work with on environmental causes? It doesn't sound like it, based on --

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I work, I'm nonpartisan, and this book isn't a nonpartisan book. It attacks the president, and it's very critical of the president. But I'm not attacking the president because I'm a Democrat and he's a Republican. I have been disciplined over 20 years as an environmental advocate about being nonpartisan and bipartisan in my approach to these issues. I don't think there's any such thing as Republican children or Democratic children. I think the worst thing that could happen to the environment is it becomes the province of a single political party. And I've supported both Republican and Democratic candidates all over this country. I went out and worked for my cousin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he ran for governor in California. And he has a fine environmental record in that state, one of the best of any governors in the country. I've worked with Chris Shays, with Olympia Snowe, with Lincoln Chafee, with many, many other Republican moderates. I've endorsed Republicans in my own state. And so, I am not somebody who is attacking George Bush because he's a Republican. This is a nonpartisan book. But it is very critical about the president, because you can't speak critically about the environment in any context, today, without speaking critically of this president. This is the worse environmental president in American history. If you look at NRDC's Web site, you'll see over 400 major environmental rollbacks that have been promoted by this administration over the past 3-and-a-half years as part of a deliberate, concerted effort to eviscerate 30 years of environmental law. It's a stealth attack, and that's one of the reasons that the American people don't know about it and didn't vote on it, because the White House, with the cooperation of a negligent and indolent press, and the press corps, particularly in this town are nothing but stenographers for this White House. And the Washington Post and The New York Times have already apologized. Were forced to apologize for their role in failing to ask the tough questions during the roll off to the Iraq war. But nobody's apologized for the equally bad crime of not covering what he's doing to the environment, which also impacts our national security. And the press isn't covering that today.

Darren Samuelsohn: One of your colleagues at the Natural Resource Defense Counsel put out a statement in 2003, when the Bush administration released its rules for non-road diesel engines. And the press release said at the time "that it was the most significant public health proposal in decades." Whitman, in her book, says that the NRDC asked her, afterwards, to stop using that particular statement. They were afraid, I guess, environmental groups, that Karl Rove would use this as a campaign promise. I'm wondering, is it true that no matter what Republicans do on the environment, they're not going to be able to gain ground, get thumbs-up for something that they've done.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Well, Whitman may be right about that. I don't know exactly what happened with NRDC, but certainly, listen, the Bush administration did one good thing. And when people ask me, "Have they done anything good on the environment?" I say, "Yeah, they did one good thing. They did the diesel rule." That was a very good rule. The problem is, they were using the praise that environmentalists were giving them about that rule to paint their administration as a pro-environment administration. And the people at NRDC are looking at this and saying, "Look, they did 400 absolutely catastrophic things. They did one good thing. And they're trying to ride that thing, the diesel rule into the election on a white horse, as if this was an environmental, to green wash the entire administration." So I can see that they probably, you know what? General Electric, I said in a speech one time that the Hudson is the richest estuary in the North Atlantic, which it is. And General Electric took out full-page ads when they were trying to kill the dredging on the Hudson River by saying, "Robert Kennedy says that the Hudson is healthier than ever." Well, it's a deception, because the Hudson is, has more fish in it. But they're all contaminated with GE's PCBs. And for this administration to try to paint itself as a green administration because it did one good thing was probably something that NRDC was reluctant to endorse, and I can understand that.

Colin Sullivan: Aren't environmentalists guilty of the same rhetorical embellishments though. They talk about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a pristine refuge. And, in fact, it's the farthest thing from a pristine refuge, it's just sort of a desolate wasteland, which Republicans would say. I mean, aren't Republicans playing the same, I mean, aren't the Democrats and Republicans playing the same game, environmentalists playing the same game?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Well, wait a second. I don't understand what you're saying about the, you're saying that because it doesn't have, it's not --

Colin Sullivan: They've actually been caught using pictures of the Brooks Range in advertisements about drilling in ANWR, which --

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Who? With what?

Colin Sullivan: I forget the exact environmental group, but there was --

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: No, but this is important, because this is what the right wing does, the trap the media falls into again and again and again, which is to use a statement or some kind of generalization to marginalize or to taint the entire environmental movement. And I've never said that the Brooks Range is in the area of drilling. And maybe somebody did that at one point or another. But in fact, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is pristine today. And to say that it's a desolate wasteland. It's the largest herd of caribou in the world. It's the primary denning area for arctic fox, for polar bear. The porcupine herd has 500,000 animals. I don't call that a desolate wasteland.

Colin Sullivan: My point is that both sides, there's sort of an --

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: No, but the example that you gave to support your point is an example that you can't support.

Colin Sullivan: Right. Well, the Republicans would call it a desolate wasteland, is what I was trying to say. And then on either side --

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Republicans would call it a desolate wasteland. Would you agree with that? If it has 550,000 caribou in it, if it's the primary area for polar bear denning, the primary area for musk ox breeding, the primary area for arctic wolves and a number of other animals, and many of our bird species, would you call that a desolate wasteland? Would you agree with Republicans on that?

Colin Sullivan: I think the press is caught up in radical spin on either side --

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Do you think what I'm saying to you is radical? See, that's what I think the problem is, that the right wing, and their industrial allies have marginalized the environmental community as tree huggers, as radicals, as pagans who worship trees and sacrifice people. And the media has gone along with that, like you just did, without question, without asking the tough questions of the propagandists who try to spew that propaganda and deceive the American people. Now, look at the facts here. The facts are, this is not a desolate wasteland. There are certainly parts of the refuge, like the Brooks Range, that are not enormously productive. But the area of the drilling is also the area's coterminous with the area where 550,000 caribou nurse, and where all of this other activity is going on. And to say that that is a desolate wasteland, I think is simply erroneous. There is nothing radical about clean air or clean water.

Colin Sullivan: But my point is where is the middle ground? If it's a lower dependence on foreign oil, for example, and the auto industry isn't going to raise CAFE standards, and environmentalists aren't going to allow drilling in ANWR, then where's the middle ground? How are you going to address energy development in this country when natural gas demand continues to rise, when oil demand continues to rise? What's the answer? Is there a middle ground?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Well, the middle ground has already been reached, and it's in the environmental laws. The environmental laws were already the product of compromise, enormous compromise. The industry, basically already had its way. And what they're now trying to do is erode the little that we've got by passing those laws. And when you say that we have to choose between CAFE standards, that the automobile industry won't allow CAFE standards, I think that's a radical, I think that that is a radical position, that you ought to be condemning. If we raise fuel economy standards by 1 mile per gallon, we produce double the amount of oil that's in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If we raise fuel efficiency economies by 2.7 miles per gallon, we can eliminate 100 percent of the imports from Iraq and Kuwait combined. If we raise fuel efficiency standards by 7.6 miles per gallon, we would yield more gasoline than we now import from the Persian Gulf. So that's the solution to our energy problems right now. You cannot drill your way out of an energy dependence that's in this country. We have less in our country. We have less than 2 percent of the global reserves of oil. We use 25 percent of the global reserves of oil. So, if we get every ounce of buried oil in this country out of the ground, it will have zero impact on our foreign oil dependence. The way that we need to reduce foreign oil dependence is through conservation efficiency, and by expanding our portfolio beyond fossil fuels.

Darren Samuelsohn: You've made --

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: And that's the middle ground.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. You've made a number of points. And I'm wondering, I know you've ruled out running for attorney general in New York, this particular election cycle. What you're talking about sounds awfully like if we were interviewing Eliot Spitzer right now. I'm just curious, do you have sights on a job like that out in the future? Do you see yourself running for elected office?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I could. I live my life one day at a time. I'm gonna go where I think God wants me to go and where I can be most effective. And that's the way that I live my life.

Darren Samuelsohn: Another question, just really quick. Going after the media, and questioning the media's role, are you advocating that on the issue of the environment that reporters should be objective, or subjective, in terms of their coverage of it.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Well, I think, listen, I think reporters in this country, journalists have fallen into a big trap, which is to say that you've done your job if you give a White House point of view, like you just did. You give the Republican point of view, and you give the Democratic point of view and let the reader decide which is true. The job of the reporter is that they go home, smug, that you've achieved balance. Well, the job of a reporter is a more difficult job than achieving balance. It's to discern the truth, and then convey the truth to the American people. And many times on the campaign trail this time, I would talk about mercury, and I would say that this administration has dramatically weakened the Clinton-era mercury rules. The White House would counter that by saying, "We have issued the toughest rules ever, in the history of mercury regulation." Now, that's a lie. Any reporter can go out and ground truth it, and in 15 or 20 minutes of hard work discover that it's a lie. But in all of the reports that I saw written about mercury, they gave my statement, and the White House statement, and left the reader to make up their mind. And, of course, you can't make up your mind without more information, and the job of the press it to produce the information. And if you've got a scientist who's saying there's no global warming, and you don't say, "There's no such thing as global warming," and you don't reveal in your report that he's paid, he's a paid biostitute of the oil industry and coal industry, and that he's on their payroll, then you are doing a disservice to your readers. But time and time again these people, these phony aberrant scientists, like Fred Singer, who are quoted in USA Today and the Washington Post and brought on Ted Koppel, they're never identified by the funding that they're getting from the oil industry and the coal industry. And it's a deceit of the American public, and the press has been a co-conspirator in that industry propaganda campaign by not exposing it to the American people.

Colin Sullivan: OK. We're going to have to leave it at that. We're out of time. Robert Kennedy Jr. thanks for joining us, Darren Samuelson.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Thanks for having me.

Colin Sullivan: All right, join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

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