INTERVIEWEE: Bill Dawson (BD)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: February 27, 2008
LOCATION: Houston, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Rhonda Wheeler and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2417 and 2418
Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. And it is February 27th, 2008 and we’re in Houston, Texas. And we have the good fortune to be talking with Bill Dawson, who is a journalist, environmental reporter and has worked for, I think it’s four newspapers as well as online publications and some outlets for Houston A—Advanced Research Center and other, sort of, more technical institutes and—and as well for the—for trade journals, such as the Society For Environmental Journalism—Journalists. And so in that regard, it’s great to hear what you have to say about—about your life today and—and I thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
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BD: Thanks, glad to be here.
DT: Bill, I was hoping that you could tell us if there was a—some sort of early experience or influence or teacher, childhood, maybe during your education or—or later, that could’ve first exposed you to the environment or to nature, concerns about those two?
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BD: Well, I’ve thought about that on a number of occasions and, you know, it’s really difficult to say. One of my most vivid, early childhood memories had to do with being in the outdoors in Tennessee and Georgia, where my family lived when I—from the time I was born until the time I was about nine or ten, I guess. And, in particular, in Atlanta we lived in a—toward the later part of that period, we lived in a—in a neighborhood that was near—it was right in the middle of the city, but it was near an undeveloped area that had been an old rock quarry and it was forested. And friends of mine and I, from the neighborhood, used to play in that area. It was like having a—a wilderness area right there in the—i—in the neighborhood. And we walked through it on the way to school, along creeks and so on, along trails through
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the woods. And I—I think in retrospect that that—that experience may have had something to do with sort of an interest in conservation and nature and so on. But, that’s the best I can—I can say, I think.
DT: Well, maybe we can roll forward a little bit and talk about your education. You went to Rice and—and later to the University of Texas and took your Master’s there in journalism. And I—I’m curious what interested you in that field and—and—and that discipline?
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BD: Well, I‘d always been interested in current events and I was a history major at Rice and journalism’s history on a deadline, I say. Looking for something to do and looked into going into graduate school in history, looked into going to law school and decided that the idea of being a journalist was the—the most interesting to me, getting out and about in the world and talking to people and intersecting with current events and the currents of history and so on. And journalism was—American journalism was in one of its—one of its periods of—of flourishing at that time. I mean, it was the New Journalism as they called it, the coverage of Watergate and o—other—other things that were—were going on at the time. So it was just an attractive—seemed like an attractive area to go into. And I went to the University of Texas, got a Master’s degree in journalism.
DT: What do you mean by the New Journalism?
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BD: Well, there was a—there was a sort of movement at the time that didn’t really continue that in as great force as perhaps people thought it would. But, you know, various people like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson and so on, working in long-form narrative journalism and so on, and trying to bring some of the—some of the approaches of fiction writing and narrative writing, generally to non-fiction. And so that was kind of an exciting thing that was in the air at the time. It was not something I really ever did in my career as a journalist, but it was something that—and I think helped it attract a lot of attention to journalism at time, by a lot of people. And not only that, but kind of a spirit of—of ferment and political and social change that was, you know, afoot in the country at large in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
DT: You—you’d also mentioned that this time when you were going to college and then grad school and getting an interest in journalism was the time of Watergate and I guess Bernstein and Woodward’s work. Could you talk about the role of investigative reporting and how that might’ve influenced your—your interest?
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BD: Well, it—it seemed like a—a—an interesting and worthwhile way to spend one’s live, you know, trying to cast a critical and—and detailed—a—a critical eye, that—that events in the society and—and to try to interpret them and find out the larger part of the—of the—of the events and—and, you know, convey them to the public at large. So this—I’m—I’m glad you raised that—that point because, you know, Woodward and Bernstein, the work on Watergate and other things that were going on, had brought, you know, investigative reporting to the fore in a lot of people’s minds. And it was something that I decided I wanted to try to do and I’ve gotten to do some of during my career, both on environmental and other subjects.
DT: Well, maybe you can tell us about how your career got started after you got out of grad school, some of the first papers you worked for and what sort of reporting you did while you were there.
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BD: Well, I worked for three newspapers before going to the Houston Chronicle, where I worked for most of my daily newspaper career. Started at a newspaper in the Houston area in Brazoria County, just down the road from Houston, the Brazosport Facts and worked there for a couple of years. Worked at the Arkansas Democrat, which is now called the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in Little Rock. And worked for the Commercial Appeal, the sole surviving daily newspaper in Memphis, which is my hometown. I was born in Memphis. And then came to work at the Chronicle in 1984. The experience working at the Brazosport Facts was probably helped influence my growing interest in coverage of environmental issues. I remember early on in my tenure at that newspaper, I checked a book out of the
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county library, which was a—a book by an investigative journalist with separate chapters on different occupations and the occupational hazards and diseases and safety issues which were prevalent or a feature of working in those—in those areas, different kinds of industrial work and other kinds of occupations. It was a—it was investigative work on occupational safety and—and—and health issues. And I remember thinking it was a—a potentially interesting thing to look into there in Brazosport, which is a—a collection of small towns at the mouth of the Brazos River, Freeport and Clute and Lake Jackson and it’s called Brazosport, although that’s not a—that’s not a—a—a specific city by that name, that’s the name of the area. I approached a—an editor at the newspaper with a—with a proposal, a—an idea, I guess, more than a proposal, to—to try to look at some of the occupational or
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community health impacts of the large chemical complex there in that area. And was told that wasn’t something they wanted me to—to spend my time on. So I went on to report on some environmental issues for the newspaper. But the fact that, you know, I was—my offer to do that project was declined was something that stuck in my mind, I think, and helped inspire my later interests in—in reporting on those—on those areas.
DT: Cou—could you elaborate a little bit about maybe any explanation that the editor gave you or any kind of reaction you had to, well, you know, what you thought about that kind of response from—from your editor?
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BD: Well, there really was no explanation, it was just kind of a—a brief, I don’t think that’s something we want to do comment. And, you know, I’d only worked at the place for a few weeks and—and didn’t want to jeopardize my employment, particularly didn’t really know how the—the work world worked in the—in the world of journalism. But, you know, I—I di—I don’t really know why—what—what the answer was—what the answer is as to why they didn’t want to do that. It—it was, I—I think, an inspiration in a vague kind of way, to want to report on pollution issues and—and related subjects later. And—but I—as I said, I did get to do some environmental coverage at the—at th—at the newspaper and as—as events warranted. Sometimes I was assigned to—to cover a—a hearing or something. And—and that helped increase my—my interest in the—in the field as well.
DT: Do you remember any of your earliest environmental stories?
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BD: That’s—you know, I haven’t looked at the clips in a long, long time, but I—I think some of them related to shrimping activities there, perhaps. And there was a proposal for an offshore oil platform at the time in the Gulf of Mexico and so I—I did at least a—a couple of stories on that because it was something that was of interest to people in the community because the possible environmental and economic ramifications for the—for the area, not just that area, but the larger Houston area, the Gulf Coast as well.
DT: I—I could think of—of maybe some other topics that would’ve been common down there, maybe you can tell me if any of these things came up at the time. One is that I guess along the Freeport Coast is one of the—the big surfing areas and also an area with a lot of small houses and—and erosion issues along that beach. Di—did you hear anything about the development along there or about water quality concerns that surfers or erosion along the…
BD: You know, if I did, I don’t remember. Much of what I did at the newspaper was under assignment. I was a general assignment reporter but I received assignments and often would fill in for other reports on their beats covering various city councils or the county government or picking up coverage of the police department or so on. So there wasn’t a lot of—a lot of opportunity to, you know, try to develop a—a—a beat in that area, at least that’s the way I remember it. But I—I did—I did do some environmental assignments as I—as I said and it—it kind of enhanced my growing interest in that area. It—it didn’t make me think this is something I want to concentrate on at—to the exclusion of other things. It was just a—a beginning job in the—in the newspaper industry and it was a good learning opportunity. It was a
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good paper in a lot of ways. And I enjoyed working with the folks there and I got a lot of e—good experience, especially covering local government. And—and some of the basic stuff that reporters do, local government, police, local community college. I was assigned to cover the board at a local community college. So that was an ongoing—an ongoing thing that I did for a while.
DT: And then from—from Brazosport, you went on to work for larger papers in larger towns in Arkansas and Tennessee. Maybe you can talk a little bit about how the, you know, a s—a small newspaper differs from a big or—or how the—the politics might have—different from any—a very industrial area like the Brazosport area versus Arkansas or Tennessee that may not have had that kind of heavy industry and the pollution issues that go along with it.
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BD: Well, it’s a difficult question. I—I’m not sure how to answer it exactly. The—you know, to some extent, newspaper work is newspaper work in a small town or a—a larger city. I mean, some of the—some of the same duties e—exist, many of the same duties exist at—at papers regardless of—of the size of the community. And there were environmental issues which presented themselves in—in both of the lo—the locations you mention, in Little Rock and—and Memphis. And I remember sort of volunteering to cover them because it was something that I had a growing interest in and they didn’t have fulltime environmental reporters at the time, as I recall. And so I got, you know, my—my offer was—was accepted and once you’ve done some stories in an area, you know, you become sort of known as the person they turn to.
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And in Little Rock, for instance, I worked there for nearly a couple of years and about halfway through, the management of the newspaper decided to expand their coverage of the state government and I volunteered for and was assigned to join the—the newspaper’s bureau covering state government. Bill Clinton was in his first term as governor at that time, so I got to cover Clinton in his first term as governor. And as we were trying to figure out how we were going to cover state government with this new slightly larger staff that had gone from one person to three or four, as I recall, three, I guess and I was one of those three. We divided up different—different duties and I got the Pollution Control Agency and the Public Utility Commission, which regulated, you know, utility rates and so on. And—and as a
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result of that assignment, found myself covering some environmental and—and related health issues and so on and including some hazardous wastes issues, which were—were gaining prominence in different parts of the country leading into the national discussion about hazardous waste that led to the creation of the Superfund Program and so on. So that was, you know, an additional opportunity to—to cover environmental news. When I moved to Memphis a couple years after I went to Little Rock, there were a number of—I was a general assignment reporter there too and did a wide variety of things. But one of the things that was in the news was an old abandoned hazardous waste site. It was actually a—a municipal landfill, now that I recall, where—where some chemical waste had been placed. And—and there were a number of—a number of issues related to whether or not the chemical wastes had—
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that had been placed in that city landfill in a largely African-American neighborhood had—were—were posing health risks to—to people in that neighborhood or perhaps to the larger community. And so I—I covered some of—some of the news related to that and—and did some other environmental coverage in Memphis. And then when I applied for a job at the Houston Chronicle, I had that background and they happened to be looking for an environmental reporter at that time. It was just a—a coincidence. I was not looking for a job to cover the environment but it was something I had covered at three newspapers and had gained some experience doing. And they hired me to cover environmental news at the Chronicle in 1984.
DT: Can you—I’m just going to…
DW: [IA] Memphis [IA] at the time, you’re saying this is the 1980’s?
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BD: Yeah, I was in Memphis from late ’79 to ’84.
DW: [IA] Utilities Commission [IA].
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BD: That was in Little Rock.
DW: Little Rock. A—but about that time, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s nuclear program would’ve been melting down, if I’m not mistaken. They were shutting [IA] down because it was way over budget and [IA] you were—you were covering the—the…
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BD: No, you know, we had a—we had a—an Energy and Utility reporter who did—who—who did that stuff, who covered the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, which was the municipally owned utility in Memphis and—and also covered the TVA. And—and so I—I really didn’t cover that in Memphis.
DT: Perhaps you can tell the next chapter in your life, when you came to Houston and applied for and got a position as an environmental reporter. And—and at the time, it sounds like that was a very unusual thing to have a dedicated reporter for and I was hoping that you could tell about how that might’ve come about, maybe discuss Mr. Scarlett and Carlos Byars and how—how that job got sort of carved out at—at the Houston Chronicle.
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BD: Well, you’re exactly right, a—a lot of newspapers, at that time, did not have fulltime beat positions covering the environment. One of them that did was the Houston Post, the Chronicle’s cross town competitor and one of the two newspapers in Houston at the time. Harold Scarlett was a legendary journalist. He was, you know, renowned as one of the finest journalists in—in Texas and probably he was one of the finest journalists in the country at the time, although I don’t think he ever got the kind of respect that he probably deserved for that. But he had been a reporter at the Post for a number of years, dating, I think, back into the 1950’s, if I recall correctly. He was a World War II veteran. And by the time the mid 60’s came around, as I understand it, I—I was not working in journalism at the time, I
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was in high school in another—in another city, but as I understand it, by the time the mid 60’s came around, he’d—he was a—working as a special assignment reporter or what we might now call a projects reporter for the Post, doing big in depth stories, investigations and so on. And—a—as I later learned, he—one of his projects was a—an award winning, I think, series of articles on Houston’s air and water pollution in 1966, if I recall correctly, which would’ve been, you know, several years before the landmark environmental legislation of the early 70’s was passed, the Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, creation of the EPA and so on. So Harold was carving out a role for himself as a—an aggressive and, you know, really insightful reporter on
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environmental issues in Houston at an early date. After he—he died in—in the 1990’s following his retirement from the Post by a number of years, I believe it was ’96 when he died, I—I helped write the Chronicle’s article about him, the—the obituary. And I later wrote a couple of articles for journalism publications, sort of obituaries but kind of tribute articles about—about Harold. And found out that he had been assigned to be the Post’s fulltime environmental reporter in 1970. I talked to Bill Hobby, who had been the editor of the Post, was later Lieutenant Governor of Texas, of course. And—and Mr. Hobby told me that Harold was assigned to that—to that role in—in 1970, which I did a little bit of research and found would’ve made him one of just a handful—just a very few fulltime environmental reporters at any newspaper in the country at that time. So the Houston Post was
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really ahead of the curve, in—in terms of assigning, you know, a fulltime reporter to concentrate on environmental problems, environmental issues. The Chronicle did not do that until I came to work there in the mid 80’s. They had a reporter just before I came to work there. It was a gentleman named Carlos Byers, who had been the science writer. And he covered a wide variety of subjects, including general science and the space program, NASA and the environment. He covered the nuclear plant that was under construction at the time. So, he really had a lot on his plate and the editors at the Chronicle, I learned, had decided to, more or less, split his job in half and hire someone to largely do environmental news and let Carlos continue doing the other parts of the beat that—that he had been doing, science and NASA and so on. And I just happened to show up at the Chronicle looking for a job
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in 1984. Had—had gone to college in Houston, had finished high school in Houston and thought I might like to live here again. And just by coincidence, they were looking for an environmental reporter. I showed up on their doorstep with some background covering environmental news at three newspapers and—and they hired me to become the Chronicle’s first environmental reporter. I didn’t cover environmental news exclusively in the first couple of years there. I did the great majority of my time, but I—I—I handled some other assignments too, perhaps ten percent of my time or something I guess, probably ninety percent of the time on environmental news. And then at some point in the—in the late 80’s, I was made the fulltime environmental reporter and had that job un—until I left the Chronicle in—in 2001. And they’ve—they’ve continued to have a—a—an environment beat since then.
DT: Well this might be a good time to sort of jump into what sort of themes and articles you—you were interested in and covered during this period of 1984 to 2001, when you did have the environmental beat at the Chronicle. I thought perhaps we could just talk about some of the highlights that we’d mentioned earlier when we talked off—off camera. I believe one of your early series was something called The Air We Breath, that came out in, maybe, ’86…
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BD: I think that’s right, yeah.
DT: …on toxics. Do—do you recall much about that series?
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BD: Well, I had been in Houston for a year or so and at the time I conceived that—that series and remember having received a—a—a visit from some people from an environmental group, I think it was from the Sierra Club, who were on a—a tour of newsrooms trying to inspire reporters to cover issues that they wanted covered and which is one of the things that environmentalists do. And—and we got to talking about issues that were on the table in Congress at that time and air toxics was one of the—was one of the subjects that the environmental community and some of their allies in the public health movement and other—other areas we’re looking at trying to get Congress to—to take new action on. I knew from having lived in Houston before, that if air toxics was an issue anywhere in the country, it was an issue in
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Houston because it’s the nation’s petrochemical capital with a huge complex of refineries and chemical plants and associated industries and facilities and so on. And I did a little research and proposed to my bosses that they let me do a series of articles, an investigative series on—on air toxics. I don’t remember the exact timing on this, but during that period of time when I was either conceiving the series or had already started it, the big industrial accident at Bhopal, India occurred in which a—a leak at a—a runaway chemical reaction at a chemical plant killed thousands of people. I don’t think the exact number will ever be known. But I ended up doing the series of articles. There was a lot of attention paid by regulators in the United States and by industry people and by a—advocates and so on, to the possibility of a—a—a drastic chemical accident in this country that might immediately kill or injure lots of people near a—an industrial facility. So I ended up doing the series of
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articles probably too ambitiously, I think in retrospect, on both of those components of the broader air toxics issue. One part was on the routine permitted, usually, releases of toxic chemicals into the air from industrial plants and other kinds of facilities, the chronic risk side of the issue, if you will. The other part of the series was about the acute or immediate hazards posed by industrial accidents, ru—runaway reactions or explosions or whatever at—at chemical plants that might be illus—might w—were illustrated by the—the Bhopal, India accident. And so the series ended up being a—a—taking a look at both of those sides, if you will, of the air toxics issue, in—interrelated because if a large accident occurs, you know, that poses immediate hazards to people. It also puts pollution into the air, if it doesn’t kill or inner—injure anybody in the—on the plant or in the community, it nonetheless
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puts additional toxic air pollutants into the air. So—so the two—the two subjects were interrelated, but I—I say over—overly ambitious, perhaps, because either one of those probably warranted—aspects of the issue probably warranted its own investigation in its own right and maybe I stretched myself a little bit too thin. But at any rate, it was the first of a number of big investigative and explanatory projects I did at the Chronicle over the years, including some later attention to air toxics. (?).
DT: Well, while we’re talking about—about air pollution, I—I think that—that one of the early articles you wrote was about a smog episode down in Deer Park that helped create some sort of alert system…
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BD: Well, it—it wasn’t an early article; it was actually later in my tenure at the Chronicle. I think it was in, oh gosh, I don’t remember, ’99, I think, so actually toward the end of my tenure at the Chronicle, and had paid a lot of attention to air quality issues in between the time that that first series was published in ’86 and the time of the episode you mentioned in—in ’99, probably more attention to…
DT: Well, let’s return to this article you did about the smog episode in Deer Park.
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BD: Right, it was in the late 90’s and I was paying a lot of attention to air pollution and air quality issues at that point. I—I had throughout my career at—at the Chronicle, but was particularly paying a lot of attention to air pollution issues in the late 90’s. O—one key reason was the fact the Clean Air Act Amendments, which were passed in 1990, had assigned some deadlines for cities that violated national health standards for key air pollutants. And Houston’s deadline, or I should say, the State of Texas’ deadline for coming up with a plan to clean up the ozone problem in Houston sufficiently so that Houston would—would comply with the National Ozone Standard, the deadline for submitting that plan was in the year 2000. And it was an enormous process, requiring a lot of study and planning and hearings and drafting of potential components of the plan and so on. And so backing up a number of years
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from that—that deadline for su—submitting the—the compliance plan or the attainment plan, as it’s technically known, I was paying a lot of attention to air quality issues, covering process developments and so on, as the plan got—the plan was—was drafted and as discussions were going on about the plan. But also there were just a number of other things which—a number of other news events and things that I was doing to pay attention to—to air pollution, and the Deer Park episode kind of fell right in the—in the middle of that, as I was devoting much of my attention to the air issue. It was an episode in, I think, October of 1999, I—my memory may be hazy on that, but there had been a—an earlier story that I had
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written in which I had looked at the trend lines for ozone violations in Houston and in Los Angeles. Los Angeles had been the—historically, the city with the worst ozone problem in the country, especially as measured by the number of days when one or more monitors records ozone above the—the standard o—Los Angeles had—had historically been far and away the—the worst ozone problem in the country. Houston had—had historically been number two or number three, with one of the next worst, but well behind Los Angeles. At any rate, I was attending a—a public meeting and a—a—a person who was there, a member of the—a—a health professional who happened to be representing the environmental community at this meeting, introduced the idea in a—in a brief comment, off the agenda I think, that—
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that she thought that it looked like Houston’s progress on cleaning up its ozone and Los Angeles’ progr—greater progress in cleaning up its ozone were such that the two trend lines were going to cross and—and Houston might become the—the city with the largest number of days with a—an ozone measurement above the standard. In other words, Houston might overtake Los Angeles as the—the nation’s ozone or smog capital. And I looked into that and talked to a number of experts and wrote a—a—a story which I think the Chronicle ran on the front page, discussing the apparent possibility that those trend lines would cross. Los Angeles’ line was coming down; Houston’s was zigzagging along at a more or less stable pace. It was not getting notably worse, but it wasn’t getting notably better either. It was kind of staying stable with some up and down over the years. And that article, as I recall, provided the springboard to—to cover the Houston/Los Angeles competition, if you
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will, for the unwanted title of—of ozone champion. And a—a—a friend of mine who was covering air pollution issues at the Los Angeles Times, started writing articles about it too, so it sort of started to take on a life of its own. But, at any rate, I—I tell you that because it’s the—it’s the kind of background context for this episode in Deer Park. And th—the L.A Times and the Houston Chronicle had been paying attention to the relative ozone rankings of the two cities going into the so-called ozone season. It was 1999 and it looked like coming up on the end of that season, that is to say, the end of the period of the year when ozone conducive weather conditions are pres—prevalent, the warm sunny parts of the year. Coming up on the end of the ozone season, it looked like we were in a pretty dead heat there, l—
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Houston and Los Angeles. And this episode, if you will, as it was called, that occurred in Deer Park, was the day that pushed Houston’s number of ozone violation days over Los Angeles’ number of days. Los Angeles had come upon the e—end of their ozone season and they have a shorter ozone season than we do. And the—so it had some—some significance, some news value that way, that there would be an ozone violation of whatever severity that late in the year, in October, because it meant that Houston was apparently going to be the nation’s ozone violation leader for the first time in memory, at least. And when that happened, it happened as a result of a—a very high level or some very high levels of ozone that were recorded, especially in the southeast part of the Houston area, especially at a—a monitoring
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station in the city of Deer Park, which is near the Houston Ship Channel, near some of the large industries there. And those very high l—l—levels, which were recorded, prompted me to write a story about the apparent fact that Houston was going to be the ozone leader for that year. Afterward, if I recall correctly, and my memory may be a little hazy on this, but as I re—if I recall correctly, after that article ran, I got a call from a—a member of the local environmental cl—community who worked with residents in parts of the city with particularly chronic or acute air pollution issues. And—and this caller had heard from a number of the residents in Deer Park who reported that there was an outbreak of respiratory ailments among high school and, I think, middle school athletes at Deer Park schools coinciding with that very high
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and prolonged l—level of ozone that was recorded there in Deer Park, coughing—that kids couldn’t stop, wheezing. I think it—it concerned some of the school officials and so on and so I did some articles about that—that aspect of the episode, the—the—the—the health aspects of the episode as—as reported by people living and, as it turned out, engaged in recreational activities outdoors in that community at the time. After those articles appeared, I think other news organizations, you know, started d—doing similar reports, if I recall correctly. And the Harris County Judge, Robert Eckels decided that he was going to respond to some of the concerns which were reported by the Chronicle and, I think, other news organizations, about the—the fact that there had not been a—a real-time alert system in place to notify residents, particularly sensitive individuals like people outdoors, elderly people,
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children, people with asthma, whoever, that air pollution readings were—of ozone or whatever—were especially high in a location. There had been a institute a—a—a s—a few years before, a system of—of forecasts based on expected weather conditions. In other words, the state would develop this forecast saying it looks like tomorrow’s weather conditions are going to be conducive to high levels of ozone in the air and you might want to, you know, take action accordingly if you’re a sensitive individual. So that—that warning system was in place and—and there were so—there was information, I think, already being put on the internet, at that point, about air pollution readings and so on. But there was no kind of real-time or near real-time warning system in place communitywide for—for high levels of—of air pollution. And
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Judge Eckels decided he was going to—to do that and announced that he was going to be adding air pollution alerts to an e-mail alert system that the county already had for other kinds of emergencies.
DT: Well, it’s interesting, you—you talked a little bit about air toxics and then ozone/smog problems. Maybe a third air pollution problem that—that you’ve covered and—and I think covered quite early, were carbard—carbon dioxide related, methane related, global warming issues. I think that you wrote one piece in 1988, mistaken, and then returned to that topic later. I was hoping that you could tell us what sort of coverage you—you gave to it and—and how the issue kind of evolved over time as people started to understand it and—and be more concerned about it.
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BD: Well, let me say up front that I—first I—one of my regrets working at the Chronicle was I didn’t pay more attention to—to climate change, I guess that’s hindsight in a way, now that we know it’s—more about it, but I—I—I really didn’t write a lot about the issue. I—I did write about it occasionally over the years at the Chronicle. But perhaps the—the l—the biggest coverage I gave it was in 1988. It was a very hot summer in many parts of the country and Dr. James Hansen, the NA—NASA scientist who is probably is still very active in that arena today, twenty years later and is probably the best known, most prominent—prominent climate scientist in America, if not the world, testified before congress and—and got a lot of media attention, saying that he thought there were links, possible links between that very hot summer that was being experienced in many parts of the United States and
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this issue or subject of the greenhouse effect, as it was commonly known at that time or global warming, global climate change as it’s more often known today. And that—Hansen’s testimony and—and the questions that were being raised and increasingly raised because of his testimony about the hot weather con—especially hot weather conditions that year, gave rise to a lot of—a lot of media coverage. I proposed to my editors that I do a—a—a, you know, a—a collection of articles, a small series on—and they ran over a couple of days, a collection of articles on the global warming issue and the potential ramifications, especially for—for Texas. And, you know, I g—I guess in retrospect, it was one of the earlier in depth looks, you know, by a newspaper at—at the climate issue. This is pre-internet, so I wasn’t as
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aware of what other newspapers were doing, as we all are now, when, you know, you can sit down at the—at the computer and—and read a dozen newspapers in a couple of minutes or st—stories from a dozen newspapers. But—so that was an—an early example of my coverage of climate change. And I—and I did a number of stories over the years, especially reporting scientific findings that looked particularly relevant. But there were so many other things that seemed more pressing, air pollution in particular, but other issues that I really didn’t pay as much attention to climate change as, you know, probably should have in the ensuing years. However, I did do a—a large in depth article in—that ran toward the end of 1999, I believe, which sort of revisited, if you will, some of the questions I had raised, some of the subjects I had reported on in 1988. That is to say, the possible impacts on—on
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Texas. The Chronicle did a—that year, 1999, a—a series of articles called The Coming Millennium, I think, or The N—The New Millennium or something like that. 2000, as we know, is not really the beginning of the new millni—millennium, that was 2001, but everybody was acting like 2000 was going to be the beginning of the new millennium. And the Chronicle went along and so we ran our new millennium, new century series in 1999. There were twelve articles, if I recall correctly, one on a—each one on a different subject or issue, different reporters—twelve different reporters, I think, or—did the twelve articles. And as the environment reporter, I was asked to come up with an idea for an article looking ahead to the coming century that I thought would be a big deal on the environment
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beat or in the arena of environmental affairs. And I chose climate change and so did that article in ’99. I mean, in—in hindsight, I guess it looks pretty pressing, but I guess I’d have picked something else pretty easily and been wrong, you know, and picked a—a subject that hadn’t—didn’t turn out to be quite as—quite as prominent as climate change has become since then. But it’s—it’s grown in such prominence, both in the public mind and in the activities of people in the environmental community and the business community and in discussions about politicians and so on, that, you know, it—it seems like it might just come to dominate the—the environmental—the area generally in years ahead. And there’re so many different links to—to other problems and other issues. It could aggravate air pollution in a city like Houston, for instance if, you know, some of the forecasted climate changes occur in this part of the world. But I continued to—to do some work in the—in the climate arena. I’m—
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I’m writing for a—a new online publication called The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, which was launched last year by the Yale School of Environment and Forestry. And we—we write about how climate change is covered and how journalists and scientists communicate and so on. And I’ve also done some—some writing on climate change for The Society of Environmental Journalists Quarterly publication, SEJournal. So I’m still in—in the climate change area, I guess you could say.
DT: I think it’s interesting that—that you—you’ve written so much about air pollution and—and you mentioned some of these issues already, the air toxics, the ozone, climate change related emissions. I think it would be interesting to hear what you wrote about when you looked sort of upstream and downstream of some of these pollution issues. On the upstream end, you wrote a series on grandfathered industries. And on the downstream end or it’s a more—more of the result and about the—the rise in pediatric asthma. And I was hoping that you could talk about those two interests and—and the kinds of articles that you wrote.
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BD: Well, air—air pollution is such a—an immense s—subject and it’s, you know, impossible to—to capture it in daily snapshots of reality, which is essentially what—what daily newspaper reporting is. In combination, those stories may do a—a fairly good job of conveying a—a large picture. But I always wanted to do larger, in depth, work that helped people understand these issues in more detail and in more of their complexity and with—with more dimensions, with more context, because they really are very complicated. And the—the—the grandfathered industry’s reporting was not, however, really a large in depth reporting project of the sort we’ve been talking about—the first air toxic series I did or the global warming articles of 1988. It wasn’t conceived as an investigative or in depth project. It was really a—an example, I
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guess, of just kind of routine newspaper work, which got into an issue or—or—or revealed some things that were going on an—that then led to other coverage and larger public discussion as it turned out, somewhat to my surprise. I say somewhat to my surprise because the work of a—a daily news reporter is often not accompanied by any obvious impact or influence in—in the world at large. You write the articles and there they go, you don’t hear from anybody, you go and write another article, you know. In the case of the grandfathered industries thing, we’re talking about a somewhat arcane perhaps element of clean air law in Texas, in which the state’s Clean Air Act passed in the early 70’s to implement the first federal Clean Air Act of, I think, 1970, created a—an exemption, a permit exemption from the legal obligation of major polluting industries to have air pollution permits. That
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exemption was—was created for older plants which were grandfathered, as it were, and given this exemption and weren’t required to have emission permits un—unless and until they underwent major modifications, parallels in federal law, so it wasn’t just a—a Texas thing. The understanding at the time, in the early 70’s or the—the—the—the general understanding was that many of these industries would either be mothballed, would—many of these plants would either—would either be shut down as they became obsolete or would undergo major modifications, thereby triggering the permit requirement so that the grandfathered exemption wouldn’t be in place for many of them for very long. Flash forward to the mid 1990’s and the run-up to the preparation and submission of the Ozone Compliance Plan in 2000, which I
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mentioned earlier, state officials charged with the responsibility of devising that plan to demonstrate mathematically how the pollution controls in the plant were going to reach attainment or compliance with the Ozone Standard in Houston. Those officials were facing the really huge task of coming up with enough pollution reductions to add up to the total that was needed, that’s somewhat oversimplifying their mathematical efforts but—but that’s the way I would often explain it in—in the Chronicle. And one of the—one of the places they were looking for possible pollution reductions was to find out how much pollution was still coming out of these old grandfathered industries. There was a gentleman named Ralph Marquez who had—I believe he was a chemical engineer, he had worked his career in—in the chemical industry and had been appointed by Governor Bush to one of the positions
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as a Commissioner for the state’s Environmental Agency, one of the three people who—who ran the Agency on—on the Commission. And with his background knowledge in the way industrial operations worked, Mr. Marquez was certainly aware that that was a potential area where some air pollution reductions could be achieved, which perhaps hadn’t been achieved before. And—he and—he had the staff there at the Agency working under a gentleman named Jeff Sattis, develop some statistics to try to get a handle on how much air pollution was still coming out of these grandfathered industries years after it was thought that they would be out of business or have permits and the permits bring stricter controls in many instances. That—those statistics were not publicly reported in any way. This was a working
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document, which the staff had developed to try to enable them to—to develop the—the Ozone Reduction Plans and the—and the Attainment plan for Houston. I got a tip from a source who knew about this—this attention that was being given to the—to the issue within the Agency and in, as it turned out, in discussions with some of the affected industries. And the tip suggested that perhaps I should try to look at those statistics. And I don’t remember if I asked first or filed a letter under the state Open Records Law first, I—I think I—I just asked first, which I typically do and—and ended up filing a request under the state Open Records Act. And a—a while went by—I think it was a couple of weeks, it was, you know, not immediately forthcoming, but—an—and before too long I—I got a copy of these statistics and it indicated that—
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that—the—the statistics indicated—and I was able to understand them because I’d covered the—some discussion of the grandfathered issue back in—in the 80’s when it was last in the public—in the public arena as a public policy discussion. I understood and did some reporting to help me understand better that this was a significant, you know, a—amount of air pollution that was still coming out of some of these grandfathered plants and interviewed some people and wrote a story. And thought it was probably just going to be another one of those stories that news reporters write that, you know, you—you write it, it gets published and maybe do a follow-up and that’s—that’s it, you know, enters the public domain and maybe gets read by people, maybe not, you never know. A—as it turned out, this was one of those stories which quite unexpectedly sort of catalyzed a broader public discussion of the issue. The
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Texas legislature was meeting at the time and I was told by some—some state officials that this article that I had written was being—being handed out or shown around in—in a committee meeting in the legislature. And environmentalists picked up on it, they hadn’t known about this study, these statistics that the state had developed. And suddenly it snowballed into just a major air pollution environmental debate in the—in the state. And it was a public discussion that prompted a—a lot of more media attention by me and other reporters and action by the legislature, proposals by Governor Bush, who came up with a—an idea to ask these grandfathered industries to voluntarily come in for permits. And he held press conferences at the Houston Ship Channel and up in Dallas with industry officials announcing this voluntary plan. It figured in, oh gosh, the—the issue figured in I
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think three legislative sessions, that first one in ’97 and again in ’99 and then again in 2001. I—if I recall correctly, Governor Bush was criticized for the voluntary aspects of his approach to the issue by Gary Morrow, who ran unsuccessfully against him for governor in ’98, I guess it was. And I—I think it came up again in the 2000 presidential campaign in which the governor, now president of course, was criticized for favoring voluntary measures to—to clean up air pollution. That was, of course, sort of an oversimplification of Bush’s record because his—his a—appointees at the—at the state Environmental Commission were simultaneously working on some mandatory controls which were, in fact, proposed in the—in the Ozone Plan in—in 2000, which he as governor submitted to the federal government for approval and later became president and presided over the EPA that I—that approved the plan that his administration had submitted as—as Texas governor. So it—I—I—I guess more than any other thing that I ever worked on, it illustrated to me how
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unexpected it is whether or not and to what extent, news coverage is going to have an effect on the—the world at large. You asked about…
DT: Please stop right there…
[End of reeel 2417]
DT: When we left off, we were talking about some of the causes of air pollution and in particular, grandfathered industries. I thought we might go to the flipside of things and talk about some of the effects of air pollution. You’d written in the 90’s about the increase in pediatric asthma and then you’d also written a series called Living with Pollution about the maybe carcinogens and some of the other health effects from—from air toxics. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about those articles you wrote and the kind of reception that—that those pieces might’ve gotten.
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BD: Well, I could talk about the reception up front and dismiss that pretty quickly and say I didn’t really notice a—you know, a lot of reaction. I mean, I might’ve gotten some comment from a few people but it was sort of in the pre-internet days or before the internet was in its full flower that it is now with interactivity and reader response and so on. So it was—it was not untypical—atypical at all that, you know, you might do a—a big effort on a subject and just not really hear a lot from people or not really see a lot of—a lot of impact. But i—in answering your question more directly, I remember feeling somewhat frustrated, not frustrated, but somewhat like I was not capturing in my reporting the air pollution issues in—in enough dimension, e—enough dimensions and e—and enough complexity. I wasn’t showing the human
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side o—of—of the issue, why is this a big deal. I mean, it’s—so much of—of my reporting was about issues and public policy discussions and lawsuits and legislation and so on. And a lot of that to cover and it’s very important. But I wanted to bring to the public a—a closer look at some of the human implications, the health and quality of life implications. Also, it was just a kind of reporting I wanted to do some more of. I wanted to try my hand at some different kinds of stories and so on. So there was a somewhat selfish motive, I guess, just for personal or professional satisfaction or fulfillment or trying my hand at something different. But—so with those complementary motives in mind, in the—in the mid 90’s I undertook a couple of projects. The asthma thing was decidedly smaller and of more limited scope than what I called my neighborhoods series, the Living with Pollution series that you
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mentioned. I knew from my reading and reporting that there was a—an increase, a recorded increase in the number of places around the country in—in pediatric asthma and that there was some uncertainty and that they within the medical community and public health community as to whether this was an actual increase or whether health professionals, doctors were getting better at diagnosing asthma, whether they were looking for asthma in a—in a more exacting or comprehensive way and therefore finding more cases. And I wanted to kind of stretch a little bit and push the boundaries of the environmental beat and I r—I realized that from my reading and my discussion with some experts and with a colleague, the medical reporter at the—at the Chronicle, that—that outdoor air pollution was not the be all and end all of the pediatric asthma story, far from it. In fact, there was quite a bit of controversy as to the extent to which outdoor air pollution, which I wrote about as
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the environmental reporter, was a cause of or an aggravating factor in the incidence or the—the—the occurrence of asthma outbreaks and—or—or episodes, I guess I should say. So I proposed doing, you know, a modest package, we called it as opposed to a series of—collection of articles. I think it ran one Sunday over a couple pages inside the paper, started on the front page. And interviewed doctors and—and health o—experts and so on and—a—tried to convey some of the—some detail about this—this fact, which was fairly well-known, that there’d been this increase in Houston and other places, apparent increase in the numbers of pediatric asthma cases. And tried to examine the possible, you know, things that were related to that. One of the—one of the uncertainties—one of the pieces of the puzzle, if you will, had to do with the fact that in Houston and elsewhere around the country,
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outdoor air pollution had—had declined o—over the twenty-five years since the Clean Air Act went into effect. Still had a long way to go in Houston to comply with the Ozone Standard and address some of the other issues. But there was no dispute by anybody that the air was cleaner in Houston in 1995, the outdoor air, than it had been in 1970. So, this raised an interesting question that I, you know, certainly couldn’t answer as a reporter in this modest package of articles, but I could talk to people who were experts about and that was how is it that we’re seeing more pediatric asthma if we’ve got less outdoor air pollution? Does that mean that there’s—we’re finding more cases because we’re looking more exactingly, we, being doctors and public health agencies and so on? Or, you know, is it something i—in the indoor air? If outdoor air pollution doesn’t cause someone to become an
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asthmatic, which I think a lot of experts say, does it at least—what role does it play in triggering asthma attacks by people who have asthma? And what role does indoor air pollution play, indoor air contaminants of different types? Whether, do tighter buildings—more energy efficient buildings trap indoor air pollutants and play some kind of role? Do the sanitary conditions in—in indoor spaces where a number of inner-city children live, like roach or—or—or rat, you know, debris, the little fl—flakes that come off of roaches or, you know, hairs or dander or whatever from rats? Do—does this somehow have an allergic affect on—on children? Is this a reason why there’s a lot of pediatric asthma being seen among inner-city—poor inner-city children? Those were the kind of questions I tried to examine in—in that effort. The
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Living with Pollution series was a much larger and more time-consuming piece of investigative or explanatory, I guess, journalism, both. I wanted to try to get beyond the bureaucratic discussions, the legal and scientific concentration of so much of what I wr—wrote about with regard to air pollution and try to do some, for want of a better word, feature stories, profiles of neighborhoods and portraits of the lives that people live in those communities or neighborhoods where people live day-to-day with much worse air pollution than many parts of the Houston area experience. I spent a—a fair amount of time doing some initial research while doing other stories for the Chronicle, carrying out other duties and so on, trying to find the right neighborhoods. And by the right neighborhoods, I mean, a—a series of—a collection
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of neighborhoods that would be interesting, that would pose different demographic qualities that would—that would involve hopefully different pollution issues and—so there would be some—so—some variety in the portraits of these different neighborhoods. And ended up spending a lot of time over a number of weeks with the tremendous assistance of a colleague, the Chronicle photographer, Carlos Rios, who—just a wonderful journalist. And, oh was not just a photographer on the project, it was like having a second reporter on the project because I’d be talking to some people here and he’d be down the street talking to some more people and come back to me and say, hey, you got to go talk to these people in this house down the street, they got a good story to tell. You know, he’d be s—taking pictures and gathering—gathering information and interview prospects at the same time. So,
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whatever qualities the—the series may have had, would not have been there if it hadn’t been for my collaboration with Carlos on the thing but i—it was an effort, the—the name of the series, I guess, says it all, wha—to—to tell what it’s like to live with air pollution as a—a fairly constant aspect of one’s life. And—then the communities that I ended up concentrating on were either near o—or immediately adjacent to or downwind from, you know, major pollution sources in the—on—on the industrial east side of town. And I got—I got a—a—a—a somewhat gratifying response to that. It was not a lot of people, but a number of people, including some other journalists in a couple of other cities told me that they—they thought it was a—I’d done a good job. And the people in one of the neighborhoods thanked me for, you know, their civic association gave me a little—little certificate of thanks for having directed attention to their—to their issues in their neighborhood and thanked
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me for the fact that a—a news organization didn’t just write about crime or—or the negative, you know, aspects of—of life in their community and put them in a bad light. It showed them, I hoped, in a—a little bit more—a little bit more depth and—and, you know, as—as people who had, in many instances, fairly difficult lives and had a lot of things to think about and worry about—economic problems and—and all sorts of other things and—and how they either coped with or tried to deal with or tried to push back against what they perceived as health and quality of life burdens o—on—on their communities, health impacts and quality of life burdens, I guess I should say. So it was, like I said, an—an effort to present to the public more information than I thought I had successfully done in the past and in a—in a comprehensive and—fairly comprehensive and I hoped in depth way, a—a l—look at, you know, what these—what these issues were about and what they meant for the people on the receiving end of some of the air pollution.
DT: I had a question about when you’re presenting these stories, yo—you’ve talked about a number of them from air toxics to ozone to the grandfathered issues, global warming. Ho—how do you—in the first place, pick your topics? And secondly how do you pick your sources for those topics in a way that you feel gets closer to the truth and does good service to the community?
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BD: Well, picking the topics is not—was not a difficult task, I guess. The agenda was sort of set in a way by—by congress and the Clean Air Act when it designated certain major air pollutants as the ones of primary concern for the nation as a whole, based on a whole body of scientific research, which had gone on—a long history of research. And ozone was one of those and Houston was a major violator of the Ozone Standard with legal governmental obligations to clean up the air here. The state had those obligations to clean up the air, come up with a plan to clean up the air, reduce ozone sufficiently. And air toxics were also in the, you know, in—in the Act because of concerns which scientists and others had raised and—and were enshrined in the Act as a regulatory program. So, I mean, I didn’t pick the—the issues. It was sort of like the—the issues were just there and obvious to cover.
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Houston was a bad violator of the Ozone Standard and there were a lot of complaints about other kinds of chemical air pollution and so on. And, you know, it was a major public policy debate in a number of—at a number of levels. And my job as a news reporter was, in a sense, not that difficult because the problems were there, the issues were there, I just had to decide how to cover them. I didn’t decide how to, you know, well, will I write about ozone, well, no, I think I’ll write about this air pollutant over here, even though Houston doesn’t have a major deadline and face major economic sanctions if it doesn’t come up with a plan to meet the deadline or if the state doesn’t come up with a plan to meet the deadline. I mean…
DT: Well maybe the more difficult question was not so much picking which criteria pollutant or which toxic to focus on, but rather what’s your angle, you know, what—what is the—what is the problem, what is the source that you believe in, that you go to to explain that problem?
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BD: Well, you want to go to credible sources. You don’t want to go to people who you have reason to think or believe or suspect or, you know, telling you something that’s not factually accurate. On the other hand, environmental battles are so wrapped up in politics and the political and legal process on a—on a continuing and institutionalized basis that there is, you know, a—a readymade set of—cast of characters which presents itself to a reporter, who are out there butting heads in public forums, in the courtroom, in the halls of the legislature or trying to get city hall or county government to do something. Or—and, you know, you assess who the significant players are in a debate like that, who’s playing a role. Not every environmental group has a major commitment to engage in the air quality issue, for instance. A given environmental group’s, advocacy group’s mission may go more to habitat and wildlife or quality of life broadly or parks or forests or—or whatever. So that limits your—yo—your field of possibilities right there. And on the other side,
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you know, the business and industry leaders have spokesmen and organizations, coalitions and so on, that they put forward. And, I guess, in a way, I’m kind of dodging your question, but it’s—you—say, the Sierra Club, for instance, just picking a—a hypothetical, i—is the major environmental group active on a certain issue, in a certain location. And they have staff, they have professional staff, they have volunteers who have an organization of the—the—the Houston Sierra Club has a—a leader, has a, you know, committee chairs for different committees. And you might go to the chair of the Air Quality Committee to get a—a statement from the Sierra Club on something. You might go to the—the chair of the Environmental Committee for some industry organization to get a statement. These are people with—who have risen through the ranks, if you will, within their organizations and have been vetted
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as serious and, you know, studious and credible people within those organizations. So the fact that the environmental arena had such a—a broad set of institutional players, institutional interest groups on many of the major issues makes it somewhat easier for a reporter. Now how do you pick which people in a community, in a neighborhood to go interview about what it’s like to live in a neighborhood? Well, that’s a much more difficult undertaking. I would say you just start kind of talking to people, talking to people who have been active on an issue in a neighborhood. If—if there’s a—an ad hoc committee, which has been formed or a—a committee within the Civic Club in a neighborhood or something. There’s going to be some people who are more interested in and active on an issue than others and that’s a—a
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way of entry into discussions with people in a neighborhood, for instance. Or—you just talk to people. One thing leads to another. Someone tells you, oh, this woman down the street had some concerns about a cancer cluster in her neighborhood or—or whatever, and you might want to go talk to her. And you go find out—turns out, she, you know, had—had an unsuccessful set of conversations with state officials about having an epidemiological study done. So that makes her a—a potential interview subject right there because she’s got some concern about some potential problems and has had some experience with the—the—the bureaucracy in—in—in trying to—to get to the bottom of those problems.
DT: Well, I—I can see how there—there are so many different sources that you could possibly go to and so many angles that you could take. And as a reporter, you want to be as impartial and balanced as possible but, you know, given that it—that—that—that environmental concerns are usually battled out, like you said, in sort of adversarial approach, somebody is going to win and somebody’s going to lose and—and in the end, somebody’s going to be decided to have the balance of truth on their side. How do you address that reality and yet try to respect the—the sort of traditions of your profession that—and you—you’re trying to provide a balanced venue for all sides to be heard?
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BD: Well, to start with, I’m not sure I agree that the people who win a battle necessarily have more truth on their side. I mean, the political—the political arena doesn’t always operate that way. On the other hand, the truth broadly defined is a big ole thing and I’m not sure that mainstream journalism as I worked in it, which is to say, as a news reporter most of whose stories were pretty short, daily stories, event driven stories responding to reporting on a development or an event in an issue. There’s so many challenges in trying to just get the facts together, the basic facts of an event that—that you’re reporting on, that happened that day, an announcement by the mayor, a—a vote in a legislative committee, a lawsuit filed by an environmental group for instance. It’s pretty challenging just to try to assemble some basic, hopefully, factual information on—for a daily news story. And those daily
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news stories were most were most—made up the body of—the great body of what I did as a newspaper reporter, that’s challenging in itself. Then you have other complications like, can you get a guy on the other side of the issue on the line, is it—is—for a comment, is—is he in meetings or so on. If you can’t get him or if he’s out of town or away at a funeral or whatever, who—who’s the other best person you can get from that side of the issue who’s being accused of something, for instance. And—and then the whole—the whole institutional history of mainstream journalism, newspaper journalism in the United States has led to a—a set of protocols about, as you say, fairness and, you know, impartiality and not taking sides on issues and so on. And all of that, I guess, adds up to my belief that daily newspaper journalism is more than anything else about snapshots of reality. And those snapshots you try to
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make as—as true, as accurate and, you know, hopefully as fair as you can a—a—at a given time. And those snapshots then, perhaps, in accumulation over a period of time had up to something more closely approximating the truth, as you say. But a—a—a given s—newspaper article, I think, is asked to carry too great a burden if you ask that story to—to convey, you know, some larger truth about something. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do more in depth reporting and because the more angles you can take on something, the more aspects of an issue you can convey, a—as with the stories I talked about trying to portray the lives that people live who deal with air pollution and the—the impacts that they have. That was an effort, in part, to—to provide a more well-rounded portrait of the larger truth, as you put it. I—it’s not just an—a battle between competing interests, experts who work for industry or an environmental group or. There’s also scientists and other
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researchers who are doing research, whose work doesn’t readily fit into a kind of one side or the other side kind of understanding of an issue. And there’re people whose lives are affected, who don’t know a lot about the issue, but know that something bothers them and they have problems and they want to do something about it and here’s how they’re being impacted. I think all of those things add up ultimately to a—a—a broader portrait of the truth of an issue than any one newspaper article can do, which is a kind of round about way of evading your question, I guess. I don’t know.
DT: Well, maybe if—if we can just try this one more time and see if—if there’s a way to get your experience with dealing with hurtles to getting at the truth, if that even exists in anything more than a rhetorical sense. The en—en—environmental information often—it becomes a—a—a mess of—of statistics or a battle between experts with very similar resumes. Ho—how would you plow through reams of data that can be manipulated to provide different statistical outcomes? Or how do you balance the testimony and comments from experts that may work for industry or they may work for a nonprofit public interest group? Ho—how do you get cl—through these different or (?) course obstacles to—to finding something that is worth delivering to the public that wi—will be somewhat accurate and—and thorough?
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BD: Well, I didn’t really do an awful lot, probably should’ve done more, but I really didn’t do an awful lot of independent analysis of statistics. I—I simply didn’t have that luxury. I’m—I’m not a statistician and there were always demands for more stories, you know. There’s certain productivity that’s expected of a reporter and—and that expectation didn’t, at least, allow the kind of, you know, study of the statistical pros and cons perhaps that the—the public deserves or would like to see. I know some reporters do that. I—I didn’t get to or u—undertake doing a lot of that kind of thing. As you say, so many of these things have pros and cons. There’s a body of statistics and it’s interpreted—that body of statistics is interpreted in different ways by different people. And to try to do the best and truest snapshot of reality that I could do would often involve the sort of clichéd, perhaps, or predictable
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quotation of people who had different interpretations of those statistics. Now that was not always the case. I mean, sometimes you could, you know, if a—if a number is above a federal health standard, it’s above a federal health standard, you don’t need to—to—to do much statistical analysis. You can—you can compare how great a—a violation of the standard that is with some other violation of the standard somewhere else, in another city or something to get some kind of easily understandable portrayal of—of how serious a problem is. I mean, the—where it gets more complicated is where there’s not a standard or where there—where there’s debate over where the standard should be. And these kind of questions that you—you ask have been, you know, around forever and will continue to be around
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forever, es—es—especially a lot of—a lot of discussion over the years about journalists’ two-sided portrayal of the science of climate change. A lot of advocates and some scientists, a—a number of prominent scientists have criticized mainstream journalism, news reporters, news organizations for adhering to too rigid a balance in trying to convey the different opinions about research on global warming, what that research means, what a given study means, what a given set of studies means for hurricane intensity or sea level rise or melting of, you know, the ice sheet in Greenland or whatever aspect they’re looking at. Science is rarely—science rarely deals in absolute certainty. I think it never does, in fact, from what I understand of science. And new research sheds new light on things and different scientists have different interpretations and some scientists are funded by one side and others by another and some of them—most of them aren’t funded by one, you know, group
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with a—a particular role in a—in a fight. So, the—the evolution, perhaps, of the way that mainstream journalism has treated the climate change issue may shed some light on your question. There’s been a movement just over the last couple of years that’s been notable by many people who look closely at—at coverage of climate change. There’s been a movement away from this kind of talking heads paradigm, if you will, as the consensus or agreement, consensus is a—a—a word that’s—whose meaning is debated an—and so I won’t use that. But the—the—the broader professional agreement among scientists a—about i—interpretation of—of climate change research has—has grown in recent years, as manifested by the firmer and firmer statements by the intergovernmental panel on climate change and the reports that they’ve come out with every five or six years, including a set of major update
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reports just last year in 2007. As the—as the scientific community has coalesced around firmer interpretations, firmer conclusions, statements with greater certainty from likely to very likely on a certain question, for instance, with specific definitions of those words in their reports. But as that has happened, I think journalists have followed suit and have begun portraying climate—the discussion of climate science less as a one expert on this side of the table, another expert on this side of the table butting heads and disagreeing with seemingly equal claim to an accurate interpretation. So o—one way that journalists have traditionally tried to walk through the mine field that you’re talking about is to try to pay attention to the people who are the experts, who are the scientists, who have studied the matter, who have devoted their careers to it, who haven’t just dabbled in it, but who have published peer reviewed studies and see where the—the—the—the—the weight of
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scientific opinion is on and issue. That’s one way that journalists decide how to—how to portray the scientific disagreements. And—and I think that’s happened on climate change, as it happened, and this is not original thought on my part, but a number of people made this observation, as it happened on the question of smoking and—and lung cancer. Once upon a time, news accounts of—I understand, I was pretty young at the time and not paying real close attention to these articles and reports, but once upon a time, I understand the, you know, there was a—a—a general practice by the news media to portray the question of smoking and lung cancer as a debate, if you will, a pretty two-sided debate with—with arguments on the two sides, battling it out. Over a period of time, through a series of events and conclusions the—you know, I don’t remember or even know about or, you know,
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are—are irrelevant to our discussion here, the scienti—the body of scientific opinion coalesced around a strong conclusion that smoking causes lung cancer. It’s not just apparently correlated with, you know, a greater risk of lung cancer, but it causes lung cancer. Now there’s a few people out there who probably still dispute that, but you won’t find them in—in news articles. You know, you’d—you—you’d be hard-pressed to find a news article today that—that treats the question of smoking and lung cancer as an evenhanded debate. Now I think a legitimate criticism of journalism and journalists is that they cling to the talking—the—the—the battling expert’s paradigm on these scientific disagreements longer than they should. There’s a—there’s a sort of inertia, if you will, I think, on the part of journalists to—
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and journalism in general, to—to continue to portray a scientific debate or a scientific disagreement on a certain statistical or other research question more as a debate then it still is in the scientific community. And I don’t know what all the reasons are for that. The—the basic approach to covering public debates of mainstream journalism has been, you know, sort of the political model. We’ve got two parties in this country and, you know, you’re not going to find a mainstream reporter covering a particular political race who’s probably—who’s going to give, you know, ten times as much attention to what one party says as the other party says in a debate story. So there’s that tendency to approach, probably unwarranted tendency in many cases, to approach the coverage of other kinds of public debates among scientists and the people who use scientific data to make political points, to treat them in the
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same way that you treat a—a partisan political debate in the middle of a—of a—of an election campaign, for instance. A—another reason that journalists may have in the past tended to cling too much to the—on the one hand, on the other hand kind of portrayal of a scientific, statistical whatever disagreement is the, you know, fact that in—in—in many cases a lot of reporters who are called upon to cover these issues, don’t have any kind of scientific or statistical expertise. I—I—I didn’t have a—a science background or a statistical background as a reporter; it was kind of on the job training, if you will. I picked it up as I went along and—and—and I hope I—I, you know, learned enough along the way to do a better and better job as I went along. But a—a lot of news organizations don’t have the luxury of assigning somebody fulltime to be an environmental reporter or a science reporter even today, the smaller ones especially and, you know, TV stations, which have relatively small
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news staffs and so on. So, you’re going to have somebody go out and cover one of these stories who really doesn’t have the kind of academic credentials and expertise or even on the job learning experience to—to make a, you know, a valid judgment about where the bulk of scientific thinking or evidences on something. And—and oftentimes you don’t have the time to—to—to try to figure that out. You’re on a—on a deadline, you know, you don’t have time to—to review scientific literature or, you know, delve into the—i—into the, you know, the body of evidence which is out there, more readily available now on the internet than it once was. But before the internet, I mean, how are you going to do that? You can—you can drive down to the medical school, maybe, and get the medical librarian to help you start looking up some Journal articles or something. But probably not going to get very far in—in finding
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enough to, you know, come up with a very good judgment on that until—before your deadline later in the day. So—and then there’s a lot of good—good criticism that can be leveled at—at journalists and journalism for—for not, you know, trying to reach conclusions more, I guess, or to—to draw conclusions more from the body of evidence that’s out there. And that—that is done, I mean, you know, especially when a reporter has the—however I should say it, but when a reporter has the—the luxury and I’ll call it that, of—of devoting enough time and attention to a subject that they can feel that they’re reaching a—a—a valid, you know, kind of conclusion that the body of scientific—the bulk of scientific opinion seems to be on one side of an issue or the other. But in the absence of being able to do that, you know, the tendency is to fall back on the—on the age-old, you know, reporting method of
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saying, well, you know, this is fight. You’ve got one side saying one thing, you’ve got another side saying another thing, they’ve both got experts, I’ll quote the two experts. And…
DT: Well, th—this has been really helpful to sort of understand the—the difficulties that you have in dealing with things that can be very polarized and partisan both in the kind of subjects that you choose or—or the kind of sources that you have to use and—and the kind of descriptions of a problem you might take. I’m just curious if you could talk about some of the ways that—the controversial topics like environmental issues get dealt with i—within a news organization. You know, ho—how—how does the reporting end deal with the—the opinion page or how does—how do the journalists deal with the editorial staff or, you know, how does the reporting side deal with the advertising side of a newspaper business when you—you’ve got a topic like, you know, environmental issue that, you know, can be—can be controversial?
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BD: Well, I can only speak from—or primarily speak from my experience, I mean, I guess I could provide some anecdotal things I’ve heard from other reporters, but I’d prefer not to do that because, you know, I don’t remember the d—details well enough. And—and, you know, I—no anecdotes come readily to mind, but—but I do know what I did and what experiences I had and so I’ll speak to that. And—most of my life as an environmental reporter, r—a reporter covering environmental issues, was at the Houston Chronicle, as you said, for seventeen years. And I’ll—that’s where I was the environment writer, I did some environmental reporting at some other papers but I was not the environmental reporter at those papers in any kind of formal definition of the word. So I’ll just talk about the Chronicle, if you don’t mind,
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because that’s the bulk of my experience, by far. I was never really told what to cover at the Chronicle, at least in my years there, the Chronicle was on the spectrum of reporter driven paper to editor driven paper and there’s no newspaper that’s totally on one side or the other of that spectrum. It’s all kind of shades of grey in between. But I found, at least in my experience, that, you know, it was up to me to decide what to cover. They had hired me to cover the environment and I told them what I thought I should be covering. That doesn’t mean to say that I didn’t get an assignment from time to time, usually because some event was upcoming or some press release had come in from an environmental group and an editor had gotten the press release before it came to me and decided they thought I should do a story on that subject, you know, and, fine, I’ll do a story on that subject. But by and large, it was up to me to decide what to cover. And I believe—I—I
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cannot remember a single instance in my seventeen years at the Chronicle where I was ever told not to cover a story. More often it was I wasn’t covering—producing enough stories on something which was, you know, a constant source of low-grade tension and disagreement. I wanted to be spending more time on an in depth story and they wanted me to be cranking out more daily stories to put in the newspaper, you know. But that’s just a professional difference of opinion.
DT: Did you ever find that—that you could cover a—an issue but it would be buried in the newspaper or, you know, be below the crease or in section E?
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BD: Oh yeah, yeah, every reporter thinks his stuff is, you know, ought to be on the top of the front page everyday. I mean, I’m being facetious there but, you know, certainly you—you often think that your stories are more important than the—than the display they get, but that’s just part of the—part of the process. There’s a lot of different articles competing every day, not only produced by the local staff, but by the wire services and, you know, by events in the world, which—which lead to news stories, unexpectedly at five o’clock in the afternoon. If they suddenly have to decide to wedge into the front page somehow at the last minute and pushes another story, a good story off of the front page. So, yeah, certainly that happened and I, you know, frequently thought my stories weren’t getting as good attention or good
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display as they should have in many cases. I’ll have to say in other cases that sometimes they gave them a more prominent display than I thought they deserved. And I found myself sometimes saying, this isn’t really that significant a development yet. I think you’re maybe hyping this or something. But there—there was this give and take that went on and on balance some, I think the people that I worked for at the Chronicle over the seventeen years that I was there, began to—and I say on balance, you know, averaged out that I was getting better display with stories than I had the beginning. I don’t know what the reason for that was—maybe the environment—maybe I was writing better stories. I think I—I hope I was.
DT: Did—did you ever find that—that the reporting you were doing diverged from what the editorial page, the opinion…
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BD: Oh, I can answer that question easily. I—I didn’t read the editorials, so I don’t know whether it diverged from it or not. Now that’s an over—over statement of the fact, I occasionally read an editorial in the Chronicle. But a—at an earlier newspaper job I had decided that—i—it was in Little Rock, if I recall correctly, that there were two newspapers at the time, there was the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat. The Gazette had an editorial stance which was kind of moderate, liberal, it’s—in the southern sense of the term. And the Democrat was on the conservative side, editorially, on the editorial page, I mean. That had been manifested in the 1950’s during the Little Rock desegregation crisis in some ways that a lot of people still remembered and still were aggravated by in Little Rock when
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I went to work there in 1978. So twenty years give or take after the fact, it was still very much a—a—a, you know, a sensitive issue in Little Rock how the—how the newspapers had—had treated that—that crisis. I didn’t find there at the Arkansas Democrat, even though I worked for the paper that was known as the conservative paper on its editorial pages, I didn’t find that that political view of the editorial writers spilled over into my news assignments or what I was allowed to cover at all. But I began to get a little bit annoyed, somewhat amused and a little bit annoyed sometimes that I would encounter people on different stories in Little Rock and probably didn’t happen more than a few times, but it was enough to kind of make an impression on me. They’d say, oh you work for the Democrat, I bet you’re going to write a conservative story. I’d say, well, to tell you the truth, I don’t read the
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editorials, so I don’t know whether my article’s going to, you know, in any way parallel or complement or anything, what the editorial writers are writing. And so I sort of made it my personal policy to steer away from reading the editorials in the newspapers where I worked so I could never be accused of trying to adjust my news reporting to what the editorial position was of the newspaper.
DT: Okay, let’s stop here for just a moment. You—you’ve talked a little bit about the environmental journalism at—at four different newspapers I believe and your—your recent career is—is—balances some reporting in journalism but also includes some teaching, where you’re—you’re currently a—a lecturer of—at Rice University and are teaching a course called Environmental Battles of the Twenty-First Century, Houston as a Microcosm. And I’d be curious if—how that experience has helped you both gel what you’re interest and concerns about the environment might be and also get some sort of exposure to what the next generation of kids might be thinking about these same topics.
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BD: Well, I’ll be glad to talk about that. When I left the Chronicle in 2001, I—I left for a—a job in Washington with a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting organization called The Center For Public Integrity and ended up working there for a—a couple of years covering environmental and some related issues. I said covering, doing larger investigative type reports on those issues, not really covering the news in any classic sense of the word. But as a—as is the case with a lot of nonprofits and a lot of for-profit news organizations, they ran into some—some finan—a financial situation and have had some cutbacks over the years in staff and one of those happened in 2003 and the grant that funded my position ran out. And as it turned out, my family had not moved to Washington for various reasons and I
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had worked for them largely from Houston. And so I found myself in 2003 w—faced with the necessity of figuring out how to—how to make a living and decided I wanted to try my hand at, you know, creating kind of a hybrid livelihood for myself doing some freelance journalism and other, you know, kind of writing that might be, you know, compatible with the—the work of a journalist, not advocacy work for anyone or anything, but no—not public relations for anybody or anything like that. But—but I—I had the idea also of, you know, I know that—I knew that a number of people who worked in journalism and had worked in journalism used the body of information that they had gathered over the years to—to hopefully good effect by—
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by teaching. And often times that’s teaching journalism, you know, teaching new journalists, (?) not something that appealed to me particularly. And I’m still figuring out how to be a journalist myself a lot of the time, I’m not sure I’m, you know, ready to try to teach other people how to do it. But I—it occurred to me that I—over seventeen years at the Chronicle and before then and—and after then, I had really learned a lot about a lot of environmental issues, particularly as they play out here in Houston and the upper Texas coast and the broader region around us here. So I hatched the idea of approaching the people who run—ran the Environmental Studies Program at Rice an interdisciplinary program there, with a proposal to teach an issues course which I called Environmental Battles of the Twenty-First Century,
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Houston as a Microcosm. And I went into talk to them about this proposal and they liked the idea and they hired me to—on a part-time basis to—to teach this undergraduate course. And of—I’m in the fourth year doing it now. I’ve taught it one semester per year for the last four years. And it’s been—it’s been an interesting experience because it’s been, I guess, a lot more work than I thought it was going to be. I thought—I thought the—you know, you get the lectures pretty much in place the first year and then just kind of coast after that. But the way I’ve done the course has been to really customize my discussions of the different issues I talk about each year to bring things up-to-date. So it’s required a lot of, kind of, reporting, if you will, kind of journalistic work to at least read and update myself on what’s been going on in some areas that I might not have been paying as close
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attention to in the proceeding months as I would’ve been as a reporter at the Chronicle assigned to cover those issues. It’s—it’s been an interesting experience meeting with students and getting to know them. The interest in the class has grown over the four years. The class was announced late in the term at Rice, in the middle of the year I think, the first year I taught it and perhaps as a result of that or perhaps because of other factors, only a—only a few students signed up. I don’t remember, there were six or eight students, I think, kind of a modest seminar size course. And there were a few more students the next year and a few more the next year and last year the third year, I think there were sixteen or eighteen students, something like that. And I was shocked this year when I walked into the larger classroom they had me assigned to and there was this large group of students there
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in the forty plus range. And other students came in and asked if they could add the course even though it was, you know, getting to be too late to add it and so on. And it’s for—some have added and some have dropped, I think it’s forty something students now, I’m not sure of the exact number. But that’s a—a—a lot bigger group of students than I’ve had the last three years and I don’t know what that speaks to exactly. I think it probably is an indicator of the fact that the environment’s a hot topic right now. I think it has something to do with the—the greater attention that’s been given to climate change over the last couple of years and the greater attention that the news media and business community and political figures have been giving to—yo—giving to climate change and the whole constellation of associated issues, energy and green building and conservation and hybrid cars and, you know,
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everything under the sun that’s—seems to be exploding right now. So I think—that—that’s been interesting to notice and the students, I have them—I have them write a weekly—a—a short weekly response paper each week, just two or three, four hundred words. Just a kind of a blog post or a journal entry almost on—on what they read and what we discussed the previous week, often what I talked about or a guest speaker would come in and talk about. And I’ve been impressed and heartened by the fact that there’s so much interest in these issues and—and, you know, a growing understanding on a part of a lot of the students that these are—these are important concerns that are going to be with them as they get older and move out into the work world after college and so on. And that the—I’m—I’m impressed by their ability to grasp sort of the complexity and multidimensional
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aspect of these issues. One of—one of the things I try to do at the beginning of each semester is to th—ask them to keep in mind a few themes which run through a lot of environmental issues and help tie them together. And they seem to se—seem to warm to that—that way of looking at environmental issues. For instance, you know, energy and energy concerns and debate over how to—how to develop or explore for or use energy or conserve energy. How energy ri—at large is such a major part of so many environmental issues, whether it’s air quality or global warming or, you know, the way we develop our cities or what kind of development patterns we have, what kind of transportation systems we have, ultimately link back to energy in a lot of ways. And other things I—I—I want—oh, another one of the things I try to tell them is that I want them to—what my mission in the class is to help make
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them environmentally literate if they want to continue paying attention to these issues. It’s sort of a citizenship class in a way because I—I want to give them some basic knowledge of issues, how they interrelate and also some tools for keeping up with those issues, often o—online tools for, you know, keeping up with a lot of news coverage at the same time through news sites that aggregate news coverage or summarize stories from a lot of different sources or whatever. So that’s one of the missions in the class. A—another thing I tell them as one of other themes is that they—it’s interesting to see them reflect upon in some of their writings through the semester is that Environmental Battles, the title of the course, I should digress and say I was going to call it Environmental Issues of the Twenty-First Century, but a—a
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Rice professor told me no, call it Environmental Battles, that’ll make it much more interesting to the students and you’ll get more participation that way. So I—I went for the flashier name of the course and it was a good suggestion. That—one of the things that they have to remember through these environmental battles that they’re paying attention to in the class and beyond is that there really are battles. They’re examples of different value systems and different values in play on the part of different members of the public. Some people put a greater premium on having environmental risks at a level this low rather than here. Other people don’t put as much of a premium on that. They have different values. And so, I try to get them to understand that, you know, that these—those—those competing values translate into political battles in the, you know, in the political arena, in the courts and so on.
DT: Yo—Bill, you talked to us about your role as a—as a reporter and a journalist and—and just recently about your work as—as a teacher. And I was hoping that you could put on another hat and just talk about yourself as an individual or as a citizen and how these environmental matters, I guess, sort of translate some sort of meaning to you.
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BD: Well, one of the topics I te—talk about in the—in the class, specifically with regard to—to the climate issue but it—but it applies in other areas as well, is the question of equity. It plays out in a lot of ways in—in the environmental arena. Environmental justice is one manifestation, other people who h—have an unfair burden of pollution in their lives than other people do simply by virtue of living close to an industry or whatever. And I tried to capture some of that in the series that I talked about other th—earlier, the Living with Pollution series. An—another way that the equity subject plays out in environmental issues and I want the students to think about is what’s called Intergenerational Equity, how climate and these other issues, conservation issues are about the legacy, th—the world which we’re creating for future generations. And I guess that goes to the broader subject of sustainability
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and whether you’re living in a way today that will provide, you know, a decent livelihood and a clean and sustainable economy for—for future generations. And those are things that concern me as a citizen. I mean, I—I believe in fairness. I believe in, you know, trying to make progress where progress can be made. And, you know, it disturbs me that, you know, some people don’t—don’t live lives that are as—as—of as high quality as other people’s live are. And so this equity issues are of concern to me personally. And the idea that the world that I grew up in may—is changing in ways that, you know, future generations would perhaps consider bad. And , you know, a—a changed climate, a—a—a depletion of—of green space, a—a—a—a decrease…
[End of reel 2418]
[End of Interview with Bill Dawson]