As unsuspecting teachers look to enlighten their students this fall, they just might pay the $29.95 for “Tampering with Nature”, from the collection of “John Stossel Videos.” The question for teachers is: do they know that John Stossel is playing them as chumps? Look at how “Tampering with Nature” was deceitfully made and maybe instead of writing that check, teachers and parents will email ABC and John Stossel with indignation and contempt.
While in St. Louis in March of 2001, at a National Science Teachers’ Convention, I stumbled upon Michael Sanera peddling a book titled Facts Not Fear. For those of you who don’t know, Sanera is the “anti-eco-education point-person” for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a think-tank funded by the likes of Dow Chemical, General Motors, Texaco, and those true friends of education and moral values, Philip Morris. Sanera has a forum in major newspapers from Seattle to New York from which he denounces the environmental movement. Amongst all those teachers of our children, Sanera was like a carnival hack. His manifesto was heavy on fear, and Rush Limbaugh-like on facts. Jeering at everything from ozone loss to species extinction, his was a transparent attack on ecological and environmental education for our nation’s children.
Intrigued, I looked up CEI on the net. There I found a reference to “SaveJohnStossel.org”. Stossel is a reporter with ABC news and the 20/20 news program. He is also a known critic of environmental regulations. CEI was dismayed at the tongue-lashing Stossel received when, incredibly, he reported that organic foods are no safer than foods sprayed with pesticide. As evidence for his claims, Stossel referred to test results, which an independent inquiry found not to exist! In defense of Stossel, CEI claims in their web page that he is entitled to his “right to free speech”. They warn supporters that “politically correct causes and special interests” are prepared to place that freedom in “jeopardy”. Excuse me, but what freedom are they referring to? Are these charlatans discussing the freedom to lie when you’re supposed to be telling the truth on national TV? In my world, investigative reporters are held accountable to verifiable sources and factual reporting. Stossel neglected these.
As an environmental science teacher and concerned citizen, I try to stay current with what industry and government groups have in store for us. Early in 2001 I was forwarded an “urgent” email from RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment) beckoning its members to support Mr. Stossel and Mr. Sanera’s jihad against eco-education. RISE is affiliated with the American Crop Protection Institute, a trade group founded to defend “urban usage of pesticides”. The urgent email explained that Michael Sanera who was working with John Stossel’s 20/20 producers on a program to expose the “evils” of environmental education had contacted RISE. In the email RISE beckons its members to find parents and their children who have been “scared green” and are willing to be interviewed. The last line of the email is telling: “Let’s try to help Mr. Stossel. He treats industry fairly in his programs.”
Just to see what would happen, my wife responded to the RISE email using her maiden name, stating that she is not sure about the environmental data our daughters are receiving in school. Soon we received an email back, giving us Michael Sanera’s phone number and urging us to contact him.
I was pondering all of this on April 9th, 2001 when, incredibly, producer Ted Balaker of ABC News called me out of the blue. He told me that ABC respected my editorials on environmentalism and they wanted to ask me questions about ecological issues. Point-blank I asked if there was a “Sanera connection”? He told me he’d never spoken to Sanera. I asked did ABC call me to entrap me in a “Scared Green” environmental education piece, where Stossel could manipulate the truth? He said no, there was no such project.
Suspicious, I called Michael Sanera as soon as I was off the phone with Balaker, following up on my wife’s email exchange with RISE. I told him my children brought home environmental education information from school and what should I do about it. Sanera was very enthusiastic, asking me if I would speak about this with ABC. He assured me that John Stossel’s producer from ABC would call me. The producer’s name? None other than a “Mr. Ted Balaker.” Balaker had lied to me and I had to find out why.
Corporate Web of Deceit: The Big Picture
The last several years have seen corporate America attempt to “manufacture” consent by flooding schools with dubious environmental materials. From MTV style videos to “mono-syllabic” fill-in sheets and activities that disparage everything from global warming to deforestation. These passive “educational materials” are a subterfuge designed to keep our youngest citizens comfortably numb. With critical thinking dulled, how could any warning about impending environmental woes be taken seriously, when children have been assured by the timber, chemical and tobacco industries that “it’s all good?”
Games People Play
Those who procure children as pawns, which exploit their innocence for profit, and pervert truth for self-serving gain, are usually met with repulsion from society. Such abuse of children is at its worst when the victimizer is a supposed friend. But there is one class of citizens in our society that is apparently exempt from this community standard: corporate citizens.
Case in point: Media titan Disney Corporation, using its television outlet, ABC, is seeking to drive a stake through the collective heart of environmental education. Their strategy is simple: get some of the most notorious polluters to fund think-tanks to produce data and promote it as “good science”. Then stage events that show kids “scared green” by “doomsday” education. Let John Stossel, popular investigative reporter for 20/20, manipulate the kids, creating a “prime time” illusion, a proverbial TV moment.
I am quite certain that Stossel’s team from ABC had my environmental education classes and me at North High targeted for the Scared Green piece. My questions about Sanera must have convinced the Disney/ABC team to hunt new prey.
They found it in Los Angeles, California on Earth Day.
In May I received a call from a traumatized mother/Earth Day organizer in LA who told me a chilling story. Just like me, ABC had contacted her about doing a student interview. Unsuspecting, she agreed to the interview.
On April 20 & 23, 2001, a group of children, ages 8-11, eagerly awaited the opportunity to discuss the environment on TV. Their interviewer? John Stossel. Deftly, what had been represented to be a program showcasing the children’s fluency in science was turned into a witch-hunt. Stossel set the tone and agenda. Leading them on with hooks like, “It sounds so terrible, aren’t you scared?” he manipulated them into saying they were afraid in front of the camera. Then, quoting statistics from Sanera’s Facts Not Fear, he “proved” there is no environmental crisis, that recycling is a “sham”, that caribou herds have increased since drilling for oil began in Alaska, etc. Not once did he focus on the confident place the children spoke from...their hearts and minds. He intimidated the children so that their grasp of issues, like the considerable downsides of fossil fuels, was never addressed. He went on to question the motives of their teachers and advisors, accusing them of exploitation. The mirage of film editing now could show the children in the poorest light.
Sure enough, when “Scared Green” now morphed into “Tampering with Nature” was shown, it was a one-sided, deeply critical of environmental education and cast environmental woes as inconsequential. The piece avoided hard issues, employed “yellow journalism” and was loaded with critics of environmental protection and environmental education. Now, this film is for sale for use in classrooms? Despite pleas for ABC to reprimand Stossel after the showing of “Tampering with Nature”, ABC turned a blind eye to these new low in environmental reporting. Hey, they are the “Wonderful World of Disney” known for making lies (I mean dreams) come true.
Some two years later, I wonder when ABC will give equal time for the defenders of environmental education? Will educators like me, who directly experience the power and enlightenment of environmental science classes everyday, have the time, access and money to counter this onslaught of formidable critics and slanted facts? Don’t bet on it. The Stossel, Sanera and Disney/ABC connection demonstrates that money and power guarantee access to a giant public audience with no rebuttal. In the end, somewhere between the commercials and the spin, the truth will shrink to invisibility in this “age of information”.
I don’t lose hope, though, because in classrooms around the country there are dedicated teachers who enlighten their “charges” with credible and sound data. No preaching from the pulpit, or buying access to speak—no, these teachers just provide the skills to young people to make rational and sound decisions on ecological issues. This is what the foes of environmental education fear the most.
I pray each night that media dedicated to truth will have the courage to print probing stories. What does it take to get their attention? Burning Disney characters and Stossel effigies in front of ABC corporate buildings? Boycotting network TV channels?
When environmental crimes or abuses of power occur in a free society, headlines describing these events should blaze across page one. Sadly, the despoilers of nature try to buy or bury any media vehicle that seeks open discussion. They try to discredit education that teaches critical thinking. They seek to convince the public to accept a status quo good for industry profits, no matter the truth: but maybe, boycotting John Stossel’s videos will be a first step in telling industry, “our children are yours no more.”
John F. Borowski is a teacher and education advisor to the Native Forest Council. He has spoken in the Senate on behalf of forest protection and has written many pieces on the intrusion into schools by corporate America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org