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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

LOE Profile Series #2: Phil Shabecoff

Air Date: Week of


32 years with the New York Times, journalist Philip Shabecoff reported from many posts around the world. But Mr. Shabecoff is probably best known for his 14 years as the Times's environmental reporter, and is founding publisher of the environmental news service, Greenwire. In many ways, Phil Shabecoff helped to create the environmental journalism beat. As part of Living on Earth's series this year on 25 intriguing people involved with environmental change, Living on Earth's George Homsy produced this audio impression of Mr. Shabecoff's career.

(Asian music)

MAN'S VOICE: The New York Times, January 17, 1969.

(NPR woman reporter: "Asia, the hungry, sometimes desperate giant, received 2 rare graces in 1968. More food and more hope. Despite a major war and minor flare-ups, despite continued overpopulation and underdevelopment...")

SHABECOFF: When I was writing about other issues, including economic development, I was, without even realizing it, writing about the environment. I was writing about development in the poor countries of Asia. These countries were industrializing, but they weren't growing any richer. So it was, I was not writing about the environment, but the environment was a part of those stories even though I probably didn't even use the word environment at the time. I went in thinking it would just be about covering national parks, national forests. But then I started realizing how much economics was involved. And then that the environment was a social issue as well.

MAN'S VOICE: The New York Times, April 1, 1986.

(WOMAN'S VOICE: Big T's Bait and Tackle Shop is lined with soda cans, boxes of candy bars, crackers, and beef jerky, artificial flies and worms, fishing rods, and a sign reading "Stop The Nuclear Incinerator." About a half mile away...")

SHABECOFF: I think I was one of the first reporters to start writing about those issues that now are identified under the rubric of environmental justice.

(WOMAN'S VOICE: "...residents contend that their area was selected for the plants because it has a median family income about half the national average, and has historically wielded little political power, and because half the people are black or American Indian. It's the same waste management...")

SHABECOFF: Things that are wrong with our environment are things that are wrong with our economy, and things that are wrong with our social structure: the way Americans and other people relate to each other, all spring from the same general base. The way we have organized and structured ourselves as a society.

(Music up and under: "April in Paris.")

SHABECOFF: In high school, I lived in the Bronx and used to go to Van Cortlandt Park in the North Bronx. And there's one wooded area there that was a particular favorite. I used to take my sweethearts there. And one day I went there with my girlfriend and it was just a big mass of dirt. And they just threw a multi-lane highway right through the middle of that park. And I thought: this shouldn't be. And I was vague, sort of had this vague feeling ever since that somebody has to do something to keep highways and other things from happening to places that people love and want to preserve.

MAN'S VOICE: The New York Times, September 3, 1981.

(WOMAN'S VOICE: "Interior Secretary James G. Watt is considering a recommendation to permit strip mining next to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Department officials and environmentalists reported today...")

(Music up and under: pop rock)

MAN'S VOICE: The New York Times, November 14, 1980.

(WOMAN'S VOICE: "Members of Ronald Reagan's special group on the environment said yesterday that his administration would probably seek to modify or discard anti-pollution regulations that had no economic or scientific justification...")

SHABECOFF: Sounds as if it could have come straight out of the Contract With America, don't they? But it was a different political climate at the time. The American people, while they supported Reagan, clearly objected strongly to his initiatives to a weakened environmental protection. Let me tell you why I went into journalism. I determined at an early age that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter because I thought I could help make democracy function better, by giving people the information they needed to know on important things. And it's the same thing with the environment. I was not an advocacy environmental reporter. I just presented the facts about what I considered to be important issues, so that citizens could know the facts and make important decisions about it themselves.

CURWOOD: Phil Shabecoff left The New York Times in 1991, rather than take reassignment from his environmental beat. His most recent book is a history of the environmental movement called A Fierce Green Fire.



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