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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The New Yorker Gets Fact Checked

Air Date: Week of April 9, 1999

Steve talks with Paul Brodeur, who was a staff writer at the New Yorker for almost four decades. Mr. Brodeur contends that several recent articles in that magazine and major U.S. newspapers contain factual inaccuracies that reflect an anti-environmental bias.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Environmental reporting by one of the nation's most prominent magazines has come under fire from one of its most famous alums. For almost 40 years, Paul Brodeur covered the environment for the New Yorker. In that time he helped to introduce the American public to such issues as asbestos poisoning and ozone depletion. But he's come out of retirement to write his latest story, which isn't about something in the air, it's about something on the page. In the May issue of Brill's Content, a media watchdog magazine, Paul Brodeur argues that at least twice this year the New Yorker made serious errors of fact in its environmental reporting, errors he believes that come from anti-environmental bias. One of the articles, for example, argues that most residential cancer clusters, like the one in the book and the movie A Civil Action, are not caused by toxins in the environment but occur by chance. Mr. Brodeur calls that ludicrous.

BRODEUR: First of all, you need to back up and understand what the statistics in the United States are about cancer that you never read about in the newspapers. Today, according to the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, one out of every three American men and one out of every four American women is developing cancer in his or her lifetime. Now there's a word for that. It is an epidemic of cancer. Sure, it's true, and the main point of that article in the February issue of the New Yorker was that clusters can happen by chance. Of course, if you have a million people developing cancer, naturally some clusters are going to develop by chance. But also, many clusters are going to develop because people are being exposed to chemical carcinogens all over the nation.

CURWOOD: Well, now, is part of the problem here that the science of statistics will look at a situation like a cancer cluster and say, because of its constructs, that you don't have significant results? Now, that doesn't mean that people aren't getting cancer. It simply means that using standard statistical methods, you can't prove that there's a cancer cluster there.

BRODEUR: Well, the last I heard, chemical carcinogens did not have constitutional rights. In other words, they do not deserve the extension of the presumption of innocence. The asbestos companies used to defend themselves in court by saying, "Well, how can you prove that your man who developed lung cancer breathed our asbestos?" Well, there was no way, absolutely no way. But in a famous case, Sindell v. Abbott, the judges said, "Look, you're all guilty. You make asbestos, people breathe it. It doesn't matter who makes it. It doesn't matter who breathed what fiber." This is also true with chemicals. This is now becoming a matter of common sense. The cancer rate in this country is just too great not to continue to try to say well, we can't absolutely prove. When I was--

CURWOOD: Okay, so then what do we do about this? Because traditionally, in this country, legislators, writers, you can go back to the tobacco controversy, have said, "Look, we need scientific proof to act on things," and that has been the standard in the society for good or ill. And you're saying it's for ill, in fact that it's making us sick. How should we change?

BRODEUR: I'm saying that with a cancer rate of one out of every three men and one out of every four women, something's wrong. And tobacco, by the way, is a very good example; I'm glad you brought it up. We knew that tobacco was dangerous in the 30s and the 40s. There are editorials in the Journal of American Medicine saying that tobacco is a cancer-producing agent in the 40s. Look how long it took for the American tobacco companies and the nation's legislators and the people of the nation to recognize that this, the most deadly carcinogen ever known in our time, was that bad.

CURWOOD: Do you think that the downplaying of environmental health concerns is a larger trend in journalism today?

BRODEUR: Oh, yes.

CURWOOD: Do you have some examples?

BRODEUR: Well, the Washington Post certainly comes to mind. Under the Washington Post, and particularly under Ben Bradley, the environment became almost a dirty word. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell, in the early 1990s, wrote a half a dozen pieces absolving dioxin. Now, dioxin is the number one cancer-producing agent on the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States Government's list. It is the number one contaminant in the country. So what is Malcolm Gladwell doing and what is the Washington Post doing publishing a half a dozen articles in the early 1990s about dioxin, no problem at all? You've got the New York Times, never explained the asbestos litigation to any of its readers in the whole first 10 years it was going on. And when it did, it did so on the business page. So did the Los Angeles Times. So did any number of other newspapers. And, I mean, the examples are legion of newspapers simply not responding to environmental concerns nationwide. And that's partly the problem of the newspapers, partly their fear of offending powerful industries, offending their advertisers. And it's also partly a problem of the public perception.

CURWOOD: Okay, and the problem with the public perception is?

BRODEUR: The problem with the public perception is that where there's pollution, be it chemicals, be it asbestos or whatever, the property values are going to drop there, and people want to keep that quiet.

CURWOOD: So, what's your take? Is the criticism of environmental journalism and unwillingness to run this getting worse from years ago? Or are things getting better?

BRODEUR: I think things are getting better to this extent. I think there's much more interest on the part of the public in environmental concerns. Parents are marching into schools and saying, "Hey, you cannot just fog these schools up with insecticides to stop the roaches in the dining halls. Stop making our children walk through a fog of pesticides." That was an editorial in the Los Angeles Times the other day. I think that the reflection of people's concern about the environment is reflected in the newspapers, but I think you're also having this counter-movement that we talked about today, and that's why I've gone public with it. I'm retired from the New Yorker. I've been keeping my head down, writing fiction and fly-fishing for bass on Cape Cod, until these articles came out in the New Yorker. And then I decided well, somebody needs to point out that this is not right.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with me today.

BRODEUR: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Paul Brodeur was a staff writer at the New Yorker for almost 40 years, and he continues to write about the environment today. His article, "Cop Out at The New Yorker," appears in the May issue of the magazine Brill's Content.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: For the record, we asked The New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post to respond to Mr. Brodeur's charges. All declined comment.

 

 

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