HBO’s Real Sports Shows the Way

The cable network shows other outlets how it's done with a segment about the effects of power plant emissions on the health of young athletes.

In its current cover story, entitled “The New Greening of America,” Newsweek hones in on a variety of conservation issues, including the environmental record of President George W. Bush. On its Web site, Newsweek teases the article with a provocative question: Is Bush a Conservationist or Eco Disaster?

What follows is a somewhat tepid essay weighing Bush’s conservation successes (establishing “a huge national monument around the remote northwestern islands of Hawaii”) versus his conservation failures (“relaxing clean-air standards on power plants and refineries”).

Anyone who wants a more detailed examination of the latter failure, however, would we well advised to toss aside the newsweekly and fire up HBO On Demand — where you can still watch a recent episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel that cuts right to the heart of Bush administration’s shortcomings on clean-air standards. Or, more precisely, right to the lungs.

In a segment entitled, “The Air We Breathe,” producer Joe Perskie and correspondent Jon Frankel investigate the link between childhood asthma and airborne pollutants from coal-burning energy plants (full disclosure: one of the segment’s editors is a friend of this writer). Along the way, the show illustrates how kids who grow up in proximity to such plants tend to have a much greater chance of developing serious, debilitating respiratory problems — problems that could be prevented, in large part, if energy companies would update their plants with pollution-reducing scrubbers, technology that already exists.

The producers recount how during the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began cracking down on energy companies that were violating federal regulations, requiring them to install the pollution-reducing scrubbers anytime they made major renovations to their plants — a requirement known as “new source review.” But those investigations, the producers note, were quickly and unceremoniously squashed by the Bush administration following its campaign victory in 2000 — a campaign, as it turns out, which was heavily financed by some of the energy company executives who benefited substantially from the rollback in the regulations.

None of which is exactly fresh news. Various other media organizations — ranging from the New York Times to the Texas Observer to the American Prospect — have already done a thorough job of exploring how (and on whose behalf) the Bush administration rolled back some of the country’s clean air standards. Call it death by a thousand back-scratches.

That said, “The Air We Breathe,” offers a compelling portrait of the resulting damage — and a powerful reminder of how one lobbyist’s triumphant victory can amount to another kid’s crippling defeat. Along the way, Real Sports takes us to a field in Ohio, where kids play softball in the backyard of a coal-burning plant — that is, as the correspondent notes, “when they are breathing well enough to play.” Real Sport introduces us to teenage athletes in the vicinity of power-producing plants who have been prematurely (and perhaps permanently) sidelined by respiratory problems. And the shows interviews one former EPA official, who resigned in disgust over the clean air rollbacks, and whose own young son is currently suffering from asthma.

“I felt like a crowd of big polluters with political connections and a lot of money were just getting away with something,” the former EPA official tells Real Sports. “Honestly it felt to me like they were kind of robbing the bank. And we were just powerless to do anything to stop it.”

Apparently, he wasn’t alone.

Perhaps the show’s biggest coup is landing a frank interview with Christine Todd Whitman, former Bush-appointed head of the EPA, who resigned only a few years into the job back in May 2003.

At the time, there was much speculation about why Whitman stepped down (she told reporters that she wanted to spend more time with her family). But in her interview with Real Sports, Whitman, who is known to be a good soldier hesitant to criticize her former boss in the White House, owns up to the real reason she resigned — specifically, she didn’t want her name attached to the rollback in new source review regulations.

“There was clearly a very strong bias toward doing away with new source review, dramatically changing new source review,” said Whitman. “I pushed back very hard on that. … I said ‘Enough, I fought this for two and a half years, I have tried, that’s it. It’s not going to be at a place where I’m going to be comfortable. I can’t do this.’”

Throughout, the producers manage to avoid many of the pitfalls of the sick-kid genre of reporting, for instance keeping maudlin interviews with parents to a minimum. Likewise, the show deftly avoids gratuitous or overreaching swipes at the president. Instead, Real Sports keeps the focus relentlessly on the real story at hand — that is, how the rollback of the new source review has some energy executives breathing easy and many would-be young athletes struggling for breath.

This isn’t the kind of thing we usually expect from HBO’s Real Sports. It is the kind of thing we expect from purportedly serious purveyors of news and analysis, such as our major newspapers, magazines, cable outlets, and networks.

If they want to learn how to do it, studying Gumbel’s Real Sports report would be a good start.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.