Florida Roots

A native son discusses environmental journalism

On any day, there are six novels hiding in the pages of The Miami Herald, says Carl Hiaasen, the green-minded columnist and author. One example: in the 1990s, the Herald covered a string of tourists who paid to swim with bottlenose dolphins and experienced “manifestations of physical attraction.” Tickled by the idea, Hiaasen saw to it that the villain in his novel Native Tongue was “romanced to death” by a cetacean held captive in a seedy theme park. Reporters rarely get to write such just desserts, Hiaasen regretfully notes: “In my sick world, I can name about a hundred people that that would be too good an ending for.” Curtis Brainard spoke with Hiaasen at an October meeting of environmental journalists.

Given your success as a novelist, why do you still write a pugnacious column for The Miami Herald?

I’ve always felt fortunate and privileged, first of all, to write for a newspaper I grew up reading—learned to read on, actually—and secondly, to live in the place I grew up, where my roots are, and to have a platform for expressing my opinion.

It’s still a great tradition in journalism in this country, the columnist. And even though I’m now more of an op-ed columnist, as opposed to a metro columnist, which I did for years, with everything that’s happening in this country, I think it’s still very, very important to have a voice. To walk away from the column would be to walk away from the fight.

Do you ever see yourself giving it up?

There are days when I’m staring at the computer screen going, “What am I doing? Somebody younger ought to be doing this.” But, no, every time I think I’m going to ease out of it, something happens, like Rick Scott gets elected governor. Now that’s just too good for me to sit on the sidelines.

Too much is at stake for eighteen million Floridians, for the purity of our air and water. My kids are here. My grandkids are here. I’m not doing this just to see my name in print, because that I don’t need any more. I’ve been very fortunate in my career. But I think about what would be left for them if everyone who had a strong opinion just bagged it and gave up.

Newspaper cutbacks are a recurring theme in your novels. How do you see them affecting environmental journalism?

They’re a grave threat, because the first things that tend to go are investigative and explanatory journalists. Everything becomes shorter and more bite-sized. Environmental journalism can be complicated. It’s one of the most important things to do, yet it’s also one of the first things they start hacking at.

In a couple of your novels the hero is a journalist set between nefarious polluters and developers on one side and bumbling environmentalists on the other. Is that true to life?

Well, as much as I consider myself an environmentalist at heart, the movement has at times been fractured and divided to its own detriment. And as anybody knows, there are politics within the movement. There are different groups competing for fundraising dollars, media attention, and a lot of other things. So they haven’t always been their own best friends. But it’s a much more sophisticated movement today than it was twenty-five years ago. They understand the lobbying and legislative processes better, and I think they understand PR a little bit better. But certainly in my day in Florida, I’ve seen some stumbling moves that didn’t help the cause.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.