The Long View on Green

After 40 years on the job, Joe Hebert reflects on covering energy and environment

From Three Mile Island to the cap-and-trade debates on Capitol Hill, H. Josef Hebert spent over half of his forty-year career at the Associated Press covering energy and the environment. In January, the sixty-five-year-old reporter—who flew to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol negotiations with Al Gore aboard Air Force Two—took his retirement. CJR’s Curtis Brainard recently talked to Hebert about the ups and downs of his long career, and where environment and energy coverage should be headed now.

Curtis Brainard: Last fall, CJR ran a feature arguing that the energy beat is undergoing a renaissance, with more coverage and more reader interest than we’ve seen in many years. Do you agree?

H. Josef Hebert: I think I would agree with that. Covering energy and the environment has increased in importance. People today are affected perhaps as never before by swings in energy prices and supplies and by how, as a society, we address the conflicts between energy production and environmental protection. People want to know how their energy is produced, how the source of our fuels and power are going to change, and what will it cost them. And as many polls and surveys have shown, they are equally concerned about protecting their environment. So energy development and environmental protection have become increasingly entwined. And independent journalists will play a huge role in helping people to make the political and economic choices surrounding these issues. That task is anything but simple.

CB: Will you miss the beat, especially given all the current attention and activity?

JH: Well, I hope to do some freelance writing. But there is a lot of repetition going on [in politics and the media]. It’s sort of déjà vu in many cases. Looking through clips of some of my AP stories over the years, many could have been written today with a little editing and a change of names. Take these two headlines [from the 1990s] that I found: “Europeans push for action, not talk, on global warming,” and “Global warming treaty is in—Clinton administration faces opposition at home; hopes aren’t high for this week’s climate conference.” Dispute over climate change, concern about nuclear waste, calls by lawmakers in Congress for a national energy policy. These were issues in the ’90s and are still issues today.

I don’t know how many energy bills I’ve covered—I think four—but each of them was supposed to solve our problems. There were always press conferences after the bills passed saying that this one set a new agenda, et cetera, et cetera. So, I’m going to miss not covering whatever happens with climate change this year. On the other hand, whatever happens might not be that different than what happened in ’97.

CB: What were some of your best moments on the beat (however you want to define best)?

JH: The definition of best for me is getting a story out there ahead of time that you really thought was an important one, even if it didn’t win any awards or anything. I include in these stories a lengthy piece I wrote about the stresses and strains of being an air traffic controller in the aftermath of the disastrous strike/firing of controllers in the early 1980s; a series of stories in 1995 about the challenges of disposing nuclear waste (the same challenge are still with us); a story in the late seventies, not long after I came to Washington, detailing how government consultants reap billions of dollars and at times literally control the decisions of federal agencies; the prediction in a wrap-up story a day after the Kyoto climate conference in 1997 that U.S. ratification of the treaty will be difficult and maybe impossible because of the lack of involvement by developing nations (an issue still at the core of the climate debate today); an early piece about the changing West where ranchers and environmentalists, who often had been on opposite sides, were uniting to preserve open spaces.

I don’t consider it an achievement, but I also got involved in the whole Wen Ho Lee issue—I was one of five reporters subpoenaed and faced the possibility of going to jail for not revealing my sources. Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, had been accused of nuclear espionage and the government went after him but didn’t disclose his name. We, of course, wrote about it and who he was. The government couldn’t find enough to convict him of anything but a relatively minor offense and got a tongue lashing from a judge about how they had persecuted the guy. Lee filed a lawsuit against the government for violation of his privacy, but none of the government people that his lawyers interviewed would say who disclosed his name or how his name came out. So they decided to go after the reporters and try to get them to disclose their sources, which of course we decided not to do.

The judge held us in contempt of court and said there would be a $500 per day penalty until we revealed our sources, but the AP was extremely supportive of me. After losing an appeal, the case was actually on the verge of going to the Supreme Court, but there was a settlement made, in which the government and the five news outlets paid Lee $1.6 million. He dropped lawsuit and the subpoenas, which of course made our case moot before the Supreme Court ever decided whether or not to take it. To some extent, there was a little bit of controversy there, because there was concern that if big-pocket news organizations (you know, they used to have big-pocket news organizations) could be forced to pay to drop this kind of case, newspapers would be opening themselves up to being blackmailed basically. But that’s how it was settled.

My other claim to fame, and I say that with quotation marks, was waking up one day in 1995 to find that the Wall Street Journal had a story [unavailable online; see New York Times] on the front page that said that I was the least-liked reporter covering the Energy Department by Hazel O’Leary, who was its secretary at the time. Matt Wald [who still covers energy for The New York Times] was number two, and to this day, Matt gives me a hard time because I was number one.

It was a case of ridiculous stupidity on the part of certain government officials. It turns out that O’Leary wanted to get a better idea of what the press was writing about the department, so they hired this consulting company. The company followed articles written over a certain period of time and did a mathematical study. Every time a reporter wrote a critical article they got a negative point, and when they added all the numbers, I was the guy who had been the most critical. The only problem was that at the time O’Leary was doing a relatively good thing—she was investigating radiation experiments that scientists did on humans during the early days of the Cold War. When the consulting company did the study of the press, however, those articles got coded as negative—you known, human experimentation and all that—even though I wasn’t being critical of O’Leary. Don’t get me wrong, I wrote some stories that were critical of the department as well, but I think that’s one of the reasons why I was elevated in that study. Well, the study turned into, “Oh, they’re keeping a list of reporters just like back in the Nixon days,” and the department got a lot of flak for it.

CB: What did you find most challenging?

JH: The most challenging part, fifteen years ago and today, is to get at the facts and around the rhetoric and the spinning, and I’m talking about things like cost. Various people throw all kinds of information out about climate and energy bills. Republicans will say it’s going to raise the cost of your electric bill by $3,200 per year. The Democrats will say it’s only going to raise it the cost of a postage stamp. How do you weight those assertions? When House Republican leader John Boehner repeatedly said that the climate bill was going to cost people over $3,000 per year, for example, you know he’s getting that number from a study that was done some place using certain assumptions. It turns out that a business group commissioned that study, so how much weight do you give it? How do cut through all the spinning and rhetoric and give the public an honest idea of what a bill like that would cost?

In energy and environment you see an awful lot of that because the stakes are high to so many different people. For example, the same goes for stories about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Every time the issue comes around, proponents try to tell you that drilling will solve our energy problems. As a good reporter you have to ask, “Okay, how much oil to use? How much do we import? How much can we get from ANWR?” It takes a lot of reporting and a lot of effort to cut through some of these claims that have absolutely no basis.

CB: How do you the think the energy/environment beat has changed most significantly since you began your career?

JH: In the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time over at the EPA and the Interior Department, as opposed to the Energy Department, because they were the most proactive. During the Clinton administration, they were pursuing new clean-air rules, toxic-inventory standards, and grazing rules out West—there was something going on. There just wasn’t much happening with energy, but that’s changed over the last eight or nine years.

CB: Where to see the beat headed, for better or worse, and where should it be headed?

JH: With the industry going through such a difficult time, there is a lot of concern that rather than maintaining a separate beat or beats, energy and environment reporting will be incorporated into a broader area like general assignment beat or business.

Yet energy and environmental reporting is more important than ever because the world is changing dramatically when it comes to these closely related issues. We are moving toward a carbon-constrained world. How will traditional fossil fuels mesh with the need to tackle climate change? What is the role of nuclear energy and how realistic is the call to build 100 new reactors? Is there such a thing as energy independence? As I pointed out in a story last year, it depends how you define energy independence.

More than ever before, journalists will have to work through the clutter—through the spinning and political rhetoric—and dig through claims and counterclaims coming from opposing sides of an issue. And doing it right has become more difficult.

Reporters must approach stories without bias or preconceived notions (for example, all coal is bad, or all nuclear is dangerous) and weigh opposing views with a hope of getting at the truth. While skeptics and other minority views should not be ignored, the ‘he-said-she-said’ type of journalism won’t do the job. Journalists covering energy and the environment must write authoritatively, while avoiding bias-based, opinion journalism. And that requires knowledge of the issues you are covering. And if done right, with fairness and honesty, this kind of journalism will be respected from those on all sides of the spin machine.

People are concerned about climate. People are concerned about energy prices. And I hope that journalism will continue to make environment and energy a primary beat and not neglect it or relegate it to some sort of part-time job. Moreover, environmental journalism is local as much as it is national. I’ve written about general policy most of my time in Washington and to me there’s an awful lot of good environmental journalism that is locally based—in other words, what about that landfill, or what about that power plant? It doesn’t always have to be big picture stuff.

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