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.