Need to Know
Airdate: July 23, 2010
ALISON STEWART: I’m Alison Stewart.
JON MEACHAM: And I’m Jon Meacham. And here’s what you need to know.
ALISON STEWART: Taken out of context. What happens when race, politics and the news media collide.
TERENCE SAMUEL: Well I think initially we thought all the muscle memory we have in America about race came rushing back.
JON MEACHAM: And who do you root for when the needs of an endangered bird conflict with plans for a huge renewable energy project? It’s green versus green.
ALISON STEWART: And dealing with the most dangerous highways in America – not for drivers – for pedestrians.
MALE SOT: Visibility…drivers can’t really see folks here.
MALE SOT: I was just a poster child for this issue. There are tons of roadways out there just like this.
JON MEACHAM: And…Andy Borowitz. Next on Need to Know.
ANNOUNCER: From New York, Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham.
ALISON STEWART: Hello everybody, thanks for joining us.
JON MEACHAM: This was the week when financial reform was signed, with great ceremony, by President Obama. A victory, hard fought, to follow his success at passing health care reform. But you might not have heard much about it on Wednesday.
ALISON STEWART: What you may have heard more about was the messy, sometimes nasty, racially tinged sideshow between the NAACP and the Tea Party over who is and is not racist.The dust up damaged the reputations of a number of people, including the agriculture secretary, a woman who worked for him, the purveyor of a misleading videotape, and assorted members of the media.
Here’s how it started. Monday morning, conservative provocateur Andrew Brietbart, publisher of biggovernment.com, posted a 38 second clip of Shirley Sherrod, the aforementioned agriculture department employee, speaking to a Georgia chapter of the NAACP. In the clip, Sherrod appears to suggest that she discriminated against a white farmer based on his race.
SHIRLEY SHERROD: So I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.
ALISON STEWART: The clip spread over the internet and then jumped to Fox News.
SEAN HANNITY: An Obama Administration official resigned just a short time ago.
JON MEACHAM: Both the USDA and the NAACP released strongly worded condemnations of Sherrod and that same day she submitted her resignation, as she had been asked to do by an agriculture department official. But in a world where the media never sleeps, the very next day a more complex version of the story began to emerge.
MALE SOT: You have somehow found yourselves in the midst…
JON MEACHAM: The farm couple whom Sherrod was accused of discriminating against appeared on CNN. They called her a life long friend and credited her with saving their family farm.
ROGER SPOONER: I never was treated no better, no nicer and looked after then Shirley. She done a magnificent job.
JON MEACHAM: By late Tuesday, the NAACP posted the complete video of Sherrod’s remarks and far from telling a story of sticking it to whitey, Sherrod, whose own father was murdered by a white farmer in segregated Georgia, had been relating a story of overcoming racial division.
SHIRLEY SHERROD: Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those that don’t. And they could be black, and they could be white, they could be Hispanic.
JON MEACHAM: Then Fox News began condemning the Obama Administration for pressing for Sherrod’s resignation without a proper investigation into her remarks.
GLENN BECK: Sherrod is harassed into resigning before I even make it on the air last night.
JON MEACHAM: And by the end of business on Wednesday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had issued a formal apology to Sherrod and offered her a new opportunity at the USDA.
SECRETARY VILSACK:…extending to her my personal and profound apologies.
JON MEACHAM: Here with me now, to talk about race, politics and the media age in which we live is Terence Samuel, author of “The Upper House: a Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the US Senate” and editor-at-large of The Root, an online magazine focused on issues of interest to African Americans.Terence, welcome.
TERENCE SAMUEL: Thanks for having me.
JON MEACHAM: Going to read something you wrote this week. You said that you felt bad for Ms. Sherrod, “Her firing and the overreaction from the White House, the USDA, and the NAACP are just more depressing plot points in the sad story of race in America.” How does this fit into the sad story?
TERENCE SAMUEL: Well, I think initially. As depressing as that initial story was, I think I’ve arrived at the point that this is a story about what we used to be as opposed to who we are now. Essentially, we reacted as if race was as big a divider as it’s always been, when in fact at the end of the day everybody agreed that this woman had done actually something good, not something bad.
TERENCE SAMUEL: It was a story actually not about racism but how we’ve gone past it, despite the horrible reaction.
JON MEACHAM: Is this a post-racial event?
TERENCE SAMUEL: I think it’s a post-ironic event.
JON MEACHAM: Explain “post-ironic.”
TERENCE SAMUEL: I mean, the irony here is that we have an administration, whether the White House was involved or not, and I’m assured that the White House was not, this was Secretary Vilsack. But Secretary Vilsack made civil rights and responding to that an absolute top priority in his tenure at the USDA. So what happens? Somebody makes what he thinks is a racist remark and he reacts immediately. Turns out that the secretary who most wanted to put this behind him ends up making it a bigger story by his reaction, and the irony is here that– there was in fact no racism.
JON MEACHAM: One of the interesting nuances within this has been the idea of reverse racism, to some extent. One of the running themes in– of opposition in the age of Obama has been, “White people can’t say anything about black people; but guess what, black people can say things about white people.” I think that’s part of what’s driven the– particularly the right wing media on– on these kinds of issues. Does this feel like– a new chapter?
TERENCE SAMUEL: No. It feels like a very old chapter, in fact. When we talk about race– in America, it’s usually about conflict and it’s usually not a very constructive conversation, the people who are opposed to President Obama because of race are obviously … they were not a large enough group –to not elect him. But they’ve suddenly become vocal enough to get media attention. And I think that is less about the progress of race in America, as much as it is about the sad state of the media universe in Amer– in America. I– I think the voices that we hear are not new or more interesting, they just have a platform– in a way that they didn’t. And in part because we’ve come to this strange– moral equivalency between, you know, Andrew Breitbart, who puts this up, and the New York Times who may have something on their website, and a woman who works for the president of the United States, she’s a political appointee, gets fired because we can no longer differentiate between what’s real news and what’s essentially political hackery.
JON MEACHAM: Do you agree with this, that this is a perfect storm? You have a media genre that rewards hyperbole?
TERENCE SAMUEL: Absolutely.
JON MEACHAM: Speed? And partisanship?
TERENCE SAMUEL: And no reporting.
JON MEACHAM: And no reporting. And no reporting. Why do you think the administration acted the way it did? Were they watching cable? Were they– why did they become part of the problem here?
TERENCE SAMUEL: Because they are as susceptible to the problem of the shifting media universe as the rest of us. I mean, you essentially had– what we thought was a race story here, but turned out not to be a race story at its core. Then we had a political story where you had an administration very sensitive to the issue of race and a secretary who was very devoted to this issue and, in some ways, hypersensitive to it overreacting in part because, I mean, you know, these guys are politicians.
JON MEACHAM: Right.
TERENCE SAMUEL: And then– then you have the media story, which is, I think, probably the most depressing part of– of the– of the entire event. Because essentially what you have is this new world where hyperbole, partisanship, unchecked facts that very quickly made the rounds with no filter. And we paid the price. I mean we’re having a conversation that– that we thought we were beyond.
JON MEACHAM: Do these conversations do good in the long run? All of us can think back, Jeremiah Wright– Don Imus, Rodney King. You just go all the way through. There have been moments in which we have decided that this is the great conversation about race. President Clinton convened one—
TERENCE SAMUEL: One—
JON MEACHAM: –formally. When you have to formally convene a conversation, it’s probably not gonna be a very interesting conversation.
TERENCE SAMUEL: But it was an acknowledgement that it was a big issue. I mean, I think, you know, we have to have ‘em. I mean, that’s the only way we’ve moved in the past. We have to have these conversations.
JON MEACHAM: Has it been people talking? Or has it been—to some extent, has it also been– attributable to President Obama himself? That the– I mean, he– he’s given one significant speech about this– then wandered—
TERENCE SAMUEL: The larger conversation about race clearly is, in part, about Obama. I mean, we can’t escape the big, historical moment that took place. I think the Shirley Sherrod episode is it’s kind of a throwback because we reacted as if this was, you know, somebody who saying this in 1960-whatever. Does it help? Yes. Because there was a strange– component to this conversation that– that happened this week. People saying, “Do you see what happens when you throw around the charge of racism lightly?” And this time, it was not– you know, some white man who was the victim, and this time a black woman. And suddenly, the gap between those two demographics started to close a little bit. That this is probably not something we should do. And there was agreement on that.
JON MEACHAM: The NAACP was quick to condemn Ms. Sherrod. Explain their role and talk about what you think was going through their minds.
TERENCE SAMUEL: I think another kind of– transitional moment– for this organization, wanting to be more activist, wanting to be more engaged, more involved. Wanting to play in the new media world. You see their– engagement with the Tea Party, which, in fact, is how this whole thing started. — They’re doing the cable shows, they’re– they’re on the Web, they’re calling the Tea Party out for being racist, and I think wanting to protect their credibility, initially thinking that Shirley Sherrod had said what she had not said. Again, overreacted because they didn’t check it out.
JON MEACHAM: Do you think this backfired on the conservatives who put it out, in the end?
TERENCE SAMUEL: Not yet. I haven’t seen– the backlash to the extent that you would think. But that’s what our politics looks like at this point. We take shots and we get increasingly nasty. And– there are almost no rules.
JON MEACHAM: How do you think this episode will affect the fall campaigns– both politically and in terms of press coverage?
TERENCE SAMUEL: Well, this particular story probably doesn’t affect– the huge landscape of racism we’re talking about. But I think what you see is the tenor and the tone that this campaign’s gonna take. It is now clear to everyone what happens when you win an election. Barack Obama is at 44 percent approval rating. But he is the president and he’s got 59 senators in the U.S. Senate. Even though at a 44 percent approval rating, when everybody’s talking about how terrible things are for you, he passes health care, he passes financial regulation, he passes a stimulus bill. So the fight for the Senate is gonna be just an unbelievably expensive and, I predict, nasty, nasty affair.
JON MEACHAM: So you’d agree with the idea that the kind of tactic we saw this week is something we’re gonna see more of?
TERENCE SAMUEL: Absolutely. And I think this one didn’t quite work the way they intended. But you know, the ability to create a huge distraction is sometimes very effective late in the campaign.
JON MEACHAM: Terence Samuel, thank you.
TERENCE SAMUEL: I enjoyed it.
JON MEACHAM: Appreciate it.
In the coming weeks you’ll hear more about the intersection of race and culture on Need to Know. Next week, an interview with Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree. Alison, we’re looking forward to hearing that interview.
ALISON STEWART: Yeah, for those of you who don’t remember, Charles Ogletree represented Harvard Professor Skip Gates when he was arrested in his home, and believe it or not, that was a year ago. That happened on July 16, the beer summit was on July 30. Now, when we all were having that conversation about race a year ago, it was about race and class and town and gown. This year, you’ve got this whole other added element of the media. As an editor of a newsmagazine, what’s different this year than it was last year when you were covering this?
JON MEACHAM: I think politics and media are the main issues in this particular story. I think with Professor Gates, it was culture, and class as you say. I think that at this point, you’ve got an episode that sheds light on the vitriolic opposition to President Obama. You have something that is in that sense new but it’s very old in the sense that this is from the 1964 piece by Richard Hofstetter in Harper’s called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” This has been a perennial force as Terence Samuel was talking about before, in American politics. And the media has a clear lesson to learn here. This is an object lesson in the press jumping on a – an Internet-driven story, a politically motivated story, and letting haste and hyperbole trump careful reporting.
ALISON STEWART: And with everybody attached to a cell phone these days, it’s amazing that no one just picked up the phone to fact check. If you have any thoughts about this story, any comments you want to make, you should go to our website. It’s Need to Know at PBS.org, or you can always check it out on our Facebook page.
On to another story about journalism. According to the old adage, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” “The War Lovers” is a new book that reveals the parallels between the Spanish American war and the U.S. invasion of Iraq – from the red herrings to the screaming headlines. It was written by Evan Thomas, a journalist and historian. He is also a colleague of Jon Meacham’s at Newsweek. Several weeks and one hairstyle ago, I sat down with him to talk about “The War Lovers.”
ALISON STEWART: Thank you so much for coming by.
EVAN THOMAS: Good to be here.
ALISON STEWART: After reading your book obviously there are parallels between the Spanish-American war and the invasion of Iraq. When did it become clear for you there were parallels?
EVAN THOMAS: I was writing for “Newsweek” in 2006 and wondering about this whole phenomenon about war fever. I had written a lot about the invasion of Iraq, and I had been pretty hawkish about the war, and I started wondering what is it that drives people and journalists to want to go to war.I decided to go back in history and look for an earlier example. I looked at the Spanish-American War which is eerie in its parallels. History never exactly repeats itself, but there are some interesting parallels.
ALISON STEWART: It’s an interesting book because it’s a psycho biography. You try to get to the motivations of one day to be President Roosevelt.His motivations are very
visceral and Henry Cabot Lodge’s are very cerebral about expansionism and then you have Hearst who is about sort of the creative impulse, he just wants to create a war. You wrote Roosevelt, Lodge, and Hearst did not by themselves cause the war but this was not
for the lack of trying. Can you explain why these men wanted war so much?
EVAN THOMAS: Well, the sort of fascinating part to me was that at the end of that century, there was a feeling that the United States had become soft and weak, overcivilized. The upper classes had this kind of crack pot Social Darwinism theory that the great Anglo-Saxon race was supposed to rule the world but they couldn’t reconcile it with the fact they were having stomachache and headaches. There was a funny neuroticism in the land and Roosevelt thought we’ve become weak. He would give speeches about how the great masterful races know the supreme triumphs of war.
He wanted to war to revive the United States.That was the ideology of the upper classes -at least and they went consciously looking for a war.
ALISON STEWART: They were so cavalier about war and in your book it sort of struck me that there wasn’t a sense of the cost of human life. I mean, Teddy Roosevelt said this is great fun and he boasted about the amount of men who died. Why didn’t they have a sense of the cost of it?
EVAN THOMAS: Because they didn’t – well, it had been 30 years since the Civil War, since we had seen real cost.Interesting the president of the United States, President Mckinley, opposed getting in the war. Why? Because he had been a major at Antietam and he had seen the bodies stacked up, but Roosevelt, he’d never been in a war. Lodge had never been in a war. It’s amazing how we forget. There’s almost a willful amnesia
that takes over as each new generation comes along and each new group particularly of young men want to prove themselves in war, and Roosevelt was just crazy to prove himself in war.
ALISON STEWART: Let’s talk about some of these parallels.There were embedded reporters in the Spanish-American War. Both wars were initially popular but dragged on.
There’s some discussion of the son trying to live up to the father. Teddy Roosevelt was embarrassed his dad bought his way out of the Civil War and most importantly there was the specious reason for going to war in the first place. Tell us about the “Maine.”
EVAN THOMAS: The “Maine” was an American battleship which she had sent down to Havana because there were riots. We thought we needed to protect American interests.
Mid-february 1898, boom, it blows up. Immediately William Randolph Hearst starts putting out headlines, “Spanish torpedo sinks ‘Maine.’” And Roosevelt starts fomenting
this theory that the Spanish did it. The country goes nuts and they talk about the mottos like “Remember the ‘Maine’ to hell with Spain.” What really happened? It blew up because of a faulty boiler. It was closed too close to the powder magazine, overheated, and blew up. Roosevelt had evidence of that. There was a naval court of inquiry that decided it was a Spanish mine and it was a provocation that helped drive us into war and we were – but we were looking for a provocation.
ALISON STEWART: Was the “Maine” the WMD of the Spanish-American War?
EVAN THOMAS: Yes. Again, these parallels are always a little inexact, but yes.
It certainly – when a country is ripe for war you often need some little spark and that was
ALISON STEWART: Hearst out and out lied to help make the Spanish-American War come forward.
EVAN THOMAS: He did.
ALISON STEWART: In 2003 so many journalists caught this fever. You have acknowledged that you had the fever as well. Have you gone back and read any of your writings?
EVAN THOMAS: Yeah. I have and there is a sort of feverish aspect to it. Interestingly, even when you’re writing that war is bad, there is a sort of sense of excitement about the whole thing because journalists, even anti-war journalists, love conflict, and what is the greatest conflict? War is the greatest conflict. If you had been in news rooms, including “Newsweek”’s in that winter of 2003 you would have felt an edge of anticipation that we were on the verge of something big and momentous and even if people were saying we
really shouldn’t be doing this, we should be negotiating some more, if you scratch the surface, there were a lot of war lovers in those news rooms.
ALISON STEWART: But isn’t it your room not to succumb to that sort of excitement?
EVAN THOMAS: That’s one reason why I wrote this book. I wanted to look back and see what exactly had happened here, and, you know, there is – I think it’s inevitable, history does change, but human nature doesn’t. And journalists just get afflicted by this to varying degrees and not all of them. There certainly were journalists in 2003 who said, wait, wait, wait, hold on here. There were good reporters, but their reporting was kind of
brushed to the side. I remember at “Newsweek” our own investigative reporters were very skeptical. They had sources in the CIA who were skeptical about this WMD claim and I can remember half pooh-poohing it. I wish I hadn’t.
ALISON STEWART: You mentioned that people get forgetful about history, so 25
Years down the line when the next – let’s hope it’s longer than that, but the next time the
country starts to catch war fever, what do you hope journalists do, what do you hope they do differently?
EVAN THOMAS: Well, think twice, as we all should. But frankly I’m pessimistic. I think history does repeat itself in this sense and I think that journalists will always want at some level, they may not even consciously want it, but there’s an atavistic impulse in young men who want to fight, journalists who want to cover the war, this has been true forever. There’s no particular reason to believe it’s going to change.
JON MEACHAM: It was 1968—one of those years that ranks with 33 A.D., 1066, and 1776 as an inarguable landmark—and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had spent hours in executive session struggling with the Vietnam war. Sen. Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee dismissed concerns that holding public debates about the war would be divisive and undercut America’s chances of victory. Another senator, Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania, reported that he had asked the U.S. commander, William Westmoreland, “if there would be a military victory in this war, and Westmoreland said no.”
These details come from Sen. John Kerry’s recent release of 1,000 pages of Foreign Relations committee documents from Vietnam. The report covers 1964 and 1968. Strikingly, Chairman Sen. J William Fulbright did not begin the most substantive hearings on the…war until the spring of 1971. But at least he did so. We need a Fulbright moment now on Afghanistan, and John Kerry is the man to do it. Nearly forty years ago he testified before Fulbright, framing the moral question of warfare as well as anyone ever has.
JOHN KERRY: Each day, to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam, someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, “the first President to lose a war.” We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
JON MEACHAM: How, indeed? This is not to say that Afghanistan is a mistake, but the war requires a significant examination of what has happened and what our options are now.
The central policy question–counterinsurgency, with its relatively heavy troop presence, versus counter-terror, which would emphasize tactical strikes against Al Qaeda while providing some support to anti-Taliban forces—has not been thoroughly debated by a public that sometimes seems only vaguely aware that our military is fighting a war about to enter its tenth year. There would be a certain elegant historical symmetry if Kerry were to convene a public policy review of the war in Afghanistan. As chairman, Kerry has led numerous hearings, issued reports, traveled to the region, and has more work in progress.
But what I am proposing is a conscious effort to put our entire Afghan experience and all of our options before the public in the most dramatic way possible.
At one point during Vietnam, Fulbright said that if lawmakers fail to weigh in “about matters as important as declaring war” then “I do not see how we have any real function.”
Ten days ago, I asked Senator Kerry if he had considered reprising the Fulbright role. “I have never thought about it in those terms,” he said. “Part of the reason that would be practically difficult is the speed with which things move” and a fragmented culture’s short attention span. He went on: “But we do have the obligation to explore these issues in public. Part of what I bring to the chair is the awareness, a very real awareness, of my culpability if we were to fail to ask the right questions.” If anyone can do this, John Kerry can. And here’s hoping he will.
ALISON STEWART: With the BP oil mess still far from being cleaned up, renewable energy supporters are cautiously optimistic that this is the moment to achieve real energy policy changes. For its part, the Obama administration has been pushing the benefits of solar and wind power almost since taking office.
BARACK OBAMA: It’s estimated that if we fully pursue our potential for wind energy on land and offshore, wind can generate as much as 20 percent of our electricity by 2030 and create a quarter-million jobs in the process — 250,000 jobs in the process.
ALISON STEWART: Sounds good, right? Maybe it is. But as the president himself often says, it’s complicated… as we’re about to see in this report from Wyoming.
VOICE OVER: Many in Wyoming used to curse the strong winds that buffet their lands. There are gusts so powerful here, they can tear up fences and even kill calves. But these days wind is looking more and more like an asset. And it seems like just about everyone around here has something to say about that.
DENNIS SUN: We first heard about wind when everybody realized that it may be another form of income.
VOICE OVER: Businesspeople…
BILL MILLER: This is not a boom or bust industry. This is a renewable resource.
VOICE OVER: Conservationists…
JONATHAN RATNER: There’s a place for wind and there’s a place for wildlife.
VOICE OVER: Other conservationists…
BRIAN RUTLEDGE: And anyone who’s been to Wyoming knows we have a lot of commercial-level winds.
VOICE OVER: Politicians…
GOVERNOR DAVE FREUDENTHAL: It makes great sense for a state like Wyoming if we can get some more jobs out of it.
VOICE OVER: And sage-grouse.
VOICE OVER: That’s right, sage-grouse. This is a story about a bird known as the greater sage-grouse …and its new arch enemy, the wind turbine.
Now, they’re in a turf war… and it may be that only one can win.
BRIAN RUTLEDGE: I think that everyone who knew anything about grouse knew that wind turbines could be a threat to grouse.
VOICE OVER: Brian Rutledge is the vice president of the Audubon Society’s Rocky Mountain office. He’s been keeping a close eye on the sage grouse for the last six years, and he says the birds view wind turbines as a mortal threat.
BRIAN RUTLEDGE: Everything vertical that they see – including anything from a juniper bush to a wind tower – is a place for an eagle to perch and pounce on them. So, they avoid those places. When you put in a vertical structure, you’re asking the grouse to avoid that area. So, it’s pretty straightforward.
VOICE OVER: Actually, it’s not straightforward at all.
Here’s the problem. Wyoming’s economy depends on energy: it’s America’s biggest coal producer, a key supplier of natural gas, and with its vast spaces and generally friendly business climate, a perfect place for wind power.
But there is the matter of these pesky birds.
Aside from the wild turkey, sage grouse are the biggest game bird in the country. They inhabit a range of eleven western states, munching sage brush and the tasty insects that live in it.
Wyoming is home to half the world’s greater sage-grouse population. Millions used to blanket the West, but largely due to development, their numbers have declined by over 80%.
In March, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared that sage-grouse are a candidate for the endangered species list. They’ll check up on the bird each year. If the population keeps dropping, sage-grouse will receive full-blown federal protection.
And that means tight restrictions on development. By joining the ranks of the California condor and the Florida panther, the sage-grouse could eventually put wind energy itself on the endangered list in Wyoming.
GOVERNOR DAVE FREUDENTHAL: Truth is, I don’t find it a very attractive animal. And it’s not very bright. I mean, I know people who love to hunt ‘em and love to eat ‘em and I question their judgment.
VOICE OVER: The governor of Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal, is perched in the middle of the sage-grouse debate.
GOVERNOR DAVE FREUDENTHAL: It is irrelevant, though, how I feel about the bird. It’s, you know, one of God’s critters. And we’re going to take care of it.
At the end of the day, what you’ve got to do is chart a course that says we need to maintain this species. We need to maintain its habitat. And I need to maintain the opportunity for us to have development in this state so the people have jobs.
And I do that by trying to preserve that bird to keep it from getting listed.
VOICE OVER: Freudenthal has had town hall meetings about sage-grouse. He’s issued an Executive Order protecting some habitats for sage-grouse. He’s even convened what’s called the Governor’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team.
It’s a tightrope walk. Twenty years ago, when a battle raged in the West over another bird, the spotted owl, politicians often ended up on one side or the other.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Yes, we want to see that little furry- feathery guy protected and all of that. But I don’t want to see 40,000 loggers thrown out of work!
VOICE OVER: But in the two decades since that feathery guy was given federal protection, we’ve had time to see the forest for the trees. The old growth forests are making a comeback. And a 2009 analysis from Washington State University says most of the jobs lost back then were due to restructuring in the timber industry – not the owl.
So it’s not as simple as saving the environment versus saving the economy.
In fact, the problem now may be saving the environment versus saving the environment.
JONATHAN RATNER: 20 years ago when I was, you know, looking at the situation in terms of wind, I really didn’t have a picture of, you know, what the actual impacts would be. And so I would have had a much different perspective in terms of wind development on public lands than I do now.
VOICE OVER: That’s Jonathan Ratner, the Wyoming director of a conservation group called Western Watersheds Project. And that’s wind noise in his microphone making that sound.
There’s so much wind here that you’d think an environmentalist like Ratner would be all over the clean, renewable energy that wind turbine development provides. But forced to choose between turbine and grouse on public lands, well…
JONATHAN RATNER: Unfortunately, while most of America thinks that, you know, wind energy is, you know, the solution for our electricity needs for into the future and that may be, but not at the cost of industrializing our public lands.
VOICE OVER: Ratner’s group sued the federal government back in 2006, when the Bush administration declined a petition to list the sage-grouse as an endangered species. In a victory for the conservationists, a federal judge agreed with them, saying political pressures had tainted the decision. The judge also said the government would have to reconsider the bird’s status.
But now, Ratner worries that the Obama administration’s push to expand renewable resources is the same wolf in green clothing.
JONATHAN RATNER: We’ve noticed very little difference in terms of dealing with critical environmental issues, whatever they may be, between the Bush administration and the current administration, unfortunately.
VOICE OVER: Whatever the administration’s intentions, Ratner says the wind energy companies are out to conduct business as usual.
JONATHAN RATNER: Basically, you know, when there’s money to be made, large companies come in and they do it, you know, in the cheapest manner possible in the areas that suit them the best. All these kind of things are further fragmenting the habitat of these species that require large areas of natural sagebrush to survive.
VOICE OVER: The rush is on. In just the last two years, Wyoming has built so many turbines that its capacity to generate wind energy has almost tripled.
And the American Wind Energy Association – an industry group – says that’s still only two percent of the state’s potential.
That statistic spells opportunity for Bill Miller, the president of the Power Company of Wyoming. More than 40 wind developers have existing or proposed projects in the state, but here on his company’s ranch, Miller’s got the biggest of them all.
BILL MILLER: Our optimal design right now is 1,000 turbines. Depending on whose number you use, that will power somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 single family homes.
VOICE OVER: Too bad Wyoming doesn’t even have 600,000 homes. It doesn’t even have that many people. To make a profit, Miller will need to sell the power he generates to big cities in the Southwest.
BILL MILLER: Southern California, Arizona and Nevada. That’s where the demand is, that’s where a significant amount of the growth is.
VOICE OVER: It would be the largest wind farm in the U.S…. But there’s a problem.
Miller started planning his project in 2006, and filed a preliminary plan of development in May of 2008.
But three months later, the Governor issued his Executive Order declaring that unless the developer can prove a project won’t hurt the sage-grouse habitat, some parts of Wyoming are off-limits to wind power.
The prohibition includes some of the very land where Bill Miller wanted to build his turbines.
BILL MILLER: We are in what is known as core area habitat. Core area for management of the sage grouse and the sage grouse habitat.
VOICE OVER: You might think Miller could simply move his project to another part of the state. To Eastern Wyoming, for example, where there are enormous expanses of land with fewer grouse, so not subject to the Governor’s order.
But there are a lot of problems with that. They’d have to start from scratch with siting assessments and environmental surveys… and, wind could be less profitable on that land because it’s so far away from population centers.
That means Miller would have to lengthen the transmission lines used to deliver the power – that could cost some two million dollars per mile.
That’s not Miller’s plan. Instead, he’s determined to convince the state – and the federal government, whose approval he also needs – that he can produce wind energy in the midst of what is now protected area without harming the habitat.
BILL MILLER: We’re going to move fences, we’re going to take fences out. We’re going to remove a lot of the road network within the ranch and reclaim that into habitat that is more appropriate for sage grouse. We have developed a habitat conservation plan, which we feel clearly demonstrates, scientifically, that there is no net loss of birds – bird population or habitat.
VOICE OVER: Miller’s company is even paying to have sage grouse tagged and monitored to create a baseline, so it can keep track of how it’s doing at habitat-protection.
But even with all he’s doing, Miller says he can’t be certain that the government will buy his plan, because both the state and federal standards for proving a project won’t hurt sage-grouse habitat aren’t clearly defined.
BILL MILLER: What our company needs to proceed with the wind development project is clarity as to the rules and the regulations and consistency.
GOVERNOR DAVE FREUDENTHAL: Oh, the Bill Miller pitch. Here’s my answer to baby Bill. And I like Bill. He’s a good guy and he’s going to make that work. It isn’t that there’s not consistency out there. He doesn’t like it. It’s not that the message hasn’t been given to him over and over and over again. It’s that he doesn’t like that message.
VOICE OVER: That message, says Freudenthal, is that you can’t build turbines on designated land if you can’t prove they won’t hurt the bird. Well then how can I prove it, says Miller, if you won’t let me build the turbines on that land?
DENNIS SUN: Everything that moves out here, you have to think, “Well, what’s that going to do to the sage grouse?”
VOICE OVER: Like a lot of Western ranchers, Dennis Sun has had his fill of trying to work around the lifestyles of the local critters.
He has his own plan to make a profit on wind, leasing his land for turbine development. Much of it, too, though, lies in the sage-grouse’s core habitat area.
DENNIS SUN: There’s a radical environmental movement to list as many animals and birds and whatever and it’s making our lives a lot harder because we have to manage for that. And it keeps us from making a living or- on the lands that are ours.
VOICE OVER: At the same time, Dennis Sun doesn’t deny that his land has everything a sage-grouse could desire.
DENNIS SUN: You know, they’re looking for the grass that’s in the sagebrush for insects. There’s water close by. So, the grocery store is here.
VOICE OVER: So, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Mr. Sun has an offer to make to anyone who wants him to protect the sage-grouse on his property.
DENNIS SUN: Now, if the American people feel that they want this animal enough, will they pay us to raise it? We’ll provide them the best sage grouse in America right here if they pay us.
VOICE OVER: In fact, the federal government is paying some landowners to conserve habitat for the sage-grouse. One way or another – be it turbine or bird – Sun hopes to bring in some revenue.
So, what’s going to happen next? Nobody knows for sure … especially because in the land of the sage-grouse, the governor is a lame duck.
And because an Executive Order doesn’t necessarily outlast the executive who proclaimed it, the rules might change all over again when a new governor takes office in early 2011.
GOVERNOR DAVE FREUDENTHAL: After elections when the new people come in, you know, it’s kind of like pharaohs. They got to run around and use a chisel and hammer and knock the name of the last pharaoh off of everything.
So, new governors come in, regardless of party. It’s just kind of the way it works. What they need to understand is this – is that this executive order, the core areas strategy really came out of the work of, you know, 50 to 75 really dedicated Wyoming citizens. We had everybody at the table. So, it’s not really a strategy that they should view as simply Freudenthal’s strategy. This is Wyoming’s strategy.
VOICE OVER: Maybe. But maybe not. In the battle royal between sage grouse and wind turbine, the debate is far from over.
ALISON STEWART: This week online…behavioral economist Dan Ariely examines the reason why we seem to care about some environmental disasters more than others. And author Gary Shteyngart talks about his latest book “Super Sad True Love Story,” a satirical novel that chronicles the decline of literacy in America. For all this and more, visit the Need to Know site.
JON MEACHAM: Here’s a term you probably haven’t heard before but we think you need to know: “Disappearmarks.” It’s a term for money that has been earmarked by congress for local projects, but never spent. Earmarks, of course, have had a checkered reputation. Remember the bridge to nowhere? But earmarks can be spent on worthy projects. And it’s not as though were rolling in federal money. This week a non partisan watchdog group called the Sunlight Foundation reported it had discovered that more than 6 billion dollars in transportation earmark money has actually not been spent -disappearmarks, they call it. The irony of course, is that while all that appropriated money goes unspent, the nation’s transportation infrastructure desperately needs an upgrade. Our colleagues at Blueprint America met some people in Atlanta who say they could put some of it to good use.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): 27-year-old Nimia Larcia lives in a suburban housing complex just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. She moved here from Honduras six years ago in search of a better life.
Suburban America used to be synonymous with good living, not the least of which was because its streets were so much safer than those in the city. Not anymore.
Every morning when Nimia walks from her apartment to her minimum-wage job at a jewelry store, she has to cross one of the most dangerous roads in Georgia: Buford Highway. People in cars race back and forth, many if not most exceeding the 45 mile per hour speed limit.
For people on foot, it is seven lanes of fear.
NIMIA LARCIA: Sometimes I am scared, but I have to do.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): Nimia Larcia and suburban America represent what is more and more becoming a great American mismatch. Communities like hers were built for people with cars.
The problem is many here can’t afford cars. And so these areas by design have become lethal for far too many people.
REPORTER 1: …a five year old girl killed. Her older sister seriously injured.
REPORTER 2: Police say a man was hit at Buford Highway and Dresden around 2 o’clock this morning. His body was then dragged nearly two miles to Buford and Afton lane…
REPORTER 3: The number of injuries and fatalities along Buford Highway is three times higher than any other road in the state.
JOHN LARSON: Technically this person, by law, is supposed to stop, right?
MICHAEL ORTA: Yeah, this guy’s supposed to stop. But he’s not.
JOHN LARSON: Michael Orta works for PEDS, an organization that’s trying to improve pedestrian safety in and around Atlanta.
MICHAEL ORTA: Buford Highway is just a posterchild for this issue. There are tons of roadways out there just like this.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): The state acknowledges that fully eight of Buford Highway’s 30 miles are hazardous for pedestrians. And roads just like it can be found in nearly every state in the country.
According to a recent report by two national transportation groups, about 43 thousand pedestrians were killed in the U.S. in the last decade; “the equivalent of a jumbo jet going down roughly every month.”
Nearly 30 of them died right here on Buford Highway. At least 250 more were injured.
MICHAEL ORTA: This is a typical Buford Highway bus stop here. It’s just a pole in the dirt right next to the roadway, just a few feet away. I wouldn’t want to have my kids here. A lot of people wait up here, they’re got little rocks so they can sit up on the hill.
JOHN LARSON: So that’s like the bus stop up here?
MICHAEL ORTA: Yeah, kind of. People sit up here on the hill.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): Demand for transportation is so high here that taxis, freelance car services and private buses race down these roads competing for customers with the public transit system, often using the very same stops.
People rushing to and from buses account for one in four of the accidents here.
MICHAEL ORTA: This girl just got off at the stop like anyone else would, and she needs to get across the street. Of course, she’s going to do what most people do which is wait for a gap in traffic this way, stop in the middle suicide lane. And then wait for a gap in the other half of the road.
JOHN LARSON: Plus, it’s right behind a hill.
MICHAEL ORTA: It’s really bad visibility. I mean, drivers can really see folks here.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): Orta says long stretches of the road don’t have enough crosswalks or stoplights for pedestrians. In some places they’re spaced a mile apart.
JOHN LARSON:Could you say to these people, “Listen, we know the crosswalk is a long way down the road, but your life is in danger here, so walk to the crosswalk, you know, go the extra half mile. Whatever it is.”
MICHAEL ORTA: Forget it. You can’t tell people to walk a half mile to a crosswalk. You wouldn’t do it. The police officers wouldn’t do it. Nobody does that.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): Ellen Dunham-Jones is a professor of urban design at Georgia Tech, and co-author of a book called “Retrofitting Suburbia.”
Dunham-Jones says suburban communities across the nation need a major re-think.
ELLEN DUNHAM-JONES: The stereotypes that we’ve held about who is in the cities and who is in the suburbs have started to change. And change really quite dramatically.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): Immigration, the recession, and other economic realities have all contributed to a remarkable trend. For the first time in history there are more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in the cities. In Atlanta, 85 percent of low income people now live in places like this. But the suburban mismatch is not just about the poor.
ELLEN DUNHAM-JONES: Basically, the baby boomers are the generation who really built most of the suburbs. But they’ve built an environment that is not going to allow them to age in place very gracefully.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): Demographers are warning that millions of older Americans living in car dependent communities could be left isolated, unable even to get to the grocery store. Dunham-Jones is hoping the country will design its way out of these problems. Even Buford Highway, she says, could be transformed with medians, trees and buildings set closer to the road. Changes that are known to slow traffic. But outside of the ivory tower, change does not come easily. Or quickly.
Last year Georgia spent more than two billion dollars on transportation, but only a tiny fraction, less than one percent, went specifically to pedestrian safety.
JOHN KING: Look at this. This right here is just– this is what makes me cringe as Police Chief. “Senora, por favor tenga cuidado!”
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): Doraville Police Chief John King has spent nearly a decade asking the state highway department for help.
JOHN KING: We’ve been at this for years now. Every chief of police almost in this country is a type-A personality. We see a problem, we want to fix a problem.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): King and his allies got some action back in 2007, when the state installed four sets of crosswalks and pedestrian-activated lights on a one-mile stretch of Buford Highway.
The problem was they didn’t always work.
REPORTER 4: We tested the cross walks… Pushed button after button after button –
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): Recently new lights were installed to replace the broken ones. But as of today, they still haven’t been turned on.
While we were in town part of Buford Highway buckled in a heat wave.
REPORTER 5: Driver after driver was forced to turn around after a 42-foot section of Buford Highway bubbled up two feet.
FEMALE DRIVER: That’s nuts!
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): State crews fixed that problem over night. But there are no overnight fixes for pedestrians, says Kathy Zahul, traffic engineer for Georgia’s Transportation Department. Reconfiguring an infrastructure built for cars, she says, means untangling decades of bureaucracy. So much so, that even a simple question turns out not to be.
JOHN LARSON:Why don’t you just lower the speed on Buford Highway?
KATHY ZAHUL: Nationally, it’s accepted that the appropriate speed limit for any route is around 80– where 85 percent of the population is comfortable driving.
JOHN LARSON: So basically it says the people driving the cars set the speed limit. I mean I know that’s not exactly right, but that’s what you’re saying?
KATHY ZAHUL: Well, they set the operating speed.
JOHN LARSON: In this type of situation where the issues really have become pedestrian oriented, couldn’t that be rethought?
KATHY ZAHUL: Well, by law, um, Georgia Department of Transportation is required to set the speed limit on all routes in the state at the maximum reasonable and safe speed.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): It’s a catch-22 that drives pedestrian advocates nuts.
MICHAEL ORTA: It’s horrible. It’s horrible. They can’t just lower the speed limit. They have to go out and make design changes to the road that would force people to drive slower and then be able to justify that they’re lowering the speed limit because these design changes made people drive slower.
JOHN LARSON (VOICE OVER): Zahul showed us plans for some design changes that are in the works. But the transportation department says construction won’t start until 2012.
JOHN LARSON: So, according to the plans on the books at least, eventually the rest of Buford Highway will have sidewalks?
KATHY ZAHUL: Yes.
JOHN LARSON: And eventually there’ll be more crossing, safe crossing areas?
KATHY ZAHUL: Absolutely.
JOHN LARSON: And the only question really is, is how long is eventually?
KATHY ZAHUL: Correct.
FEMALE: Hey. Welcome to my little house.
ALISON STEWART: On the next edition of Need to Know…Living large…sort of.
VOICE OVER: D. Williams lives in a spare but stylish home measuring 84 square feet. It’s powered by propane and solar energy. And it sits comfortably in a friend’s backyard. D. pays no rent and no mortgage. Her utility bills? Eight dollars a month.
FEMALE: The small house movement—it really is a movement. The decision to downsize is definitely a trend, people are simplifying. This little house fits me. It’s very simple, simple type of living. The whole culture ethic of consuming more and having more as a way of feeling good about your life, I think people are turning that upside down a little bit.
ALISON STEWART: For some, smaller is better. Inside the tiny house movement. Next week, on Need to Know.
ALISON STEWART: Here at Need to Know we believe in real reporting.
JON MEACHAM: We don’t put much stock in crystal balls or reading tea leaves.
ALISON STEWART: But when we Need to Know what’s happening next week, we turn to our own Andy Borowitz to give us his trademarked glance into the future. Hi Andy!
ANDY BOROWITZ: Hi, Alison and Jon. Well, this week we’re gonna look a little bit further into the future: to 2012. If the presidential election were held today, Sarah Palin would defeat Barack Obama. Now, that’s according to a new poll published in Mayan Prophecy Weekly.
Here’s what you need to know about a Palin presidency. Her first official act will be to cancel the agreement between nouns and verbs. Next, she’ll replace the English language with palinese: a language known only to her. Even her husband Todd doesn’t speak it – although, to be fair, no one has ever heard him speak. We got a little taste of this strange new language last week on her Twitter page when she used the word “refudiate.”
Now, when she uses a word like “refudiate,” she may seem incohecent. But in 2012, we’re all gonna to be talking like this, so we better start learning palinese now. I figure if we learn three words a day, in two years we might have a shot at understanding her State of the Union address. So let’s begin our lesson in basic palinese.
Word number one: “mitteracy.” “Mitteracy” means the ability to read off one’s hand. Word number two: “rignorance.” “Rignorance” means advocating deep-water drilling in the aftermath of an ecological disaster that killed thousands of pelicans. And finally, “Mooseacre.” “Mooseacre” means a really fun day in the great outdoors. Now, that’s our lesson in palinese for today. Now, you may be wondering: where does Sarah Palin find all these new words of hers? In a little book called the fictionary.
Well, that’ll do it for Next Week’s News – back to you, Jon and Alison. Or as we say in palinese, “Jalison.”
ALISON STEWART: Thank you, Andy – Professor Borowitz.
That’s it for this episode of Need to Know on the air. But as so many of you know by now, we’re online all the time with new stories, videos, podcasts and blogs. Visit our site now for another “Green vs. Green” story, this one from California’s Mojave dessert, where environmentalists are divided over proposals to build over half a million acres of solar farms, in one of the world’s most pristine ecosystems.
By the way, that story was put together by two of our interns… from Berkeley.
JON MEACHAM: Nice job, you guys. Give yourselves a raise. Thanks for watching. See you next time.