Controlling "Point Source" Information Pollution

by Jim Britell

Summary:   environmental policy is increasingly based on half baked, anecdotal, hard luck stories which must be countered.

These days environmental policy and regulation is being established almost entirely on the basis of half baked, anecdotal, hard luck stories; however, when the true facts behind these confabulated stories are exposed, the true facts often turn out to be good arguments for more regulation rather than less.

For example, one story in wide circulation claims some poor rancher was fined $4000 for shooting a Grizzly bear in self defense. In fact, he merely had a sheep killed by the bear, was compensated for it, promised compensation for future losses, offered free electric fencing at public expense, and warned not to shoot the bear. Then when he went and shot it anyway, he was fined. But at least parts of this story really occurred. Other's like the poor women who couldn't plant a rose bed in her yard because of wetlands, or the gas station fined $10,000 for failure to post a "Recycled Oil" sign on a barrel never happened at all.

Environmental misinformation and disinformation is damaging because there is no established process to explain, rebut and correct information pollution. Each day hard hitting analyses and investigative reports of environmental issues that should circulate to the general public and grassroots groups are produced, but not widely disseminated. For example, the Spring issue of the Defenders of Wildlife magazine had a long investigative piece about Wolf reintroduction in North Carolina. It identified state legislator's ignorance, a problem uniquely suited for grassroots action, as a Red Wolf reintroduction obstacle. That article should have received wide circulation in North Carolina. In the Congressional Record for 7/14/95 pp. S9946-9951 Senator Glenn demolished a dozen of the most heartbreaking environmental stories used to justify regulatory "reform". EPA has documented the spuriousness of hard luck stories promulgated on talk radio.

Excellent investigative reporting on trans-national corporations and even local environmental issues regularly appears in the Wall Street Journal Recently the background of people promoting a 60,000 acre federal land grab in an adjoining county was disclosed in a WSJ front page investigative piece. We are up against 15 million dollars of casino money, not just some local good old boys as we assumed.

Effective ammunition for our side is written and printed but since no one group monitors all the progressive magazines and major US newspapers we lack a central organization to process this data and turn it into usable information. A group should be funded to review all the environmental literature, major newspapers and the Congressional Record and prepare a summary or highlights for systematic distribution to grassroots groups around the country to putout in their local newspapers as op-eds or letters to the editors. A daily press service or clipping service should also be augmented with pre-written pieces for local use.

To identify the audience for this local press network, we could canvass the few thousand environmental groups in the US to see which would be willing to take on the responsibility to place op-eds and letters to the editor in local newspapers. This service could be augmented so that the full text of articles with local interest would go to all environmental groups in an area whether "subscribers" or not.

We also need to monitor the Congressional Record and committee proceedings for egregious statements and votes so this can be conveyed by local environmental groups to the general public back home in the state or district. Few activists know the details of how their representatives vote nor the crazy and irresponsible things said during floor debate. LCV apparently intends to do real time monitoring of committee votes. This is a good first step but we need to go the rest of the way to make this analysis more useful and get it out in real time to local people. We need something like a "Crazy Quotes and Votes" to enable activists to obtain and then promulgate factual material about their elected officials.

Those engaged in analysis, writing, and data collection should think through how their material will actually be used. Much of our best writing is prepared for the magazines of environmental organizations; however the best potential application and use of the analysis is by non-members. 99% of most environmental writing is probably consumed as recreational reading; while 99 % of the activists who need it don't know it exists.

The broader battlefield of the disinformation war is discussed in an article by Fred Davis in Wired magazine, While the Left Sleeps, Davis writes,

" The conservative political movement has a sophisticated infrastructure. It includes technical infrastructure - radio, fax trees, Newt Gingrich's videos and conference calls, direct mail and the databases that back it up, and so forth. It includes institutional infrastructure - activist training, networking groups like the Council for National policy, industry public affairs operations, the Free Press, and a web of politically conservative religious institutions. It includes what we night call rhetorical infrastructure - the discursive forms of public relations that provide standard logical frameworks for the ceaseless circulation and reassembly of bits of fact, argument, and narrative by conservative pundits and activists. And the movement includes what we might call ideological infrastructure - a basic framework of abstract ideas filled in with this rhetorical material in particular settings...

" The only way the world changes is through social organizations and institution building, and technology can't do this by itself. But let us be aware of the specific ways various social movements take hold of particular media and think about how the technologies might be used differently..."

With present technology right wing reactionaries can send a video clip by satellite overnight to 800 religious TV outlets, multi-line blast faxing systems generate 100,000 alerts from a single machine and one consultant can generate 500,000 faxes and phone calls. These things are possible with present mundane technology. But computer technology no matter how advanced is no better than the information that it disseminates.

Collecting, assembling, summarizing and converting data into usable information is a step that can be begun now so when we create the lobby networks and the technology to support them we will have the information to put on the network. A lobbying network superior to the right's is financially, technically, and organizationally possible We can leapfrog their technology and implement with wit and creativity what the right wing does with brute force. How such a system might be implemented will be the subject of a future note.

©1995 Jim Britell
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May not be reproduced without permission.

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