Yellow journalism now comes in a new color: green.

Media criticism.
July 6 2007 4:21 PM

Green Is the New Yellow

On the excesses of "green" journalism.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Yellow journalism now comes in a new color: green.

Often as sensationalistic as its yellow predecessor, green journalism tends to appeal to our emotions, exploit our fears, and pander to our vanity. It places a political agenda in front of the quest for journalistic truth and in its most demagogic forms tolerates no criticism, branding all who question it as enemies of the people.

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Not all green journalism harangues, but even the gentlest variety sermonizes, cuts logical corners, and substitutes good intentions for problem solving. For an example of creepy gentle green journalism, there's no better example than the " Slate Green Challenge," a series that Slate started publishing last fall in conjunction with TreeHugger.org.

I've got no fundamental quarrel with TreeHugger. They're propagandists who are "dedicated to driving sustainability into the mainstream" and don't really pretend to be journalists. My bitch is that Slate, which ought to know better,boarded the trendy greenwagon to publish the group's flawed, if well-meaning, guide to reducing carbon dioxide from one's "diet."

Now, don't get me wrong. Carbon emissions may indeed be causing harmful climate change, and dramatic reductions by Americans may actually do some good. But in typical green journalism fashion, the feel-good TreeHugger copy gives equal emphasis to reducing your airline travel and installing an aerating shower head in your bathroom. (Carbon saving from canceling that New York to Los Angeles roundtrip: about a ton. Installing new shower head: about a thimble.)

There's not much in the TreeHugger-Slate package we haven't heard a million times since the first oil embargo: Install storm windows. Insulate. Weather strip. Keep the furnace settings low and the AC settings high. Turn things off. Buy energy-efficient appliances and cars. Avoid unnecessary trips. Carpool. Don't waste. But that's not good enough for the green worshippers at TreeHugger, whose aesthetic is ascetic. The series counsels readers to decarbonize by resisting new purchases of cotton clothes—unless of the organic variety—and to seek fibers made of hemp, bamboo, ramie, linen, silk, and lyocell (wood pulp). In greenifying Christmas, one must give up the carbon gluttony of Xmas cards, Xmas wrapping paper, Xmas trees, and electrified Xmas decorations. "If you're decorating with candles, choose the ones made from soy wax or beeswax," the article seriously advises. And, if you must eat, TreeHugger says, eat locally and organically, and avoid processed food and meat.

Slate isn't the only victim of green-brain disease. The malady swept through the New York Times Magazinein May as it published a feature on the glories of an experimental solar-hydrogen house "that might very well change our lives forever." The piece read great until a less-than-worshipful letter writer caught up with the magazine two weeks later. Using hydrogen as an energy-storage medium is wasteful, A.R. Martin wrote to the magazine. "For every 100 kilowatts of electricity produced by the solar cells, only about 40 kilowatts is recovered from the hydrogen fuel cell. By contrast, as much as 80 kilowatts could be recovered from a storage battery."

The entertainment press corps genuflected in Hollywood this year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences staged a "carbon neutral" Oscars ceremony. The academy accomplished the feat by paying the carbon-offset service TerraPass, which in turn pays landfills, foresters, and others to reduce greenhouse gases. In March, Business Weekremoved the eco-glitter of offsets with a feature, writing, "When traced to their source, these dubious offsets often encourage climate protection that would have happened regardless of the buying and selling of paper certificates. One danger of largely symbolic deals is that they may divert attention and resources from more expensive and effective measures."

Equally skeptical of the carbon credits has been the Financial Times. "Companies and individuals rushing to go green have been spending millions on 'carbon credit' projects that yield few if any environmental benefits," the newspaper reported in April. Another brilliant FT piece cites several academic studies to show that imported foodstuffs aren't necessarily the carbon bombs that "localvores" make them out to be. The piece speculates that the car ride back from the grocery store might be the most carbon-intensive part of a fruit, vegetable, or leg of lamb's journey from farm to pantry. Compare this with the TreeHugger catechism in Slate, which holds that "there's no question that eating locally grown foods and shopping at your farmers' market help reduce CO2 emissions by cutting down on transport."

I don't mean to suggest all greenies are well-meaning dolts or propagandists. Some possess all the skepticism of their more enlightened brothers and sisters in the capitalist press. The troublemakers at the Center for Media and Democracy, for example, point to dozens of examples of "greenwashing," which they defined as the "unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government or even a non-government organization to sell a product, a policy" or rehabilitate an image. In the center's view, many enterprises labeled green don't deserve the name. If only a certain online magazine were so skeptical.

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Seen a rotten example of green journalism lately? Or a good example of de-greening journalism? Send the links to me at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.