Media Rants: Earth Day at 40
By Tony Palmeri
On April 22 Earth Day, the brainchild and legacy of the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, celebrates its 40th birthday. With the word “sustainability” now part of everyday speech, and with record numbers of people seeking “green” options on everything from appliances to food choices, one could say that the Earth Day ethic of environmental preservation prevailed. On the other hand, corporate “greenwashing” and the generally awful state of big media reporting on the science and fact of global climate change do not inspire confidence that Earth Day will enjoy a robust middle age.
Which is not to say that big media were much better in 1970. Earth Day coverage generally sucked. Bill Christofferson’s excellent biography The Man From Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) summarizes the national print media mood of the time
“The nation’s news media were uncertain what to make of Earth Day. Newsweek was bemused, and somewhat dismissive, calling Earth Day ‘a bizarre nationwide rain dance’ and the nation’s ‘biggest street festival since the Japanese surrendered in 1945.’ Time said the day ‘had aspects of a secular, almost pagan holiday…’ The question, Newsweek asked, was ‘whether the whole uprising represented a giant step forward for contaminated Earthmen or just a springtime skipalong.’ The event lacked the passion of antiwar and civil rights movements, Newsweek said, and the issues were so unfocused as to give rise to ‘the kind of nearly unanimous blather usually reserved for the flag.’ Time said the real question was whether the movement was a fad or could sustain the interest and commitment it would take to bring about real change. ‘Was it all a passing fancy…?’ The New York Times asked in a morning-after editorial, then answered its own question: ‘We think not. Conservation is a cause … whose time has come because life is running out. Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.’ . . .”
Northeast Wisconsin print media weren’t as dismissive, though certainly did not heavily promote Earth Day events. On April 21, 1970 the Oshkosh Northwestern had this announcement buried on page 4:
Will Air Teachin (sic)
The university radio station, WRST, will provide extensive coverage of the environmental teachin (sic) Wednesday. The station will carry programs live from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will also broadcast a kickoff speech tonight at 7.
We can excuse the Northwestern copy editor for not knowing how to express “teach-in,” but they couldn’t see fit to announce the speakers or panels? The paper did present two good editorials on April 22: “Everyone Can Help” and “Man Faces Extinction.” The former said that “Today the bell is sounding. Hopefully everyone will take up the challenge.”
The afternoon Northwestern of April 22 carried an above the fold story headlined “Condition of Environment ‘Sad Commentary’ on Man.” Turns out that the Earth Day keynote speaker at the Wisconsin State University Oshkosh was Dr. James Flannery, Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. Flannery told the audience that “the condition of the environment is a sad commentary on man’s stewardship,” and that “this period in history may well be regarded as the period of conscience.”
Below the fold the paper chose to print correspondent Sarah McClendon’s “Nelson has some Earth Day Doubts.” That story was part of a nationwide press trend to place Senator Nelson on the defensive by forcing him to respond to inanities suggesting, for example, that April 22 was chosen for the celebration because it was the commie V.I Lenin’s birthday.
The Neenah/Menasha edition of the Northwestern actually had some of the best pre-Earth Day reporting in 1970. On April 20, the paper announced some of the UW Fox “Survival 70’s” events. They announced the participants in a panel called “Problems of Pollution in the Fox Cities.” The paper also presented fair treatment of the efforts of UWGB and UW-Fox Valley students to launch a petition drive to amend the Wisconsin Constitution. They even printed the proposed amendment language:
“The people have a right to a clean and healthy environment and this right has priority over any use of the environment for private or public purposes. To secure and maintain this right there shall be an immediate, permanent and continuous end to any degradation of the environment by individuals, public agencies, and private corporations or individuals.”
The amendment never found its way to the Constitution, but students at more than 75 Wisconsin colleges, universities, and tech schools were rallied to the cause.
Student environmental activism was actively encouraged by Senator Nelson and Earth Day national coordinator Denis Hayes. Wisconsin responded enthusiastically and with much idealism. At WSU Oshkosh, weekly programs were held from February until the April event. At Stevens Point, April 21-23 was called “Project Survival.”
At the Oshkosh campus, the “Environmental Crisis Organization” was chaired by Harley Christensen (who was also the first News Director at WRST). On Earth Day 1970 the Northwestern quoted him as saying something that still holds today: “We have a moral obligation to air . . . to the water, the land, and the generations to come.”
Happy Earth Day.