Covering Penguins And The Politics Of Denial

February 15, 2005


(Excerpts from the keynote address to the annual convention of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Austin, Texas, October 1, 2005. The full text is available at

Theodore Roosevelt warned a century ago of the subversive influence of money in politics. He said the central fact in his time was that big business had become so dominant it would chew up democracy and spit it out… But a hundred years later mighty corporations are once again the undisputed overlords of government. Follow the money and you are inside the inner sanctum of the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute. Here is the super board of directors for Bush, Incorporated. They own the Administration lock, stock, and barrel, and their grip on our government's environmental policies is leading to calamitous consequences. Once the leader in cutting edge environmental policies and technologies and awareness, America is now eclipsed. As the scientific evidence grows, pointing to a crisis, our country has become an impediment to action, not a leader. Earlier this year the White House even conducted an extraordinary secret campaign to scupper the British government's attempt to tackle global warming – and then to undermine the UN's effort to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. George W. Bush is the Herbert Hoover of the environment. His failure to lead on global warming means that even if we were dramatically to decrease greenhouse gases overnight we have already condemned ourselves and generations to come to a warming planet… 

Let's go back for a moment to America's first Gilded Age just over a hundred years ago. That was a time like now. Gross materialism and blatant political corruption engulfed the country. Big business bought the government right out from under the people. Outraged at the abuse of power the publisher of McClure's Magazine cried out to his fellow journalists: "Capitalists…politicians…. all breaking the law, or letting it be broken? There is no one left [to uphold it]: none but all of us."

Then something remarkable happened. The Gilded Age became the golden age of muckraking journalism…

The Gilded Age has returned with a vengeance. Washington again is a spectacle of corruption. The promise of America has been subverted to crony capitalism, sleazy lobbyists, and an arrogance of power matched only by an arrogance of the present that acts as if there is no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow. I see the future every time I work at my desk. There, beside my computer, are photographs of Henry, Thomas, Nancy, Jassie, and SaraJane – my grandchildren, ages 13 down. They have no vote and they have no voice. They have no party. They have no lobbyists in Washington. They have only you and me – our pens and our keyboards and our microphones – to seek and to speak and to publish what we can of how power works, how the world wags and who wags it. The powers-that-be would have us merely cover the news; our challenge is to uncover the news that they would keep hidden. A lot is riding on what we do. You may be the last group of journalists who make the effort to try to inform the rest of us about the most complex of issues involving the survival of life on earth… 

Last year, my final year on "NOW with Bill Moyers," we produced a documentary called "Endangered Species," about a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., known as Anacostia, just a few blocks from Capitol Hill. It is one of the most violent and dangerous neighborhoods in the city, one of those places that give Washington the horrendous distinction of the highest murder rate of any major city in the country. It's horrendous in other ways too. The Anacostia River that gives the neighborhood its name is one of the most polluted in America; more than a billion gallons of raw sewage end up in it every year.

We went there to report on the Earth Conservation Corps, a project started by one Bob Nixon to recruit neighborhood kids to help clean up the river and community… One of the most charismatic of the kids who joined the Corps was named Diamond Teague. He worked so hard the others jokingly called him "Choir Boy." His work became his passion; he loved it. It gave purpose and meaning to his life to try and clean up his neighborhood and river. But one morning while he was sitting on his front porch someone walked up and shot him in the head…

After his death Diamond Teague got the only press of his short life – 43 words in The Washington Post:

"A teenager was found fatally shot about 2:05 Thursday in the 2200 block of Prout Place SW, police said. Diamond D. Teague, 19, who lived on the block, was pronounced dead."

That's all. That was Diamond Teague's obit. Not a word about his work for the Earth Conservation Corps. Not a word.

It was left to his friends to tell the world about Diamond Teague. One of them explained to us that they wanted people to know that just because a black man gets killed in the Southeast corner of the nation's capital, "he's not just a drug dealer or gang banger…and not just discount him as nobody when he deserves for people to know him and to know his life."

They made a video – you can see part of it in our documentary. They turned out for his funeral in uniform. They wept and prayed for their fallen friend. And then they went back to work, on a dusty patch of land squeezed between two factories that they envisioned as a park. "We see the bigger picture," one of Diamond's friends told us. "All great things have to start in roughness. We're just at the beginning of something that's gonna be beautiful."

They've said they would call it the Diamond Teague Memorial Park…On that fleck of land, where anything beautiful must be born in roughness, they see "the bigger picture."

Just blocks away, at opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in the White House and the Capitol, the blind lead the blind, on one more march of folly.

Who is left to open the eyes of the country – to tell Americans what is happening? "There is no one left; none but all of us."

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005 issue

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