A View From the Cheap Seats

August 15, 2007

The National Enquirer – Tribune Edition

Filed under: BP,Environment,National,State — trzupek @ 3:24 am

The National Enquirer – Tribune Edition

By Rich Trzupek
A number of people e-mailed responses to last week’s column about the BP-Amoco (non) issue. My favorite came from a fellow member of the Trzupek clan, my older brother Larry, who earns his living as a professor of chemistry.

Lar observed: “Unlike humans, who excrete urea in their urine, fish excrete ammonia. So, if we want to keep ammonia out of Lake Michigan, the obvious solution is to kill all the fish.”

Sage advice, but a couple of other readers offered some pointed criticism too. Jack Putignano rated my letter to Illinois’ two U.S. senators “marvelous,” but added “…you should have included Mark Kirk, who has stuck his oar in the water and joined them in raving on BP. He sounds just like those other two mopes.”

Chris Skelnik complained (correctly) that I “…specifically call out our honorable Democratic senators, but conveniently omit any reference to similar positioning/positions, on the part of state Republicans.”

I can’t argue with either criticism. Jack, Chris: you are spot on. Mark Kirk, Peter Roskam and a host of other state Republicans have made statements about BP every bit as hysterically ignorant as Senators Obama and Durbin and a legion of state Democrats. I apologize for the omissions.

Moreover, I also failed to identify the worst offenders in this festival of scientific ignorance. I did not even mention the people who started this wildfire and then gleefully fanned the flames until both politicians and the public were boiling mad. Allow me to correct this error now, by placing the blame where it should lie: at the feet of the Chicago Tribune and their Minister of Environmental Propaganda, reporter Michael Hawthorne.

I do not know what sort of degree Hawthorne holds, but-as a scientist-I cannot imagine how he could have gotten through Chemistry 101.
His stories about BP, like his stories on most every environmental issue, have been so incredibly sensationalized and so appallingly full of distortions and plain old factual errors that I am dumbfounded they could pass muster with any competent editor.

One can only conclude that the Tribune’s editors either: 1.) don’t know, or 2.) don’t care, that their lead environmental reporter hasn’t the slightest understanding of the environment, environmental regulation or environmental science. I’m not sure which conclusion is more frightening.
There are so many examples of Hawthorne’s horrific reporting that I could never fit all of them into a month’s worth of columns. Let’s just consider one example.

In his July 15 article, Hawthorne pointedly says that BP will be dumping “industrial sludge” into Lake Michigan. Sludge. That’s a powerful word, isn’t it? When we think of “sludge,” we think of black toxic goo, spewing from an ugly discharge pipe, with dead three-eyed fish floating belly up all around. In fact, the only sludge involved in the BP story is that produced by Hawthorne himself.

The “sludge” BP wants to discharge from its wastewater treatment plant will be 99.996 percent water. That is admittedly an increase from its current wastewater discharge, which is 99.997 percent water.

When Hawthorne talks about “sludge,” he is presumably referring to the 30 parts per million of solids that will be contained in the discharge (up from 22 parts per million). That’s less solids than you’ll find in tap water. That’s less solids then you’ll find in many bottled waters. Thirty ppm might qualify as “sludge” for Michael Hawthorne and the boobs in Tribune Tower, but I can’t imagine that many reasonable human beings would share that opinion.
That’s one, and only one, example of just how badly slanted Hawthorne’s stories on this issue have been. If nobody paid attention to them, these twisted stories wouldn’t matter. They shouldn’t matter. But the fact is that this is the Trib and, as far as it has fallen, the Chicago Tribune still commands attention.

Legislators read screaming headlines like “BP gets break in dumping in lake,” and, because the story is in the Trib, they figure it must be credible. “Incredible” is more like it. This is the kind of stuff one usually finds in The National Enquirer and Weekly World News.

These stories not only hurt responsible companies like BP and their employees, they ultimately do damage to legitimate environmental causes. Though I work on opposite sides from environmental groups in my day job, I have friends in many of those organizations who are both reasonable and technically competent. They are disgusted as I when environmental stories are wildly sensationalized, as this one has been. They know that hysteria ultimately hurts their cause, for the public turns a deaf ear when the fanatics constantly cry wolf.

Now I can’t change the world, but I can least make the facts available for those who care to find them. So here’s the deal: I have added a link labeled “Hawthorne Watch” to the home page of the Cheap Seats’ website (www.trzupek.com). The next time Michael Hawthorne writes a piece, go to Hawthorne Watch and you’ll get the rest of the story.

Now let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with reasoned, respectful debate about environmental issues. Our natural resources are precious and we ought to protect them. And I’m not saying that I always know the best way to do that. I am not nearly smart enough to be right about every issue.
But we’re not talking about who’s right and who’s wrong here. We’re talking about getting facts right. We’re talking about the basics: bias and accuracy and context. Without those basics, it’s impossible to have a debate at all, for all we’re left with is hysteria – and hysteria is all the Chicago Tribune gives us these days.


1 Comment »

  1. I get to leave the first comment. Perhaps we can get together for coffee sometime.

    Comment by Cheryl — August 16, 2007 @ 10:59 pm | Reply

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