The Observatory

Adrift in a sea of (no) coverage

By Curtis Brainard
June 18, 2012

Last October, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar called on the press to pay more attention to the Obama administration’s achievements in environmental conservation.

In response, The Miami Herald’s Carl Hiaasen suggested that the government give journalists more to write about, and he had a point. On Sunday, The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin had a revealing article (which should’ve gotten higher billing in the paper) about the president’s “modest personal interest in wilderness protection.” But Salazar had a point as well. Articles like Eilperin’s are all too rare. Case in point: Obama’s National Ocean Policy.

In 2010, Obama established the policy, and created the National Ocean Council, based on the recommendations of an inter-agency task force that he’d created a year earlier. But it was really the culmination of a decade-long effort, which began with the Oceans Act of 2000, to institute a holistic federal approach to managing the country’s oceans, coastal areas, and the Great Lakes.

More than a dozen agencies and countless laws currently have a hand in that process, and the National Ocean Policy is an effort to make it more effective, efficient, and, ultimately, cheaper. At its core is what’s called coastal and marine spatial planning, an “integrated, ecosystem-based approach” to identify the areas most suitable to activities like recreational and commercial fishing, energy production, shipping, naval exercises, and water sports. The idea is to meet the nation’s economic, environmental, and security needs in a sustainable way.

The White House emphasizes that the National Ocean Policy is about revamping the use of existing authority and that it “does not require new legislation in order to be implemented and does not supersede or alter any agency or department’s existing authority,” but it’s been incredibly controversial. While the scientific community and environmentalists support the policy, fishermen, energy companies, and others have denounced it as more big government.

The political battle over implementing the policy has come to a head in the last six months, but there’s been almost to news coverage of it. Instead, the media have relegated the public debate to the opinion pages and advocacy websites, with unfortunate consequences.

Four months before Obama even instituted the policy, ESPN had to apologize for unbalanced column on its website, which readers mistook for news and started a pernicious rumor that the president wanted “to ban fishing.” When Obama signed the executive order establishing the policy four months later, it got scant coverage. Ironically, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which was ongoing at the time, ended up overshadowing, rather than accentuating, its significance (although its worth pointing out that the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which laid off half its newsroom this week, produced both a news article and an editorial about it).

In 2011, Politico and McClatchy’s DC bureau published decent articles about the congressional “sparring” over implementation of the National Ocean Policy, and newspapers in seaside towns like Bangor, ME, and Gloucester, MA, wrote about local fishermen’s consternation with the policy. Deep dives into why better ocean management is needed were left to liberal advocacy outfits like ThinkProgress, which were too critical of Republicans to be convincing.

The conflict has intensified since the beginning of this year, but the coverage has remained on the sidelines. In January, a New York Times blog post reported on a draft of the White House’s plan to turn policy into action. In March a Boston Globe columnist highlightedstudy in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that marine spatial planning prevents $1 million in losses to the fishing and whale-watching industry and generates $10 billion in extra value for the energy sector.

Members of Congress and business interests have debated whether the National Ocean Policy is “an executive power grab” or “makes smart business sense,” at insiders’ outlets like The Hill and Roll Call. But when the AP daybook announced that Obama’s environmental adviser, Nancy Sutley, would be visiting Maryland in February to promote the policy, the media didn’t bite. And when the House passed an amendment to a spending bill in May that blocked funding to implement the National Ocean Policy, almost no one noticed. In an editorialThe New York Times decried the attempt to kill the “worthy effort,” and urged the Senate to block its final passage into law. But that was about it.

There’s been almost nothing in the news about two years’ worth of fighting over a potentially pivotal policy that’s been needed for over a decade. Part of that could be the administration’s fault. Last week, the Joint Ocean Commission—a committee of distinguished marine experts from governmental and non-governmental organizations—issued its Ocean Policy Report Card for 2012, which gave the feds a ‘C’ in national support and leadership.

The recent clashes may be drawing the attention of more reporters, however. Now that her piece about wilderness protection is done, Eilperin is working on a piece for the Post about Obama’s record on offshore conservation. “I’ve been tracking how National Ocean Policy has gone from a wonky issue to a political flash point for several months,” she said in an interview, “and it speaks to how polarized national environmental policy has become.”

As Eilperin wrote in her piece earlier this week, the president’s “record remains largely unwritten,” but that’s not only because he might have four years left in office. It also has a more literal meaning—one which journalists need to correct.

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