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Editorial: May 17, 2000

 One shade of green: Environmentalists over-use message control

 When President Clinton the other day proposed to ban the construction of roads in nearly one-quarter of national forest lands, the bulk of the system's pristine wilderness, the environmental establishment sang out a chorus of disappointment. Within hours of the announcement, the media began to receive press releases from various environmental organizations. However different the
voices, the song sounded as if it were sung out of a single hymnal.

Clinton's proposal "would fall short of the president's bold vision," said the Sierra Club. The plan "does not reflect the president's vision," said the Wilderness Society. It "falls short of ... President Clinton's vision," said the Defenders of Wildlife. "We are hopeful that the final policy will measure up to the vision that President Clinton laid out last October," said the Heritage Forests Campaign.

Coincidence? Or a carefully conducted choir?

On the campaign trail, the goal of candidates is to stay on message. The hope is that the media will regurgitate this message and that the masses will digest it. This seems to work so well for candidates that environmental groups (and others; they're hardly alone) are increasingly applying the same message discipline to policy debates, such as what to do about roadless areas in forests.

Sure enough, those next-day stories on Clinton's forestry initiative echoed the "fell-short-of-the-vision" chorus that was sung for them. To read the stories, one would think there wasn't an environmentalist happy at the prospect of preserving 43 million acres of roadless America, more forest preservation than President Theodore Roosevelt accomplished.

A master at message control, Clinton is frantically waging an election-style campaign in his final months to build a legacy of public land preservation. To be sure, the Republicans don't like what he's up to.

But as Clinton's resource legacy campaign has evolved, the Republicans aren't the ones standing in the way. It is the environmental community. Through its masterful counterattack of message control, it has established precisely how many acres of roadless forest Clinton must preserve -- 60 million, not just 43 million -- to be worthy of public acclaim.

Savvy voters are learning how to look behind a candidate's scripted message in an effort to make up their own minds. That same skepticism will help the public sift through this campaign-style debate over the nation's roadless wilderness. Awareness of message control is the only way to see the proverbial forest through the trees.