Environmental beat oddly ‘gratifying’ in Trump era, says NYT’s Friedman

During her career as a journalist, the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman has covered a lot of beats at a lot of different papers across the country. But for the better part of the last 10 years, Friedman has focused exclusively on climate and the environment, and she says it’s the best beat she’s ever had.

At a Berkeley College Tea on Oct. 12, Friedman spoke candidly about the challenges of covering climate in the Trump era, when many officials refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change or even speak to reporters. But she also said the Trump administration’s drastic reversals on signature Obama-era policies like the Paris climate accords and the EPA’s clean coal regulations have led more people than ever to express an interest in her beat and the issues she covers.

Photo of Lisa Friedman
Lisa Friedman

Friedman answered questions from Berkeley Head of College David Evans before turning to the two dozen students and community members present. Friedman reflected on the “brave new world” of climate in the Trump administration, as she referred to the drastic changes in policy and the shake-up in personnel. “It’s also, in an odd way, gratifying,” Friedman said. “Because of the danger to so many policy matters, there has never been so much public attention.”

When Friedman spoke about recent reporting that revealed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to have taken charter flights that cost taxpayers nearly $60,000, she laughed, because, she said, she cannot remember another time when so many Americans have known the name of an EPA head. Covering the EPA, Friedman said, “is like covering the CIA” because it’s “so secretive.” She said she’s glad Americans are paying attention.

One difficulty at this time of heightened partisanship is presenting a balanced picture of environmental issues, said Friedman, noting that the Times views the science as settled, so climate change deniers do not necessarily receive equal standing. But a lesson she’s learned from covering the Trump administration, which has shaken up the Washington establishment, is that a good journalist has to talk to everyone, she said.

We as journalists have kept marginalized a group of people who don’t believe in climate change,” Friedman admitted. And since their beliefs are in line with the current administration, she noted, they must be included in the Times coverage, even if a quote by a climate change denier includes a caveat that those views are out of line with the scientific consensus.

Friedman has only been at The New York Times since July. Before that, she worked at ClimateWire, first as a writer and then as editor. Now, her reporting is deeply focused on Washington policy matters. Her time at ClimateWire often involved travel to local communities confronting climate change. “That kind of stuff I love, and I find that personally inspiring,” Friedman said of trips around the world where she met people working on solutions to environmental challenges. But her readers at ClimateWire were environment junkies, and at the Times she’s learning to better bring these issues to the general public, she said.

Several students expressed hope for new climate-focused solutions. Friedman said she’s hopeful about the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan caucus of 60 Congressmen — 30 democrats and 30 republicans who all acknowledge climate change and work on solutions. She also urged the audience to watch the states that said they will continue to abide by the Paris climate accords, even as the U.S. federal government plans to pull out.

And, she added, no one really knows what policies the Trump administration will support down the line. “All the things you thought you knew in how different groups operate and what they care about and what motivates them has kind of gone out the window,” Friedman said.

Friedman ended her talk by urging the students present to do whatever they can to educate peers about environmental issues. She said her mother once attended a climate discussion she moderated at the French Embassy in D.C. Her mom asked a question in front of all the attendees: Why do these events only happen in New York and D.C.? What about people across the country who care and want to learn? Friedman agreed with that sentiment. “If these are issues that you care about and are of interest to you,” she said, “find a way to bring it home.”

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