In Depth

The Earth Is His Beat

ABC News’ Blakemore Sounds the Alarm

For ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, the greatest failure of mainstream media is in not adequately telling the story of the impact of global warming on our planet.

“The planet has one borderless swirling mass, and the basic ethical fact about the story is it’s a challenge to humanity as a whole,” Mr. Blakemore said. “The additional moral dimension is the worst impacts are going to hit the poorest people in the world. For geographical and economic reasons, those are the people putting the least amount of greenhouse gases into the air.”

Mr. Blakemore first became interested in the topic after hearing lectures in the late 1960s at the University of Beirut on the subject of the extinction of certain species. He was a teacher of literature and English at the time. Two years after that, he joined ABC News as a reporter, but it was almost two and a half decades later that he did his first story on the effects of a changing environment—based upon a situation he learned about while on an eco-vacation in Costa Rica.

It was about the disappearance of the golden toad, a creature that had been the country’s mascot and had lived in deeply protected areas of high altitude, cloud-covered tropical forests. His closing line: “Sooner or later, the one nature preserve we’ll have to watch out for is the entire Earth.”

Previously, Mr. Blakemore was the Rome bureau chief for ABC News, covering the entire papacy of Pope John Paul II, reporting from the beginning of it in 1978 in tandem with the late Peter Jennings. His broadcast journalism reportage also includes the first Gulf War, the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, assassinations, hostage crises and natural disasters.

“The first 35 years were a warm-up—the wars, the popes and terrorism—and a great privilege, but they were by comparison an apprenticeship,” Mr. Blakemore told TelevisionWeek from his office in New York, where he has been based since 1984.

Now, Mr. Blakemore spearheads the alphabet network’s coverage of global warming, and with Washington-based producer/photographer Clayton Sandell, travels the globe from the tropics to the polar regions to report on the impacts and dangers of climate change, as well as possible solutions. The two journalists use a hand-held digital video camera and travel light—and cheaply, a big change from the days of multiperson crews and crates of heavy equipment that Mr. Blakemore likened to the old “white man on safari” ethic.

“Various executives have talked about the possibility of having an official unit, but I kept feeling that since this story needs to have as many different kinds of reporters and producers as possible coming at it from every angle, it wouldn’t help to send out the impression that there was already a gang taking care of it,” said Mr. Blakemore. “That said, we have definitely built a core group in what we sometimes call our ‘non-unit,’ or more exactly our ‘global warming working group’ or team. Clayton Sandell and I run it, so to speak. Researcher Gerard Middleton supplies it with a regular daily sweep of headlines from around the world. We have evolved a ‘Climate and Environment Distribution List,’ which has grown steadily and now includes all EPs and execs and most producers and many correspondents.”

With planet Earth now his beat, Mr. Blakemore said he feels fortunate to have had a childhood in which he was given an opportunity to be positively exposed to the wonders of nature. Growing up in Chicago, he spent childhood summers in western Michigan, enjoying the wooded sand dunes, streams and lakes. He still returns there every year.

Throughout his career, Mr. Blakemore was always interested in doing hard news stories that explored the collision between man and nature. “In a certain sense, it’s been a 38-year quest, to explore the intersection of nature and human nature into hard news. Not a documentary, but hard news. I recognized a feeling that we should be covering the subject with the same kind of urgency with which we cover war, finance, politics and health,” he said.

In 2004, he was doing a follow-up story about the extinction of certain amphibian species—based upon his 1994 piece about the extinction of Costa Rica’s golden toad—when he learned about three separate scientific studies on the impact of man-made global warming.

“The bottom line was that they said nearly 35% of species on the planet could be extinct or close to extinction by 2050. I became astonished at this story and started following up,” Mr. Blakemore said. “To be a journalist is to be edited well, and the editorial process at ABC is rigorous. I love that. But I had to go through about two years where various people would say, ‘I think he’s swallowed the Kool-Aid.’ Some said global warming was only natural cycles. There are all types and varieties of denial. It’s inevitable. I don’t look down at anyone who’s in denial.”

His reporting culminated in an edition of “Nightline” on global warming and extinction in 2005.

Mr. Blakemore said he decided early on to only use only statured, peer-reviewed and academically independent scientists as sources.

“As you get into a story, you observe your own reactions, and I reflected on how eager I was at one point to believe [the denials]. I went back down and did a whole “Nightline” on global warming and extinction in 2005, the first major declaration on this network, and it was solid science,” he said.

“The issue of global warming was highly confused because it had been politicized. It is seen as one of greatest failures of our profession: We were successfully fooled by a vigorous disinformation campaign—documented in first-rate books—of energy companies and PR firms to sow doubt. This is an event story, like when a volcano blows, that needs more perspective and understanding. There is constant skepticism on which side to believe.”

In traveling the world to cover the story—including pieces from locales such as the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, the Caribbean and California’s San Joaquin Valley, Mr. Blakemore has found that doing it in a low-budget way, even hitchhiking in some places, actually enhances the reporting. “We discovered we were getting much better material, because we were never really cut off from the story. Room service cuts you off,” he said.

In addition to reporting for all ABC News broadcasts and Internet, radio and print platforms, Mr. Blakemore is also the anchor of “Nature’s Edge,” a weekly program on climate and environment news on ABC News NOW, the network’s digital channel. It may soon expand from 15 minutes to a half-hour, and will include reports from student correspondents and overseas reporters.

“It’s about the relationship of nature and human nature,” Mr. Blakemore said. “We vowed to always anchor it from outdoors, no matter what the weather—cold, rainy or snowy. It adds interest to the cliché of expected video, and standing there in three layers of woolies adds texture.”