Judy Muller Is Bullish on Value of SEJ

Oct 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Allison J. Waldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

If the Society of Environmental Journalists ever needs an endorsement for its annual conference, it should turn to Emmy Award-winning television reporter Judy Muller. “I think it’s like must-see TV; the SEJ Conference is like that for reporters,” said Ms. Muller, who moved from a long career as a reporter for ABC News to take a teaching position in August 2003 with the USC Annenberg School for Communication. She remains active on television as a reporter for the PBS series “California Connected.”

Ms. Muller has always been especially interested in environmental journalism. “I was called a general assignment reporter [at ABC], but because I live in the West I told them when they hired me that I wanted to do a lot of wilderness and environmental pieces,” she said. “I think the water issue is really important. My bosses in Manhattan didn’t necessarily think so, but they were open to hearing how I could tell a story well and understandably.”

To track down those stories and ferret out the sources, Ms. Muller benefited from her connection to the SEJ. “It’s one-stop shopping if you’re an environmental reporter,” she said. “The SEJ Conference is incredibly organized. They start way ahead. They get the best speakers on the issues. There were so many good sessions, I couldn’t get to enough of them.”

One year, she recalled, the SEJ invited Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. The congressman has aggressively sought to overturn environmental laws, and has advocated drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge despite opposition from environmentalists and many moderate Republicans.

“That was astonishing because he’s pretty much the bete noir of the environmental movement,” Ms. Muller said. “He came and did a wonderful talk. The questions were probing and hard, but civilized, and I found it a great exchange. That’s the kind of thing SEJ does.”

Ms. Muller appreciates SEJ’s even-handed approach, not just at the conference, but all year round. “It’s very, very professional, and the reporters who belong to it, from what I saw, were solid journalists. They didn’t come in with an agenda. The SEJ attracts people and groups, too,” she said. “You know the Sierra Club is going to be there, and they lean more one way than the other, but on the whole I find them extremely professional.

“They had people there from New Orleans, the Times-Picayune, who had lost their houses in the floods and had written stories about the dangers before Katrina. This was pure, solid, on-the-ground reporting that had nothing to do with politics. In the same way, a newspaper like High Country News, which I subscribe to because it covers the mountain West so well, definitely has a more libertarian bent. Overall, the Society of Environmental Journalists does not take sides.”

Not taking sides is a requirement for a news pro like Judy Muller. After starting in radio, she didn’t become a television reporter until she was 43. “Television came calling me,” she said. “I was definitely a late bloomer.”

At CBS News, where she began her TV career, she had the opportunity to work as a general assignment reporter and honed her craft with one of the network’s most experienced newsmen.

“Charles Kuralt was my mentor and idol,” she said. He helped shape Ms. Muller’s career. “I admired his writing and his style. He was very good to me when I was at CBS Radio, and he really encouraged me.”

She joined ABC News in 1990 and reported on major stories for the next few years. She covered the 1992 Rodney King trial and ensuing riots, the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the O.J. Simpson trials. When “Nightline” earned its Emmys and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award in 1992, she was an integral member of the news team.

Ms. Muller, a native of the West Coast, was comfortable in the region. “My family were fruit farmers and lumber people in Oregon, so I feel I’m very much in touch with people who live on the land and care about it and feel that they’re under attack,” she said.

In her position at “Nightline,” Ms. Muller did many environmental reports. “I think I must be a good pitchman because I sell stuff pretty well, from stolen Indian artifacts on federal lands to water in the West to grizzlies being reintroduced to the Bitterroot area of Montana,” she said. “I’ve been pretty lucky. I wish I could have had the environment as a whole beat, and I never got to do that. I got to do most of the stories anyway, but still, I got a whole half-hour on `Nightline’ on water in the West.”

Of course, even as a good pitchman, she didn’t get her way every time out. “I remember telling my bosses I wanted to do something on wild salmon being threatened, and they said, `But there’s plenty of salmon in the stores,”‘ she said.

“They didn’t get it. They didn’t get the symbolism until I pitched it, so an environmental journalist’s first job is often to educate his editor. That’s part of the uphill climb. But I think that is changing, because in every poll about what Americans care about-even people who have never been to a national park-clean air and clean water” are near the top of the list.

For the past three years, Ms. Muller has branched out into another field: teaching. Her first job after graduating from Mary Washington College was teaching English and theater to high school students. In August 2003 she joined the faculty at USC’s Annenberg School.

“They asked me if I was interested and I was at the point where I was thinking that maybe it was time. My contract was up at ABC. Ted Koppel was leaving `Nightline,’ and that was the show I loved reporting for most. Then Peter [Jennings] died, and it felt like the right time,” Ms. Muller said.

The reporter, who is now 59, accepted the teaching post with the proviso that she could continue reporting. “They asked, `Aren’t you reporting for anyone?’ So they got me to come and do stories for `California Connected,’ and I love doing it.”

She also enjoys the USC post. “I love the teaching,” she said. “The graduate students are just first-class. They’re very competitive. We’re trying to give Columbia [School of Journalism] a run for their money, and I think we’re doing that. To see students get it and go out into the world, and you know you’re making a difference if you can send out 10 good journalists a year. That’s a mark. So I’ve been pretty happy.”

One lesson she shares with her students is that to be a good reporter, one must be tough and fair. “I teach them that you just have to do a solid, fair job and if you do, you have nothing to fear. You’re going to get negative letters anyway, and it doesn’t matter if you’re covering politics or the environment or religion, whatever the beat is, you’re going to hear from people who are angry that you didn’t tell just their point of view only,” she said.

Not Making Friends

The point, she said, is that a reporter should never be looking to make friends. “You can’t go in wanting to be liked, especially in a very volatile area like the environment,” Ms. Muller said. “As long as both sides are a little annoyed with you, that’s not necessarily a litmus test, but it means you’re probably doing the right thing.”

The environment is an especially explosive beat. “People really do get emotional, especially when it’s the `not in my backyard’ kind of issues,” said Ms. Muller. “There are ranchers in the West who are grazing cattle on federal lands and feel like they own the land. To their credit, they’ve been ranching there and running their cattle on it and nobody ever bothered them. Now, suddenly, people from the East Coast are saying that they’re ruining a creek, a creek they’ve never been to. So you really have to be on the ground to understand these people.”

Looking into the future, Ms. Muller predicted the next big environmental issue will be water. “When you talk to global strategists who aren’t environmentalists, they will tell you that water is what the next war will be fought over. I think that’s true. Who owns it, who controls it-here in the West we’ve been living with this for a long time,” she said.

“Mark Twain onc
e said, `In the West, whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.’ That’s the famous quote, but it’s not just true in the West. It’s going to be true all over the world. And unless we start paying attention to how we use it, how we store it, how we waste it, all of those things. … It’s the water that nobody’s paying attention to. As long as we can turn on the tap and get some, it doesn’t seem like a problem. But it is.”

Should that be the case, Ms. Muller would urge journalists to seek out the SEJ for help reporting the story. “If you just want to get sources, the right people to call in the future, to find out what other people are doing, turn to SEJ,” she said. “I think there’s also a sort of in-the-foxhole mentality. Environmental journalists, at least until the last couple of years when climate change became such a big issue, felt like this was a niche that they loved to cover but nobody gives them any respect. Now things are changing.”