There’s been lots of talk about the decline in the number of science and environmental journalists in recent years, but I think Ty, Ryan and I saw it up close and personal this week. After my friend Joe Romm said to me in an email, “Why don’t you do something about the oil spill — that’s your area of expertise, right?” I got to thinking, it isn’t really, but he’s right — it is a good topic to take a look at from the perspective of “shifting baselines” — meaning changing perceptions — which is sort of my area.

On Monday I sent our producer, Ty Carlisle up to Santa Barbara to visit the Special Collections of the University of California, Santa Barbara. They have probably the best collection of photos and news clippings from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the environmental disaster that was a major force behind the birth of the modern American environmental movement. I warned Ty that they might be a little worn out, given the number of journalists that have probably visited this resources in the 50 days since the start of the Gulf oil spill.

In the meanwhile, I managed to track down Robert Sollen, now 89 years old, who was the superstar reporter and photographer at the Santa Barbara News Press on January 28, 1969 and the guy who received the mysterious phone call from an anonymous caller saying, “The ocean is bubbling around Platform A” (see photo below). He went on to cover the oil spill and it’s aftermath for decades and even in January of this year had yet another article about the risks of offshore drilling to California. He also authored a book on the over 100 year history of offshore oil exploration titled, “An Ocean of Oil.”

Given Mr. Soller’s seniority and depth of knowledge on the subject of offshore oil drilling, I felt certain he would be shagged out from having done too many interviews in the past 50 days, drawing comparisons of the 1969 Santa Barbara experience to the 2010 Gulf oil spill.


The folks at the UCSB Special Collections said, as far as they know, Ty was the first person to look at their material in the past two months, and Robert Soller has only been interviewed once since the Gulf spill, by a local TV news crew.

To paraphrase my Maine lobster fisherman buddy Stevie Robbins again, “There’s your journalism industry, goin’ to pieces.”



What’s happening here? I’ve seen plenty of articles mentioning the Santa Barbara spill. But why aren’t there journalists digging into these resources? Don’t tell me it’s not that big of a story. It has been THE lead story on the evening news of virtually ALL television news shows since late April with segment and after segment, story after story being done.

I think there are two things at work here. First, there are so few science and environmental reporters left that nobody has the resources to afford the time to dig into the past. And second, in the age of the internet, most reporters probably view Wikipedia as good enough.

I don’t know. You can maybe come up with other explanations. I asked this question of Andy Revkin at an event in Pasadena yesterday. He said it takes time to get around to doing the “secondary” stories such as looking at past spills. But the Gulf oil spill isn’t a small story and it’s been nearly two months. No, I think the “journalism” world is getting so caught up in the re-processing of information — blogging and Tweeting about single tidbits of information dug up — that nobody really wants to take the time to go dig up the tidbits. It’s more fun to stay at home and produce commentary!

Very strange. On Monday we’ll post a 5 minute video we’re putting together of what we shot. How many of you out there knew that Carpinteria, California, had a ballot initiative on Tuesday’s vote about a local oil drilling plan? We didn’t. But we stumbled into the local election politics, which was kind of fun and pretty interesting.

So Monday’s video will be a combination of old and new. Tune in then, and in the meanwhile, here’s a few images.





PAST: Veteran oil reporter Robert Soller, 89, now retired and living in Carpinteria, California. And an aerial photo of the "bubbling" off Platform A that the mystery caller told him about.





PRESENT: Residents of Carpinteria managed to defeat Proposition J with 67% of the voters saying NO to the proposed slant drilling rig of Venoco. On left are supporters of "NO on J" including Mike Sheehy (middle) of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. On the right is the seal rookery the oil rig would have been constructed next to.



A LITTLE FOOT NOTE FROM HOLLYWOOD: Any of you folks heard of Nikki Finke? She’s kind of a Wonderwoman in the world of Hollywood — able to leap tall buildings and shoot ego-bloated movie executives out of the sky. She went on vacation and just came back in a blinding fury, obliterating the movie executive behind the mess that is “The A Team.” Imagine if the world of science communication had someone with the guts to speak as bluntly and honestly as she does. That would be awesome.