< Tapped Out

Transcript

Friday, November 09, 2007

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
As Juliet observed, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." So how about a drought? Would public awareness of droughts increase if we started naming them like we do hurricanes? That's what Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson proposes. Senator Nelson thinks hurricanes are getting all the attention, so he named a drought in Nebraska "David," in hopes that a moniker would inspire more federal aid.

He's got a point. While hurricanes usually cost between 1.2 and 4.8 billion dollars annually, the annual losses from droughts are between 6 and 8 billion. Of course, hurricanes are easier to name. Their lifespan and boundaries are better defined, and, let's face it, hurricanes have personality. There's the wind --
[WIND SOUNDS]
-- torrential rain --
[RAIN SOUNDS]
-- thunder and lightning.
[THUNDER AND LIGHTNING SOUNDS]
All you have to do is send a reporter outside. The scenes are biblical.
MALE CORRESPONDANT:
Yeah, we're --
[NOISE IN BACKGROUND]
-- we’re here. We're up against a generator. I think my buddy Mike took a -- I think my buddy Mike took a tumble.
[NOISE CONTINUES]
I can just -— I can just hear the folk at home saying, you know, they got what they deserve.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
A reporter in a drought can't grandstand in a gale or face down a flood. And because of complex irrigation systems, people may not even know, at first, that their city's reservoirs are emptying.
[WATER TRICKLING]
But lately the droughts are becoming so dire that they are finally making the news.
FEMALE CORRESPONDANT:
Experts predict in just three or four months, the lake which provides most of metro Atlanta's water may run out.
MALE CORRESPONDANT:
It has got to rain on the side of the ridge that I'm on in order to have any effect on --
MALE CORRESPONDANT:
What's happened in Jefferson, Georgia is what everyone else is afraid of. The town of about 4,000 has literally run out of water.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
The drought has pitted Georgia against its neighboring states, and Governor Sonny Perdue is hosting a prayer service next week, saying the only solution is rain and the only place we get that is from a higher power.

Circle of Blue is a group of journalists and scholars trying to generate more media attention for water issues. Their director, Carl Ganter, commissions veteran reporters and photographers and assigns them a region and a water issue to cover. So far they've done the first of 150 stories that they'll post on their own website. Ganter says he hopes to create iconic images and compelling narratives that do far more to raise awareness than naming droughts ever could.
CARL GANTER:
Maybe giving them names is not as important as perhaps giving them faces. And maybe we'd have an easier time if drought marched in like a hurricane and hit hard and left, because then we could cover it in that 24/7 news cycle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
What's so hard about covering droughts and water issues? They're right in front of your face. The impact is right there.
CARL GANTER:
Drought is one piece of the big puzzle that's unfolding here. You have discussions of massive infrastructure that are taking place behind the scenes. In the Great Lakes we have lake levels that are dropping, and, at the same time, estimates it will take 26 billion dollars to clean up and protect the Great Lakes. We have aquifer issues in the Central United States and we have desertification in many parts of the world and even in this country. So they're all slow, difficult-to-cover images, but they also have very complicated connections with our political system, with massive contracts over the next decade or so. So, it becomes a story of investigative reporting, of business, of agriculture.

When we do a big take-out in The Sunday New York Times Magazine or The Atlantic or some of the other major media outlets, we do that and then we move on. But this is a story that's not going to move on. It may even be the story of the century.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Well, that was the impression I got from reading The New York Times Magazine piece that you referred to late last month. It's terrifying. I think someone in it says, you know, in a best case scenario we are looking forward to an apocalypse.
CARL GANTER:
An apocalypse truly may even be the right term, in some instances. Our pilot story for Circle of Blue we did in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico, a very interesting microcosm. And in this area you have factory farms that are pulling water from the aquifers and draining the water from the villages upland, so to speak. Their wells are going dry. The rainfall patterns are changing. These people can't farm anymore.

So these people, as Joe Contreras, our reporter who writes for Newsweek found, these people are moving. The children are moving to Mexico City and then they're moving north. And they're not moving north looking for subsidized health care. They're moving north looking for economic opportunity because they can't farm anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So in that story, you have basically linked drought to a bigger, more headline-grabbing issue, which is immigration. Others have done this with drought and the conflict in Sudan. Is this simply piggybacking onto an issue that people will pay attention to?
CARL GANTER:
Well, I don't think it's piggybacking onto an issue. Water is just one of many factors in immigration, but our bigger point is we have a huge story that's unfolding that we need to report fully. We need to find out really what's going on in the field because we know in other countries that water is definitely having an impact on migration and immigration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Let's talk about Circle of Blue, which is a nonprofit journalism and, essentially, advocacy group.
CARL GANTER:
Well, we don't necessarily see ourselves as advocates. Our goal is to cover the issue as we would as if we were a business journal covering business issues. So water, we feel, just happens to be one of the big issues of this century.

And maybe I'm very sensitive to the point of advocacy journalism because it oftentimes gets a stamp. And we're keeping our distance from the nonprofits that are all working in water. And when I say “we,” we're all journalists, and a lot of us have day jobs so we do these projects as stringers. We now have, on our team, we have Contact Press Images, Magnum Photos, Getty Images, so we have great resources to draw from, just on the photography side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And the water issue, I think, is pretty image-rich, dating back to the days of the Dust Bowl and Dorothea Lange. Do you need these devastating images to really hit the reader or the viewer with the importance of this issue?
CARL GANTER:
I think if we look at major points in history -- look at Matthew Brady and the Civil War, look at Eddie Adams' picture from Vietnam, look at the portrait of Earth, our first self-portrait, really, of this blue planet -- they all helped define certain points in history.

In Mexico, in Tehuacan, we found Francisca Rosa Valencia, and her face was just hauntingly similar to some of the faces we saw captured by Dorothea Lange on her black and white film. And the stories were similar -- the stories of migration, the stories of searching for work in economic hardship which was triggered by drought.

And so I believe that assigning great image-makers, that we will find the iconic images to really bring home the global fresh water crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So you've got this beautiful story that you've written, richly illustrated, and it goes on your Circle of Blue website. Are you going to try and place these stories anywhere else? Is anybody interested in running them?
CARL GANTER:
There is interest. In Mexico, when we did the Tehuacan piece, we presented that to our colleagues in the media in Mexico City, and the three major newspapers asked to run excerpts.

What they did is they came back to us later, the editors and the reporters, and said, thank you, we don't have the resources to go to the Tehuacan Valley and to cover this story, to spend five or six days or ten days in the field.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I think there is a higher likelihood of your being able to forge those kinds of partnerships with Mexican media outlets than you might have with American media outlets. And I wonder -— have you made an effort to do that? Do you think there's any chance in the world that they would be willing to accept you as a partner in producing these stories?
CARL GANTER:
Bottom line, if we are journalists, if we're breaking news and finding the icons at the front lines of one of what we believe is one of the most critical stories of the century, then I think we'll get some coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Carl, thank you very much.
CARL GANTER:
Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Carl Ganter is director of Circle of Blue, a nonprofit journalism data and social media project that focuses on global fresh water issues.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]