Hedrick Smith

Inside Media: Our Water Quality

March 15, 2009

Guest: Hedrick Smith

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

Calling pollution a "ticking time bomb," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith gave the media low marks for its environmental coverage.

"Are we in front of the story or behind the story? With the environment, we are behind the story," said Smith, who examined the condition of the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound for his documentary "Poisoned Waters," set to air on "Frontline" in April.

But the media don’t always drive the coverage. The former New York Times correspondent pointed out that the media take its cue from the public.

"What is the public’s interest right now? Obviously, they are interested in the economy, jobs and Wall Street," he said.

Smith hopes "Poisoned Waters" will shed light on the dangers lurking in the nation’s waters. The avid outdoorsman says his research — which he spent more than a year gathering — is eye-opening.

"I’m a newsman, and it’s been a revelation to me. There are dead zones that occupy 40 percent of the Chesapeake Bay. Dead zones mean that nothing can live in them. No fish, crabs, nothing," he said.

The same pollutants that endanger the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound also jeopardize the drinking water of millions of Americans. But who is the culprit?

Smith explained that consumer products, including skin creams, deodorants and soaps are made with dangerous chemicals, which find their way into storm drains, tributaries and drinking water. In other words, "we are all polluters," he said.

Smith said there is no easy remedy. He urged the government — and the public — to make the environment a higher priority.

"We should deal with this as a public policy issue. [As it stands], we’re skating on thin ice."

Smith has created 20 award-winning PBS specials on subjects ranging from health care to hate crime. He appeared at the Newseum in conjunction with the 17th annual Environmental Film Festival.

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