Earth Day 1970 on the evening news

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In this 1971 letter to Frank Stanton, then president of CBS, Gaylord Nelson clarifies for CBS how he got the idea for Earth Day, his role in promoting it, and what had happened in the year since Earth Day 1970.

Nelson was compelled to write the letter to correct the facts and statements of CBS coverage leading up to Earth Day 1971. CBS news was typical of the time in angling its coverage toward student radicalism. The campus unrest of the late 1960s raised questions about the expansion from war to environmental activism: what tactics youthful activists would employ and the possible transformation in their political agenda. It was not uncommon for news reports to dedicate as much time to student activists as to the ecological problems in question. As a result, the energetic participation of the many other groups who joined in the new environmental movement was neglected in news coverage.

As Nelson notes in the letter to CBS, before long his own pivotal role was obscured by the activities of youthful idealists. Although Nelson's original approach for Earth Day hoped to draw on the energy of students' political fervor, in this he was a victim of his own success. In December 1969, he hired Harvard Law student Denis Hayes to direct a non-profit coordinating staff, Environmental Teach-in, Inc., and Hayes filled it with capable, young activists. They planned and participated in some key Earth Day events, but their primary work was spreading the word about Earth Day and organizing environmental teach-ins, publicizing the plans of other local organizers, and responding to thousands queries sent to Nelson's or their office.

The political goal accomplished, the group Environmental Teach-in, Inc. was disbanded after Earth Day (see steering committtee minutes from April 7, 1970). Then after Earth Day, Hayes and several of his staff transformed what had been a non-partisan non-profit group, encouraging participation of all kinds, into a firebrand of the new environmental movement called Environmental Action.

As Nelson and McCloskey returned to Congress hoping their colleagues had got the message from Earth Day, the young activists worked to make that message louder, sharper, and impossible to ignore. In May 1970, Environmental Action published a collection of Earth Day speeches with a preface by Hayes stating:

"We have learned not to place our faith in regulatory agencies that are supposed to act in the public interest. We have learned not to believe the advertising that sells us presidents the way it sells us useless products."

In the fall 1970 elections, Environmental Action would brand the 12 members of Congress they deemed to have the worst environmental voting records as the "Dirty Dozen." With former Sierra Club president David Brower's new League of Conservation Voters, the group would work to unseat them in the midterm elections. Half the list did lose seats, a result portrayed in reports by CBS and other media as another example of the political power of Earth Day.

Ultimately, Environmental Action's frequent invocation of Earth Day led CBS to mistakenly attribute the idea for the day of national teach-ins to them. Nelson writes to network President Stanton here both to repair the knock to his reputation, he explains, and to keep Earth Day from being remembered as a partisan event. A grassroots, non-partisan event was, after all, something Nelson had taken great pains to prevent. He did this by, for example, bringing on board Republican McCloskey at the very beginning and rejecting a top-down, Washington-designed Earth Day, instead envisioning a decentralized, grassroots effort where each community would shape their action around local concerns and devise their own events.