Earth Day 1970 on the evening news
From the Nelson Collection, at right is a transcript of a CBS News special, "Earth Day: A Question of Survival," which ran on the night of April 22, 1970 and reported on the day's events.
The real Earth Day never quite made it onto the national evening news.
This broadcast in the transcript, by downplaying the participation of schools and colleges, missed the decentralized, grassroots organizing that made Earth Day a success. The youthful energies of activists tended to monopolize news reporters who, when faced with a unfamiliar new national environmental movement, tried to relate the day's stories in the mold of anti-war protest.
Earth Day's coordinating staff contributed to the skewed portrayal of the day presented by CBS and others. They led the press away from campus and school programs and toward open-air demonstrations in major cities, which they expected to be flashier and provide better footage. For example, three of the events visited in this CBS special (those in Washington, Minnesota, and New Mexico) were picked from the handful planned with the direct participation of the Environmental Teach-In, Inc. coordinators in Washington.
The news coverage that day did not do justice to the variety of participants nor to the profound effect the day had on them. Journalists gravitated toward stories with the mix of "police, arrests, [and] disorder" that CBS's Robert Shakne found at Boston's Logan airport. However, this event was one of only two or three cases nationwide where participants went beyond peaceful, legal protests.
Earth Day had been placed on a Wednesday intentionally to be most convenient for students, a day that fell between spring break and final exam weeks. So, unsurprisingly, correspondents here in this CBS transcript remark repeatedly on the large crowds that failed to materialize. Reporters were looking in the wrong places!
Finding spotty participation in Denver, CBS reporter Robert Morton notes the involvement of a few high school students who took the day off. Had he gone into the Denver schools, he is likely to have discovered Earth Day involved many more of the city's residents than he found on the steps of the capitol.
A commonly cited attendance figure for all Earth Day 1970 gatherings is 20 million. Realistically, the work of 9 people over 4 months could never have organized 20 million people. The accumulated estimates for public events in major cities amount to only a fraction of that figure.
In truth, it would have been impossible to count Earth Day participants. Earth Day happened in so many corners and took so many forms that to capture its extent would have been as difficult for journalists in 1970 as it is for historians today.
See also Gaylord Nelson's letter to CBS news in April 1971 to correct inaccurate reporting about the origins of Earth Day
See the front page of a New York newspaper showing the famous shut down of Fifth Avenue for a massive Earth Day march