Thinking globally, reporting locally
For this award-winning journalist, even petroleum politics can come alive — by telling the human stories of those affected ‘on the ground’


Sandy Tolan

Visiting radio producer Sandy Tolan calls his role as mentor to young journalists “incredibly satisfying.”
Noah Berger photo

17 September 2002 |

Freelance journalist and independent radio producer Sandy Tolan is at Berkeley this year to teach a two-semester graduate seminar on “Politics and Petroleum” co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Graduate School of Journalism. The course looks at the economic, social, political, and environmental impacts of the oil industry on people in Latin America, which is a major source of U.S. foreign oil. In the spring semester, students will do field reporting there with the goal of producing a series of pieces to run in the English- and Spanish-language press.

Tolan, as executive producer for an independent radio production company, Homelands Productions, has produced dozens of documentaries and features, many of which look at natural resources in a global economy (whether oil in Ecua-dor, water in the Middle East, or sugar in the Dominican Republic) and how issues surrounding them affect the lives of common people. His work — heard on National Public Radio, Public Radio International, the CBC, and Australian Broadcasting —has garnered more than 25 national and regional journalism awards.

He first came to campus in 2000 as a Hewlett Foundation Teaching Fellow to teach a class on the U.S./Mexican border for the environmental journalism program. Berkeleyan writer Cathy Cockrell spoke with him recently about his work and his Berkeley seminar on geopolitics and oil.

Your career as a freelance journalist and independent producer has taken you to virtually every continent. Have there been stories that were particularly formative, that helped shape your interests and career?
A story that really helped me understand how the world works was actually the first long, extensive one I ever did, in 1982. It was about Navajo uranium miners in Arizona who had worked as, essentially, foot soldiers in the Cold War. They were digging up the raw material used in the production of atomic bombs, in the post-WWII wage economy that was developing on the Navajo reservation. There were Navajo men across the reservation who mined these uranium loads, working in what were called the “dog holes,” and they were not given any protective clothing, not even respirators.

To me it was incredible that there was knowledge of the danger of radiation at the time, yet these people were essentially “expendable.” A lot of them got silicosis and cancer, and died. There are places on the reservation, in very small, remote areas, where there are no men of a certain age, so many of them have died. What got to me was interviewing a couple of miners named Tommy Dee and Big John. They told me that when supervisors would come they would be wearing all these protective clothes — respirators, gloves, masks — so that the miners wondered if what they were doing was dangerous. And here they were working with uranium, breathing in the dust in these unventilated mines.

So that taught me something about the disconnect between a global geopolitical policy — in this case, providing the raw material for the Cold War policy of nuclear deterrence — and how it’s implemented on the ground, and helped me understand the need for journalism, the need for there to be some kind of reconnection between the policy and the impact. A lot of the stories I’ve done over the years have to do with trying to make that connection. A lot of it echoes back to the Navajo story.

Do you find that environmental stories lend themselves to good storytelling?
It can be tricky, because a lot of stories, science stories in particular, can be quite dry. I think the trick is to try to tell the story in human terms — to convey the narrative as it is experienced by the central players, be they the engineers of policy or the ordinary people on the ground. Many times, especially at the beginning of the reporting — when I’m seeking out the people who can convey the story — I feel as much like a casting director as a journalist, as I literally cast about for the person whose story speaks for a larger group, yet has its own rich particulars.

You’re currently teaching a two-semester seminar on petroleum and geopolitics. Why oil, and oil in Latin America at that, of all the topics you might cover?
It originally came out of a proposal I made to the NPR foreign desk in August of 2001. The senior editor there liked the idea, but events of the following month, of course, changed everything. Months later — in talking to Lydia Chavez and others here at the journalism school and the Center for Latin American Studies about returning to Berkeley to teach — we revived the idea: “What about a systematic investigation of oil in Latin America?” Few people realize that we get more oil from Latin America than we get from the Middle East, and it raises many questions: What are the potential impacts — social, economic, environmental? And what are the benefits? We want to examine the costs and benefits, the risks, the impacts, and the rewards. Clearly oil has created wealth in many Latin American societies — and yet some economies that are dependent on oil have some of the highest poverty rates.

All these questions are especially relevant now, with talk of a possible invasion of Iraq. We want to ask, Is there pressure from U.S. interests — the government or the oil companies — to increase production in other parts of the world, including in Latin America? Would increased production help some Latin American societies, given that the price per barrel of oil would likely rise if there were a war with Iraq? Or would this risk draining oil supplies more quickly, hastening the day of a so-called post-petroleum economy? And what exactly are America’s strategic energy interests in Latin America? There’s a lot at stake here, regardless of what happens in the Middle East. Given the global geopolitics of the day, these questions in Latin America become more relevant.

You’ve said that oil plays a larger role in geopolitics than is evident. Do you feel there’s an oil subtext to the Bush administration’s interest in invading Iraq — beyond Iraq’s alleged accumulation of weapons of mass destruction, or its human rights record?
It’s clear that Iraqi oil is extremely important, in its volume, for the rest of the world. What this has to do with the rhetoric on mass destruction, I can’t say. But it’s not irrelevant. Those questions — about what exists below the surface of the diplomatic and militaristic rhetoric — are part of why we’re starting the course by reading “The Prize” [Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical study, subtitled “The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power”].

Given the consolidation of ownership of broadcast and print outlets, do you worry about the future of the kind of journalism you re trying to do?
I think public-interest journalism in some ways is more endangered than it was, because of the consolidation of ownership. Fewer voices, larger voices, more commercial voices, less interested in public-interest kind of coverage. I am very concerned about that. On the other hand, I don’t see, especially at this school, any shortage of people interested in doing it. Or any lack of interest in exploring the possibilities of how to do it, including websites. There’s a lot of energy out there to create other stuff. So I’m not despairing. I think it’s a serious concern, but the energy can create other possibilities.

What has it been like to switch hats, to take on the role of teacher?
On the one hand, I feel fortunate to be a journalist — it’s the greatest continuing education that could be. But as a teacher, I feel fortunate in a different way. You’re standing back a little bit; you’re in more of an editorial and a mentoring role, developing a working relationship with young journalists and helping them shape their pieces. It’s incredibly satisfying, but in a completely different, more subtle way. I didn’t know when I first came here how much I would love teaching, but I really do.


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