A commentator on the state of affairs at The New York Times once wrote that journalists are fond of joking about their profession’s appeal to those with extreme attention deficit disorders. Like most jokes, the humor hinges on an element of truth: namely that newsmen are often asked to cover different subjects from day to day.
But when it comes to the journalistic career of William E. McKibben ’82, the humor comes more crisply if the deficit in question is read to be one of attention to anything except reporting.
“I came to Harvard because of The Crimson,” McKibben would write of his college paper prior to his graduation, in June of 1982. “When they told me freshmen couldn’t start comping until the semester was two weeks old, I was miserable.”
About 400 by-lines later in a college journalism career that would eventually see him take the top spot at the paper, any misery plaguing McKibben during his freshman fortnight of circumstantially-imposed idleness had been expiated. But former colleagues at The Crimson seem to remember McKibben’s speed and tenacity as a reporter more than the prolific volume of his output.
“We all sat around and watched him banging away at his typewriter and zinging away,” says Nell V. Scovell ’82, a fellow reporter who began her Crimson career at the same time as McKibben. “Then when the 35 minutes were up he got his bottle of scotch.”
Scovell, who currently splits her time between writing and directing movies, also recalls a trip to Norwalk, Conn. to cover a nuclear submarine protest. When frigid temperatures forced her and another writer to take refuge in a coffee shop, it was McKibben who forged ahead with the reporting of the story, returning only to drop off full notebooks and warm his hands.
“I think that was the point where I thought, he’s going to be a serious journalist and I better start looking at television,” says Scovell.
Being serious didn’t always come without its drawbacks. Laurence S. Grafstein ’82, who was one of two executive editors under McKibben, recalls a politically contentious holiday meal at the future Crimson president’s house.
“I remember him getting into a relatively robust argument with a certain member of his family over nuclear power on Thanksgiving,” Grafstein says. “It made for a very exciting Thanksgiving. That was the type of guy he was. He made his argument and it was very important for him in an idealistic way to change the world.”
McKibben’s passion was such that after penning a story entitled “Crashing” when Reagan and the conservatives swept through the 1980 elections in a landslide, he himself crashed under the influence of sheer disappointment and what he called “an inordinate amount of beer.”
“I just went back to my dorm and I was a little hung over,” he says. “But I was more politically hung over than physically.”
And even with the time for drinking beer and mulling politics at The Crimson’s Plympton Street headquarters coming to a close, McKibben’s signature intensity remained intact. When legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn called with a job offer, then-senior McKibben wrote it off as a prank by the Lampoon—a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine—and the phone conversation ended with the Crimson president letting loose a choice swear word or two in parting.
Looking back on the episode, Grafstein concedes, “this was basically unheard of, that William Shawn would troll college newspapers and pick out Bill McKibben.” But when—according to Grafstein—a second call was greeted with McKibben’s heated contention that the prank had not been funny the first time, his colleagues stepped in and informed him that if another call came, the words of the caller should perhaps be more patiently countenanced. A year later, a freshly-graduated McKibben was writing Talk of the Town columns for the hallowed New York periodical.
His mix-up with Shawn would not keep McKibben from swiftly making an impression at his new job.
“What struck me was he seemed to be able to do wonderful pieces from the day he arrived,” says Jonathan E. Schell ’65, who worked with McKibben on the staff of The New Yorker. “Writing the Talk of the Town was—and remains—a very unusual talent because it required sort of a firsthand literary reporting written with a kind of elegance and often a lightness that was a rare talent.”
But despite his talent, McKibben left The New Yorker in 1987, after only five years on the job, quitting his post when the magazine changed ownership and the revered Shawn was fired.
“I think maybe in retrospect some part of me knew that  was a good chance to get out of a place that was a wonderful place but a place where I could have spent my life,” says McKibben. “And somehow I knew that for my development as a writer that was what I needed.”
For his part, Schell credits McKibben’s decision with a conviction that the traditions of the magazine were about to be lost.
“An important thing to know about Bill is that he quit on principle,” Schell says. “It was indicative of his lifelong high integrity that he didn’t just quit, he acted on belief.”
Whatever the reason, McKibben’s departure from The New Yorker would signal a turning point in his life’s focus. There had been an environmental tinge to his politics even during college, but a move to the Adirondacks and the nearly coincident release of studies in the new science of global warming tugged at the activist—and the journalist—in McKibben.
“Journalism is basically an observational job, and I think what Bill observed was so horrifying to him he just couldn’t help but get involved,” says Scovell. “You don’t want to stand at a distance and let that happen, I think he really wanted to get involved with the change.”
For McKibben himself, it seems that the initial days of realization were less about journalism and more about dread of the new dangers posed by climate change to the landscape he so loved.
“It was an extremely difficult set of ideas to get one’s head around,” he says. “The idea that this world was under a completely new kind of siege and that things that always seemed permanent to me were not permanent—that was extremely difficult.”
STEPPING IT UP
By 1989, McKibben was already moving, releasing “The End of Nature,” an acclaimed meditation on climate change. More recently, McKibben’s work appears to have been organizational, including a five-day walk of environmental protest across Vermont that came because, he says, he “felt like nothing was happening in Washington.”
Also notable has been the success of Stepitup07.org, a Web site aimed at organizing local global warming rallies in varioussites across the country that, according to McKibben, ended up spurring what was “by most accounts the largest day of grassroots environmental protest since Earth Day in 1970.”
McKibben’s commitment to environmental issues has not always manifested itself in so straightforward a fashion. One project of his involved watching 2,400 hours of television, taped from a 100-channel cable network over a 24-hour period.
“I took [the footage] back to the mountains with me where I lived and sort of went to Sears, bought a recliner and for a year that was my work watching that,” says McKibben, who, by his own estimate, watched six to eight hours of television a day over that period. “The message of the TV is you’re the most important thing on earth,” he says. “And that message which is central to a consumer society turns out to be a very different message if you are interested in making environmental progress.”
A GOOD NEWSPAPERMAN
With the pre-comp frustration of his freshman year far behind him, it seems McKibben’s attention to journalism—and even The Crimson—has not waned. The erstwhile president likes to compare some of his most recent work—the Step It Up campaign—to that which occupied him 25 years ago, when he was still watching the presses run as a college journalist.
“It actually feels like a lot of the work we were doing at The Crimson,” he says. “Very pressured, very creative, a lot of camaraderie, and often very late at night.”
And while McKibben himself has acknowledged that the time to act on the climate change issue may be growing short, the prospect of an early closeout has never been a deterrent in the past. A good newspaperman doesn’t miss his deadlines, and McKibben, the man who once wrote 30 inches of copy in 35 minutes for a bottle of Scotch, appears just as ready to go for broke when it is the world that may be on the betting table.
“The questions now are all about how fast we are going to do something about [climate change], and if we are going to take our time then we may as not even bother, because we have to act quickly,” he says. “My job is to make big things happen fast and we’ll see who wins.”
—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at email@example.com.