issue 314 - July 1999
The junkyard dogs
In a special report, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber expose the shady figures behind
the dirty war that’s being waged by big business against environmental regulation.
Illustration by MARGOT THOMPSON
When Hurricane Mitch slammed into Central America in late October of last year, some people sat down and wrote checks to disaster-relief organizations. Others sat down and wrote position papers.
Measured in terms of the death toll, Mitch was the region’s worst natural disaster in 218 years. As the hurricane squatted over Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, it dumped some 40 cubic kilometers of water – three-quarters of a normal year’s rainfall – in the space of two days. The result was like a tidal wave on land. Flash floods filled rivers with hundreds of times their normal flow. A wall of water swept through the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, destroying whole streets in a matter of minutes. Dams burst. Bridges and highways were swept away.
It was only natural to wonder if global warming was to blame for the disaster. ‘This was perhaps what is becoming a typical disaster in today’s world of El Niños and global climate change,’ observed J Brian Atwood, head of the US Agency for International Development, which co-ordinated relief activities. Speaking to CBS News, he called the hurricane ‘a classic greenhouse effect’.
For Patrick J Michaels, people like Atwood are part of the problem. Michaels, a professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, penned an article titled ‘Mitch – That Son of a Gun’. He attacked Atwood’s remarks as ‘White House huckstering... If there’s any possible way to conflate human suffering with global warming, the Clinton administration will do so... Rumors persist that Vice President Gore has been advised to make global warming a central theme of his presidential run in 2000. Threatening hundreds of thousands with imminent drowning unless they vote for him is a crude but probably effective trick.’
Michaels’ commentary was printed in the Washington Times and the Journal of Commerce. Rewritten as local editorials, it appeared in newspapers as far apart as the Wisconsin State Journal and the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. ‘Just how stupid does the Clinton administration think we are?’ asked the version that appeared in the Tribune-Eagle.
Stupid enough, apparently, that none of these outlets bothered to check Michaels’ credentials. If they had, they would have found that Michaels is part of a small but vocal minority of industry-funded climatologists who dispute the mounting evidence which suggests that global warming is a consequence of modern industrial activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels. By his own account, Michaels has received more than $165,000 in funding from fuel companies, including funding for a non-peer-reviewed journal he edits called World Climate Change. He has served as a paid expert witness for utilities in lawsuits, appears on television and radio and testifies before government bodies. At the time Hurricane Mitch struck, he was also a ‘senior fellow’ at the Cato Institute, a right-wing, industry-funded think-tank that campaigns against ‘unnecessary’ and ‘harmful’ environmental regulations.
The use of scientists as spokespersons for corporate interests is an example of a public-relations strategy known within the trade as ‘the third party technique’. Merrill Rose, Executive Vice-President of the public-relations firm Porter/Novelli, sums it up succinctly: ‘Put your words in someone else’s mouth.’ Remember the TV commercials with actors in lab coats pretending to be doctors and claiming that nine out of ten of their colleagues prefer a specific brand of aspirin? With commercials you are on your guard. But put the message in the mouth of someone like Patrick Michaels and you have a ‘real scientist’ speaking. The commercial interests behind the message are much better disguised.
How effective is this strategy? According to a survey commissioned by Porter/Novelli, 89 per cent of respondents consider ‘independent experts’ a ‘very or somewhat believable source of information during a time of corporate crisis’. Sometimes the technique is used to spread doubt about a product’s hazards; sometimes it is used to hype or exaggerate benefits. Pharmaceutical companies use it to create a positive ‘buzz’ around their products.
NIGEL DICKINSON / STILL PICTURES
PR Week magazine describes a campaign by the Ogilvy firm to help its client, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, hype an allergy medication called Zyrtec. Ogilvy cultivated a partnership with a third party, the National Allergy Bureau (NAB is supported by a grant from Pfizer) to add credibility to its aggressive spring allergy campaign. The NAB distributed a press announcement on the impact El Niño would have. Video and radio news releases and a community news feature all highlighted the El Niño-allergy connection. The NAB hotline (800-9-POLLEN) in the messages helped drive consumers to their phones, where they received branded-product information on request. Media contacts were encouraged to mention Zyrtec in allergy stories. The campaign enticed reporters to revisit the topic of allergies with a timely angle. Media coverage was estimated at almost 100 million ‘audience impressions’. The El Niño theme produced numerous top-tier placements in USA Today, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe. The video-news release, done by Medialink, secured TV coverage that included a segment on network-wide Dateline NBC.
Sometimes companies underwrite entire scientific conferences to hype a product. In Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact in America, Cynthia Crossen quotes a professor of medicine describing how this works: ‘I’m the advertising guy for the drug. I tell a journal I will give them $100,000 to have a special issue on that drug. Plus I’ll give the journal so much per reprint, and I’ll order a lot of reprints. I’ll select the editor and all the authors. I phone everyone who has written good things about that drug. I say: “I’ll fly you and your wife first class to New Orleans for a symposium. I’ll put your paper in the special issue of the journal, and you’ll have an extra publication for your CV.” Then I’ll put a reprint of that symposium on some doctor’s desk and say: “Look at this marvelous drug!”’
Disarming the critic
In the hotly contested terrain over regulatory and liability law a coalition of corporate attorneys, lobbyists, PR firms and right-wing think-tanks have launched a crusade against what they call ‘junk science’. They apply this term liberally to any research – no matter how rigorous – justifying regulations to protect the environment and public health. ‘This term “junk science” is being thrown around all the time,’ says Lucinda Finley, a law professor who specializes in product liability and women’s health. ‘People are calling scientists who disagree with them purveyors of “junk”. But what we’re really talking about is a very normal process of scientific disagreement... Calling someone a junk scientist is just a way of shutting them up.’
Many of the organizations involved in this campaign have names that evoke images of sober scholarship and environmental concern. Others are familiar right-wing institutions that flowered during the Reagan years. They include the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, the American Council on Science and Health, the American Land Rights Association, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Consumer Alert, the Environmental Policy Analysis Network, Frontiers of Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, the Hudson Institute, the National Center for Policy Analysis, the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Right-wing think-tanks multiply more rapidly than mating gerbils. ‘We’ve got think-tanks the way other towns have fire stations,’ observes Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach. ‘This is a thoughtful town.’
Among the organizations that flack for corporate science, the New York-based American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is one of the oldest and best known. Founded in 1978, it calls itself ‘a science-based, public-health group that is directed by a board of 300 leading physicians and scientists... providing mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific information to American consumers’. In fact, ACSH funders include many of the major players in the chemical, pesticide, pharmaceuticals and food industries: American Cyanamid, American Meat Institute, Amoco, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Burger King, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Exxon, Ford, Mobil, Monsanto, National Agricultural Chemicals Association, Nestlé, Pepsi-Cola, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Shell, Union Carbide and Uniroyal Chemical.
Although the ACSH styles itself as a ‘scientific’ organization, it does very little independent primary research. Instead, it specializes in generating media advisories that criticize or praise scientists depending on their philosophical position. It has mastered the modern media sound-bite, issuing a regular stream of news releases with catchy, quotable phrases responding to hot-button environmental issues. Its recent media forays have helped generate headlines such as:
‘A Global Scare: The Environmental Doomsday Machine is in High Gear’
‘Irradiation: Only Sure Method to Protect US Food Supply’
‘Evidence Lacking that PCB Levels Harm Health’
‘The Fuzzy Science Behind New Clean-Air Rules’
‘Eat Beef, America’
‘At Christmas Dinner, Let Us Be Thankful for Pesticides and Safe Food’
ACSH calls the ban on DDT ‘one of the 20 worst unfounded health scares of the 20th century’. It ridicules the risks that chemical ‘endocrine disruptors’ pose to human health and fertility. Its board chair characterizes environmentalism as a belief that ‘members of endangered species deserve protection and that, because there are billions of humans, humanity does not qualify for protection’. He calls for abolition of the Endangered Species Act.
The groups which flack for ‘sound science’ are sometimes fly-by-night organizations – called into existence for a particular cause or legislative lobby campaign. They dry up and blow away once the campaign is over. The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) lasted less than five years. Founded in 1993, TASSC was run out of the Washington office of APCO Associates, a PR firm that is notorious for creating front groups to lobby on behalf of tobacco, insurance, and chemical interests seeking to limit liability for dangerous or defective products.
TASSC’s executive director from 1997 to 1998 was Steven Milloy, a Washington policy wonk who has rotated through a variety of anti-environmental organizations as well as the EOP Group, a prominent lobby firm whose clients have included the Petroleum Institute, AT&T, the Business Roundtable, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical, Edison Electric Institute, International Food Additives Council, Monsanto and the Nuclear Energy Institute. On the internet, Milloy sponsors a ‘Junk Science Home Page’ (www.junkscience.com), a rabble-rousing melange of ad hominem attacks on ‘wacko enviros’ and ‘mindless anti-chemical hysteria’. Calling himself ‘The Junkman’, he dismisses reports of a thinning ozone layer as ‘nutty’. He has called for repeal of a program by the US Environmental Protection Agency to screen chemicals that may disrupt hormone systems. He opposes automobile emissions testing as ‘just another clever ploy to separate you from your money’. He sells a poster headlined ‘The Earth Is Fine, Save Yourself’ which claims to debunk environmentalism. He calls the directors of the European Union ‘incompetent’ for a directive on labeling of genetically engineered products. He defends scientific studies funded by the tobacco industry and after a researcher published a study linking secondhand smoke to breast cancer, Milloy wrote that she ‘must have pictures of journal editors in compromising positions with farm animals. How else can you explain her studies seeing the light of day?’
Shut up and eat
The consequences of allowing industry to dictate what is and is not ‘sound science’ have become painfully evident in Europe. On 20 March 1996 the British Government ended a decade of denial by admitting publicly that human beings were dying of a fatal dementia caused by exposure to cattle afflicted with ‘mad-cow disease’. As of April 1999 the confirmed human death toll from a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) stood at 40. Given the slow incubation period of the disease, experts fear the ultimate number will be much higher. These deaths might have been averted if British officialdom had not attacked early warnings as ‘pure supposition, over-reaction and scare-mongering’.
Even as the death toll mounts, government and industry voices in the US repeat the Big Lie about the transmissibility of the disease to humans. On 11 May 1997 the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion column by Dr Scott C Ratzan, insisting that the mad-cow hubbub ‘has all been much ado about nothing. Based on available scientific evidence, we can be virtually certain that mad-cow disease poses no threat to humans... What is clear is that people don’t get it by eating meat from cows or lamb... Mad-cow disease kills only cattle.’
Ratzan, who teaches at a small liberal-arts college that specializes in subjects such as acting and public relations, has no background in research related to mad-cow disease or CJD. His editorial is ridiculous in the eyes of the researchers engaged in the study of these diseases. Nevertheless, his column was duly reproduced on Steve Milloy’s junk-science home page. An accompanying commentary by the Junkman himself accused the British scientific journal Nature of a ‘mad-cow witch hunt’.
ACSH also seems to regard Ratzan’s opinions as authoritative. In November 1998 it offered an award for ‘best high school essay’ to a student who, relying on Ratzan as a source, argued that ‘the media’s fear of “mad-cow” disease has led to a frenzy... crippling the British beef market.’
Meanwhile, voices which dissent from these deceptions are being effectively silenced, thanks to laws passed in more than a dozen US states making it a criminal offense to ‘unscientifically disparage food’. TV talk-show host Oprah Winfrey became the first target of these laws in 1998 when Texas cattlemen took her to court in a high-profile lawsuit that charged her with junking science by hosting a program that discussed the dangers of mad-cow disease. After spending more than $2 million in legal fees, Winfrey won the first round of her court battle, but appeals and other expensive legal maneuvers are ongoing. Other US journalists, chastened by the fear of such legal quagmires, are increasingly reluctant to report on other controversial food-safety and environmental issues.
In reality, the junk-science wars are more about propaganda and censorship than about science. Right-wing groups and their corporate sponsors have wrapped themselves in the flag of ‘sound science’ and are using their public-relations clout and litigation threats to bully the news media and dominate debates over critical issues. Until public-interest organizations and concerned scientists better understand this and fight back against these all-too-successful tactics, the battle over junk science will continue in the media as a very one-sided fight.
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber run the US-based Center for Media and Democracy which publishes the excellent quarterly PR Watch. Subs are $35. Their address is 3318 Gregory Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53711 Website: www.prwatch.org They have written two excellent books on the public relations industry: Toxic Sludge is Good For You ($16.95) and Mad Cow U.S.A. ($24.95) and are currently working on a new book on junk science.
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