Who says jobs are hard to come by? In the documentary Merchants of Doubt, director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) highlights a cottage industry of pundits who have carved out a comfortable niche for themselves as climate-change skeptics – in many cases, without much of a science background. Though they present themselves as independent, they are frequently funded by deep-pocketed industrial players such as the Koch brothers. We spoke with Kenner this week by phone.
What spurred you to make this film?
It came up when I was making Food, Inc. I went to a hearing on whether we should label cloned meat, and someone from the meat industry said, 'I think it would just be confusing to the consumer to be given that kind of information.' And I looked into it, and it was groups like Rick Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom, there was this Orwellian world, and I thought, I'd like to go look into that. Rick Berman, by the way, worked for the alcohol industry and fought Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and then worked for Big Ag and fought the Humane Society, and was recently caught on tape saying to energy producers, 'You can either lose pretty or win ugly. I can go out there and attack your opponents, I can start all sorts of controversies.' He's not bound by truth. He's out there to just win.
The film opens by noting the tobacco industry knew by the late 1950s that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer, and by the 1960s that nicotine was addictive, but PR companies helped them draw up strategies to fight that. You're suggesting there are parallels to climate change today?
Our film is about the straight line of a playbook that can be put from one product to another: 'Attack the messenger. Create doubt. Create delay.' [The PR firm] Hill & Knowlton said in the fifties, 'Doubt is our product.' They've written this – it's out there. So, this is really following how they go from one industry to another, and the big payday today is climate.
There's a news report today that one of the climate-change skeptics you interviewed in the film, the scientist Fred Singer, is apparently threatening you with legal action.
Oh, wow, that's out there? Yes, I got a letter from Fred. What I thought was disappointing about the letter is, Dr. Singer is a real scientist. I think his science became corrupted by his political beliefs at some point. There was a review which called people in the film 'liars for hire.' That's not anything that is said in the film by any of my characters, and yet Dr. Singer went ahead and wrote about a film he hasn't seen yet. That's disappointing. A scientist should rely on facts, not innuendo.
The film includes scenes of critics calling environmentalists a name I hadn't heard before – 'watermelons.' That is, green on the outside, communist red on the inside. So I need to know: Are you a watermelon? And if not, what kind of fruit are you?
Well, uh, that's an original question. I would have to say, not only am I not a communist on the inside, I've not really been an environmentalist. I think Food, Inc. and Merchants of Doubt are about transparency – that we need to know who's talking and who they represent.
The film notes there are often industry-backed groups with anodyne names lurking in the background of public policy debates, such as Citizens for Fire Safety, which turned out to be funded by the three largest manufacturers of fire retardants.
When Steve Molloy is talking to Glenn Beck, and Glenn Beck says, 'Are you in bed with Big Oil, and if so, how good are they?' and he responds, 'No, I'm just trying to do the right thing' – he's trying to come off as an independent agent. He's not an independent agent, he's been paid by these companies to create doubt and delay.
The film shows these so-called experts retailing their doubt not just with Glenn Beck but on mainstream outlets such as CNN and Fox News.
I take the film to be an indictment of journalism as it's currently practised.
I think climate turns out to be a particularly difficult subject. A good thing is to try to present two sides of an argument. I applaud that concept. The problem is when there aren't two sides. You know: The Earth is round; the Earth is flat. Or tobacco – 'The jury's still out.' The jury's not still out about tobacco, the jury's not still out about climate. The jury's out as to the solutions to the problem. You can have conservative solutions, you can have liberal solutions – that's a debate. But I think for the media to present James Taylor from the Heartland Institute – who's taken a class in science –
I believe he's taken a few classes …
Yeah, a few classes in college. He appears as an 'adjunct scholar.' I don't know, I question that. And I would hope the media would.
It's not just the media, though. There's a magician in your film, Jamy Ian Swiss, who suggests that, when people go to see him, they actually want to be deceived. He seems to be implying that we're all just fine with being deceived, that we actually know climate change is man-made and we're okay with listening to the doubters because we don't really want to change our behaviour.
I don't think so. This cancer doctor wrote me and said he sees it with his patients – they still smoke but they don't want it to be true. But I really don't want to condemn. When Jamy said that, I think he was talking about magic. He calls himself 'an honest liar,' because people are there to be fooled. I don't think it's the same in public life, because we don't know we're being fooled. Fire departments around the country getting cancer because of those [fire retardant] chemicals – they were paying with their lives because they were fooled. They didn't sign up for that.
Merchants of Doubt opens Friday for a limited run at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (hotdocs.ca).
Review: Merchants of Doubt
"I'm not a scientist, although I do play one on TV occasionally," says the pundit Marc Morano. "Okay – hell," he adds with a laugh. "More than occasionally."
Morano, the founder of ClimateDepot.com, is one of the more charismatic figures in the rogue's gallery of climate-change skeptics on display in Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner's Merchants of Doubt.
By turns galling and appalling, and always slickly entertaining, Doubt peels back the scrim of legitimacy wrapped around folks such as Morano and so-called think tanks such as the Heartland Institute, who are funded by rich industrial interests to create just enough questions about the science – of tobacco, of DDT, of asbestos, of fire retardants, of climate change – to prevent change in public policy. See it and be enraged: It's good for you, and maybe the planet, too.