Merchants of Doubt
  • Merchants of Doubt

The Tribune modestly chose an outside reviewer to write up the new documentary Merchants of Doubt; I greatly doubt the Trib‘s own critic, Michael Phillips, would have composed a paragraph as careless as this one—which is from Kenneth Turan of the LA Times:

Chief among these are Fred Singer and Fred Seitz, who, “Doubt” explains, are unreconstructed cold warriors who see any and all government regulation as slippery slopes toward socialism. In fact, environmentalists are regularly pilloried as “watermelons”: green on the outside, red on the inside.

Turan was trying to explain why Singer and Seitz, though scientists, are climate-change deniers. But in what way does that make them unreconstructed cold warriors? The cold war wasn’t fought to defend coal against solar panels; there was a fringe that saw Moscow’s oppressive hand in everything from integrated schools to chlorinated water, and perhaps Singer and Seitz keep that tradition alive. But the cold war gave us the Berlin air lift and ten years in Vietnam; serious cold warriors would be embarrassed to hear that their clash of civilizations has come down to ragging “watermelons.”

But I’ve digressed. The reason why it would have been immodest of the Tribune to carry an in-house review (no doubt a glowing one) of Merchants of Doubt is that two Tribune reporters are chief among its heroes. The biggest hero is Bob Inglis, a Republican congressman from South Carolina (not North Carolina, as Turan reports) who changed his mind about climate change and lost his seat in the Republican primary (climate change wasn’t the only position Inglis took that was contrary to conservative doctrine, but the movie doesn’t mention the others). After Inglis, the most gallant figures in Masters of Doubt are the Tribune‘s Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe.

The case Robert Kenner’s documentary makes is that the American tobacco industry figured out how to keep selling a product after people figured out that it was killing people, and other industries adopted the same playbook. Big Tobacco couldn’t pretend that tobacco was healthy; but what it could do, and did, was stall and obfuscate—insisting the jury was out, that the science was ambiguous, that there were reports (probably underwritten by Big Tobacco) that told a different story. The media, just trying to be fair and balanced, pitted scientists condemning tobacco against glib nonscientists with fancy titles or against scientists whose expertise was in unrelated fields and who were paid well to testify that the evidence was inconclusive.

In the very same way, says Merchants, the fossil fuel industry now denies that air pollution has anything to do with global warming. It doesn’t just deny; it’s somehow turned denial into a “tribal” marker; if you claim to be a God-fearing conservative American but don’t deny climate change, you betray your tribe.

Callahan, Roe, and their colleague Michael Hawthorne (who’s not in the movie) published “Playing With Fire,” a 2012 series of articles exposing the flame-retardant industry. These articles made them finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and the short citation on the Pulitzer website inadequately describes what they accomplished: ” . . . for their exposure of manufacturers that imperil public health by continuing to use toxic fire retardants in household furniture and crib mattresses, triggering reform efforts at the state and national level.”

Merchants of Doubt makes several points: the Tribune reporters worked two years on their investigation; the so-called leading scientist in the field was a lying stooge for the retardant manufacturers; the supposed citizens lobby championing retardants in home furnishings and children’s clothing was a front group for the manufacturers; besides being unhealthy, the retardants didn’t work; and Big Tobacco benefited by directing blame away from the cigarettes that started fires at home to the environments that supposedly allowed those fires to spread.

Merchants celebrates the Tribune‘s reporting for the case study it provided of corporate mendacity in action, not because the movie is focused on fire retardants. (For that, check out the HBO documentary, Toxic Hot Seat.) But the Tribune is the one agency in the movie that rolls up its sleeves, makes its case, and makes it stick. If you’re a Chicago journalist in the audience, you’re going to feel proud.