Last fall I sat down at an "affinity table" during lunch at the Society of Environmental Journalist's annual conference. (Affinity tables are sponsored by specific groups and designed to attract reporters interested in particular issues.) The table I chose was hosted by Steve Gurney of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Ashby Sharpe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The topic: Conflicted Journalism: Who's Buying the Science?
Gurney and Sharpe were there to warn unsuspecting journalists about the bogus science being perpetrated by corporations. Gurney was particularly blunt. "The whole industry strategy [to subvert science] was developed 80 years ago by the tobacco industry," he asserted. "The whole aim is to prevent scientific evidence of harm; prevent the adoption of regulations, and to encourage deregulation, all at the expense of public health." To achieve these nefarious goals, industry pays unscrupulous researchers to "conduct selective unscientific research designed to undermine public health."
Ashby Sharpe chimed in: "You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to know that industry uses science to sell products." Sharpe then outlined how industry attempts to shape media coverage. Corporations issue press releases; hold press conferences; publish their own scientific journals; pay scientists to put their names on articles they did not write; sponsor scientific conferences; and establish speakers' bureaus featuring researchers who share their points of view.
Gurney and Sharpe are certainly correct that corporate chieftains sometimes do not tell the truth. We have Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco to remind us of that fact. But politicians, bureaucrats, academicians, lawyers, and yes, even environmental activists also sometimes engage in spin. It is not as though environmental organizations have been laggards in trying to attract the attention of reporters to their causes and their scientific claims. One of the main jobs of a reporter is to try to figure out who is trustworthy and to explain the potential biases of their sources to their readers, listeners, or viewers.
Sharpe also warned, "There's a revolving door between business and government." Indeed there is and activists cycle through it too. Consider just three examples: Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who now works for the National Wildlife Federation; Eric Schaeffer, former director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, who now works as the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project at the Rockefeller Family Fund; and Arlie Schardt, a former director of the Environmental Defense Fund who once worked as Al Gore's press guy and is now the head of the environmentalist PR operation, Environmental Media Services (EMS).
Schardt is one of ideological environmentalism's best spin doctors. EMS is a full service flacking organization, a mirror image of Hill and Knowlton if you will. EMS is associated with Fenton Communications, the PR group that launched the NRDC's bogus Alar scare with a CBS 60 Minutes segment back in 1989. As a full service operation, EMS offers reporters contacts with relevant sources—including, strangely enough, CSPI and NRDC. It also offers advice and training on how to be effective in flacking your organization's message.
Taking Gurney's warning about paying unscrupulous researchers to "conduct selective unscientific research" to heart, consider the case of Our Stolen Future, a book alleging that certain chemicals are acting as hormone mimics, essentially turning boys into girls. The "science" in that book was bought and paid for by the environmentalist W. Alton Jones Foundation, which also handsomely paid EMS to roll out a major PR campaign that included a national book tour, an appearance on NBC's Today show by the lead author, Theo Colborn, and multiple press conferences at the National Press Club in Washington. Come to think of it, both the Alar campaign and Our Stolen Future are perfect examples of the kind of science by press release that Gurney and Sharpe warned us reporters against. I wonder why they didn't use them as illustrations of what they were concerned about at the affinity table?
CSPI is a Naderite spinoff that has not been above a bit of sensationalism in trying to get its nutrition message across either. Famous as the self-styled "food police," CSPI launches highly publicized jihads against foods that it feels are not up to snuff nutritionally. That's their right, of course, but others feel that CSPI exaggerates its claims and is misreporting scientific results.
Gurney also advised, "It's essential for reporters to ask sources where their funding comes from." "Follow the money" is probably the hoariest maxim of journalism, but it's still very good advice. CSPI makes most of its money from foundations and sales of its nutrition newsletter. NRDC obtains grants from foundations and government funding. It is widely acknowledged that most philanthropoids are left-leaning, so it's not surprising that they nurture groups like the NRDC and CSPI. Wanna bet what would happen to their foundation funding if CSPI all of a sudden announced that biotech crops are fine and NRDC declared that synthetic chemicals don't pose a major cancer risk? Other activist groups of course raise money by sending out bulk junk mail warning little old people that if they don't send in their $25 contribution, the world will come to an end. Reporters need to remember that however sincere, environmental activists make a living by scaring people—if there's no scare, there's no livelihood. And media attention to the causes they're pushing is just another way to raise money. By the way, to help "follow the money" for activist groups, check out the activistcash.com Web site.
"We need your participation as journalists to disseminate the truth," declared Gurney to the assembled journalists at his affinity table. So do we all, Steve. So do we all.
Reporters should follow Gurney's and Sharpe's advice and be skeptical. Corporations often pay a price for exaggerating or lying whereas "lying for justice" is a modus operandi for some activists. So let's go get those corporate malefactors. But don't forget to check for your wallet after talking with an activist.