What do the deniers of climate change and apologists for big tobacco
have in common? Spokespeople sent into the media to sow doubt.
Director Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc.”) and his cowriter Kim Roberts lay it all out for us in “Merchants of Doubt,” a compendium of public deceptions based on the same-titled book by Naomi Oreskes and . The story begins in the 1950s with the tobacco industry’s strategy for staving off government regulation, then moves on through the decades. The film shows how public relations strategies that were originally devised to make the public doubt that cigarettes caused cancer were refined into a template that would be used by almost every industry under the sun, including ones food and food additives, pharmaceuticals, oil, coal, asbestos, and flame retardant chemicals used on furniture coverings. The latter is the focus of the movie’s strongest section, which shows how the tobacco industry’s obscuring tactics were applied directly to another industry’s PR problems.
In the 1950s, when scientists first linked cigarettes to cancer, the public relations film of Hill & Knowlton created what turned out to be a winning strategy: augmenting the direct lies of tobacco industry executives and spokespeople with “third party” testimonies by people who seemed to have no dog in the hunt but were actually wearing an invisible corporate leash. Scientists and pseudo-scientists hired by big tobacco were planted into the public eye to sow doubt about the science and plead for more studies or more time to study the data before concluding that cigarettes were harmful. The movie likens this to three-card Monte players paying a “stranger” to stand nearby, act intrigued, then participate and “win” the game, so that bystanders would think it wasn’t rigged, join in, and lose their money. The doubt-sowers succeed for at least a generation: warning labels didn’t appear on cigarette packages until 1966, and advertising was regulated very slowly over the next few decades.
The movie shows how the same strategy was applied to furniture: until the 1970s, a large number of people died from fires caused by smokers falling asleep without extinguishing their cigarettes. Because it would’ve cost money to treat cigarettes with flame-retardant chemicals, the tobacco industry planted a “legislative representative” from their own ranks within the National Association of Fire Marshals, which then argued that the real problem was furniture catching fire; this led to furniture being treated with “flame retardant” chemicals (sometimes as much as two pounds’ worth in an average sofa) that did not actually retard flame, and that were subsequently linked to many ailments and conditions, including low fertility and cancer. Chemical manufacturers sowed doubt about health problems caused by their products through a front group, Citizens for Fire Safety, which was shuttered in 2012 after a Chicago Tribune investigation
revealed that they were funded by the likes of Albermarle Corporation,
ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura, the three largest makers of flame
The movie is filled with similar examples of corporate treachery, leading up into the present, which finds oil and gas companies sowing doubt about climate change through front groups, hired gun scientists and other shills. Oreskes, co-author of the film’s source book, appears on camera to retell the story of how she fact-checked the widely repeated assertion that there was no consensus on climate change, and discovered that of 989 scientists who’d seriously studied the topic, not a single one thought there was any serious doubt that human industry and pollution were contributing to a gradual rise in global temperatures.
This is a huge, unwieldy topic, and the filmmakers do an admirable job of condensing their information and making it comprehensible. They don’t really succeed in unifying it and making the whole enterprise seem like more than a collection of talking points for people who are angry about climate change deniers, people paid to sow doubt about the damage caused by smoking, and their ilk. But that doesn’t seem to be the point of the movie anyway. The point is to give ammunition to people who are angry at the thought of reality being distorted for monetary gain.
Kenner uses magic and gambling as central metaphors. The movie returns again and
again to images of professional illusionists, card sharps and street
hustlers, to show how industries’ self-protective strategies are all
variations on con games. “Merchants of Doubt” opens with scenes of Jaimy Ian Swiss
performing card tricks for an audience at Magic Castle in Los Angeles,
and telling the viewer that while he’s a proud expert at pulling the
wool over people’s eyes, he makes an “honest living” because the people
who watch him expect to be tricked and know it’s all entertainment—and
that the same is not true of lobbyists and professional shills for big
corporations hoping to deceive the public to keep government regulators
off their backs and money in their shareholder’s pockets. “It offends me
when someone takes the skills of my honest living, if you will, and
uses it to twist and distort and manipulate people and their sense of
reality,” he says.
Scored with mischievous caper music, “Merchants of Doubt” keeps revisiting an ominous (and purely metaphorical) archive filled with damning documents—picture the warehouses at the ends of “Citizen Kane” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It uses computer graphics and digital compositing to show incriminating papers gliding out of folders and floating through the air as if manipulated by accusing spirits, and news footage of industry bigwigs and hired “experts” going on talk shows and appearing before government committees to lie on behalf of the bottom line.
Although it the movie never comes out and says that there is an organized, cross-industry conspiracy to deceive consumers throughout recent history, that’s the impression that comes across anyway, and it might not be entirely inaccurate. While different industries sell different products with different uses, they’re all united by a desire to make as much money as possible and avoid being held accountable for their actions, especially if accountability would cost them money. The only real challenge, explains magician Swiss, is “how to mask the shill.”