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The Usual Suspects:
Industry Hacks Turn Fear on its Head
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
A number of leading figures in the anti-environmental "sound science" movement have teamed up to launch a new front group aimed at smearing environmental and health activists as behind-the-scenes conspirators who "sow health scares to reap monetary rewards."
In August, the "No More Scares" campaign announced its formation at a Washington, DC press conference attacking Fenton Communications, one of the few public relations firms that represents environmental advocacy groups. No More Scares spokesman Steven Milloy used the press conference to release a report titled "The Fear Profiteers," which described Fenton as the "spider" at the center of a "tangled web of non-profit advocacy groups."
Inside PR, a public relations industry trade publication, termed the press conference "an unprecedented attack" and noted that "Steven Milloy and his colleagues . . . could scarcely have timed their tirade against Fenton Communications and the public interest groups it represents any worse. As Milloy and his cohorts accused consumer activists of provoking unnecessary alarm among the public, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone were providing consumers with a stark reminder of the important role these self-appointed watchdogs perform as a necessary counterbalance to untrammeled corporate power and as a source of pressure on recalcitrant regulators. . . . Over the years consumer and environmental activists have done far more good than harm. Thanks to the work of those who agitate for social change, the roads have become safer; the environment has become cleaner; food has become more nutritious; consumers are in gen-eral far better informed about the products they buy; and workers are in general better rewarded and at less risk of injury or abuse."
The same cannot be said for the principal figures in the "No More Scares" campaign. Co-editors of "The Fear Profiteers" included Milloy, Bonner Cohen, John Carlisle, Michael Fumento, Michael Gough, Henry Miller, Kenneth Smith and Elizabeth Whelan. All have a track record of accepting funding from and defending industries that make dangerous products and pollute the environment. Many, including Milloy himself, have been outspoken apologists for the tobacco industry, one of the deadliest consumer products.
Characters from Central Casting
Steven Milloy publishes the "Junk Science Home Page", which claims to debunk "bad science used by lawsuit-happy trial lawyers, the 'food police,' environmental Chicken Littles, power-drunk regulators, and unethical-to-dishonest scientists to fuel specious lawsuits, wacky social and political agendas, and the quest for personal fame and fortune."
Using schoolyard taunts and accusations of "mindless anti-chemical hysteria," Milloy routinely attacks the world's most prestigious scientific journals, including Science, Nature, the Lancet, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. A former lobbyist for the tobacco industry, Milloy is also a former executive director of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a front group created by Philip Morris to attack the Environmental Protection Agency's risk analysis of secondhand cigarette smoke. (For details, see "How Big Tobacco Helped Create 'the Junkman'" in this issue.)
Bonner Cohen edits a newsletter called EPA Watch, which accuses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of everything from destroying the U.S. economy to trying to stop people from taking showers. A Philip Morris strategy document describes EPA Watch as an "asset" created by PM funding allocated "to establish groups . . . that have a broader impact for PM."
Another Philip Morris strategy memo discusses plans to promote "EPA Watch/Bonner Cohen as expert on EPA matters, i.e., regular syndicated radio features on EPA activities, . . . news bureau function, speaking engagements, whatever can be done to increase his visibility and credibility on matters dealing with the EPA."
EPA Watch is published by the American Policy Center (APC), headed by long-time PR pro Thomas DeWeese. APC weighs in on what can safely be called the looney fringe of the sound science movement. One issue of the APC's newsletter, for example, attacks longtime environmentalist and author Jeremy Rifkin as "anti-industry, anti-civilization, anti-people" and accuses him of preaching "suicide, abortion, cannibalism and sodomy."
John Carlisle works for the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), which was formed in the 1980s to support the Reagan administration's military adventures in Central America. It now calls itself a "communications and research foundation dedicated to providing free market solutions to today's public policy problems." Its projects include Project 21, a conservative African American organization that has been funded by R.J. Reynolds and whose chairman, Edmund Peterson, opposed the FDA's tobacco regulation and other government policies to reduce tobacco use.
A 1995 memo from Philip Morris staffer Francis Gomez describes NCPPR president Amy Moritz Ridenour as "a willing ally," noting that she had just called his office "offering to use any information we can provide [regarding] the current anti-tobacco onslaught. . . . Tom Borelli and I have both been in touch with Amy on various issues and are awaiting proposals for use of an internet website as an accessible repository of PM-related information."
This issue describes Michael Fumento's role in circulating misleading tobacco propaganda. His résumé reads like a directory of conservative think tanks: the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Consumer Alert, and Reason magazine--all recipients of tobacco funding. He is currently a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank that spent the 1960s and 1970s envisioning nuclear war scenarios and defending the war in Vietnam, and now devotes itself to attacking environmentalists and defending industry.
Microbial geneticist Michael Gough, a former manager of the Biological and Behavioral Sciences Program at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, oversaw a government inquiry which investigated Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange and found no adverse effects. In contrast with many people who have studied the subject, Gough has been quoted saying that the risk of cancer from dioxin "may be zero."
When he worked for the government, Gough took a hard line against tobacco. In 1990, he wrote a letter rebuffing an approach from Tom Borelli of Philip Morris regarding the issue of secondhand smoke. "Anything that reduces smoking has substantial health benefits, and making smokers into pariahs, for whatever reasons, does just that," he wrote. Industry apologists have occasionally cited Gough's comments as evidence of the government's "unscientific" bias against tobacco.
These opinions, however, have not prevented Gough from working closely with Steven Milloy. Both he and Milloy currently work for the libertarian Cato Institute, under whose auspices they have published a book together, titled Silencing Science. Cato receives funding from both Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, and its board of directors includes media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who also sits on the Philip Morris board. Not surprisingly, the Cato Institute has been a fierce defender of the tobacco industry, in publications such as 1998's "Lies, Damn Lies and 400,000 Smoking-Related Deaths." which claims that tobacco is "far less pernicious than Americans are led to believe. . . . The government should stop lying and stop pretending that smoking-related deaths are anything but a statistical artifact."
Kenneth Smith is deputy editor of the Washington Times editorial page, in which capacity he has polemicized in defense of leaded paint, biotech foods, DDT and Love Canal.
Among the authors of "The Fear Profiteers," Elizabeth Whelan is unique in being a strong critic of tobacco's health effects. On most other environmental and health issues, however, she has been a reliable industry ally, as we have reported in past issues of PR Watch.
Some Fears are More Equal than Others
In the No More Scares attack on Fenton Communications, Carlisle described the PR firm as "the hub of many of the biggest health scares of the last 12 years. From the deep pockets of charities like the W. Alton Jones Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and Tides Foundation to businesses like Ben & Jerry's and personal injury lawyers to the on-the-ground activist groups like the NRDC, Environmental Working Group and Public Citizen, Fenton makes money making the scares work."
In September, the No More Scares campaign unleashed a second salvo, this time aimed at organic food sellers. Titled "Organic Industry Groups Spread Fear for Profit," the report claimed to detail a "multi-decade marketing campaign by organic and natural products retail interests promoting false or misleading food safety and fear campaigns to promote organic product sales."
When it comes to deceptive scares involving organic foods, however, No More Scares seems to have a double standard. Alex Avery, one of the authors of the No More Scares report on organic foods, is the son of Dennis T. Avery, an "adjunct scholar" at the Hudson Institute and author of the anti-environmentalist tract, Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic.
Like his son, Avery the senior does not merely champion the idea that conventionally-grown foods are safe. He has gone further, claiming that organic food is actually more dangerous than foods grown using synthetic pesticides. Avery says that "people who eat organic and 'natural' foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (0157:H7)." This happens, he says, because organic food is grown in animal manure. He claims his data comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the federal agency that tracks outbreaks of foodborne illness.
In reality, organic food is no more likely to be grown in animal manure than nonorganic food. The CDC vigorously denies Avery's claim and has even gone to the unusual step of issuing a news release disavowing it. Nevertheless, Avery's message has been repeated in media op-ed pieces written by Avery with titles such as "Organic Foods Can Make You Sick" and in news stories by the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, and numerous other publications in the United States and Europe.
In February 2000, Avery was the featured expert for a 20/20 story by television reporter John Stossel which speculated that "buying organic could kill you." Stossel's piece made no mention of Avery's affiliation with the Hudson Institute, let alone any mention of the institute's corporate funding from agrichemical and agribusiness heavyweights including Monsanto, Du Pont, DowElanco, Sandoz, Ciba-Geigy, ConAgra, Cargill, and Procter & Gamble.
During the program, Stossel, who has a track record of airing stories with an anti-environmental bias, held up a bag of organic lettuce and confronted the head of the organic industry's trade association. "Shouldn't we do a warning that says this stuff could kill you and buying organic could kill you?" he demanded.
To drive his point home, he added that ABC News had commissioned its own studies comparing organic and conventional foods. The tests, he said triumphantly, found that neither organic nor regular produce had pesticide residues. The "real bad news for organic consumers," he added, was that ABC's tests had found higher risk in organic foods of poisoning from the deadly E. coli bacteria.
In reality, as the scientists hired by ABC News to conduct the tests readily admitted, they had not done any tests at all to measure pesticide residues, and their tests for bacteria had not produced the results that Stossel claimed. When these facts came to the attention of the Environmental Working Group, it attempted to contact Stossel for a retraction. After ignoring repeated phone calls, emails, faxes and letters, ABC News rebroadcast the misleading segment on two subsequent dates. It finally admitted the fabrication in August after it was exposed in the New York Times.