As the Center for Media and Democracy has noted, the tobacco industry pioneered many deceptive public relations tactics, casting a long shadow over science and health reporting, as well as the public's right to know.
Before its fall from grace, tobacco industry created front groups courted journalists and obscured damning scientific evidence. But, inadvertently, the industry is now helping independent researchers and reporters understand how PR is used to obscure facts and shape public debates.
Award-Winning Reporter Gina Kolata
Recently, while compiling background notes on New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata, I noticed that an article by Mark Dowie in The Nation mentioned that she had won a "Sound Science in Journalism Award" in 1995. This innocent-sounding accolade takes on new meaning when you realize it was bestowed by The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a front group created by Philip Morris and the training ground for current Fox News correspondent Steven J. Milloy.
Looking further, I found that the TASSC award is not specifically mentioned in Kolata's CV. Then I turned to the tobacco industry archives, previously secret company documents made public through litigation brought by the National Association of Attorneys General. Sure enough, there was a statement by TASSC Chairman Garrey Carruthers, a former governor of New Mexico, announcing the award.
Gina Kolata deserved recognition, Carruthers wrote, for having "responsibly detailed in a series of stories how science has been distorted and manipulated to fuel litigation concerning silicone breast implants."
Moreover, TASSC explained, "Everyone seemed to be afraid to talk about it -- the FDA has treated the issue like a hot potato and respected scientific researchers and medical professionals were criticized and harassed when they spoke out. It would have been an easy issue to avoid, but Kolata courageously took it on. Her articles were well-balanced and presented the strong scientific case -- and why it had been distorted in the first place -- for silicone breast implants."
Citizen Journalism to the Rescue
Perhaps someone more deserving of recognition is online citizen journalist Anne Landman.
Every week or two, Anne goes to an online database of internal tobacco industry documents and picks out one of an estimated 7 million documents. She reads the document carefully, summarizes the names of the companies and individuals mentioned, and, highlighting key quotes, explains why the document is significant. Anne, who is currently based in University of California San Francisco (UCSF) on a short-term fellowship, then posts her latest find into her own online collection and sends a message to her email list, describing her new insights into the cynical machinations of the tobacco industry. She has been at it since 1999.
Last month, Anne dug out a 1969 Brown & Williamson (B&W) document which discussed the possibility of using cigarette advertising to "counter the anti-cigarette forces."
"Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public," the memo stated, referring to growing public concern about the health impacts of smoking. "If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health. Doubt is also the limit of our 'product.' Unfortunately, we cannot take a position directly opposing the anti-cigarette forces and say that cigarettes are a contributor to good health. No information that we have supports such a claim."
The internal tobacco industry documents shed light on far, far more than tobacco companies' marketing practices and other operations. Some files include funding pitches from think tanks; detail the establishment and goals of tobacco industry-funded front groups; describe schemes to court media outlets; and expose the role of pundits, paid researchers and public relations firms.
Documents for All!
Anne Landman's research work is citizen journalism at its best, using primary source documents to shed light on the otherwise invisible machinations of tobacco companies and their affiliates, and making the information freely available to all who are interested.
Many profiles of individuals and groups on SourceWatch, the Center for Media and Democracy's collaborative online encyclopedia, include information from the tobacco archives. However, as Anne's ongoing work shows, there is much more to be done.
Citizen research and reporting need not be focused on the tobacco industry. See "Research using the web" for other ideas, and read about contributing to SourceWatch articles to see how you can get involved. There's a whole universe of media spin and deceptive PR out there, and we'd love to have you help us to expose it.