The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) have more in common than being major industry lobby groups. Both have hired former Greenpeace activist turned PR consultant Patrick Moore to deflect environmental and public health criticisms.
That's their right, of course, and Moore is free to share his opinions on topics relevant to his paying clients. However, the media outlets that run Moore's columns are failing to inform their readers of his financial interests. Rather than guarding the public interest and ensuring appropriate disclosure of real or potential conflicts of interest, these outlets are allowing their op-ed pages to be used to further greenwash campaigns.
One of Moore's recent columns, published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, defended Georgia Power's controversial proposal to finance new nuclear reactors. Another column, published in the Seattle Times and later picked up by the Washington Times, criticized proposals to require the drug industry to safely dispose of unwanted pharmaceuticals. None of the newspapers disclosed that Moore consults for industries directly impacted by the topics he was addressing.
Newspaper editorial pages have long been a vital space for civic discourse. The op-ed pages (physical or online) are among media outlets' most popular features. People want to read and respond to others' thoughts on hot-button issues. But the PR industry sees these columns as a prime vehicle to advance its clients' interests, often through supposedly-independent figures who are really part of the PR team. Masking the paying client from public view denies readers the information they need to evaluate the argument being presented.
PhRMA flush with cash
In late January 2009, the Seattle Times featured a 670-word column by Moore criticising groups concerned about residual levels of pharmaceuticals in water supplies. Moore focused his criticism on state proposals under discussion in Washington, Oregon and Illinois that would require the pharmaceutical industry to design and fund a "take back" program for unwanted drugs. In his column, Moore complained that “a take-back approach to eliminate such low levels [of drugs] will be enormously costly, difficult to manage, and offer no added benefit to human health or safety.” How exactly he arrived at these conclusions is not apparent but, probably to Moore's relief, op-eds don't require references.
Moore went on to praise the Pharmaceutical Assessment and Transport Evaluation (PhATE) model, a program developed by PhRMA, the peak U.S. drug industry association. Moore also touted the SMARxT Disposal, another program developed by PhRMA in association with the American Pharmacists Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Readers of the column were only told that Moore is "an adviser to government and industry ... a co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace, and chair and chief scientist of Greenspirit . in Vancouver, Canada." (A near-identical version of the column was run a month later by the Washington Times, with a slightly different biographical note for Moore.)
I've followed Moore’s career as a PR adviser, and it struck me as odd that Moore, who is usually preoccupied defending the interests of his logging, mining, aquaculture and nuclear energy industry clients, was suddenly taking an interest in drug residues in the environment. A quick check of his PR firm’s website revealed that Greenspirit -- despite itself exhorting clients to communicate their "sustainability message in a transparent" way -- does not disclose its clients. However, one page makes passing mention that Greenspirit has worked on pharmaceutical issues.
In a phone call with my colleague Diane Farsetta, Greenspirit President and CEO Tom Tevlin confirmed that Greenspirit counts pharmaceutical companies among its clients, but refused to provide any further details. Following Farsetta’s brief Spin of the Day on the lack of disclosure, Moore penned an irate comment on the Center for Media and Democracy’s website claiming the item constituted "character assassination." It was a rather bizarre response. As Farsetta pointed out, the whole question could be easily be avoided by Moore simply disclosing that he has paying clients involved in the issues he writes about.
It's easy to understand why Moore’s drug industry client doesn't like the take-back proposal. One proposal, put forward by the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies -- representing public wastewater treatment and stormwater management agencies and associated private companies -- would ensure (pdf) "no additional cost to consumers." Instead, the drug industry would be responsible for developing and funding the take-back system.
Moore's enthusiastic plug for the SMARxT disposal program, a scheme developed by PhRMA, was a clue as to who the former environmentalist’s client might be. I contacted PhRMA to ask if they had retained Moore and, after getting bounced around its bureaucracy, I was contacted by Kaelan Hollon, a former Senior Account Manager at Peritus Public Relations who is now PhRMA's Director of Communications and Public Affairs. Hollon did not respond to questions about Moore's role for them. Instead, she suggested that I ask Moore instead. "Patrick typically prefers to answer these questions himself," she wrote in an email to me. Asked whether it would be better if he disclosed his relationship to clients in opinion columns he submitted for publication, Moore was unrepentant. "I have no intention of providing a client list at the end of all my communiqués," he wrote in an email.
Subsequently, a PhRMA PR person, who requested anonymity, wrote in an email that "PhRMA has a longstanding policy of keeping our arrangements and terms with consultants confidential."
It's not surprising that Greenspirit and PhRMA are reluctant to discuss the details of their relationship. What about the other link in the publication chain -- the Seattle Times? Several emails and phone calls to Editorial Page Editor James F. Vasely were not answered, leaving us none the wiser as to why the paper failed to ensure adequate disclosure.
For his part, Moore stated in an email to me that for every "article, op-ed and letter" that he writes, he submits the following biographical note "in bold": "An advisor to government and industry, Dr. Patrick Moore was a co-founder and long-time leader of Greenpeace. He is now Chair and Chief Scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. in Vancouver, Canada." It seems that the Seattle Times, a Hearst Corporation publication, simply reproduced Moore's obtuse disclosure statement, with no questions asked.
Another Moore column that was published on Huffington Post in late 2008 used the same wording. Disturbingly, this suggests that media outlets -- such as the Washington Times, the Vancouver Sun and the Wall Street Journal, to name just a few -- actually strip out Moore's preferred initial clause in his biographical note that he is "an adviser to government and industry."
The Seattle Times Company's website doesn't include its code of ethics, though there is an statement on “Newsroom Policies and Guidelines” dating back to 1999 archived over on the American Society of Newspaper Editors website. The guidelines don't directly address whether or how to disclose opinion columnists' financial interests. However, it seems that the company -- if it still uses the document -- would likely expect the same level of disclosure from columnists as it would from the journalists it employs. The issue is no small matter, given that the Seattle Times boasts a weekday readership of over one million.
Boosting nukes for Georgia Power
A few weeks after Moore touted himself as an expert on pharmaceutical residues, he popped up in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, holding forth on energy project financing.
In an opinion column, Moore enthusiastically backed Georgia Power's lobbying efforts to bill its consumers for up to $2 billion of the $14 billion price tag of two new nuclear reactors proposed for the Vogtle power station. Aside from his usual glib line that nuclear power is "carbon-free" (it isn’t, a point that even the Nuclear Energy Institute concedes), Moore’s advocacy went to the issues of nuclear power’s Achilles heel: capital cost and financing.
Moore extolled the virtues of what he referred to as a "pay-it-forward" approach to cutting the costs of the proposed reactors. (The more common term for such pre-payment is “construction-work-in-progress” funding.) Under this approach, current customers are billed to help cut the interest costs that the company would have if it had to finance the construction itself. Moore claimed that the “pay-it-forward” approach “appeals to me because of my background in environmental activism. As a co-founder and former international director of Greenpeace, I saw how leaders in other states and nations delayed much-needed investments in long-term energy projects. Then, when economic demand and population growth quickly surpassed energy supplies, they would lurch to the cheapest, most available forms of energy, often most damaging to our air, water and way of life.”
Moore's credentials in power plant financing are wafer thin, as there is no indication that he has never written or undertaken research on the topic previously. Nor is there any suggestion in his column that he has assessed the relative benefits of funding non-nuclear energy options -- or even looked at the risks to consumers.
The “pay-it-forward” approach championed by Georgia Power and Moore is controversial, effectively taxing utility customers for a product they won't receive for years, if ever.
Moreover, the Georgia legislature recently passed a bill that allows Georgia Power to bypass the normal oversight of electricity rates, provided by the Georgia Public Service Commission to protect consumers. This will leave customers even more exposed to any cost overruns which are commonly associated with prolonged and complicated construction projects like nuclear power stations. Even the NEI recently flagged, if somewhat obliquely, that there are significant financial and other risks with comparatively small companies managing the construction of projects which have a $6 billion plus price tag.
Following Moore's column, he was simply described as the "co-chairman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, supporting increased use of nuclear energy, and a co-founder of Greenpeace." What the paper failed to mention is that the "coalition" was created by the PR firm Hill & Knowlton and is funded by the NEI. Nor did the paper mention that Georgia Power is one of NEI's members (pdf, see page 3).
In response to my inquiries, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Public Editor Matt Kempner explained in an email that "our staff asked whether Moore received any compensation or fees from Georgia Power or Southern Company. We were told that he did not. It was disclosed to us that the Safe Energy Coalition [sic] received funding from the Nuclear Energy Institute. Our commentary editor did not know that Southern was a funder of that organization." Kempner also stated that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution “added to the tag line the phrase 'supporting nuclear energy' to make clear where Moore's organization stands on the issue.”
The tag line does make it clear what the coalition's policy stance is -- which is self-evident from the column anyway -- but the central issue is the disclosure of financial ties between Moore, the "coalition" and the nuclear power industry. The newspaper admits it knew of NEI's funding, but inexplicably chose not to inform readers of it. Instead, it opted for an oblique statement that would leave anyone not already familiar with the industry's PR machinations in the dark. Nor did the paper bother to check itself, to see whether Georgia Power is an NEI member.
It may be tempting to chalk these oversights up to simple glitches that occur when harried staff are under deadline pressures, especially in these days of downsized newsrooms. But the frequency with which Moore's clients aren't disclosed by him or by media outlets is a larger, and longer-standing, problem.
More than two years ago, shortly after Moore's "coalition" was launched, Hill and Knowlton's Frank Mankiewicz insisted in a letter to the Columbia Journalism Review that Moore “has been completely transparent about funding sources and relationships with the Nuclear Energy Institute and the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton." But, according to Kempner, the Seattle Times only discovered the NEI connection when it asked -- not from any information Moore or his PR buddies provided initially.
Such lack of disclosure seems to permeate the media work of the coalition. Recently, John Keeley issued a media release on behalf of the coalition announcing that Moore would be appearing before a joint committee of the Wisconsin state legislature, to advocate overturning the state's ban on new nuclear plants. The release did not mention NEI's role in the coalition, or that Keeley is NEI's Media Relations Manager. Indeed, only three out of twenty nine of the coalition's media releases explicitly mention the role of the NEI as the group's sponsor. All three of those that do mention NEI as the coalition's funder date back to 2006.
Patrick Moore isn't alone. He's just one of way too many PR people and think tank "experts" who make use of the free space on the opinion pages of mainstream publications and websites to push their clients' agendas. It would be nice if such conflicted columnists disclosed their financial ties voluntarily. However, such candor would cost them PR effectiveness. Their clients rely on them being seemingly independent commentators behind which they can hide.
As voluntary disclosure is all too rare, we rely on media outlets to ask probing questions and insist on full disclosure. What about it, opinion page editors, and print, radio and television reporters?
Bob Burton is the managing editor of SourceWatch.
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