Stopping the Spin Cycle: 'Merchants of Doubt' Debunks Deceit
Robert Kenner's stylish new documentary, Merchants of Doubt, is many things: an exposé of climate change debunkers; a clinical analysis of how cigarette companies hid the truth of their cancer-producing product for decades; and a searing indictment of how popular media operates, allowing untrustworthy people to appear on high-profile TV and radio shows as experts. Given all of these important topics, the choice of opening the film with a colorful treatment of how magician Jamy Ian Swiss plies his craft seems surprising—but not to Kenner.
"This is a film about deceit and deception, so along the way came this role of the magician," explains Kenner, an Oscar nominee for his 2009 documentary Food, Inc. Throughout the film, Swiss' appearances become a major structural device, reinforcing Kenner's theme that the public has been fooled all too often by public relations experts intent on casting doubt about clear-cut issues such as the addictive nature of tobacco and the reality of global warming.
Merchants of Doubt is beautifully produced and directed with moody cinematography, a Philip Glass-style soundtrack and a lively set of repetitive scenes where documents emerge from filing cabinets to fly in the air, revealing dark secrets. "If you're going to the theater, you're expecting production values," says Kenner. "Hopefully as a filmmaker you can lift your story and make it entertaining and visually delightful, so that it makes you smile and wows you in some form or fashion."
It's not surprising that the seductive style of Merchants of Doubt is influenced from a fiction film. "We were inspired as much by Thank You for Smoking as anything…because what we're uncovering is so dark; you need to make it ironic and funny," says Kenner. Like Jason Reitman's black comic adaptation of Christopher Buckley's satirical novel—which starred Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, a charismatic public relations expert working for cigarette companies—Kenner extends much screen time to the hucksters, who can spin a tale out of whole cloth, truth be damned. He finds them fascinating, and so will viewers of the film.
Take Marc Morano, for example. The founder of ClimateDepot.com, he's been dubbed "a central cell of the climate-denial machine" by Media Matters for America, an organization supportive of the Democratic Party, which gave him the Climate Change Misinformer of the Year Award in 2012. Kenner shows the combative and articulate Morano as a man who revels in such accusations. In Merchants of Doubt, he's affable, relaxed and funny—the perfect telegenic personality to debate the veracity of global warming, despite his lack of credentials in scientific circles—on the then-popular CNN talk show Piers Morgan Tonight with, among others, Bill Nye, "the Science Guy."
That's the crux of the dilemma surrounding Morano. A character mentored by Rush Limbaugh is bound to attract anger from the left and support from the right; that's politics. But when he debates scientists about climate change, he's being a sophist. And when he takes on climate-change activists, he isn't afraid to be a bully, using social media and email campaigns to harass them. As Morano says in the film, he's not out there to pass legislation about the climate but rather "to stop it," or at least slow it down. Why? He's funded through the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, which doesn't reveal its funding sources, but is widely thought to be partially financed by Exxon, a company committed to exploiting oil resources in the North, where climate change is commonly accepted as a reality.
Morano has won awards from groups like Doctors for Disaster Preparedness and Accuracy in Media, which pursue libertarian or deeply conservative agendas. Kenner first became intrigued by such "front" organizations for the radical right when he was working on Food, Inc. "I went to a hearing on whether or not to label cloned meat," he recalls, "and in the middle of the meeting, someone stood up and said, 'I don't think it's in the interests of the consumer to give them that kind of information.' I looked into it, and it was groups like Center for Consumer Freedom that were stopping you from knowing what's in your food." Kenner quickly discovered that there were many groups with "Orwellian names…that were out to fool you and trick you into doing the opposite of what you want."
When Kenner first became interested in Morano and others like him who lobby and manage public relations for such organizations as food conglomerates and oil companies, he started to research their precursors. It turned out that the first major example of media—and public—management of a controversial product was the tobacco industry in the 1960s. As Merchants of Doubt points out, by the early '60s, the cigarette companies had already conducted research studies and realized that their product was addictive and could cause cancer.
What do you do, considering that your company is profitable? Don't tell anyone. And quickly hire the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton to help you.
After careful consideration, the decision was made to cast doubt on the scientific discoveries that the cigarette companies had already confirmed—and that would be found out by other researchers in due time. "These people were able to trick and fool you," comments Kenner about the PR firms and the companies that hired them. "These guys, for 50 years, not only knew their product was addictive, but that it also caused cancer—and were able to go out and say, not 'Our product is not bad for you,' but, as longtime anti-tobacco advocate Stan Glantz says, 'The science is unsettled.'"
Thanks to Glantz and to industry insiders who finally took the risk and sent stolen research documents from tobacconists out to the media, the cigarette companies were eventually found out. Kenner still seems gobsmacked. "I spoke to a guy who was the Winston Man—you know there was the Marlboro Man; there was the Winston Man—and he said that while he was on the set during the commercial he asked the producers, ‘Do you guys smoke?' and they said ‘No, we don't smoke; that's for stupid people, poor people, black people—we wouldn't smoke.' You know, it's just amazing—the total disdain for the public and yet the pride in their own success. Like Peter Sparber, the guy who got the fire department to back him to put poisonous chemicals in furniture and who said, ‘If you can do tobacco, you can do anything.'
"So you get a glimpse into a successful playbook, and that playbook then got taken on by multiple industries, and a lot of the very same people went on to go from one industry to another," Kenner continues. "These were very successful, very highly paid, very skillful practitioners of this bizarre form of public relations that is out there to confuse the public to keep selling a product while avoiding any form of inconvenient science. We know about tobacco, so it's a great benchmark—to see that many people have come from tobacco and gone into other industries, using the very same tactics."
Why do they do it? Kenner profiles Fred Singer and Fred Seitz, two aging scientists who are pro-cigarette company veterans of the tobacco wars and now are fighting against the official acceptance of climate change. "I think there's a sense that part of what drives them is a fear of governmental regulations," says Kenner. Ecological activists are often attacked for being "watermelons: green on the outside, red on the inside."
Old Cold Warriors like Singer and Seitz certainly respond angrily to those they perceive to be watermelons, but Kenner is also sure that the opposition to climate change is "fueled by money—tobacco money, oil money, pharmaceutical money."
Whether it's built by political belief or the profits of oil companies, the opposition to the reality of climate change seems to be growing. Robert Kenner's film may help to fight the right wing and create legislation to aid the environment. What is certain is that Merchants of Doubt is a beautifully realized film that examines many subjects with intelligence and imagination.
Merchants of Doubt opens nationally in theaters March 6 through Sony Pictures Classics.
Based in Toronto, Marc Glassman is editor of Point of View magazine and Montage magazine.