Corporate Junk Science In The Media (Part 1)

By Edward S. Herman


Corporate junk science plays an extremely important role in the public relations and regulatory strategies of the chemical industry. It aims, first, to reassure the public that pesticides and other chemicals are not a public health threat and are essential to economic growth and welfare. But it is also designed to create enough confusion and uncertainty among legislators and regulators, as well as the public, to preserve the industry's freedom to pour chemicals into the environment. The industry has been highly successful in pursuit of this two-pronged strategy, based in large measure on its enormous resources and consequent power over politicians, regulators, and scientists on the corporate payroll (as described in "Corporate Sovereignty and [Junk] Science," in November Z).

Also essential to the chemical industry's success has been their ability to influence the media and set the agenda in which the issues are discussed (or ignored). Industry success here has not been total, but it has been remarkable given the public health consequences of virtually unconstrained chemical industry growth and the resultant "epidemic in slow motion" that continues unabated. The industry has succeeded in controlling the deeper agenda, which takes for granted the industry's right to produce and sell chemicals not fully tested for hazards by any independent agency; it's right to do this without any clear industry responsibility for negative outcomes; and its right to chemicalize the environment without full disclosure. These basic assumptions, and the grossly inadequate regulatory process that supposedly protects the public, are not subject to ongoing debate.

A Silent Spring, Love Canal or Bhopal disaster, a reported decline in male sperm count, or a regulatory scandal can cause a brief flurry, but the flurry is brief, the media fail to dig deeply and press the issue, and more important issues--anti-U.S. terrorism, monitoring Iraq's weapons, Clinton's sex life, stock market movements--quickly take over. These more important matters can obtain intensive coverage, sustained long enough to affect public attitudes; the epidemic in slow motion does not. The media even tend to feature and institutionalize industry junk science claims (e.g., on Alar, dioxin, and breast implants) while entirely ignoring numerous major findings on chemical damage and cases of regulatory failure.

A key piece of evidence of fundamental media bias is found in the media's usage of the phrase "junk science." The chemical industry applies the phrase to the science advanced by environmentalists, progressive critics of industry, and lawyers suing the industry for poisoning people; they contrast it with "good science," which turns out to be any science that supports industry positions. Lo and behold, the mainstream media follow the corporate lead, like watchdogs of property rather than any public interest. In the years 1996 through September 1998, of 258 articles in mainstream newspapers that used the phrase "junk science," only 21, or 8 percent, used it to refer to corporate junk science--these mainly referring to cigarette industry disclosures--whereas 160, or 62 percent, applied it to the science employed by environmentalists, other corporate critics, or tort lawyers suing corporations (77, or 30 percent, did not fit any of these categories). The news magazines have been equally biased. Newsweek, for example, on July 20, 1998, finding Dow-Corning's breast-implant settlement "a victory for junk science," goes on to say that "O.J. can hire scientists to cast doubt on those DNA matches; a drunken driver can hire scientists to explain away his blood-alcohol content as a metabolic anomaly, or to question testing methods." That's it. The magazine never suggests that any chemical company might hire a scientist to give a twisted version of scientific evidence. It has internalized industry usage.

Applicability of the Propaganda Model

That the mainstream media should adopt the industry's usage of "junk science" and normalize the chemical industry's freedom to poison fits well the predictions of the propaganda model (see Manufacturing Consent, chapter 1). For each of the five filters incorporated into that model--ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak, and ideology--the chemical industry's money and influence give it substantial impact. At the level of ownership and control, media owners have an elite solidarity, as well as numerous contacts, with the owners, managers and bankers of the chemical industry. On the board of the Washington Post, for example, are a former CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, three executives of banks or large investment companies, and an attorney attached to a national law firm. The Tribune Company (Chicago Tribune) board has two bank and two insurance company interlocks as well as representation by the CEOs of a major electric utility and a large pharmaceutical company. The bankers and corporate executives on corporate media boards share a common culture in which hostility to alleged regulatory excesses has become a powerful element. This caused the corporate community to greet the Republican electoral victory of 1994 with a collective sigh of relief ("in the business community [there was] almost a too-good- to-be-true reaction to the election results," with 86 percent of 330 polled CEOs expecting an improved business climate [Forbes, January 3, 1995). As the 1994 Republican cohort aggressively pressed for an across-the-board gutting of environmental regulation, the enthusiastic business reaction to the election tells us a great deal about the limitations of "corporate responsibility" in resolving environmental issues.

The advertising community, which funds the media, is part of this same culture. By my count, 31 of the 100 largest national advertisers produce and sell chemicals, while many more, like the automobile companies, are deeply concerned over the regulation of their operations that use and transform chemical products (oil, gasoline, batteries). The powerful oil industry is very much concerned with the regulation of oil, gas, and petrochemicals. Numerous other industries, including the entire food industry chain from farmers to retailers, are involved with chemicals and regulatory issues. The print media, owning vast acreages of forests and pulp mills that produce a great deal of toxic waste, have a direct stake in regulatory policy.

That these corporate interests and perspectives will flow downward from corporate boards and through advertiser preferences into media personnel choices, programming, and framing of issues would seem a structural necessity. Hugely biased corporate flacks like John Stossel at ABC and Gina Kolata at the New York Times could not survive without protection from above. While TV news and programming can hardly avoid occasional reporting and discussion of environmental problems, they will be circumscribed by advertiser hostility to programs that put any serious blame for environmental damage on industry. As Erik Barnouw pointed out some years back, a major NBC series on the environment foundered for lack of advertising at a time when corporations were spending huge sums advertising on the subject, because the industry wanted "reassurance," not any kind of balanced treatment. (Their focus, also, has been on individual--"our"--rather than corporate responsibility for environmental damage.)

In sourcing on chemical industry issues, while government regulators and victims of chemical damage and their spokespersons are frequently tapped by the media, the industry often dominates debates or creates a stalemate that leaves the question of seriousness of damage and responsibility uncertain. The industry commands numerous experts--in-house and beyond--and it subsidizes their work and pushes them into prominence through its connections and immense promotional resources. The industry promotes its views directly, through its own contacts, press releases, advertisements, and letters and opinion columns--in addition to Mobil Oil's regular op ed page ad in the Times (and elsewhere), Daniel Popeo of the corporate-funded Washington Legal Foundation also buys regular column space in the Times to denounce non-corporate junk science. The industry also employs PR firms to set up phoney "grass roots" organizations and to infiltrate, gain information on, and sabotage the organizations and activities of dissidents. (As one example, a Jeremy Rifkin speaking tour was cancelled because of disruptive tricks played by agents of a PR firm working for the meat industry). Industry views are also propagandized by means of its numerous trade associations and captive institutes--the Chlorine Institute, International Fabricare Institute, National Institute for Chemical Studies, Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute, among others.

These propaganda efforts, that cost several hundred million a year, can overwhelm both regulators and the media. In the case of the media, the industry takes advantage of journalists' ignorance, laziness, desire to avoid flak, and not infrequent pro-industry bias. Those reporters without a pro-industry bias will be constrained by the threat of flak, the demand for "balance," and other pressures from above. The Republican environmental official Gordon Durnil speaks of "the fallacious search for balance" on the part of the media and the readiness with which uninformed reporters swallow industry claims and even allow its lobbyists to write their stories. (Making of a Conservative Environmentalist, 1995).

The media frequently assume that information supplied by industry and the EPA (or another government agency) provides "both sides" on an issue, when in fact the two are often on the same side, supporting a backroom compromise damaging to the public interest. The captured or weak government body likes to put a good face on its actions, even when it has capitulated to industry, and the media commonly miss the point. Jim Sibbison, a former PR officer of the EPA, was impressed with how reporters chronically feature good intentions rather than regulatory failures or structural deficiencies, and how consistently they fail to follow up stories. Speaking of Philip Shabecoff, the best of the New York Times reporters on the environment in the 1980s, Sibbison said that "He is more knowledgeable than most of his colleagues and enjoys access to EPA officials who provide him with exclusive stories. This symbiotic relationship may account for the unduly optimistic, even flattering, stories he writes about the EPA's performance."

During the Reagan era, the cuts in the EPA's budget were reported without any investigation of details, "making it easy for the administration to claim that budget reductions would have no ill effects on public health." The huge conflicts of interest in the appointments of that era of regulatory capture were only slowly uncovered because the media were unaggressive and lazy--an internal EPA inspector general's report on James Sanderson, a high EPA official who had represented polluting corporations, which showed his serious abuse of power "would have been apparent...to any reporter taking the time to read through the seven-volume inspector general's report, which was freely available on capitol hill," but no reporter had the energy (R. Smith, "Covering the EPA, or, Wake me up if anything happens," Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 1983).

The industry is also an aggressive producer of flak. When the Environmental Working Group was about to issue its report "Tap Blue Waters: Herbicides in Drinking Water" in 1994, the PR firm for the American Crop Protection Association carried out a preemptive media campaign, including setting up interviews with "experts" chosen by industry. While the critical report still received substantial news coverage, industry-arranged interviews were heard on two national news programs and ABC's "Good Morning America," and as the PR firm noted, the bottom line is that "because of the dearth of negative publicity, ACPA's member companies avoided additional regulation of their products." In case after case the industry finds out in advance about challenging programs and causes them to be altered or cancelled, frequently by threatening a libel suit. The best known recent example was Monsanto's successful effort in 1997 to quash the showing on a Fox TV station of the Akre-Wilson program on some problematic features of Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone rBGH. There is every reason to believe that these kinds of preemptive intervention, which raise the costs of TV programming at stations and networks, have a seriously chilling effect on critical programming.

The industry also benefits from the strengthening of market ideology in the post-Soviet New World Order. Although chemicals and their side effects are a beautiful illustration of market failure, faith in the market and hostility to regulation and government have been effectively played up by industry, aiding it in the normalization and agenda-setting process. The stress on "market- based" solutions, "risk assessment," and "cost-benefit analysis" gears well into market ideology. The media like these resounding phrases, which assume in advance the industry's right to produce poisons, leaving the risks and costs to be evaluated later ("policing the results" in Rachel Carson's words). The imbalance in ability to fund science, the conflict of interest in giving industry primacy in doing the research on costs and benefits, the difficulty in putting numbers on costs and benefits of environmental poisons, and the problems of regulatory capture and underfunding in diminishing the usefulness of risk assessment and cost benefit analysis, rarely if ever strike environmental reporters.

In the New York Times, for example, Peter Passell, the paper's main house economist through most of the 1980s and 1990s, has repeatedly cited cost-benefit and risk-benefit principles without delving into the issues that make these of dubious value. He regularly claims that the public irrationally overrates risk, but he never discusses the extensive history of industry coverups of actual risks. In "The American Sense of Peril: A Stifling Cost of Modern Life" (May 8, 1989), the title accurately expresses his bias that risk threats are exaggerated and "stifle" progress. He located a 1981 "landmark study" that attributes only 2 percent of cancer deaths to environmental exposure, but other non-landmark studies give much higher values (and cancer deaths are not the only damage stemming from environmental contamination). His followup piece, "Making a Risky Life Bearable: Better Data, Clearer Choices" (May 9, 1989), pursues the same line; his prime source here is Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute. He refers to the "scares" that take a pyschological toll, but not to the extensive and well documented realities of worker damage and fatalities. He says "safety is never free," but he never suggests that where safety is threatened there should be independent advance testing and/or that the cost of testing and any subsequent damage should be borne by the party who wants to introduce the product. He also fails to give evidence of any serious effect on "progress." This same bias is illustrated by another Times piece titled "Vermont Resists Some Progress in Dairying" (Keith Schneider, August 27, 1989), where it is presumed that the potentially risky growth hormone represents genuine progress. In summarizing the work of analysts like Passell and Schneider, Eleanor Singer, and Phyllis Endreny say that these writers simply "adopt the frames provided by dominant social institutions" (Reporting on Risk, 1995).

The Rachel Carson Exception

The publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, preceded by a derived series of articles in the New Yorker, temporarily broke the chemical industry's command over the flow of information on pesticides and other chemicals. There had been critical articles and letters of protest over the broadscale use of DDT and other poisons, but these were only occasional and hardly disturbed the industry's informational hegemony.

As was pointed out by Frank Graham Jr., Carson's book "marked the end of closed debate in the field. Rachel Carson uncovered the hiding places of facts that should have been disclosed to the public long before; she broke the information barrier" (Since Silent Spring, 1970). Her book came into public view shortly after the revelations of the devastating effects of thalidomide, which reinforced her message's stress on inadequate controls over the use of chemicals. Eloquently written and well documented, Carson's book struck a chord and provided a coherent justification for public fears that had been suppressed by industry informational domination. A serious alternative viewpoint was suddenly placed on the public agenda. With the Kennedy administration also relatively receptive to the new message, it came across to the public with exceptional force. A major CBS Reports broadcast of April 3, 1963, seen by 10-15 million people, was organized around Carson and her book and message. The sympathetic program "allowed her and not her critics to define the issue" (Linda Lear, Rachel Carson, 1997).

Carson was able to attack the deeper agenda and question whether we should allow "poisoning us first, then policing the result." While she assailed the testing and regulatory process, Carson's main focus was on the long-term and ecological effects of heavy chemical use and the need for a concerted effort to find alternatives to chemicals. The raising of basic questions frightened the industry and it struck back wildly, with emotional cries about Carson's emotionalism as well as crude efforts at censorship (threatening libel suits, getting three of five advertisers to withdraw from sponsoring the CBS report, among other tactics). But while the industry failed to discredit Carson, and she undoubtedly gave great impetus to an emerging environmental movement, her ability to attack the deeper agenda in the mainstream media was exceptional. Thereafter, the industry, having learned a lesson in PR, and with ever enlarging resources, and a basically friendly corporate media, would deal more effectively to challenges to its informational hegemony. It quickly regained control of the deep agenda, and while it has lost many small battles, its domination of the agenda is almost as great now as in the pre-Carson era.

Part 2 will appear in an upcoming issue.