Interview: Robert Kenner of “Merchants of Doubt”

Posted on March 22, 2015 at 7:03 am

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics

Robert Kenner’s Merchants of Doubt is a deeply unsettling documentary about the way corporations divert money they should be spending on making better products more effectively to spend it instead on undermining science and scientists. By creating fake “public interest” groups with generic names to argue that scientific findings are not sufficient to take action they use the tactics perfected by the tobacco companies to delay government action for decades while people suffer the consequences. These days, that primarily means “selling” the idea that there is not a scientific consensus on the reality and the causes of climate change, but it applies to many other scientific findings as well.  The scientific method is rigorous, checked and counter-checked, and ruthlessly truthful, with no other agenda but the facts.  This is the method that produces all advances in technology and medicine.  These efforts to devalue and undermine science by selling doubt the way corporations sell products obstruct efforts at the most fundamental level to establish policies based on the latest and most documented understandings of how the world works.

Writer/director Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc.”) said that while much of the film focuses on the fossil fuel companies’ efforts to discredit the science of climate change, “It is not about any specific industry. It’s about a group of very talented individuals who honed their craft in tobacco and were able to take the most difficult subject, a product that they knew was cancer causing, and for 50 years maintain doubt about it. They couldn’t say it doesn’t cause cancer because it’s a lie.  They could say,  ‘We don’t have enough science.  We need to do more study.’ It’s the ‘doubt and delay’ tactic.  So, they would switch the subject and say, “You’re taking our freedom away.  We should be allowed to smoke on airplanes.”  We had people picketing at Washington’s National Airport saying, ‘We demand the right to smoke on airplanes. You’re taking our freedom.’ So what’s interesting is on one hand we think of tobacco slightly as an old hat subject but what’s interesting is that playbook that was created lives on exactly the same way today.  What’s so interesting is not only is it a lot of the same people but it’s the same very specific tactics.” He says it is a kind of “anti-Enlightenment.”

The industry-sponsored consultants who fabricate “interest groups” with uncredentialed “experts” are the primary culprits in the film, but one of its most significant and disturbing revelations is the complicit nature of the media, whose reflexive commitment to “showing all sides” means that they will bring on any contrarian without checking the legitimacy of the source, training, expertise, or conflicts of interest. “The real battle here is I don’t think newspapers should be putting people who play scientists on television, quoting them as equals. I think the media is playing a role in encouraging false debate. There’s always going to be one guy out there arguing that the earth is flat but that does not mean the question is not settled.”

So it is especially gratifying to see an exception in the film’s portrayal of two Chicago Tribune investigative reporters who spent two years on a brilliant expose of fraud, misrepresentation, and fake science funded by the tobacco and chemical industries that led to fire retardant regulations that (1) didn’t work and (2) exposed infants to toxic chemicals.

But Kenner points out that there are “fewer and fewer and fewer” news organizations able to devote those kinds of resources to exposing these corporate scams. “There are now 4.5 PR representatives for every journalist. When I started out there were far more journalists than PR Reps. So as people get fired from their newspapers they get hired by the very companies that they might have investigated.”

This should not be a political issue, he says. “I talked to George Schultz and he said the greatest thing he and Ronald Reagan did was the international ozone treaty. He said, ‘We didn’t know 100% but we were in the high 90’s and it was the right thing to do. We had to take action. It was a great insurance policy.’ And Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and George Bush with acid rain — so there is a tradition of conservative environmental protection. We might all hate the EPA for being such nags, but the air and water are cleaner and so we are lucky they are there.”

He also insists that it is not an anti-corporate film. “It’s really important to say that corporations are in the best position to be the solution.”

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Directors Interview

End the Year With Films About Justice

Posted on December 30, 2014 at 8:00 am

Bill Moyers has an excellent list of 2014’s best documentaries about the struggle for justice, covering issues from healthcare to the environment, politics, the collision between national security and privacy, domestic violence, human rights, and marriage equality. All are highly recommended.

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Documentary Environment/Green Lists

Popcorn Update….Maybe

Posted on August 18, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Copyright 20009 Joakim Wahlander
Copyright 20009 Joakim Wahlander via Flickr

Remember when I explained how movie theater lobbyists created a loophole in the rules requiring places that serve food to let you know the calories and fat content of your purchases?

I don’t think it’s likely to happen, but it’s worth mentioning that two Senators are trying to close that loophole. Ignore the inflammatory headline. No one is “coming for your popcorn.” This is not Mayor Bloomberg at the federal level. This is making the market work efficiently by giving you the information you need to make a wise decision. Which is why it probably won’t happen.

Of course if they really wanted to come down hard on popcorn, they’d make the theaters let you know what their share of the profits is from the wildly inflated concession stand prices. I don’t begrudge the theater owners the chance to make enough money to stay in business. Most of the profits from ticket sales go to the studios. But purchasers might want to know that “when you pay $6 for a medium-sized bag of popcorn in theaters, you’re paying a 1,275 percent mark up compared to the cost of buying three 3.5-ounce bags of microwaveable popcorn sold in a box for about $3 at the store.” Put it this way: the concession stand pays more for the cost of the cardboard container than it does for the popcorn and “butter substitute” that goes into it.

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Advertising Commentary

Interview: Carl Deal and Tia Lessin of the Documentary “Citizen Koch”

Posted on June 19, 2014 at 8:00 am

“Citizens United has unleashed money that our disclosure laws are not equipped to reveal.” Tia Lessin and Carl Deal wanted to make a documentary about the toxic effect of corporate money on politics following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United that invalidated just about every law controlling campaign contributions. But it ended up focusing on private money — mostly from the Koch brothers, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it undisclosed before voting day. I spoke to Deal and Lessin about making the film.

How did this project get started?

Tia: We were really curious. David Koch ran for Vice President in 1980, on a Libertarian ticket. This was a fringe, fringe party. Not at all part of either major national party at the time.

Carl: They made Ronald Reagan look like a flaming liberal.

Tia:  His platform was abolished Social Security Medicare and Medicaid, the Postal Service, taxes, of course; corporate and personal taxes. Now a lot of those tenets have become mainstream within the Republican party. He’s no longer part of the Libertarian party, he’s part of the Republican party and so we were curious to understand how that happened. A big part of the way that happened was his seed funding, the Tea Party. And hijacking what might have been actually legitimate populous concern over Wall Street and the power of the banks and the economic implosion after the mortgage crisis.

People on both sides of the aisle were concerned about that and concerned about the lack of accountability. And the Kochs and their brethren I think hijacked that and saw the value in boots on the ground because that’s the one thing that they lacked. All this time they had the money, they had the strategy, they had their dupes and their political players in Washington but they didn’t have boots on the ground; they didn’t have any popular support. They always fabricated that, they pretended to have that. They had Astroturf but the Tea Party gave them the people and then they began to fund it. So we were curious on how that happened. We learned that that happened and how it was that true believers on the ground were allowing these, the two richest men in the country, if you put their wealth together; they are the two richest men in the country, in the world actually, to tell them what to do.

What percentage of what the Koch brothers are doing do you believe is pure policy and what percentage is just an way for them to make more money?

Carl: That’s a billion-dollar question right there!

Tia:  If it’s ideology, then it can also very conveniently makes you a richer. All the better right? I mean what’s the difference in ideology and greed? I feel like every one of their ideological positions also has a profit and benefit of making them and other companies richer.

What are their core positions?

Tia: The regulation of the financial sector, the regulation of the economy, of their industries. They want to do away with the EPA and the very government functions that provide oversight for their businesses. Those are primary and then they don’t believe in government; they believe in privatizing the conscience of government. And whether it be our schools, our healthcare, whatever else they believe in, they are very anti-union, they are anti-collectivists; In their dad’s day, that was anti-communist but now they have adopted this term “collectivist”. Well what does that mean? They don’t believe in people banding together to negotiate over their wages. And I don’t think it’s ideological either. I think that there is an element of cynical political maneuvering. I mean, that’s what we see in our film. It’s not about pensions, it’s not about wages, they want to kneecap the labor unions so that they don’t contribute to liberal politicians.

Is there a difference between the Koch brothers and contributors to Democrats like George Soros and labor unions?

Carl: They have more money and the way they spend their money is different. George Soros has a political agenda and he spends money on certain types of candidates; there is no doubt about it. But the kind of philanthropy that he gave, that he engages in is a little bit different than the kind of quote unquote philanthropy that the Kochs engage in.

Tia: The bottom line is, there is a difference in spending between billionaires and unions. I think the media equates those two. They are not equal. The Unions do not spend as much as the Kochs. They spend on a different scale but they also represent real working people. The Kochs, they are two guys, they are two men. The other difference in between spending of Labor and spending of the Kochs — Labor has to disclose every penny it spends.

Carl: They don’t even have a responsibility to the shareholders. They are part of a private corporation.citizenKoch-pin2-192x128

Tia:  They have the right to speak. The unions have the right to speak. They have the right to speak as human beings. But why should the speech of those two men trump the speech of millions of working people? I think yes, Soros, whoever it is; the Hollywood folks who spent a lot of their monies, Tom Steyer and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Why is it that any rich person has more of a voice or gets to speak louder because they have this money to amplify their voice? Why is that fair to everybody else? And in the end I think the big problem is that the politicians owe them something at the end of the day.

Carl: I think you also look at how a lot of the billionaires on the left are spending their money versus the way the billionaires on the right are. Tom Steyer and George Soros are building infrastructure, they want more government. They are interested in creating a bigger safety net and working for the betterment of everyone. The Kochs and their kind are about themselves; it’s a shell game they have created. Look, I think it’s straight up a cheating in a way. They took a look at the playing field and they saw where they were losing and then they figured out how they can strategically over time rig it in their favor. And that’s one of the reason why we looked at Citizens United so closely in this film. It was a marker; it was a signpost where there was democracy before Citizen United and there is less democracy after.

The surprise hero of the film is a politician who has held office as both a Democrat and a Republican, Buddy Roemer.

Carl: And he was a “right to work” governor. He is no friend of organized labor.

Why aren’t people more up in arms over this?

Tia:   I think people are. It makes you sick and tired and kind of don’t want to vote. You feel sick of it.  One guy in our movie votes for the first time and then he finds out all this money got poured into the election and he is like, “Never again. This is the first and the last time I am going to vote.” Two things; people don’t want to vote and when they see what’s happened in the state houses and in the Congress, this divisiveness and this extreme conflict and disinterest in negotiating on the part of these Two Party radicals, they feel that government has broken down. And I think that’s exactly what the Tea Party and the Kochs want people to believe, government has broken down. So it serves their agenda.

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Directors Interview

Citizen Koch

Posted on June 3, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, some offensive comments
Date Released to Theaters: June 6, 2014

The 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case opened the door — no, opened the floodgates — to unlimited and unaccountable political spending by corporations and wealthy individuals.  The case itself rose from a film about Hillary Clinton that was funded by a group opposing her candidacy for President.  And now this film, “Citizen Koch” takes on Charles and David Koch, the wealthiest, most powerful, most influential, and least known of the individuals who have taken advantage of the Citizens United ruling and the corrupting, distorting, and toxic effect on democracy.

The filmmakers make it clear from the beginning whose side they are on, opening with a racist quote from Koch paterfamilias and c0-founder of the John Birch Society Fred Koch, then cutting to Sarah Palin, shouting “Game on!” to Barack Obama at an Americans for Prosperity rally.  Americans for Prosperity is just one of the more than 30 organizations known to be funded by the Kochs.  It then goes back two and a half years earlier to examine the impact the Kochs have had in just a small but representative sample of issues and events, focusing in detail on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, kept in office despite a recall vote, thanks to enormous amounts of money for an “end the recall madness campaign,” none of which was disclosed until after the vote, when it was too late to affect the outcome.

The unexpected hero of the film turns out to be Buddy Roemer, former Governor and Congressman from Louisiana who has served or run as Democrat, Republican, and independent.  His fresh, frank outlook and good cheer despite being ignored by contributors, voters, and the other candidates is a bracing antidote to the despair and animosity surrounding him.  One Rove/Koch operative refuses to answer questions about the benefits to their business interests that the policies the Koch brothers are promoting and another insists, outside of a Koch-funded bus filled with get-out-the-vote callers representing themselves as “volunteers for Americans for Prosperity,” that his group is not “election advocacy,” just “issue” education.  By contrast, Roemer’s candor — and his inability to get any support — are telling.

But the inescapable conclusion from the film is that there is something even more distressing than the impact of near-unfathomable individual wealth on politics: the impact on public understanding of the issues.  As sort of Gresham’s Law of information, the availability of outlets for unlimited sources with their own spins and agendas.  A group of people take in the anti-Semitic-fueled rant of a John Birch Society leader (he actually comes down on Hitler’s side regarding the threat posed by Jews), and one of them gratefully says it is good to be able to get information from those who are knowledgeable.  Another man, told that the money the Kochs spent on elections is vastly greater than that spent by the unions (as much a target of the Kochs as government regulations and the social safety net), simply refuses to believe it.  That same attitude — and the power of the Kochs to keep this film from being aired on New York’s PBS station to get this story told — is the real problem.

Parents should know that this film includes some disturbing language and bigotry.

Family discussion: How do other countries handle this problem?  What is the best way to evaluate the impact of political spending by all sides?

If you like this, try: Koch Brothers Exposed and Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty

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