REVIEW: Merchants of Doubt
Reviewed by Marc Glassman
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 starting the film with a colourful treatment of how magician Jamy Ian Swiss plies his craft may seem surprising—but it’s part of the plan for what the director has called “a film about deceit and deception.” Swiss’s appearances are 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-styled soundtrack and a lively set of repetitive scenes where documents emerge from filing cabinets to fly in the air, revealing dark secrets. It’s not surprising that Thank You for Smoking influenced the sardonic style of Merchants of Doubt. 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, the people who can spin a tale out of whole cloth and truth be damned. He finds them fascinating and so will viewers of the film.
Take Marc Morano, for instance. 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.”
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 the multi-award winning Food, Inc. and discovered that groups with, as he says, “Orwellian names like Center for Consumer Freedom that were stopping you from knowing what’s in your food.”
When Kenner first became interested in the Marc Moranos and “Nick Naylors,” who lobby and manage public relations for such organizations as food conglomerates and oil companies, he started to research into 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 Sixties. 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 Hlll and Knowlton, a public relations film (who were followed by others) 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. Thanks to people like anti-tobacco activists Stan Glantz, who is interviewed in the film, 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. But for decades, the tobacco lobby got away with stating, “the science isn’t settled” on whether smoking helped to create cancer.
That successful playbook continues to be employed by big companies attempting to maintain profitable businesses even if the public is adversely affected. In fact, some of the same scientists who worked for the tobacco lobby and are now employed by those who oppose legislation to combat climate change.
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. The director has commented about them: “I think there’s a sense that part of what drives them is a fear of [governmental] regulations…(but their opposition is clearly) 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.