Ordinarily, I wouldn’t point out a mistake to filmmaker, but in the case of “Merchants of Doubt,” there’s a moment that happens in the background of an interview with climate change skeptic James Taylor that almost too perfectly captures what Robert Kenner does with the entirety of his entertaining expose of cottage industry of spin doctors that have sprung up to cast aspersions on public health campaigns in order to protect big corporate interests. While Taylor toes the company line about the validity of scientific claims about global warming at a convention geared towards like-minded folks, you can see over his shoulder a heavy-set woman on a mobility scooter running into a wall, in many ways a literal piercing of the illusion that such disinformation campaigns try to sell.
“You want to hear something really weird…” Kenner told me recently with a smile, “Nobody saw that. Until we put [James Taylor]’s name in there, your eye looks at the name and then you see the person hit. But we would play that [in the editing room], and no one would see it. It’s a cheap moment, but I needed what James Taylor was saying. I did not amplify [the sound], I swear. And that’s the same lady, by the way, who was talking about the debate earlier on [in the film with Skeptic Magazine publisher] Michael Shermer, seeing his picture and not knowing who he is. Meanwhile, [Taylor’s] saying “I’m very qualified to talk about [climate change] because I took a science class.”
While Taylor and others of his ilk may consider ignorance a virtue, it’s clear Kenner does not, constructing a compelling and often wildly entertaining history of such influential knuckleheads dating back to 1958 when the Hill & Knowlton developed a playbook for cigarette companies to divert attention away from the health concerns raised by their products and raise doubt about the studies that weren’t in their favor. Little could they have known then that their strategy would be so enduring that it would create an entire cottage industry based around talk radio, cable news networks and congressional lobbying to sway public opinion. Yet inspired by the book of the same name by Naomi Orestes and Erik Conway, “Merchants of Doubt” lifts the veil on their methodology, zigzagging across the country to show how the conversation has been shaped about issues as mundane as flame-retardant furniture all the way up to the diminishing health of the environment. Shortly before the film opens nationally, Kenner spoke about how working on his last film, the factory farming and GMO expose “Food Inc.” led to his latest, why he turned to magic to help explain how such deception works, and how he hopes “Merchants of Doubt” might shift the conversation in a direction away from the spin of his subjects.
How did you get interested in this subject?
When I was making “Food Inc.,” I went to a hearing on whether we should label cloned meat. Someone stood up and said, “I think it would be way too confusing for the consumer to be given that kind of information.” I thought that was really strange [since] first of all, I didn’t know there was cloned meat. Second of all, I didn’t know who would say, “No, don’t tell people, they’ll get too confused what they’re eating.” So I looked into it and [discovered] that they were [from an organization] being funded by the fast food industry and the soda business called Citizens for Consumer Freedom that are trying to stop us from knowing what we’re eating. How Orwellian can you get? I wanted to look into that and kept bumping into more strange stuff.
How did you actually first come across “Merchants of Doubt” the book?
My wife heard Naomi [Oreskes] talking on the radio, and the book became another piece of this puzzle. I think of it like three legs of a stool. There’s the PR aspect — those guys who honed their teeth in tobacco that, when they knew their product caused cancer, could stall for 15 years and create doubt a lot of doubt for 50 years. That takes a great talent to say, “We still don’t know” or “We’re denying people’s freedom if you can’t let them smoke on an airplane,” as if the other people are not being denied their freedom.
Then Naomi and Erik’s book was the ideological aspect, [focusing on Fred] Seitz and [Fred] Singer as two people who were very legitimate scientists. Seitz was a major scientist who, all of a sudden with the fall of the Berlin Wall, started thinking of environmentalists as the new communists. That was a shock to a number of scientists. For them, it was like any form of regulation was communist, so when [President] Reagan is putting through the international treaty to help deal with the ozone problem, which George Schultz said he and Reagan thought was perhaps their greatest accomplishment, these guys thought they were communist. So everyone was fair game, which is pretty amazing. For the guys doing it for money, it’s the ideological factor. Then as [formed congressman] Bob Inglis says [in the film], there’s the tribal thing [amongst Republicans] of “If Al Gore says one thing, I’ll think the other.” But as people start to realize they’re being deceived, they’re being lied to, it’s not a debate about science, it could be a debate about what the solution is.
The film obviously covers a lot of different areas, but it really takes its shape in the third act when it tackles climate change deniers. Had you actually wanted to make a film about that subject?
It’s more about doubt and deception than anything. And the ultimate big payday of doubt and deception has become energy and climate. I have no interest in making a film about climate change. I find it really difficult. Al Gore made a film about it and I had nothing really new to add, but I think doubt and deception interested me more.
Did you actually know from the start that you’d use the metaphor of a magician, in this case Jamy Ian Swiss, to explain how such deception occurs?
No, the magic came late because I kept thinking, these guys are amazing. A few of them are able to deceive so many people, how did they do it? They’re like magicians and if you say that enough, all of a sudden, you realize, “Hey, let’s get a magician to understand what they do.” Jamy Ian Swiss was fantastic. Going from Glenn Beck saying to Steve Milloy [the proprietor of the climate change-denying Junk Science], “Are you in bed with big oil, and if so, how good are they in bed?” and then [Milloy] saying, “I’m just doing the right thing” when he’s being paid major money by these guys, and not owning up to it – he knows enough to not tell the truth. The public doesn’t listen in the same way if you say you’re being paid. So then you go to see the [demonstration of the] Three-card Monte game, and Jamy says, “It’s not how quick the hands were, it’s the fact that people are winning makes you think you can win” — it’s that [same] deception. You need the deception in the same way that Milloy has to pretend it’s he’s just an independent agent when he’s not.
Although you’re working with facts and they aren’t, there seems to be a certain showmanship you admire in your subjects here and as a documentary filmmaker who seems to take pride in making films that are both informative and entertaining, did making this allow you to consider what you must do to reach the public with information they might not want to hear?
I consider myself a filmmaker wanting to make entertaining films. I’m hoping they are factually correct and that I’m representing the people who I even disagree with correctly. I’m not looking to do gotcha films as much as to understand the world from different points of view. Some I agree with and some I don’t agree with. I don’t necessarily share [Skeptic Magazine editor-in-chief] Michael Shermer’s view that ‘60s environmentalists were overexaggerating, but I wanted to put that in. [Then again] Matthew Crawford, the motorcycle guy [who once worked for the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think tank focused on science], who’s very conservative, didn’t like the level of honesty that he was dealing with, [saying] there was a certain fraudulentness in it and there was more thinking in a bike shop then there was at a think tank.
On one hand, maybe I’m [hypocritical] being critical of these guys of being just entertaining [rather than drawing from fact], and there I am trying to make an entertaining film. But at the same time, I’m trying to be honest about it. You’ve got to be honest and truthful first, but you’ve got to bring something in. Just because you’re making a film about an important subject doesn’t mean you’re making an important movie. You have to figure out how other ways of telling it and what to do. I’m hoping this is a entertaining film that can tackle big subjects that can lead you to think about the world differently, and hopefully it can bring about some change.
After “Food Inc.” was so successful, particularly as a tool that could be used by activists to create change in the food industry, did it have any impact on how you developed this film?
“Food Inc.” hit the zeitgeist and it transcended all sort of political lines – it had nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats. People all cared about how they eat. Again, I like to come at it as a filmmaker that makes both entertaining and provocative films that have ideas that are interesting and characters that are moving. It would be great to affect the media with this film. I hope they really stop presenting [PR people] as scientists. They’re not scientists, they’re paid people who are there to stop something from happening. The media’s job is to label them as they are. If somebody took a science class in college, they shouldn’t be debating as if they are a science expert, or as Marc Morano [the executive director of Climate Depot, a notorious forum for climate skeptics] says, “I play one on television.”
His candor is one of the many jaw dropping things about the film. Was there anything specific that threw you for a loop while making this?
Did I tell you about Peter Sparber [the former tobacco executive]? Peter was the guy who said if you can do tobacco [as a PR person], you can do anything. He’s the guy who tried to stop legislation on the slow burning cigarette and basically said, “It’s couches that cause house fires, not cigarettes.” I called him up and said, “I’d love to talk. You’re good at what you do.” He said he was a big fan of mine, and he buttered me out more than I buttered him up. I [told him the film] was about multiple issues, not just tobacco, but everything. He said, “You know, you can take James Hansen, the climate scientist, and I could take a garbageman, and I could get America to believe the garbageman knows more about climate science.” I said “I believe you.” That was the ultimate.
“Merchants of Doubt” opens on March 6th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and in New York at the Angelika and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. A full list of theaters and dates is here.