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New documentary Merchants of Doubt exposes the art of spin

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I've come to accept that pretty much everyone on television is lying to me. The advertisers, of course. Certainly the "reality" shows. And a good percentage of network news.

The depressing extent of the dilemma is exposed in Merchants of Doubt. Based on the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, the documentary focuses on a virulent strain of mass-media deception: Corporations that recruit dubious experts and contrarian scientists to spread confusion around issues that threaten their bottom line.

Consider climate change. Media reports routinely refer to the "debate" around it. On cable shows, you hear guest experts from impressive-sounding organizations saying that there is no scientific consensus on whether human activity is affecting global warming.

Following the rigorous investigative reporting in the book, the film dismisses this pervasive, carefully crafted myth. There is no legitimate debate on anthropogenic climate impact. Human activity is changing the atmosphere. The current score, say analysts who have mined the data, is 928 published papers to zero.

The doubt around consensus has been deliberately manufactured, the film persuasively contends, by a small group of scientists motivated by ideology or greed. Some are old Cold War hawks convinced that government regulation equals Communism. Some are free-market hard cases. Some are in the pocket of Big Oil. Many aren't scientists at all—they just play them on TV. And some are just straight-up lunatics. The film has a great villain in climate-change denier and media assassin Marc Morano, who candidly, gleefully admits orchestrating personal attacks on the opposition, encouraging Internet wingnuts to send hate mail to legitimate scientists. "What I enjoy the most is going after individuals," he says. "We're the negative force, we're just trying to stop stuff." There is a creepy light behind his eyes. He's in it for the fun.

The film's scope goes beyond climate change, revealing how confuse-and-delay tactics have been deployed for decades to counter scientific studies on acid rain, pesticides and the ozone layer. The tobacco industry, with high-powered PR firms, pioneered the approach in the 1960s to combat health-science studies on cigarettes. "Our product is doubt," reads one internal memo, made public years later.

Director Robert Kenner puts these textual elements onscreen with the usual mix of archival footage, interviews, charts and CGI elements. It's not stylistically compelling, but the film is intelligent, well-argued and upfront about its agenda. There's also some fun framing material with magicians and professional purveyors of deception.

Learning about the professional disinformation industry reminded me of an old Mr. Boffo joke: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. But after that, the improvement is tremendous!"

This article appeared in print with the headline "Practice to deceive."

Related Film

Merchants of Doubt

Official Site: sonyclassics.com/merchantsofdoubt

Director: Robert Kenner

Producer: Robert Kenner and Melissa Robledo

Cast: Patricia Callahan, Matthew Crawford, Stanton Glantz, James Hansen, Katharine Hayhoe, Bob Inglis, Marc Morano, William O'Keefe, Naomi Oreskes and John Passacantando

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