- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cigarettes are not harmful. The Earth is not warming. “Clean coal” is the wave of the future.

These are but a few of the mantras sold by spinmeisters that filmmaker Robert Kenner attempts to debunk in his latest documentary, “Merchants of Doubt,” which opens Friday in the District.

Such is their ability to mold the debate that Mr. Kenner bookends his film with professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss happily explaining the phenomenon of people wanting — perhaps, even needing — to be fooled.

“I kept thinking, ‘They’re like magicians,’” Mr. Kenner told The Washington Times about the spin doctors featured in the film. “They go from one industry to another,” sowing doubt about their clients’ products and practices.

“It’s that illusion that helps sell something, and I thought it was a perfect metaphor,” said Mr. Kenner, who took on the food industry in his documentary “Food, Inc.”

One of the prime targets of “Merchants of Doubt” is Big Tobacco, which, according to documents unearthed in the movie, knew that cigarettes were harmful as far back as the 1950s because of the conclusions of the industry’s own scientists.

“Here are these guys who, for 50 years, were able to create doubt around the product of tobacco when their company knew before anyone else that it was deadly,” Mr. Kenner said. “And these guys did a masterful job. The public was still confused.”

He relates a tale, told to him by a source, of Big Tobacco’s leaders being asked whether they smoke. Their reply: “That’s for poor people. That’s for black people. That’s for stupid people.”

The film explores how the spin machine was able to morph the debate over slow-burning cigarettes, which would eat into Big Tobacco’s products, by creating a villain from thin air: sofas.

Slow-burning cigarettes might, in theory, cause couches to burn if left lit there, and chemicals were added to furniture to prevent them from burning — cancer-causing chemicals.

“The idea that it’s couches, and to make it a law, you have to put chemicals in the couches that don’t prevent fires and [in fact] cause cancer. How do you succeed?” Mr. Kenner said.

In the film, a doctor testifies to having treated a baby who was scorched in a crib thanks to a “slow-burning” cigarette left next to it. The problem, Mr. Kenner points out, is that the doctor’s anecdote was entirely false.

“My favorite line is [the doctor was asked], ‘But you said something other than what happened,’” Mr. Kenner said. “And he said, ‘Well, I wasn’t under oath, so it wasn’t really lies.’

“There’s a lot of money out there to confuse people, and there’s some skillful people out there taking advantage of that,” he said. “And the media hasn’t done a great job distinguishing who people are and where they’re coming from — who’s paying [so-called experts] to be on television and pretend [they’re] independent agents.”

One of the film’s most compelling characters is former Rep. Bob Ingliss, South Carolina Republican, who was a climate change skeptic but now attempts to convince others it’s real — and often is shouted down by libertarian groups.

“[Mr. Ingliss] said, ‘We don’t want it to be true,’” Mr. Kenner said. “You know, it’s hard for all of us to change, and that’s not about ideological lines.”

Indeed, the documentarian points to Richard Nixon, who founded the Environmental Protection Agency, shepherded the Clean Water Act and signed more environmental laws than any other president who followed him, Republican or Democrat.

George Schultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, says in the documentary that one of the president’s proudest moments was signing the ozone treaty to head off depletion of the ozone layer. But climate skeptic Fred Singer, featured in the film, goes on the attack against Reagan.

“Fred Singer was saying, ‘They were wrong; they shouldn’t have done it,’” Mr. Kenner said. “Turns out they were right, but Fred was still attacking them many years later, by the way. So even Ronald Reagan was suspect in Fred Singer’s mind.”

Like his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush stood behind cap-and-trade as a way to tackle the issue of acid rain.

“So the irony is the Republicans have led on this issue,” Mr. Kenner said. “And as George Schultz and Bob Ingliss said, ‘It’s conservative to conserve.’ These are conservative issues. And it’s ironic that it got hijacked by certain business interests and phony libertarian interests that aren’t really libertarian.

“You [will] certainly have government involved if we don’t do anything, and that’s going to come big time and that’s, I think, the ultimate irony.”

The film highlights special interest groups that hide their aims behind friendly-sounding names dripping in Orwellian doublespeak. Save Our Forests is a front for the logging industry; Citizens for Consumer Freedom tries to head off consumers’ knowledge of what is in their food.

“As the magician said, it’s about focus: ‘Look here.’ He’s saying, ‘Just get someone to focus so thoroughly, they’ll forget they’re not seeing.’ And you can get people to go against their own self-interest,” Mr. Kenner said. “That’s not a libertarian or a Republican ideal to stop you from having the right to do business. And it’s the antithesis of what Republican business ideals should be. But they’ve managed to take people’s rights away in the name of libertarianism.”

Late in the film, Mr. Kenner brings out spin master Marc Morano, a self-assured charmer who is refreshingly honest about his work and the cash he makes from it.

“Marc’s charming, and certainly one of the most fun days of filming I’ve had,” Mr. Kenner said. “But you have to balance it. He’s someone who affected [climate scientist] Ben’s Santer life” by going on the attack.

“He’s an incredible character, and I mean he’s good at what he does, and he enjoys doing it,” he said of Mr. Morano, who also was involved in the Swiftboat campaign that helped derail the presidential ambitions of John F. Kerry in 2004.

Mr. Kenner hopes that in exposing the spin factory, people will be more cynical about the information they are fed by so-called experts who are paid big bucks to lobby and thus look closer at the magicians’ tricks being pulled on them. He points to a scientist on the payroll of Exxon Mobile Corp. named Ronald Prinn, a climate change skeptic.

“He’s a skeptical scientist, but an honest scientist,” Mr. Kenner said. “Scientists should be skeptical. I just object to [climate change] deniers being called skeptics.”

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