by Lorna Salzman
How the media are being used to discredit the progressive movement for environmental and social justice.
If Rush Limbaugh was described as pro-defense spending and for the Persian Gulf War, a corporate apologist, an advocate for animal testing and had an innate disdain for liberals and ethical investors, no one would be surprised. If this same person was also considered an expert on corporate ethics, the business of greenwashing and is published regularly in progressive magazines, we might want to take a second look. And it is precisely this sort of character that is concealed inside the Trojan horse of progressive journalism, in a campaign to damage if not destroy progressive non-governmental organizations and businesses in North America and in Europe.
The Reagan era of redblooded full-fledged attacks on the environment, as epitomized by James Watt and Anne Gorsuch, is behind us but its offspring are carrying on a far more insidious anti-environment, pro-corporate campaign that has fooled even the progressive media around the world. This campaign has tended to minimize self-promotion and direct attacks on environmentalism per se in favor of a broad-spectrum campaign aimed at subtly discrediting both environmental organizations and issues by the use of (among other things) surrogate free-lance journalists.
The most favored surrogates are the critics, writers, editors and academic figures with a "credible", "moderate" image, strategically published in conservation and environmental publications where pro-environment readers tend to accept such views uncritically. The most influential of these are the slanted reviews and essays in unsuspecting publications such as The Progressive Populist and The Utne Reader, where readers can be easily misled. Highly visible in this corner are the academics Alston Chase and William Cronon, and free-lance journalist Jon Entine. Additionally there are the professional writers like Keith Schneider of the New York Times and Gregg Easterbrook of The Atlantic Monthly. These writers' efforts are backed up by corporate executives placed on the board of directors of environmental organizations, think tanks (especially those with a "free market" bias), front groups, and "liberal" foundations with investments in polluting corporations.
Behind-the-scenes ideological support services are provided by "free market" think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute (featuring writers like Jonathan Adler), The Claremont Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Political Economy Research Center. For frontal attacks there is the Wise Use movement, the American Council on Science and Health, and pseudo-eco-spectacles such as Earth Day '96. Foundations seeking grantees guaranteed not to rock the boat give millions to groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense to insure that these groups do not turn their attention to potentially embarrassing issues. The Energy Foundation, for example, funds (NRDC) work on energy deregulation and in return NRDC supports pro-utility, anti-consumer positions such as dumping the costs of unneeded nuclear power plants on ratepayers rather than on stockholders. (As extra insurance, corporations donate to environmental organizations at two and a half times the amount as the general public does).
This campaign is succeeding because many editors (as well as citizens) are not familiar with most environmental issues and because editors tend to uncritically believe what they read in ostensibly reliable scientific or environmental publications. Thus, anti-environment writers are free to define the parameters of an issue in their writings in terms of their own biases or that of special interests and corporations. Because many environmental issues are a matter of interpretation and involve scientific uncertainty, journalists are allowed to indulge their own prejudices and define the terms of debate without producing hard evidence. In such writings, inference and speculation rule the day.
Right now a subtle effort is under way to deflect attention away from the real bad guys, the unscrupulous polluters and the environmental sell-outs, by discrediting progressive environmental organizations and issues. A leading example of this was Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment on Earth. Published several years ago to great fanfare - it got two reviews in the New York Times - it made Easterbrook an instant media star. His thesis: environmentalists are ignoring the "real" problems of the world, namely poverty and ill health. Easterbrook proposed to solve this by constructing giant hydroelectric dams in undeveloped countries to generate electricity to provide rural populations with refrigerators. No mention was made of the fact that Third World communities have risen up en masse to fight these dams at risk of life; or that refrigeration is utterly irrelevant to rural communities and their food distribution system, and that poverty and ill health in the Third World are, like environmental problems, a direct result of their government's resistance to redistribution of land and wealth as a means of ending poverty. The Easterbrook view is not just grouchy contrarianism; it is serious propaganda intended to do serious damage to the credibility of (and public support for) groups that link environment and social justice.
The Smell of Democracy
In large measure the real value of the environmental movement since 1970 has been its success in demystifying science, clearing away unscientific dross, exposing conflicts of interest in the scientific and environmental communities and clarifying and re-defining issues to increase public understanding. By encouraging non-scientists to become involved in public environmental policy-making, the debate is broadened into other arenas besides science, such as ethics, politics, economics, and human rights, opening the door to a redefinition of both environmentalism and social change.
Unfortunately, these accomplishments smell too much like democracy. And democracy, if you are an irresponsible corporation or polluter, has a way of exposing and disinfecting the political process. It is no accident that the most dangerous technologies - nuclear power, biotechnology, toxic chemicals - require the most secrecy, mendacity and subversion of the political process.
But corporate polluters can utilize as well as subvert the democratic process as it suits them, hence their campaign to enlist the media as a means of discrediting pro-environment groups and activists. More and more in recent years, freelance media surrogates without overt ties to corporations are being used to focus attention on the failings and errors of environmental organizations and socially concerned businesses so as to divert attention away from the real polluters and despoilers.
It is easy to ferret out these surrogates. All one has to do is look at who is being attacked and who is being ignored. Those who attack groups like Sierra Club or Greenpeace without ever mentioning corporations like Monsanto, Dupont, Shell Oil and Dow Chemical are the ones to look out for.
True, hardly an organization or corporation exists that hasn't committed some errors in judgment or made some bad policy bloopers. And needless to say, no organization, no matter how noble its cause, should be exempt from criticism. But there is a world of difference between those corporations or groups who are basically good but exhibit occasional flaws, and those who are basically bad but sometimes do some good things. Unlike the Monsantos and Shell Oils of the world, the Sierra Clubs and Greenpeaces of the world, if left to their own devices, will not destroy the earth.
The same goes for corporations. Here the good, bad and worst can also be rather easily distinguished. Some corporations may not be particularly admirable regarding their labor or management practices, while others may be destroying the world while being paragons of good management and worker relations. Here's a test: if you had to prevent the damage done by certain businesses, would you choose Ben & Jerry's and The Body Shop on the one hand, or Monsanto and Shell Oil?
Take for instance Jon Entine, whose sophisticated atacks on liberals, ethical investors, anti-defense spending and anti- animal testing advocates, and anti-nuclear activists - as well as on The Body Shop (TBS), Council on Economic Priorities, Ben and Jerry's and others - have helped damage these organizations both in reputation and stock value, not to mention public trust. Where are these attacks really coming from? In Entine's case, clearly not from any love for the progressive movement or environmentalism.
Entine's lengthy CV on the web emphasizes his television news experience prominently. His last full-time TV stint was at ABC television's Primetime Live, but what Entine doesn't report is that he was fired from ABC during his investigation of TBS for "mistakes in methodology". In a letter from London's The Sunday Times, the Deputy Editor explains how his paper was misled by Entine and how he misrepresented himself.
"We now know what we did not know then: ABC discovered Entine had made a number of mistakes in his methodology so serious that they had in effect fired him some ten days before. Entine, probably unknown to ABC, was however still picking up his messages from a phone on his old desk in the ABC building. We now understand from ABC sources that Entine is regarded as out of control and has been running around saying some wild things" (Ivan Fallon, letter from Deputy Editor of The Sunday Times, October 8, 1993).
Entine then sold the idea to Vanity Fair, a publication with many cosmetic advertisers who compete with TBS (Sandra Earley, "The Woman Who Wants to Save the World", Corporate Report Minnesota, June 1996). They rejected the story but paid Entine a $15,000 kill fee and $18,000 in expenses. (S.Earley, Corporate Report Minnesota, June 1996).It isn't as if Entine is some Norman Mailer ; his bio up until this article shows no other published stories but a recent book on black athletes got some media attention.
Entine tried to bring the story to other magazines without success, and finally Business Ethics, a small financially struggling publication, paid him $300 for the story and published it. Entine then turned around and made a $1000 donation to the magazine (S.Earley, Corporate Report Minnesota, June 1996). The publication of this story, to which Business Ethics would not allow a rebuttal, damaged TBS' image and stock value. Two years after the article appeared, Entine's wife Ellen Turner was hired to be a marketing executive for The Limited, the parent company of TBS' largest US competitor, Bath and Body Works.
Then, to use a favorite Entine word, a bizarre thing occurred during a 1997 lecture at Trent University in Canada: Entine stated that "Of course, The Body Shop is better than 99% of companies". But why doesn't he WRITE that? When pressed at Trent about why he doesn't pursue corporate criminals like Shell Oil over their Nigerian operations (an issue TBS has campaigned on since 1993), he had no answer.
Kooky Left-Wing Organic Companies
In Better World Zine, with Martha Nichols, Entine said: "Moreover, to begin to compare Body Shop with a GE or Dow Chemical or biotechnology companies, with Body Shop coming out BETTER in the comparison, is beyond liberal-think bizarre. GE and the rest are hardly pristine and I make NO wholesale defense of them. But the issue is social change. A 1% change in the behavior of GE will have more impact than creating a thousand new kooky left wing organic companies". (Jon Entine and Martha Nichols, Better World Zine, website)
Note how Entine aligns "kooky left wing" and "organic companies". Smart readers will also ask just WHICH 1% change GE might have in mind: laying off 1% fewer employees than planned? Like others of his ilk, Entine skillfully uses the temperament, semantics and vehicles of progressive and investigative journalism to gain sympathy with editors and readers. Not all are fooled however; Jay Harris of Mother Jones magazine reports that Entine called him and that "he began our conversation with a 20-minute rant about The Body Shop being the most evil company (he had) ever encountered in 20 years of investigative reporting". Harris goes on: "Mother Jones has exposed the deadly explosive tendencies of the Pinto and broke the story on the Dalkon Shield. This guy is talking about a company that spilled a few gallons of Fuzzy Peach Shampoo. He clearly had an axe to grind and was willing to let that take precedence over the facts".
In Entine's TBS attack, he referred to a Food & Drug Administration (FDA) investigation of a small shampoo spill from TBS' New Jersey operations. But he failed to say that it was HE who called in the complaint (later whiting out his name,a fact he concealed), that FDA found the TBS facility to actually be well-run, and that FDA, upon completing all inspections, is bound by law to make recommendations regardless of how clean the facility may be. (FDA Report Summary of Findings, 1123).
Most recently, Entine took on Working Assets Long Distance for allegedly deceiving customers who subscribed to them without knowing that nuclear-generated electricity was included in the electricity mix delivered to customers. But Entine's own views on nuclear power are suspect. In comments on a draft energy policy paper written by an activist on Long Island he said, in reference to nuclear power: .."to me, measured up against the conceivable dangers of coal-generated electricity, it is a potentially attractive alternative". And to the undersigned he wrote: "Your myopia..on nuclear energy reminds me of the statement that being against defense spending is 'socially responsible' or 'liberal'. It's a ridiculously shallow statement...I am thankful that we developed enough of a military deterrent to curb the Soviet Union and to be able to have challenged Iraq". To the Association of Organizational Management he said: "There is a world of difference between the mutant nuclear energy facility at Seabrook..and, say, the ones operated by Duke Power. With new technology and potential for deep core disposal of nuclear waste, it is time that we revisit this as part of a long-range plan at future energy needs.."
"Monsanto's Robert Shapiro is a 'CEO leading the charge into the new era of business ethics'", (Business Ethics Magazine, Jan.. 96).
Entine's attacks on TBS, Greenpeace and other progressive organizations are in no way balanced by any critical analysis of major polluting or exploitive corporations. On the contrary, Entine's writings set up as shining examples corporations like DuPont, General Motors, Monsanto and Duke Power. Ignoring the fact that Monsanto, a leading chemical manufacturer and biotechnology giant (maker of Agent Orange) is pressuring the government to allow its products onto the market without adequate testing, fighting to prevent labelling of genetically engineered foods, has threatened small dairy farmers who want to label their milk as free of RBGH (the Monsanto artificial growth hormone) and has attempted to bribe the Canadian consumer agency into approving its products without testing, Entine says: "Monsanto has made a lot of progress in developing pro-active models to limit chemical pollution". Entine boasts of his friend Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce, who was a paid Monsanto consultant, and claims Hawken's work for Monsanto has resulted in its instituting "significant environmental reforms". But there is no mention of Monsanto's ongoing efforts to subvert the political process in order to get its untested genetically engineered products and dangerous chemicals to a wider market. Meanwhile, Ben & Jerry's, who Entine has called "slippery and unethical" (Jon Entine, Students for Responsible Business website), recently fought and won, against Monsanto's wrath, the right to label their products to be free of recombinant bovine growth hormone, a right that was won against Monsanto and for all US dairy farmers and consumers.
Although Jon Entine may be one of the most insidious of the published anti-progressive pro-corporate surrogates, he is not alone in his attempts to discredit the work of progressive organizations and companies. In Canada, such attacks are led by journalists like Elaine Dewar. Dewar disarmed her early followers by attacking the real estate barons of Battery Park City in New York, and followed up with a 1995 book entitled Cloak of Green. In this strange book, she posits a conspiracy called "the Global Governance Agenda", which includes the Kayapo Indians of Brazil, The Body Shop, Ben and Jerry's, and Cultural Survival (a Boston group that does research on and assists indigenous peoples). This multicultural cabal is, apparently, a major threat to national sovereignty across the globe if one believes Dewar who, like Entine, manages to avoid entirely any discussion of global pollution, loss of biodiversity, toxic waste or any of the global commons issues, not to mention outstanding Canadian environmental problems and corporations.
In the United Kingdom, there is Richard North's Life on a Modern Planet: A Manifesto for Progress, reviewed by Tom Spears in the Prince George Citizen July 20, 1995. North, a former environmental correspondent, specializes in portraying environmentalists as the Chicken Littles, the "despairists" and the "doomsters", and in his book states his preference for trusting in nuclear power and genetic engineering to feed the earth's ten billion future residents and solve the problem of poverty. He was one of those who attacked Greenpeace - along with Entine - when it opposed the dumping of an oil rig in the North Sea. Also in the UK is Matt Ridley, author of Down to Earth:A Contrarian View of Environmental Problems. Ridley was a columnist for the right-wing Sunday Telegraph; his books is published by the right-wing think-tank, Institute of Economic Affairs.
Readers must remain vigilant and critical---but so must editors. It is easy to be seduced by so-called presentation of scientific "truth" and the publication in respected journals of pervasive environmental and social cynicism disguised as "investigative journalism" or ethical critiques. Editors need super-critical faculties in order to resist the journalistic saboteurs and compromised writers like Jon Entine. The public needs to develop incisive and independent thinking and a familiarity with basic scientific and environmental issues, in light of not only the stealthy corruption of the media by the Entines of the world but also because of the continued neglect of environmental issues by even progressive media.