Bill Moyers: America Can't Deal With Reality -- We Must Be Exposed to the Truth, Even If It Hurts
Continued from previous page
Here's what most perplexed us: the American Cancer Society - an organization that in no way figured in our story - sent to its 3,000 local chapters a "critique" of the unfinished documentary claiming, wrongly, that it exaggerated the dangers of pesticides in food. We were puzzled. Why was the American Cancer Society taking the unusual step of criticizing a documentary that it had not seen, that had not aired and that did not claim what the Society alleged? An enterprising reporter named Sheila Kaplan later looked into those questions for the journal Legal Times. It turns out that the Porter Novelli public relations firm, which had worked for several chemical companies, also did pro bono work for the American Cancer Society. Kaplan found that the firm was able to cash in some of the goodwill from that "charitable" work to persuade the compliant communications staff at the Society to distribute some harsh talking point about the documentary before it aired - talking points that had been supplied by, but not attributed to, Porter Novelli. Legal Times headlined the story "Porter Novelli Plays All Sides." A familiar Washington game.
Others also used the American Cancer Society's good name in efforts to tarnish the journalism before it aired, none more invidiously than the right-wing polemicist Reed Irvine, who pumped his sludge through an organization with the Orwellian name Accuracy in Media. He attacked our work as "junk science on PBS" and demanded Congress pull the plug on public broadcasting. Fortunately, PBS once again stood firm. The documentary aired, the journalism held up and the publicity liberated the National Academy of Sciences to release the study that the industry had tried to cripple.
However, there's always another round; the sharks are always circling. Sherry Jones and I spent more than a year working on another PBS documentary called "Trade Secrets," a two-hour investigative special based on revelations - found in the industry's own archives - that big chemical companies had deliberately withheld from workers and consumers damaging information about toxic chemicals in their products. These internal industry documents are a fact. They exist. They are not a matter of opinion or point of view. They state what the companies knew, when they knew it and what they did with what they knew (namely to deep-six it) at peril to those who worked with and consumed the potentially lethal products.
The revelations portrayed deep and pervasive corruption in a major American industry and raised critical policy implications about the safety of living under a regulatory system manipulated by the industry itself. If the public and government regulators had known what the industry knew about the health risks of its products when the industry knew it, America's laws and regulations governing chemical manufacturing would have been far more protective of human health. But the industry didn't want us to know. That's what the documents revealed and that was the story the industry fought to keep us from telling.
The industry hired as an ally a public relations firm in Washington noted for using private detectives and former CIA, FBI and drug enforcement officers to conduct investigations for corporations under critical scrutiny. One of the company's founders acknowledged that corporations may need to resort to "deceit" and other unconventional resources to counter public scrutiny. Given the scurrilous campaign that was conducted to smear our journalism, his comments were an understatement. To complicate matters, the Congressman, who for years had been the single biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the chemical industry, was the very member of Congress whose committee had jurisdiction over public broadcasting's appropriations. As an independent production firm, we had not used public funds to produce the documentary. But even our independence didn't stop the corporate mercenaries from bringing relentless pressure on PBS not to air the broadcast. The then president of PBS, Pat Mitchell, stood tall in resisting the pressure and was vindicated: one year later, The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded "Trade Secrets" an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism.