Filmmaker Robert Kenner

The Academy Award nominated documentarian lifts the curtain on a secretive group of ‘spin doctors’ in his new film Merchants of Doubt.

Robert Kenner is an Academy Award nominated and Emmy winning director, producer, and screenwriter. His 2009 documentary, Food, Inc. received widespread critical acclaim, and is one of the highest grossing theatrical documentaries of all time. Previously, Kenner received a Peabody and an Emmy for his 2005 documentary, Two Days in October, which depicted a deadly Vietcong ambush, and a violent campus protest, which occurred simultaneously over the course of 48 hours in 1967. Kenner has directed a number of National Geographic specials, and has contributed his work to PBS's American Experience series. His latest documentary feature, titled Merchants of Doubt, shines the spotlight on a secretive group of self-styled pundits who are hired by companies to manipulate public opinion.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Robert Kenner is an Emmy-winning director and producer whose 2008 documentary, “Food, Inc.”, also earned him an Academy Award nomination. His latest film is entitled “Merchants of Doubt”. It’s a good one, an exploration of American spin.

The film lifts the curtain on a secretive group of charismatic pundits who are paid to manipulate public opinion on issues ranging from cigarettes to climate change. Before we start our conversation, first a clip from “Merchants of Doubt”.

[Clip]

Tavis: Sad to say, but it seems to me that in the battle of science versus showmen, the showmen are winning.

Robert Kenner: Yeah. I know there have been–these people have been very effective at creating doubt about things where there are is no doubt. For 50 years, they were able to create doubt on whether cigarettes caused cancer when they knew it caused cancer.

They were able to create doubt about asbestos, DDT, and now they’re creating doubt about climate change when there really is no doubt that C02, manmade C02, is heating up the atmosphere.

Tavis: So “Merchants of Doubt”, I get the title. Who are these merchants of doubt? Who are these people?

Kenner: Well, many of them learned their craft in tobacco. As one man said, if you can do tobacco, you can do anything. In the 70s, they had a problem when cigarettes were causing house fires and they wanted to create the slow-burning cigarette.

Peter Sparber convinced people it wasn’t cigarettes that caused fires. It was couches. He made it a law that you had to put fire retardants–or he got a law created where you had to put fire retardants in couches that didn’t prevent fires and cause cancer.

So he’s one of the many people that learned their craft in tobacco and profits very well from this and went on to, you know, follow the money. And that’s now where climate is.

Tavis: How do they get the access that they get? The experience, I understand your answer. How do they get the access?

Kenner: Well, the problem is, the media has put these people on as if it’s a real debate. They did it with tobacco. They did it with numbers of other issues. Ozone, acid rain, and now today, you have people who are called adjunct professors at a think tank when they might have taken a science class or two and they’re debating PhDs.

So sort of it’s apples and oranges, but the media is treating this like it’s a debate. It’s a good thing to have two sides when there are two sides. But when there aren’t two sides, it becomes a problem.

Tavis: How does the media, if we don’t have PhDs, then how does the media even know what does have two sides and what doesn’t have two sides, if we’re trying to do our job?

Kenner: Well, I think we have to investigate, you know, who are the people speaking? Who’s paying them? Finally, The New York Times just ran a good article about a scientist named Willy Soon who is a real scientist.

But it turns out he was being paid by oil and coal companies and he was referring to his own work as deliverables to those companies. And he’s one of the few legitimate scientists that’s out there doubting climate change.

So I think it’s the job of the media to sort of look into who is the person speaking, who’s paying them, and what’s their own self-interest.

Tavis: So I don’t ask this question out of any naivety, but who is doling out most of the money here to fund these showmen, these spinmeisters?

Kenner: Well, depending on which issue it is. In the climate world, it’s a lot of the energy companies. There’s a lot of money in the ground with the oil that’s there and they don’t want to leave that money behind.

But there’s, you know, numbers of products that pharmaceutical companies don’t want to stop selling certain of their products, so they’ll put out perhaps false information. I think it’s the job of the media to look into who’s speaking and what’s their interest.

Tavis: That’s the media. What is the role and responsibility of elected officials? I think of any number of persons–Ted Cruz comes to mind immediately because he just announced the other day and he’s been talking about this on the campaign trail already and making a mockery of climate change and global warming.

I just was reading some of the quotes he’s made of late about these particular issues. He’s entitled, of course, to his opinion and yet these are people who are responsible for caretaking the public trust who are making a mockery of the science.

So I hear your point about the responsibility the media has, but what responsibility do elected leaders have in this debate?

Kenner: One of the things that was interesting in the film is that we have numbers of Republican leaders in 2008 talking about, of course, man is contributing to climate change. So you see Romney, you see Boehner, you see McCain, one after another talking about how this is a serious issue and we have to take action.

And when the Koch Brothers came in and started putting a lot of big bucks out on the table, these people changed within months of that election.

And the same people–you know, Boehner who said, of course, man is responsible, a few months later was heard to be saying it’s laughable that anyone would say such a thing.

So that money has helped change those politicians, but I’m optimistic that the voters are starting to see through this and starting to see the effects of climate and, hopefully, that will change the politicians.

But I believe a lot of the politicians in Washington know this is true, but they’re scared to be voted out of office and don’t want to say anything and they also want the Kochs’ money to run for office.

Tavis: Now you’ve raised an issue that I wanted to get to, so let’s go there now. We’ve talked about the media, we’ve talked about these spinmeisters, we’ve talked about elected officials. We haven’t talked about the everyday people.

What role and responsibility do we have in this conversation? And put another way, what does the success of these showmen say about the naivety, the ignorance, the arrogance–you fill in the blank–of the American people?

Kenner: In speaking to one of these men, Peter Sparber, I tried to convince him to come on the film and be part of the film. I said it’s not only about tobacco. It’s not only about fire retardants, but we move through numbers of subjects including climate change.

And he told me, “You could take James Hanson, the world’s leading climate scientist, and I could take a garbage man and I could get America to believe that garbage man knows more about science than James Hanson does.”

That sent a chill up my spine. I think some of these guys are really effective, but it’s tough for the public. Science is a hard issue. You know, tobacco, I guess, was a hard issue.

It’s not that hard to create doubt and some of the people who do come on the show and explain how they do what they do, I was very grateful that they were willing to share how they are able to fool the American public.

Tavis: And how do they do it?

Kenner: Well, one man named Marc Morano who’s very charming, very funny, very smart, said, you know, “I play a scientist on television. I go on occasionally and all I have to do is create delay and stop action from happening and I win. My job’s a lot easier than trying to change and create new laws.”

You know, I think in a way it’s not that hard to confuse the public when it’s issues of science. But, you know, you say Ted Cruz, it’s his opinion. But science is not about opinions, you know, and that’s where we have to draw the line. The solutions are about opinions.

We can all have a great debate on what kind of actions we should take, whether government should be involved or not involved. And I found myself being changed by some conservative arguments, but you can’t debate science. That’s for scientists.

Tavis: So what do you say, then, when Ted Cruz, a U.S. Senator elected by the good people in Texas, now running for president, wants to be our leader, says that the science doesn’t back up the argument that climate change is real, that global warming is real?

How do you respond to a guy who looks in the camera and says that science doesn’t back this up? What do you say?

Kenner: What gets quoted is this Oregon petition that was put out where they say there are 31,000 scientists who question whether climate change is real. You start to look at the list and there are names such as Michael J. Box or the Spice Girls or Charles Darwin are all on this list. It’s not a very well-vetted list [laugh].

And in reality, there’s maybe a handful of climate scientists who question whether this is real or not. And as we saw, Willie Soon was one of them who was receiving over a million dollars from the oil and coal companies.

Tavis: Yeah, but my question is different, though. When a United States Senator says the science–not that people have different views about this–but he says the science does not back this argument up, how do you respond? Do you call him a liar? What do we say to Ted Cruz?

Kenner: The answer is, it’s not correct. The science does back it up. It’s absolutely clear that C02, manmade C02, is warming the earth and that’s just a fact at this point, you know. And the fact that it’s been made confusing is a tribute to how good some of these spinmeisters and, you know, doubt masters are.

Tavis: The narrative on the tobacco story over time has changed. You got to be completely be stuck on stupid now to not believe that tobacco–I mean, it’s on the pack of cigarettes, you know. It can cause harm, it can kill you. Okay, we know that.

So that narrative over years did eventually change. How do you see this narrative about the environment and the degradation being done to it, how do you see it changing over time like the tobacco story? Do you see it changing?

Kenner: Yeah. I do see it changing. I’m optimistic. You know, I think it’s become sort of a tribal issue, you know, where if your group thinks one thing, we think the other. But I think groups are capable of changing.

You look at the gay marriage situation in ’08. It wasn’t only Republicans. Democrats were opposed and, six or seven years later, things have changed pretty dramatically.

I think things will change on this issue, you know, and I think you look at tobacco, a judge ruled that they have to take out ads saying they lied to the American public. You know, I wonder if one day we’ll see that with the climate issue.

Tavis: The film is called “Merchants of Doubt” helmed by Robert Kenner. Great work, man. Good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time.

Kenner: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: April 8, 2015 at 1:48 pm