–A guest article by Andrew Frank–
Thank You For Smoking is a hot new comedy about the lives of professional lobbyists in the tobacco, alcohol and firearms industries. Recently released across North America, you can see the film in your local movie theater—or alternatively, played out in the pages of the National Post, where the real life parallels are stranger than fiction.
First, meet Steven Milloy. Milloy is a professional lobbyist who refers to himself as “the Junkman,” and who recently wrote an article for Fox News titled Polar Bear Scare on Thin Ice—an attempt to cast doubt on the effects of climate change in Canada's Arctic. Recently, Milloy was cited by National Post business editor Terence Corcoran and columnist Peter Foster in a string of controversial editorials challenging climate change and corporate social responsibility.
According to SourceWatch, Greenpeace, and Mother Jones, Mr. Milloy's corporate backers have included Phillip Morris and Exxon Mobil, and in the past decade, he has founded and personally staffed at least half a dozen lobby fronts, attacking issues ranging from tobacco science to climate change to corporate social responsibility.
Next, meet Nick Taylor, the main character in Thank You For Smoking – and a perfect fictional foil for Milloy. In the film, Nick Taylor is the chief spokesman for “The Academy of Tobacco Studies,” a fictional pro-tobacco lobby group. The real life Milloy, meanwhile, has played a pivotal role in the operation of several similar organizations, including The Advancement of Sound Science Center (attacking tobacco science); www.junkscience.com (a website attacking the science of climate change); www.csrwatch.com (a website attacking corporate social responsibility); and the Free Enterprise Action Fund (an investment fund for attacking socially responsible investors).
Mr. Milloy's activities, while clearly unethical, are not surprising. What is surprising and disconcerting, however, is the fact that the National Post has chosen to cite Mr. Milloy on at least three unique occasions in the past year, and has failed each time to disclose his identity as a lobbyist.
What do we make of this brand of journalism, especially when the topic is climate change and the source has just received a $40,000 grant from Exxon Mobil? The tag line for Thank You for Not Smoking provides an apt answer: “Nick Taylor doesn't hide the truth…he filters it.” Well said. The National Post is filtering the truth.
In an editorial titled “CSR Backlash” (Jan. 15th, 2005), Terence Corcoran fails to identify Mr. Milloy when he states that, “As the CSR [corporate social responsibility] movement expands, a bit of a backlash is beginning to develop. A new web site, www.csrwatch.com, has sprung up. It's a lively source of daily news on what it calls “the anti-business movement” behind CSR.” Without context, readers are led to believe this website has materialized based on it's own merit, when in fact it is a well-funded lobbying effort headed by Mr. Milloy.
In a more recent editorial, “Just say not to NGOs” (April 1st, 2006), Corcoran provides a similarly selective treatment in his introduction to Milloy's work: “Steven Milloy, who runs a free market operation in opposition to CSR (www.freeenterpriser.com), recently wrote a column outlining how Ford Motor CEO Bill Ford fell into the appeasement trap [of corporate social responsibility].” Here, Mr. Corcoran is only being clear and fair to his readers if “free market operation” is somehow synonymous with “professional lobbying front.”
In yet another recent editorial, this time attacking Goldman Sach's commitments to the environment (“Goldman Sach's Green CEO”, March 24th, 2006), columnist Peter Foster provides similar obfuscation around Mr. Milloy's true identity: “…Whether Mr. Paulson's involvement are (sic) in the best interests of Goldman shareholders is the topic of a letter by investment advisor Action Fund Management LLC, one of whose principals is Steve Milloy. Mr. Milloy also runs the premier Web site devoted to junk science. It is intriguing that, in his defence of shareholder priorities, Mr. Milloy appears an oddity, even a voice crying in the wilderness.”
CUT! An oddity? The fact is that Mr. Milloy has been a paid “voice in the wilderness” for many dubious causes over the years, something that both Mr. Corcoran and Mr. Foster are no doubt keenly aware of.
A journalist is only as good as his/her sources. When Messrs. Corcoran and Foster cite a professional lobbyist without providing relevant context, they do their readers a disservice and contribute to misinformation surrounding some of the world's most pressing social and environmental issues—including climate change. One would think it incumbent upon the editorial board of the National Post to apply some measure of quality control to the editorials they publish.
Here's to helping the National Post quit smoking.
Andrew Frank is a media critic and former Chief Contributor to the E-Commons Digital Democracy Project at the University of Toronto.