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Shifting the Terms of Debate: How Big Business Covered Up Global Warming

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Jason
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« on: June 18, 2008, 01:26:40 pm »

Shifting the Terms of Debate: How Big Business Covered Up Global Warming
part of Aaron Swartz: The Weblog


In 2004, Michelle Malkin, a conservative editorialist, published the book In Defense of Internment. It argued that declassified security intercepts showed that Japanese internment during World War II -- the government policy that relocated thousands of Japanese to concentration camps -- was actually justified in the name of national security. We needed to learn the truth, Malkin insisted, so that we could see how racial profiling was similarly justified to fight the "war on terror."

Bainbridge Island was the center of the evacuations; to this day, residents still feel ashamed and teach students a special unit about the incident, entitled "Leaving Our Island". But one parent in the district, Mary Dombrowski, was persuaded by Malkin's book that the evacuation was actually justified and insisted the school was teaching a one-sided version of the internment story, "propaganda" that forced impressionable children into thinking that the concentration camps were a mistake.

The school's principal defended the practice. As the Seattle Times reported:

"We do teach it as a mistake," she said, noting that the U.S. government has admitted it was wrong. "As an educator, there are some things that we can say aren’t debatable anymore." Slavery, for example. Or the internment -- as opposed to a subject such as global warming, she said.†

True, Japanese internment isn't a controversial issue like global warming, but ten years ago, global warming wasn't a controversial issue either. In 1995, the UN's panel on international climate change released its consensus report, finding that global warming was a real and serious issue that had to be quickly confronted. The media covered the scientists' research and the population agreed, leading President Clinton to say he would sign an international treaty to stop global warming.

Then came the backlash. The Global Climate Coalition (funded by over 40 major corporate groups like Amoco, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and General Motors) began spending millions of dollars each year to derail the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to help reduce global warming. They held conferences entitled "The Costs of Kyoto," issued press releases and faxes dismissing the scientific evidence for global warming, and spent more than $3 million on newspaper and television ads claiming Kyoto would mean a "50-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax."†

The media, in response to flurries of "blast faxes" (a technique in which a press release is simultaneously faxed to thousands of journalists) and accusations of left-wing bias, began backing off from the scientific evidence.† A recent study found only 35% of newspaper stories on global warming accurately described the scientific consensus, with the majority implying that scientists who believed in global warming were just as common as global warming deniers (of which there were only a tiny handful, almost all of whom had received funding from energy companies or associated groups).†

It all had an incredible effect on the public. In 1993, 88% of Americans thought global warming was a serious problem. By 1997, that number had fallen to 42%, with only 28% saying immediate action was necessary. [^1] And so Clinton changed course and insisted that cutting emissions should be put off for 20 years.

US businesses seriously weakened the Kyoto Protocol, leading it to require only a 7% reduction in emissions (compared to the 20% requested by European nations) and then President Bush refused to sign on to even that.† In four short years, big business had managed to turn nearly half the country around and halt the efforts to protect the planet.

And now, the principal on Bainbridge Island, like most people, thinks global warming is a hotly contested issue -- the paradigmatic example of a hotly contested issue -- even when the science is clear. ("There’s no better scientific consensus on this on any issue I know," said the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "except maybe Newton's second law of dynamics.")[^2] But all this debate about problems has kept us away from talk about solutions. As journalist Ross Gelbspan puts it, "By keeping the discussion focused on whether there is a problem in the first place, they have effectively silenced the debate over what to do about it."† So is it any wonder that conservatives want to do the same thing again? And again? And again?

http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/shifting1
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Jason
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« Reply #1 on: June 18, 2008, 01:27:18 pm »

_[This is part 2 of an article on the power of right-wing think tanks. See part one.]_

Malkin's book on internment was no more accurate than the corporate misinformation about global warming. Historians quickly showed the book badly distorted the government records and secret cables it purported to describe. As just one example, Malkin writes that a Japanese message stated they "had [Japanese] spies in the U.S. Army" when it actually said they hoped to recruit spies in the army.† But it should be no big surprise that Malkin, who is, after all, an editorialist and not a historian, didn't manage to fully understand the complex documentary record in the year she spent writing the book part-time.†

Malkin's motives, as a right-wing activist and proponent of racial profiling, are fairly obvious. But how did Mary Dombrowski, the Bainbridge Island parent, get caught up in this latest attempt to rewrite history? Opinions on global warming were changed because big business could afford to spent millions to change people's minds. But racial profiling seems like less of a moneymaker. Who invested in spreading that message?

The first step is getting the information out there. Dombrowski probably heard about Malkin's book from the Fox News Channel, where it was ceaselessly promoted for days, and where Malkin is a contributor. Or maybe she heard about it on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, a show hosted by a former Republican congressman, which had Malkin as a guest. Or maybe she heard it while driving and listening to FOX host Sean Hannity's radio show, or maybe Rush Limbaugh's. Or maybe she read a review in the New York Post (which, like Fox News, is owned by Rupert Murdoch). Or maybe she read about it on a right-wing website or weblog, like Townhall.com, which publishes 10 new conservative op-ed columns every day.

All of these organizations are partisan conservative outlets. Townhall.com, for example, is published by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing Washington, D.C. think tank. Most people imagine a think tank as a place where smart people think big thoughts, coming up with new ideas for the government to use. But that's not how Heritage works. Nearly half of Heritage's $30 million budget is spent on publicity, not research.† Every day, they take work like Malkin's that agrees with their ideological prejudices and push it out through the right-wing media described above (Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, New York Post) and into the mainstream media (ABC, NPR, New York Times, Seattle Times).

They use a variety of tactics. Heritage, for example, publishes an annual telephone directory featuring thousands of conservative experts and associated policy organizations. (_The Right Nation_, 161) And if looking up somebody is too much work, Heritage maintains a 24-hour hotline for the media, providing quotes promoting conservative ideology on any subject. Heritage's "information marketing" department makes packages of colored index cards with pre-printed talking points for any conservative who plans to do an interview. (_The Right Nation_, 167) And Heritage computers are stocked with the names of over 3,500 journalists, organized by specialty, who Heritage staffers personally call to make sure they have all the latest conservative misinformation. Every Heritage study is turned into a two-page summary which is then turned into an op-ed piece which is then distributed to newspapers through the Heritage Features Syndicate. (_What Liberal Media?_, 83)

It all adds up: a 2003 study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media watch group, found conservative think tanks were cited nearly 14,000 times in major newspapers, television, and radio shows. (By comparison, liberal think tanks were cited only 4,000 times that year.)† That means 10,000 additional quotes of right-wing ideology, misleading statistics, distorted facts, and so on. There's no way that doesn't unfairly skew the public debate.
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Jason
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« Reply #2 on: June 18, 2008, 01:27:57 pm »

_[This is part 3 of an article on the power of right-wing think tanks. See also part one and part two.]_

If you have any doubt about the power of the think tanks, look no further than the story of The Bell Curve. Written by Charles Murray, who received over 1.2 million from right-wing foundations for his work, the book claimed that IQ tests revealed black people to be genetically less intelligent than whites, thus explaining their low place in society. Murray published the 845-page book without showing it to any other scientists, leading the Wall Street Journal to say he pursued "a strategy that provided book galleys to likely supporters while withholding them from likely critics" in an attempt "to fix the fight ... contrary to usual publishing protocol." Murray's think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, flew key members of the media to Washington for a weekend of briefings on the book's content. (_What Liberal Media?_, 94)

And the media lapped it up. In what Eric Alterman has termed "a kind of Rorschach test for pundits," (_WLM?_, 96) every major media outlet reviewed the book without questioning the accuracy of its contents. Instead, they merely quibbled about its proposed recommendations that the dumb blacks, with their dangerously high reproductive rates, might have to be kept in "a high-tech and more lavish version of an Indian reservation" without such luxuries as "individualism, equal rights before the law," and so on. Reviewers proposed more moderate solutions, like just taking away their welfare checks. (_WLM?_, 94)

But such quibbles aside, the amount of coverage alone was incredible. The book received cover stories in Newsweek ("the science behind [it] is overwhelmingly mainstream"), The New Republic (which dedicated an entire issue to discussion of the book), and The New York Times Book Review (which suggested critics disliked its "appeal to sweet reason" and are "inclined to hang the defendants without a trial"). Detailed articles appeared in TIME, The New York Times ("makes a strong case"), The New York Times Magazine, Forbes (praising the book's "Jeffersonian vision"), the Wall Street Journal, and the National Review. It received a respectful airing on such shows as ABC's Nightline, PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, the McLaughlin Group, Think Tank (which dedicated a special two-part series to the book), ABC's PrimeTime Live, and NPR's All Things Considered. With fifteen weeks on the bestseller list, it ended up selling over 300,000 copies in hardcover.†

This wasn't just a media debate about the existence of global warming or the merits of internment, this was a full-on media endorsement of racism, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others." Nor did the media mention the work's political intentions. On the contrary, they presented it as the sober work of social scientists: Nightline's Ted Koppel lamented to Murray about how his "great deal of work and research" had become "a political football".†

Of course, this was almost certainly Murray's intention all along. In the book proposal for his previous book (_Losing Ground_, an attack on government welfare programs) he had explained: "Why can a publisher sell this book? Because a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It's going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say."† That's certainly what The Bell Curve did, replacing a debate over how to improve black achievement with one about whether such improvement was even possible.

There was just one problem: none of this stuff was accurate. As Professor Michael Nunley wrote in a special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist on The Bell Curve, after a series of scientific articles debunked all the book's major claims: "I believe this book is a fraud, that its authors must have known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and that Charles Murray must still know it's a fraud as he goes around defending it. ... After careful reading, I cannot believe its authors were not acutely aware of ... how they were distorting the material they did include." (_WLM?_, 100)
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Jason
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« Reply #3 on: June 18, 2008, 01:28:24 pm »

[This is part 4 of an article on the power of right-wing think tanks. See also part one, part two, and part three.]

But do the right-wing think tanks even care about the facts? In his autobiography, Blinded by the Right, David Brock describes his experience being recruited for one right out of college: "Though I had no advanced degrees, I assumed the grandiose title of John M. Olin Fellow in Congressional Studies, which, if nothing else, certainly impressed my parents. ... My assignment was to write a monograph, which I hoped to publish as a book, challenging the conservative orthodoxy on the proper relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government." This topic was chosen, Brock explains, because with "a squish like Bush in the White House ... the political reality [was] that the conservative agenda could be best advanced by renegade conservatives on Capitol Hill." (79f)

Needless to say, paying fresh-faced former college students lots of money to write articles that serve political needs is not the best way to get accurate information. But is accurate information the goal? Look at John Lott, a "resident scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute -- the same right-wing think tank that promoted The Bell Curve. Lott's book More Guns, Less Crime claimed that his scientific studies had found that passing laws to allow people to carry concealed weapons actually lowered crime rates. As usual, the evidence melted away upon investigation, but Lott's errors were more serious than most.

Not content to simply distort the data, Lott fabricated an entire study which he claimed showed that in 97% of cases, simply brandishing a gun would cause an attacker to flee. When Internet critics begun to point out his inconsistencies on this claim, Lott posted responses under the name "Mary Rosh" to defend himself. "I have to say that he was the best professor I ever had," Lott gushed about himself one Internet posting. "There were a group of us students who would try to take any class that he taught. Lott finally had to tell us that it was best for us to try and take classes from other professors."

Confronted about his alternate identity, Lott told the Washington Post "I probably shouldn't have done it -- I know I shouldn't have done it". And yet, the very next day he again attacked his critics, this time under the new pseudonym "Washingtonian". (It later got so bad that one of Lott's pseudonyms would start talking about posts from another Lott pseudonym.)†

Lott, of course, is not the only scholar to make things up to bolster his case. For comparison, look at Michael Bellesiles, author of the anti-gun book Arming America, which argued guns were uncommon in early America. Other scholars investigated and found that Bellesiles had probably fabricated evidence. Emory University, where Bellesiles was a professor of history, begun an investigation into the accuracy of his work, eventually forcing him to resign. His publisher, Knopf, pulled the book out of print. Libraries pulled the book off their shelves. Columbia University revoked the Bancroft Prize the book had been awarded. The scandal was widely covered in academic circles. Bellesiles was firmly disgraced and has not shown his face in public since.

And what happened to Lott? Nothing. Lott remains a "resident scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute, his book continues to sell well, his op-ed pieces are still published in major papers, and he gives talks around the country.† For the right-wing scholar, even outright fraud is no serious obstacle.
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« Reply #4 on: June 18, 2008, 01:29:10 pm »

[This is part 5 of an article on the power of right-wing think tanks. See also part one, part two, part three, and part four.]

Since the goal of these think tanks clearly isn't to advance knowledge, what are they for? To understand their real goals, we have to look at why they were created. After the tumultuous 1960s led a generation of students to start questioning authority, business decided something had to be done. "The American economic system," explained Lewis Powell in a 1971 memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "is under broad attack" from "perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians."

And business has no one to blame but itself for not getting these things under control: the colleges are funded by "contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees ... overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system." And the media "are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend upon profits, and the enterprise system to survive." So business must "conduct guerilla warfare" by "establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars" who can be paid to publish a "steady flow of scholarly articles" in magazines and journals as well as books and pamphlets to be published "at airports, drugstores, and elsewhere."†

William Simon, president of the right-wing Olin Foundation (the same one that later funded Brock) was more blunt: "The only thing that can save the Republican Party ... is a counter-intelligentsia. ... [Conservative scholars] must be given grants, grants, and more grants in exchange for books, books, and more books." (Blinded By the Right, 78)


The Powell memo was incredibly influential. Soon after it was written, business began following its advice, building up its network of think tanks, news outlets, and media pressure groups. These organizations begun to dot the landscape, hiding behind respectable names like the Manhattan Institute or the Heartland Foundation. While these institutions were all funded by partisan conservatives, news accounts rarely noted this fact. (Another FAIR study finds The Heritage Foundation's political orientation -- let alone its funding -- was only identified in 24% of news citations.)†

As the conservative message machine grew stronger, political debate and electoral results begun to shift further and further to the right, eventually allowing extreme conservatives to be elected, first with Ronald Reagan and now with George W. Bush. More recently, conservatives have managed to finally win not only the White House but both houses of Congress. While their policy proposals, when understood, are just as unpopular as ever, conservatives are able to use their media power to twist the debate.

http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/shifting5
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« Reply #5 on: July 27, 2008, 06:41:06 am »

Hi Jason,

The sad part is that none actually knows what is going on. We know Regan Administration advised people to buy hats and sunglasses back then. Today we are in a different position, being aware of it doesn't actually seem to change much does it?

I tell my friend our kids kids will inherit a dead Planet if you don't take action! hope you read this...

M
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