Merchants of Doubt: A Film that Connects Climate Change & the Rise of Public Relations
by Caitlin Zera April 26, 2016
If you’ve ever been caught in a frustrating conversation with a climate denier, the documentary Merchants of Doubt is sure to resonate with you.
Merchants of Doubt
Directed by Robert Kenner
Runtime: 1 hour 36 minutes, 2014
The film Merchants of Doubt chronicles the rise of Public Relations (PR), arguably one of the most powerful and influential industries of the past two centuries. While an historical overview of Public Relations may seem not seem like an explicitly environmental story, director Robert Kenner (of Food Inc. fame) makes a compelling case for how the PR industry helped engineer modern perceptions about climate change. Merchants of Doubt begins with the tobacco industry – PR’s first big client. PR executives waged extensive campaigns of misinformation to fight public health findings about the toxicity of tobacco. These campaigns were hugely successful, and these tactics employed by the PR industry to cast doubt on the dangers of tobacco proved to be the key to modern advertising.
The film then touches on other examples of the PR industry trampling public health and public interest. Finally, the film concludes with the story of PR’s role in shaping the discussion about climate change in the United States: namely the industry’s efforts to frame the issue as a “debate” – casting doubt about the existence of climate change and its anthropogenic cause.
The film draws a parallel between PR’s efforts to suppress scientific information about the dangers of tobacco and PR’s current efforts to discredit climate scientists. The case of the tobacco industry is a useful example as many of the same tactics have been employed in the discrediting of climate change science. However, there are key differences. The sheer scope of climate change and its consequences dwarfs the impacts of the tobacco industry, and while we now generally consider the public health campaign against tobacco use to be successful, it is clear that taking action on climate change is a much more complex and difficult process. The film does a good job of addressing these differences, and even if you feel you’re well versed in the issue of climate change, the story Merchants of Doubt tells is eye-opening and intricate. No doubt, there are many lessons to be learned from the past.
The film’s interviews with climate deniers and soundbites from politicians debating whether or not climate change is real are as cringe-worthy as they are absurd. On some level, the absurdity may be entertaining, but the reality behind the absurdity is deeply disturbing.
In many ways, Merchants of Doubt (which was originally published as a book) belongs to the same class of nonfiction as Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. The consequences of climate change and our society’s paralysis to take climate action are not accidental. Climate change is in part a consequence of our economic choices, and the debate over whether or not it is really happening is one that has been engineered by the fossil fuel industry, PR executives, and campaigns of misinformation, not scientific evidence.
Merchants of Doubt was released in 2014 and is a fairly on-point contemporary analysis of PR. I first saw Merchants of Doubt at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival at a late-night screening. I remember feeling absolutely infuriated and astounded. Still, there are perhaps too many moments that dwell on absurd soundbites for the sake of sensationalism and too many times throughout the film where the opportunity to probe more intensely into the content is passed up for sake of time. The film is well-paced and engaging, though not as thorough as something like Adam Curtis’s multi-part 2002 documentary Century of the Self. Curtis’s film is an in-depth investigative history of the public relations industry and is one of the best resources on the subject. It’s also 240 minutes long.
If you’re looking to get your feet wet with the subject, Merchants of Doubt is a good place to start. It highlights key moments in the history of PR and gives a nod to Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations.” (For a full analysis of Bernays and his incredible power, it’s worth blocking off some time to watch Century of the Self.)
Perhaps Merchants of Doubt is most interesting in light of recent revelations that ExxonMobil scientists acknowledged climate change patterns in the 1980s and documented scientific evidence to prove climate change was happening. Yet, they still funded efforts to misinform the public. In 2015, New York state began investigating ExxonMobil over the matter, and Columbia University journalism students who published their investigations about ExxonMobil and climate change were attacked by the corporation for being “unethical.” Merchants of Doubt doesn’t explain these incidents but it provides a necessary context for understanding them.
The opening of Merchants of Doubt compares the work of public relations executives to the sleight of hand dealt out by magicians. Despite the fact that I could do without this cheesy introduction and that I feel climate change is eminently more serious than a magic show, the point is relevant: it’s easiest to take information at face value and questioning authority is often a difficult and seemingly insurmountable task.
Merchants of Doubt may give you a better understanding of how the denial of climate change came to be so widespread in American culture. It’s a fascinating story albeit a sad one, and it proves that there are still major gaps in communicating with the public about the seriousness of environmental crises. The film doesn’t exactly provide a solution of how to overcome the misinformation about climate change that has already been seeded, but understanding the mechanics of denial is admittedly a very good first step down the road to effective action.
Merchants of Doubt screens as part of the Ferguson Ecology Team’s monthly series on Tuesday April 26 at 7pm at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church Parish Hall. It is free and open to the public.