Merchant of 'Doubt:' Robert Kenner, Director of 'Food, Inc.,' Has a New Film on Corporate Spin. Here's What He Says About It. | Sojourners

Merchant of 'Doubt:' Robert Kenner, Director of 'Food, Inc.,' Has a New Film on Corporate Spin. Here's What He Says About It.

Robert Kenner is the director of the new corporate spin documentary Merchants of Doubt, now in theaters. The film explores how representatives of large industries create doubt on contentious issues like climate change by presenting themselves to the media as independent researchers. Kenner’s previous film, Food Inc., examined similarly sticky issues of truth and transparency in the food industry. Sojourners sat down with Robert Kenner after Doubt's Washington, D.C., premiere to discuss the nature of doubt and the rise of corporate involvement in media narrative-making

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Abby: Why did you want to use the tobacco industry to introduce audiences to the world of corporate spin? And why go from there to climate change?

Kenner: I see this as a film about this class of doubters, how there are these very talented people who are very successful at what they do. We just had a screening at the Columbia Journalism School, and someone there said that for every journalist, there’s 4.5 PR reps.

There used to be more journalists than PR reps — and some of these reps are now being paid by the people they used to investigate. So in effect, we’re looking at multiple industries. We could have spent as much time on pharmaceuticals or the food industry.

I was also certainly interested in the notion of how you can have these things like tobacco, like certain pharmaceutical issues, or like climate, where the science is clear yet the doubt persists. How do you maintain doubt when the science is clear that it’s about something else? What are the factors? And it turns out there multiple, of which money is one of the biggest.

Part of it is tribal, but that was true with gay rights, too, and all of a sudden six years later things have changed. I’m feeling kind of optimistic that it can change around the issue of climate from that perspective. 

But the thing that interested me most was how media could represent issues as if they were debates when they weren’t debates.

READ Sojourners' review of Merchants of Doubt here.

AbbyIn the film, you use a professional magician explaining close-up magic and card tricks as a metaphor for the way these PR representatives operate. How did you decide that was the framework you wanted to use?

Kenner: During production on the film, we were so impressed that this group of people could create doubt about the world of tobacco for 50 years after there was no doubt [that cigarettes were harmful]. How did they keep that question alive? They knew better than anyone that their product killed people.

Finally today we have a judge saying they have to take out ads saying they lied, but in seeing how [tobacco representatives] honed their craft on a really difficult subject, and then went on to handle multiple products using the same playbook, we kept saying “these guys are like magicians” — and it came to us.

It was really interesting how the metaphor for the magician worked so frequently in telling the story. When you see Steve Malloy on Glenn Beck, with Beck asking him, “Are you in bed with Big Oil, and if so, how good in bed are they?” he [Malloy] is being paid big bucks by industry. He’s not an independent voice.

If he said “I’m a representative of the coal industry,” you wouldn’t listen to him in the same way, so instead he creates the illusion that an independent voice was saying “I’m just trying to do the right thing.”

Abby: Who would you say is the ideal audience for Merchants of Doubt, and how would you like people to interact with the film?

Kenner: With Food Inc., I think people became curious to know what they’re eating and where it came from. I think that with this subject, people will be upset that we’ve been lied to and fooled, and that will disturb people. I don’t care what ideological background you have, you don’t want to be fooled. I think you can promote all kinds of solutions to problems we have, but there’s not any debate about whether cigarettes cause cancer. There’s no debate about whether CO2 warms the planet.

We’re not looking to make a film for a liberal audience that believes a certain thing. First of all I think it's boring. I found it most interesting talking to conservative Republicans like George Shultz [former Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan] and [former South Carolina Representative] Bob Inglis and Debbie Dooley from the Tea Party ... I find it interesting to reach across all sorts of spectrums, as well as to show people who I might not agree with, but whose motivations I want to try and understand.

Abby: In trying to reach across the spectrum, what did you learn?

Kenner: I loved talking to Shultz and Bob Inglis, who told me that they think government isn’t the solution [to climate change], but that business can lead the way. Bob Inglis said, “We crossed the ocean on small boats, we crossed the prairie on covered wagons, we put a man on the moon. We can figure out these solutions.” I didn’t come with that idea necessarily, but I was very open to their ideas as they were talking.

So, I didn’t go into it thinking business was the answer, but in Food, Inc., that fooled me too, frankly. I was making that film and at the last second, Wal-Mart called, and they ended up being the good guy in the film. Wal-Mart can turn around and make organics work. I just saw today that McDonalds is doing antibiotic-free chicken now. That will change the industry. So, I discovered that sometimes business can change the industry faster than government can.

Abby: Are there any conversations or interview subjects lost to the editing process that you wish had made it into the finished product?

Kenner: I loved having Shultz talk about how conservation is a Republican issue. Richard Nixon started the EPA and the Clean Water Act. For Shultz and Ronald Reagan, the ozone treaty was perhaps their proudest moment. George H.W. Bush put in legislation around acid rain. I was sorry to lose some of the environmental history of the Republican Party.

I was also sad to lose Debbie Dooley saying there’s total hypocrisy with the Kochs saying we shouldn’t have regulations around energy, but still funding commercials that promote regulations which keep people from being able to put up solar panels to generate their own electricity.

Abby: In addition to seeing the film, what are ways that people who are concerned about climate change can engage the skeptics in their lives?

Kenner: People can look at online petitions, whether it’s Forecast the Facts, a group that’s trying to demand media accountability, or, and demand transparency as to who is representing these points of views.

I don’t believe that climate change deniers should be labeled as skeptics. I don’t think that newspapers should publish people who are paid to create confusion as if they are speaking about science. Paid doubters should not be allowed to create that confusion. If people encourage transparency, things will turn very quickly.

WATCH the trailer for Merchants of Doubt here.

Abby Olcese is the Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.​