Science Writers Cry Pious Tears of Protest that Petrochemical Industry Rag Will Become Petrochemical Industry Rag
Dashing to defend the American Chemical Society’s newsletter, science writers expose their alliance with corporate science and lack of journalistic integrity.
Caught up in the holiday season, you likely missed one of the innumerable, increasingly anxious, ever-louder shrieks that the sanctity of independent science is at risk: in this case, science writers freaking out that a petrochemical industry rag published by the American Chemical Society might become a petrochemical industry rag.
No, seriously. Check out Twitter. It’s a big deal.
This performative protest for the “editorial independence” of the American Chemical Society’s newsletter—Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN)—began the week before Christmas. In a flurry of Twitter activity, Deborah Blum with MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program, Laura Helmuth with Scientific American, and Holden Thorp with Science Magazine began passing around a very, very important letter addressed to American Chemical Society (ACS) members, asking that they reinstate safeguards for editorial independence and expert journalism.
What makes this so nonsensical is that the American Chemical Society has an appalling history of censoring its own reporters, protecting corrupt science for hire firms, and hopping into bed with PR agents who attack journalists and seed the media with corporate propaganda. Before we delve into this further, let’s peek at the letter complaining about the sanctity of the American Chemical Society’s newsletter C&EN.
“For many, C&EN is the primary benefit to ACS membership,” reads the letter to ACS members signed by MIT’s Deborah Blum and other C&EN editorial board members. “We rely on their journalists for their deep insight into chemistry and chemical engineering and their exemplary journalistic standards. There is no other magazine that covers the chemical enterprise quite like C&EN.”
The only honest statement in that passage is the last: “There is no other magazine that covers the chemical enterprise quite like C&EN.” And thank God for that. Everything else about C&EN’s “expert journalism,” “quality information,” and “editorial independence” are myth-making twaddle. You can’t ascribe a fall from grace and loss of editorial independence to a newsletter that was always in hock to petrochemical companies.
You can’t lose exemplary journalism standards that you never had.
The American Chemical Society’s documented history of promoting industry and censoring its own journalists from exposing harms caused by petrochemical companies is not difficult to find. It’s an open secret that has been reported by the Columbia Journalism Review, PBS, the Washington Post, the Society of Environmental Journalists, Vanity Fair, Scientific American, New Scientist, and Nature Magazine.
So what’s this all about?
It’s about science writer mythology—this fable that they aggressively hold scientific leaders to account, unlike sports reporters who build careers cozying up to famous athletes and sniffing their jockstraps. But in reality, most science writers just cheerlead for research, in a subspecies of journalism called “science communication” that reporters refer to with stifled giggles as scicomm. As you may have gathered, much of scicomm is as independent and unbiased as a Packers fan spray painted green and wearing a cheese head hat while officiating a game against the rival Chicago Bears.
Let’s pretend we’re all adults who no longer believe that a fat man named Santa shimmies down a narrow chimney every year to deliver children presents made by elves living at the North Pole. Let’s demythologize the fairytale of editorial independence at the American Chemical Society and weave a new myth that celebrates their petrochemical propaganda.
Demythologizing the American Chemical Society
A recent Wall Street Journal report noted that chemical companies like 3M and Dupont are being beaten to death with lawsuits over “forever chemicals” which have been used in multiple products including nonstick cookware, carpeting, and firefighting foam. I first reported on these chemicals about twenty years ago, while working as a news editor at Environmental Science & Technology, a journal published by the American Chemical Society.
At that time, scientists were just beginning to learn about the dangers of these chemicals—with names like PFOS and PFOA—while finding that they were contaminating food, water, and soil. Working off a tip, and with help from an insider at the EPA, I reported on a letter by a science for hire firm that outlined a plan for DuPont to shift the debate on PFOA and create an alternate scientific reality that—get this—PFOA might actually be good for people’s health.
The letter to DuPont was written by a firm called The Weinberg Group that had also done work for tobacco companies to protect them from lawsuits. “The constant theme which permeates our recommendations on the issues faced by DuPont is that DUPONT MUST SHAPE THE DEBATE AT ALL LEVELS,” reads the Weinberg memo (emphasis in original).
“[W]e will harness, focus and involve the scientific and intellectual capital of our company with one goal in mind—creating the outcome our client desires.” Another sentence reads, “This would include facilitating the publication of papers and articles dispelling the alleged nexus between PFOA and [birth defects] as well as other claimed harm.”
My article exposed an ugly, unseemly side of the chemical industry, a festering underbelly that is often hidden from the public, yet my reporting made its way into several books and later news stories at Mother Jones and The Intercept. DuPont’s devious strategy to hide the dangers of PFOA was eventually made into the film “Dark Waters” starring Mark Ruffalo who played attorney Rob Bilott in a legal fight against the chemical company. It was actually Bilott who first found the Weinberg memo to DuPont, tucking it away in a docket at the EPA, where I later uncovered it.
But while journalists and the public were impressed with my reporting, one group wasn’t: my employer, the American Chemical Society. After we published the piece on the Weinberg Group, chemical industry officials complained, and ACS executives started criticizing my articles, forcing my editor to send a stiff letter, pushing back against industry interference at our journal and ACS.
“Frankly, I am deeply troubled that some individuals feel that they can ‘go to the top of ACS’ as their way to respond,” wrote my editor, in a letter to his bosses in ACS leadership. “This is not a genuine attempt to engage in an open and transparent conversation on issues of national importance.” He added, “I stand behind the reporting in Paul’s stories and believe that they provide important information to the environmental science community.”
At the time, I was confused about what was happening. I was naïve and thought that ACS wanted journalism. They didn’t. One of the executives high up in ACS explained to me privately that ACS is really just an arm of the chemical corporations and you could tell this by looking at the ACS board. Most the board members come from industry with a smattering of academics from second and third tier universities.
“No star academic is going to waste his or her time being an ACS board member,” I was told. “They have real work to do, research to publish, and discoveries to make. But for industry, ACS board membership is a plum position to influence academic chemistry.”
This was true then, and it is true today.
Thinking it was time to leave ACS, I spoke to several of my fellow reporters there and heard a consistent theme: ACS was not a place to do journalism—certainly not any kind of reporting that upset chemical companies. One of my colleagues sent me an article in the Columbia Journalism Review that reported how a vice president from Ashland Oil flew from the company’s headquarters in Ashland, Ky., to Washington DC, where he then spiked an investigation in Chemical & Engineering News on the company’s dismal history.
“Following that meeting, the Ashland piece was sunk,” CJR reported back in 1995. “Dart to Chemical & Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society, for pouring contaminated oil on troubling journalistic waters.”
After finding a new job, I turned in my two weeks, and wrote about my ACS experience for the Society of Environmental Journalists. “While some may dismiss this as an isolated incident at ACS, I worry that what happened to me is part of a pattern that continues to play out at an ‘independent’ nonprofit that maintains strong ties to industry.”
I later won a journalism prize from the Society of Environmental Journalists for the article on the Weinberg Group and PBS profiled my reporting in a series on investigative reporters. A year after I left ACS, the Washington Post ran a front page story about Congress investigating the chemical industry’s role in undermining science showing that the chemical BPA was dangerous. Referencing my reporting, Congress also began investigating the Weinberg Group.
The firm has worked on Agent Orange, tobacco and Teflon, among other products linked to health hazards, and congressional investigators say it was hired by Sunoco, a BPA manufacturer. Dingell has asked the Weinberg Group for all records related to its work in connection with BPA, including studies it has funded and payments made to experts.
Not missing a beat, Vanity Fair tweaked the American Chemical Society, wondering if the organization’s executives should apologize for harassing me for the article I wrote on the Weinberg Group.
In a statement, [Congressman] Dingell said, "The tactics apparently employed by the Weinberg Group raise serious questions about whether science is for sale at these consulting groups, and the effect this faulty science might have on the public health."
Looks like the Weinberg Group is up to its old tricks, and Congress is finding Thacker's reporting fairly handy.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t all the bad things happening at ACS. Right around the time I left, several outlets reported that the science nonprofit hired a shadowy PR guy named Eric Dezenhall to go after the National Institutes of Health. Dezenhall has done shady work for multiple corporations including Enron and Exxon Mobil. In recent years, ProPublica caught him planting stories that downplayed the dangers of opioids for Purdue Pharma.
ACS hires Dezenhall to spread scientific misinformation
In late 2007, New Scientist published a story on leaked emails from inside ACS showing that they had hired Eric Dezenhall to kill off open-access, a movement to make scientific studies free to the public if they had been paid for by federal taxpayers.
Dezenhall's strategy includes linking open access with government censorship and junk science – ideas that to me seem quite bizarre and misleading. Last month, however, the AAP launched a lobby group called the Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine (PRISM), which uses many of the arguments that Dezenhall suggested.
Nature then reported that Dezenhall had worked for Enron when the company collapsed due to fraud and that Exxon Mobil had hired Dezenhall to discredit Greenpeace. Reading through the leaked ACS emails, Nature wrote:
Dezenhall also recommended joining forces with groups that may be ideologically opposed to government-mandated projects such as PubMed Central, including organizations that have angered scientists. One suggestion was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, which has used oil-industry money to promote sceptical views on climate change. Dezenhall estimated his fee for the campaign at $300,000–500,000.
Dezenhall is well known to DC insiders for his sleazy tactics and underhanded activity for corporate America. Emails released by Congress found that he helped ghostwrite a 2008 letter to the New York Times attacking their reporting on a Merck drug.
“We’re working on the revised letter but it won’t be done by COB today,” Dezenhall emailed Merck executives, discussing a letter the company would send to the Times editors. “Having been at war with the NYT in similar situations, the letter needs to be crafted in a very specific way.”
A few years back, ProPublica reported that since 2001 Dezenhall also helped to plant articles in multiple media outlets to downplay the dangers of opioids. In this case, Dezenhall’s client was the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma.
Although Dezenhall Resources was working for Purdue until recently, it rarely has been linked publicly to the company. Purdue paid Dezenhall a total of $309,272 in July and August of this year and owes it an additional $186,575, according to bankruptcy court filings. The total amount paid to Dezenhall since 2001 was not disclosed in records reviewed by ProPublica.
Dezenhall Resources has also defended Exxon Mobil against criticisms from environmental groups and former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling as he fought against fraud charges, according to a 2006 BusinessWeek profile of Eric Dezenhall that called him “The Pitbull of Public Relations.” (Skilling was later convicted.) It reported that Dezenhall arranged a pro-Exxon demonstration on Capitol Hill to distract attention from a nearby environmental protest, and that the company discussed a plan to pay newspaper op-ed writers to question the motives of an Enron whistleblower. “We believe a winning outcome can only be achieved by directly stopping your attackers,” Dezenhall Resources states on its website.
The questions this all raises are rather obvious: why are science writers rushing to defend the American Chemical Society when it has such a tattered history of censoring reports on the petrochemical industry, defending science for hire firms like the Weinberg Group, and diving into bed with people like Eric Dezenhall who attacks reporters and plants corporate misinformation on dangerous narcotics for Purdue Pharma?
What do these science writers think journalism is?
Answers can be found by examining the membership of the National Association of Science Writers—the professional society for science writers, and whose former presidents include MIT’s Deborah Blum and Scientific American’s Laura Helmuth. As previously reported, the vast majority of NASW members aren’t journalists, they’re people doing PR.
And just like the American Chemical Society ties to industry, the NASW’s ties to public relations is an open secret.
NASW: reporting for The Science™, not on science
It’s a distinction that readers must grasp if they hope to make sense of articles written in science outlets: science writers report for, not on science.
They don’t see their job as asking hard questions that might make powerful people in science uncomfortable or doubt the holiness of their own studies. No tough questions to the National Institutes of Health about their funding of virus research, no digging into the background and corporate filings of genetic engineering companies. Science writers just call up experts for a quote and then run with the narrative set by science organizations and the companies that fund them.
The only time prominent researchers put their credibility at risk with science writers is when they violate liberal pieties, such as making sexist or racist comments, treating immigrants like crap, or daring to question research embraced by the Democratic party establishment such as studies on masks, lockdowns, or vaccines. But publishing corrupt or biased research barely registers with the scicomm crowd.
In a 2016 article in the scicomm website UnDark (Deborah Blum is the publisher), a past board member of the NASW reported that NASW membership had more public relations officers than journalists, which he labeled “a privileged class.” How then does NASW keep up membership? By treating public relations officers selling press statements and journalists writing news from those press statements as the same class of science communicators. “NASW needs to embrace and cultivate its diversity, not marginalize it.”
In the awkward, upside down world of scicomm, journalism and public relations are the same beast—embrace the diversity.
The people who lose out are people like you—members of the public who are never informed that science writers don’t distinguish between a news report and a government agency press release. Or in the case of the American Chemical Society, a petrochemical industry rag that leading science writers fear might become a petrochemical industry rag.
Veteran reporter Nicholas Wade laid out the problems endemic to science writing in a recent essay that looked at the bungled science writing on COVID. During his career, Wade spent time at Nature, Science Magazine, and the New York Times.
Innocent of most journalists’ skepticism about human motives, science writers regard scientists, their authoritative sources, as too Olympian ever to be moved by trivial matters of self-interest. Their daily job is to relay claims of impressive new discoveries, such as advances toward curing cancer or making paralyzed rats walk. Most of these claims come to nothing—research is not an efficient process—but science writers and scientists alike benefit from creating a stream of pleasant illusions. The journalists get their stories, while media coverage helps researchers attract government grants.
Dulled by the advantages of this collusion, science writers pay little attention to in-house problems that seriously detract from the credibility of the scientific research enterprise, such as the astounding fact that less than half the high-profile findings in some fields can be replicated in other laboratories.
Readers deserve better. At a bare minimum, we should all be spared performative protests on Twitter that spread a twee mythology about science writing that spits in the face of reported reality.
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Their exposed blatant hypocrisy will likely get them promoted in today’s academic ethos
Great article, Paul.