Merchants of Truth | Jill Abramson

Summary of: Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
By: Jill Abramson


In ‘Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts’, Jill Abramson navigates the world of influential scientists and think tanks, and their connection with institutions, corporations, and political agendas. The book delves into the controversial efforts of Frederick Seitz and S. Fred Singer, who actively worked to distort scientific knowledge in support of right-wing agendas. As you read further, learn about their stances on various issues, relentless pursuit to corrupt government policies, and how they fueled anti-science campaigns with biased, factually incorrect, and unscrupulous tactics.

Misleading the Masses

Two physicists, Frederick Seitz and S. Fred Singer, became prominent backers of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system due to their fear of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, they later became involved in a network of right-wing think tanks, institutions, corporations, and political figures. Seitz worked for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and provided funds for “biomedical research that could generate evidence…to be used in court” against those suing big tobacco. Singer co-wrote a report claiming secondhand smoke was harmless and was funded by a conservative think tank. Both tried to deny global warming in a report and attacked other scientists’ findings. Despite the media coverage, they did almost no original scientific research and were always on the wrong side of scientific consensus. They spent four decades deliberately distorting public debate and misleading the masses.

The Deceitful Tactics of the Tobacco Industry

The book delves into the fascinating yet disturbing account of how cigarette companies employed deceitful tactics to avert antismoking legislation and resist smokers’ lawsuits. In an attempt to fight science with science, the tobacco industry hired scientists like Seitz and his colleagues to provide data that could be used in their defense. However, despite their research linking cancer and smoking in the 1960s, the tobacco industry continued to deny the harmful effects of smoking and even distorted evidence to mislead the public. Seitz and his colleagues fought every new release of data that confirmed the dangers of smoking. Instead, they formulated a coordinated public relations policy that aimed to create the appearance that the claims being promoted were scientific. Federal authorities eventually exposed the tobacco industry’s deceitful practices, leading to the industry being found guilty of breaking racketeering laws and conspiring to conceal the truth. Seitz moved along to become the founding chairman of a conservative think tank promoting “science for better public policy.”

Anti-Soviet Hawks and the Star Wars Defense System

The book highlights the role of right-wing think tanks, scientists, and private corporations in challenging scientific evidence and promoting heavy government spending on weapons. Led by Fred Singer and Fred Seitz, the coalition called “Team B” aimed to cast the Soviet effort in the worst possible light. When Reagan was elected, he promoted the Star Wars defense system, which was opposed by Carl Sagan and his colleagues. Sagan’s report debunked the false science and propaganda underlying Star Wars, but Seitz and his colleagues fought the facts and merchandise doubt. Under the Marshall Institute’s auspices, Jastrow vowed to fight opponents by launching personal attacks against legitimate science and presenting phony science, setting a model for future ideological attacks.

Politicizing Science

The book explores how political interests have infiltrated scientific findings, using the case of acid rain to illustrate how a well-organized campaign of misinformation can affect public policy. For years, bipartisan support existed for environmental safeguards until the bi-partisan consensus crumbled in the 1980s under the Reagan administration. This was especially evident in the case of acid rain, which industry advocates and certain scientists doubted despite clear evidence. Reagan sidetracked independent scholarly studies and established his “own panel of experts,” led by William Nierenberg, a noted critic of environmentalism. The panel would produce reports that ignored significant environmental damage caused by acid rain. Its findings were altered, delayed, and tampered with in a way that would trick the public into downplaying the issue. Their strategy would come to mirror that of the tobacco industry’s decades-long battle to distance smoking from cancer. Despite the evidence, the media and policymakers echoed the “doubters,” leaving acid rain legislation off the table for years. The book warns readers that this “sowing doubt” strategy is dangerously effective and continues to be used in today’s ongoing debates over climate change.

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