Touting themselves as the solution to disinformation, OpenMind platforms climate denial and Big Tobacco disinfo peddler

By Paul D. Thacker

Stop me if you’re heard this one before. A smug, self-satisfied science writer quotes a young, know-nothing staffer at APCO PR as an “expert on misinformation.”

Wait, you ask. APCO PR? Do you mean the public relations company that established the Science & Environmental Policy Program (SEPP) for tobacco and climate denial back in 1992?

Yes. That APCO.

Do you mean the same APCO who started the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASCC) as part of tobacco’s conspiracy to deny the dangers of second-hand smoke?

Exactly. APCO, the PR firm that I won a Society of Environmental Journalism award for exposing their attacks on scientists explaining the dangers of second-hand smoke and climate change. But APCO didn’t stop at just tobacco and climate denial.

Over the years, APCO has set up an alphabet soup of corporate disinformation groups to advance industry interests. A brief selection:

Since it was first created by the tobacco law firm Arnold and Porter in 1984, APCO has done some of the dirtiest deeds, for most of America’s dirtiest industries. But science writer Wendy Orent is now selling APCO’s Daniella Lebor as an expert on misinformation in her new scicomm article for OpenMind Magazine.

This is not surprising. Science writers have been rubbing shoulders with the PR industry for decades.

Tobacco conspiracy: It takes good contacts with the science writers.

Ten years after tobacco companies hired John Hill, of the PR firm Hill and Knowlton, Hill not only succeeded in defeating the science linking smoking with cancer, he helped increase cigarette sales. “Surprisingly, the furor over smoking and health failed to send the industry into a slump,” wrote the New York Times in 1963. “Instead, it sent it into an upheaval that has resulted in unforeseen growth and profits.”

Hill’s strategy had involved embracing, not rejecting science, and demanding more, not less research. Of course, Hill and Knowlton then created this new research. As explained by Harvard historian Alan Brandt, Hill also practiced effective public relations tactics that involved comprehensive off-stage management of the media, which often left no fingerprints.

To educate others inside the firm on his strategies, Hill put out a long, internal memo in 1962 to explain the firm’s tobacco success.

One policy that we have long followed is to let no major unwarranted attack go unanswered. And that we would make every effort to have an answer in the same day—not the next day or the next edition. This calls for knowing what is going to come out both in publications and in meetings .… This takes some doing. And it takes good contacts with the science writers.

Indeed, science writers have always been critical to corporate PR. And this proud tradition continues in an essay on COVID-19 “conspiracies” by science writer Wendy Orent in the new online magazine OpenMind. Orent is deeply steeped in the scicomm narrative that the COVID-19 pandemic started in the Wuhan market and that mention of a lab leak is a “conspiracy theory.” Why OpenMind needs another Orent essay touting this theme is hard to comprehend.

Orent has already fulfilled the science writer’s mission to stamp out ideas that researchers could have screwed up in Wuhan and started the pandemic. She previously sold this same story to the scicomm outlet Undark (Will the Coronavirus Evolve to Be Less Deadly?) before selling it to the Los Angeles Times (Want to avoid pandemics? Eliminate factory farming) and then regifting it to Undark (Why I Still Believe Covid-19 Could Not Have Originated in a Lab).

Think about that. Orent sold the same dumb story twice to Undark. It’s like watching an afternoon high school comedy where the school board chose the DJ for the homecoming dance, and he keeps playing the same bad song picked by the principal.

But Orent spices up her worn-out spiel with an expert quote from APCO’s Daniella Lebor, who OpenMind touts as “an expert on misinformation.” If you look up Ms. Lebor, you’ll also find she’s an expert at selling Heineken beer as the answer to recycling, water conservation, and feminism. (I’m serious, please check Lebor out!)

Daniella Lebor’s work for Heineken.

In some sense, quoting anyone from APCO as an expert on misinformation is absolutely fucking insane. In another sense, it’s totally brilliant, like writing a story on Will Smith’s Oscars slap and quoting OJ Simpson as an expert on violence.

“Our goals are to expand public understanding of the scientific method and to extend the benefits of science to the widest possible audience while combating rampant disinformation,” claims OpenMind on its website. “We are motivated by the enormous global challenges … that force us to confront the ways that public understanding of science can be twisted in damaging ways.”

Apparently, confronting the ways that science can be twisted, includes platforming PR firms as misinformation experts. “Some people don’t believe anything they’re told because they lack trust in the institutions that weren’t transparent to begin with,” Orent quotes APCO’s Lebor.

No? Really! Why would people not have trust? Because APCO and other corporate PR firms lied about the science of tobacco, climate change, drug prices, and pretty much everything else for decades?

Is that why?

This is an obvious question to pretty much anyone except Wendy Orent and the editors at OpenMind. Instead, they’re perfectly happy to do the “scicomm shimmy shake” with corporate America.

“Everyone is vulnerable to manipulation,” OpenMind continues on its website. “We interrogate bad science journalism and media, analyze exemplars of reporting done well ….”

Oh, please. Shut up.

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