Current Online

When does the other side get its say?
It's after Moyers makes the case against chemical industry

Originally published in Current, April 9, 2001
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Industry spokesman Terry Yosie (left), attacked Moyers' journalism in the panel discussion at the end of Trade Secrets.

Bill Moyers and Sherry Jones' two-hour examination of the chemical industry's early failures to protect workers and the public from toxic vinyl chloride demonstrated that where there's buzz, there's also heat.

Trade Secrets, a documentary crafted from an archive of once-confidential documents and given emotional heft by stories of injured chemical workers, drew lots of viewers, a whirlwind of press coverage and web activity, and harsh denunciations from the American Chemistry Council.

In a preemptive strike a few days before the March 26 broadcast, ACC accused Moyers of "journalistic malpractice" for confining its responses to a panel discussion that concluded the two-hour program, rather than inserting them in the traditional accusation-and-response pattern throughout the documentary. Press coverage of the dispute no doubt helped promotional efforts to create buzz about the hard-hitting broadcast, but many journalists who watched said the documentary was less credible because it lacked the industry's perspective.

After PBS announced the program in January, ACC executives began pressing Moyers, Jones and PBS President Pat Mitchell for a hearing within the film. Ultimately, they went public with their complaints, aggressively criticizing the documentary as biased and unfair in the press and on a website, www.abouttradesecrets.com. [The producers had their own site, www.pbs.org/tradesecrets.]

"If I were a member of the viewing audience tonight, I would be very troubled and anguished if I thought that the information presented during the proceeding 90 minutes represented a complete and accurate account of the story. It does not," said Terry Yosie, ACC v.p., during the panel discussion. "We believe that it is a sad day in American journalism when two sides of the story can't be told, when accuracy and balance are not featured in the broadcast."

In confidential documents, chemical execs discussed dangers of vinyl chloride fumes long before the government forced safer workplace standards.

"An investigation is not a collaboration between the reporter and the subject," Moyers told Current. When the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, it didn't ask the government to respond to excerpts, but to a report set in type. The industry was in the documentary—in the archival documents, Moyers said. "We wanted to lay out the story in whole and give them a chance to respond to it in the whole, rather than in bits and pieces."

If the producers had taped industry responses on events of the early 1970s, Moyers said, public relations people would have given just the same "propaganda that we got in the panel discussion—'I was not around then, but let me tell you how we've changed.'

Indeed, Yosie's main points in rebutting the film were that the industry is more careful now and its products are very useful.

The ACC's push to discredit Trade Secrets certainly didn't deter viewers from tuning in. Overnight ratings at 47 major market stations averaged a 2.2 rating/4 share, 16 percent above PBS's primetime average of 1.9/3, according to PBS Research. Postings to the bulletin boards on PBS's Trade Secrets website came fast and furious in the days following the broadcast, particularly in discussions of the program's fairness.

Trade Secrets, and the controversy over the allegations of bias, generated stories in major daily newspapers and publications catering to business leaders and web-savvy intellectuals. The Economist on March 31 noted Trade Secrets in an editorial calling on the president of Dow Chemical to "push his industry's front men to take transparency more seriously." In the online journal Slate, columnist Arianna Huffington described the broadcast as a "wake-up call" on what happens when "deadly hazards to human life are nothing more than impediments to ever healthier bottom lines."

Trade Secrets also became a rallying point for environmental groups. Coming Clean, a campaign for tougher regulation of chemical companies, organized more than 100 public screenings and discussions around the premiere. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that told Sherry Jones about the archival documents some two years ago, launched the Chemical Industry Archives on the web (www.ewg.org).

X-rays showed the bone in a chemical workers' fingertips had dissolved after contact with vinyl chloride, the film reported.

Trade Secrets "pretty well destroyed the chemical industry's credibility," said John Blair, a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist and president of Valley Watch, an environmental watchdog group in Indiana. "I don't see how anybody could believe what they say from here on."

Blair organized a Trade Secrets screening party, but was disappointed by the turnout of some 20 locals. He described the program as "very informative" but "a little disappointing."

"My complaint was that is was not hard-hitting or current enough.

They could have come to this area and I could have given them some stories."

Rituals of fairness

Journalists less interested in advocacy offered mixed reviews of the program's fairness.

"There are a lot of questions about 'he said/she said' journalism and its effectiveness," commented Dale Willman, managing editor of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, one of several environmental reporters who debated the merits of Trade Secrets on an Internet mailing list run by the Society of Environmental Journalists. "Is it effective to break the flow of information by putting in denials and other claims until all the information is laid out?"

Willman viewed the 30-minute panel discussion as a "great way" of dealing with the balance issue in a complicated and difficult story. The industry reps had more time to make their case in the panel segment than if their remarks had been sprinkled through the program, he contended.

"I found it very powerful, tremendously informative and weakened by the fact that it appeared so one-sided," said Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR ombudsman and former news chief. By putting the industry response after the documentary, the producers made it seem "that it was not something they felt strongly enough about."

Journalistic principles of fairness and balance "require a response to any allegations made in an investigation," he said, speaking generally of the rules of the trade. "Otherwise a journalist is using his or her program as personal bully pulpit."

"If the argument being presented is so good, it ought to be able to withstand some tough questions."

"My problem with Trade Secrets was the stark black-and-white portrait it presents of industry conduct—and by extension all people associated that industry, including my dad," wrote Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Wheeler on the SEJ mailing list. Wheeler's father was a Union Carbide engineer whose signature was magnified on-screen during Trade Secrets. "One way to read those—as Moyers' historians did, without the benefit of talking to any of the authors of the documents—would be that my dad and others were engineering an industry cover-up."

But the documents could have been interpreted another way, Wheeler suggested—"as advice up the corporate chain of command that there would be repercussions for sitting on this information. And there were."

"What this sad episode in history says to me is how horrible decisions can be made by good and decent people whose judgment is compromised by organizational mentality."

Wheeler wrote a magazine piece about his father's role in the vinyl chloride episode for his master's thesis at Columbia University's journalism school, and he covered the chemical industry for the Sun for 10 years. "I was a tough interrogator and I wrote tough articles, but I never once wrote an article without seeking their comment, because that's the essence of getting at the truth."

"I don't think the industry covered itself in glory in how it handled itself" in its early years. "It is still saddled with legacy from that, and it does color their statements and conduct even to this day."

Refuses to be "tricked" again

The Houston Chronicle reported on the vinyl chloride story in 1998, so the stories of its toxic effects in Trade Secrets were not breaking news to those who closely follow environmental issues. Journalists who criticized Moyers' treatment of the industry praised how well the documentary told the story.

The Moyers report gave "a national platform for stuff that was pretty engaging," said Willman. "It demonstrated the ability of television to put a spotlight on something in a way that other media cannot."

Jones, an independent investigative producer and frequent collaborator with Moyers, raised foundation money to begin looking through the industry archives, and six months later, took her outline for a documentary to Moyers at Public Affairs Television.

"This is a hell of story," Moyers recalled thinking, after reading Jones's summary. "Essentially what you saw began with a worker who had died and felt his job had been responsible for his death. It moved to lawsuit, then out into larger and larger worlds."

"It became a very large, universal story."

Moyers backed production of Trade Secrets and decided to invite the industry to respond in the concluding panel discussion. The production team didn't deliberate over the decision, he said. A team of PBS executives including President Pat Mitchell screened the documentary and agreed with the producers' approach, according to Moyers.

Investigative journalists in all media always "wrestle" with when to "let the subject of an investigation know that you're doing the investigation," said Jones. The producers wanted to "to keep it quiet as long as possible."

Producers tried to interview former industry officials who had been involved in the vinyl chloride story, but found that many were dead. "Two different company doctors are still alive, and a former plant manager in Louisiana, none of whom would agree to talk with us," said Jones.

"We decided that going to a spokesman or [public relations] person to ask about events that they weren't a part of was not what we were looking for," said Jones. "We really needed to get all the issues raised and give the industry a chance to respond to it in toto."

Moyers was also wary of the chemical's industry sizable P.R. machinery, which launched a "sophisticated public relations campaign" to discredit his 1993 documentary about the damaging effects of pesticides on children, he said in a March 22 speech at the National Press Club. Before that broadcast, industry representatives obtained a rough script of the pesticides documentary, discredited it in advance press coverage, and, on the day it debuted, distributed a lengthy damage control memo refuting it.

The chemical industry has a record of trying to "smear the messenger" when it can't refute the message, explained Moyers. "That's what they were trying to do" with Trade Secrets, he said.

"I'm no fool: you can trick me once, and it's your fault, but you trick me twice and it's my fault," he said, recalling the experience.

Despite the flak, Moyers and Jones expressed confidence in their approach a few days after the broadcast.

"Frankly, from my point of view, all they have is to continue to harp on we treated them unfairly," said Jones, reflecting on the ACC's criticism of Trade Secrets. "I feel comfortable that our reporting is solid, and we stand behind it."

"If it didn't get this response, we wouldn't have touched that nerve," said Moyers. This is the kind of hard-hitting journalism, he said, that public broadcasting needs to do more often "to justify our existence in a world of niches."

 

. To Current's home page
. Outside links: The program's website and the chemical industry's response.

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