Radical environmentalists have learned that while science and economics are rarely on their side, they can always win publicity points by accusing their opponents of having sold their souls to corporate polluters. But this line, too, has run out, since it turns out that everyone-your school, your church, your children’s scout troop, the Humane Society, even Greenpeace-is now a corporate polluter.
To learn how this has happened, consider how the Marshall Institute, which studies controversial environmental issues, earned the “corporate polluter” label. The Institute has never taken corporate contributions, relying instead on private foundation support. For years we were confident that the epithet “corporate financed” could not tarnish us. Recently, however, we assembled a panel of experts to evaluate the content of environmental education materials used in kindergarten through high school classrooms across the U.S. Our Independent Commission on Environmental Education includes internationally known scientists and economists, as well as John Disinger, one of the founders of the environmental education field. By all objective measures the ICEE is impeccable. But that didn’t matter.
Even before the ICEE issued its findings, Carrie Ives of the National Wildlife Federation wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the commission would produce a corporate-funded “smear” of environmental education. We wrote Ms. Ives, telling her that despite what she thought of the ICEE report, which she could not possibly have read, we had never taken money from corporations. We also wrote the Star Tribune a letter pointing out the lie; the newspaper didn’t print it, and we got no response, no correction. But at least no one tried to defend the lie.
Then a group called the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education issued its own report on environmental education. It avoided any consideration of how best to teach children and instead denounced the Marshall Institute for being “funded by corporate polluters such as Amoco, Dow Chemical, and Shell.” The vague lie had now become a specific lie.
We wrote CCFPE asking it to correct the report (and a related press release that was posted on the Sierra Club Web page) to reflect the fact that the Marshall Institute has never accepted corporate funding. CCFPE Program Director Tamara Schwartz responded with a truly novel argument in defense of her claim: The Marshall Institute is corporate financed, she wrote, because it “received significant funding from the Sarah Scaife Foundation and this foundation derives its revenues in part from holdings in companies such as Gulf Oil, Alcoa, Amoco, Exxon, and others.” We wrote Ms. Schwartz back to say that by framing the “corporate financed” so broadly she made everyone, including her own group, a sinner.
You might think this would strike a nerve, that Ms. Schwartz would see how dangerous this lie could be to her own organization. Well, never underestimate the attraction of a dishonest argument. On May 10 the Tampa Tribune ran an article by Tracie Reddick (“Industry: Schools pollute kids’ minds”) that echoed the Carrie Ives’s and CCFPE’s charges. Discouraged that this foolishness was gaining currency, I still thought I might get a responsible newspaper to run a correction. I called the Tribune.
Ms. Reddick’s bureau chief, Preston Trigg, self-described as “low on the totem pole,” took my call-but he was sticking by his story. “It’s a fair treatment,” he told me. No, I replied, Ms. Reddick was wrong about the Marshall Institute’s sources of funding. Mr. Trigg then admitted that the paper had made a mistake. Finally, I thought, we’d get a correction in print. Imagine my surprise when Mr. Trigg said the paper would not issue a correction, but rather a “clarification” saying the Institute was funded “indirectly” by corporations though its foundation support. Poor Mr. Trigg. He had fallen for the same line the CCFPE and his reporter had.
Where to start with him? Did he intend to publish such a clarification about every group ever mentioned in the Tribune, since according to his argument they’re all corporate financed? No, Mr. Trigg said, but he was not changing his mind, either. “You have two choices,” he allowed. “You could write a letter to the editor,” he said, or I could speak to County Editor Kim McCormack, “the next level up.” Ms. McCormack has not returned my call.
I have decided, however, to stop fighting this lie about corporate funding. In fact, I’ll help spread it. After all, the legions of the “corporate financed” now include the Environmental Protection Agency, whose budget comes from taxes levied on the likes of Atlantic Richfield Co. By including everyone, the accusation includes no one. Thus our critics have rendered meaningless the harshest insult in their lexicon. I owe them lunch.
Incidentally, the subject of this disinformation campaign-our environmental education report-came out on April 2. After reading it, Ed McCrea, executive director of the North American Association of Environmental Education, the group with the most at stake, said the report was “unbiased and straightforward.” But I don’t suppose that’s newsworthy enough to be covered in the Minneapolis or Tampa papers.
This op-ed original appeared in The Wall Street Journal on July 2, 1997.