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Patrick Walsh

Learning From the Movies IV:
Conspiracy and Disinformation

I had a truly great history professor in college, the venerable Nicholas J. Amato, who regularly reminded us of his two rules to understanding events past and present: 1) what is deemed conservative by today’s standards will be considered liberal by tomorrow’s–and vice versa; and 2) always, always, always follow the money. 

The latter rule functions as Occam’s Razor for Historians: the simplest explanation usually obtains; in most matters, that explanation is greed. To wit . . .

On April 14, 1994, the CEOs of America’s seven biggest tobacco companies perjured themselves before Congress. Each one went on the record as saying “I believe that nicotine is not addictive.” As evidence would show, these villains knew quite the contrary. They were justly dubbed “the Seven Dwarfs.” 

If you’d like to send them fan mail (and because I believe they should be shamed and the public reminded of their skulduggery whenever possible), here are their names. Don’t waste a stamp on Sandefur, he checked out in 1996:

William I. Campbell, President, Philip Morris USA
Edward A. Horrigan, Jr., Chairman & CEO, Liggett Group
Donald S. Johnston, President & CEO,
American Tobacco Company
James W. Johnston, Chairman & CEO,
RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company
Joseph R. Taddeo, President, US Tobacco
Andrew H. Tisch, Chairman & CEO, Lorillard Tobacco Company
Thomas E. Sandefur, Jr., Chairman & CEO,
Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company

Alas, you can’t send your appreciations to prison addresses as none of them served a day for lying under oath, let alone crafting one of history’s most sinister conspiracies. Their only comeuppance was that within two years of their solemn lies, the Seven Dwarfs were all cut off at the knees by their respective companies, forlorn victims of golden parachutes and lucrative appointments to other companies’ boards of directors.

You see their felonious testimony when watching The Insider, the 1999 masterpiece directed by Michael Mann which tells the astonishing true-story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, portrayed with Oscar-worthy excellence by Russell Crowe. Wigand, the
“insider,” is a biochemist and Brown and Williamson executive who courageously decides to disclose what everyone in Big Tobacco knows: not only is nicotine addictive but cigarettes have been engineered for years to maximally exploit its powerful
hook. As he explains, industry execs referred to cigarettes as “nicotine delivery systems.” Charming, huh?


The man who enabled Wigand to take his story public was 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman at CBS. In one of his most dynamic performances, Al Pacino captures Bergman’s fiery dedication, journalistic savvy, and unshakable conviction. 

Short of murdering Wigand, the tobacco industry tried everything in its considerable power to keep him from telling the truth. Their insidious effort nearly brought down CBS as the network groaned under the pressures of threatened litigation and corporate takeover. Bergman, using all his tools and media connections, outmaneuvered the bad guys and, in the process, shamed CBS for nearly caving in to scoundrels over shekels.

The Insider glancingly references Big Tobacco’s massive conspiracy to sow controversy and doubt in the public’s mind over the connection between cigarettes and disease, as well as nicotine’s addictive strength. The plan was hatched in 1976 but only discovered in 1998 as part of a mandatory document disclosure in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) between tobacco firms and numerous states’ Attorneys General. 

The disinformation campaign was called Operation Berkshire. Fake news, anyone?

Operation Berkshire seems like it was plucked from the frames of an Austin Powers film. You can picture Dr. Evil, hairless cat draped across his lap, sitting at the head of his conference table, the Seven Dwarfs and other nefarious henchmen arrayed before him.

    Dr. Evil: “So, it seems the world has found out what we’ve known for years about tobacco—I guess you could say the cat is out of the bag on this one. Oh there, there, Mr. Bigglesworth. Did daddy offend you? It’s just a metaphor. We’re going to launch a massive disinformation campaign—what’s known as prop-a-ganda [his hands raised à la Nixon to frame the word in histrionic scare quotes ]—in order to create controversy about smoking’s dangers and confuse a mindless public. It’s going to be called [timpani drums and trumpet blare] . . . OPERATION SMOKESCREEN! [Dr. Evil turns to the camera with left pinky pushed into the corner of a sinister smile.]

    “Jesse” James W. Johnston: “Ah, Dr. Evil, we feel it might be safer to use a less telltale name for this operation, something more innocuous, you know, in the interest of secrecy and long-term liability. And evil, of course, definitely in the interest of evil.”

    Dr. Evil: “And what did you and the other Dwarfs have in mind?”

    “Wild Bill” William Campbell: “We want to call it Operation Berkshire.”

    Dr. Evil: “But what does Berkshire have to do with intentionally spreading lies about tobacco’s health risks and the incredibly addictive power of nicotine?”

    Edward “Longshanks” Horrigan: “Nothing, Dr. Evil, that’s the whole point [with a sly wink at the bald criminal kingpin in a Nehru jacket.]

    “Colonel” Thomas E. Sandefur, Jr.: “I thought we was a-callin’ it Berkshire for them tasty pork chops you Yankees got up North? Why, I can’t raise no hogs better than them even on my own plantation!”

You can’t make this stuff up. The fact that these corporate corporals thought to give their deceitful campaign a military -style name defies parody.

With its lies and obstruction exposed and faced with the possibility of having to settle hundreds of lawsuits, Big Tobacco cut a deal in 1998. After having made separate settlements with Mississippi, Florida, Texas, and Minnesota, the Confederacy of Coffin Nail Makers brokered the MSA with the remaining 46 Attorneys General to the tune of a $206 billion payout to the states over the next 25 years.

As The Insider closes, Dr. Wigand goes back to teaching high school chemistry and rebuilding his life. Lowell Bergman departs 60 Minutes, explaining to his longtime colleague, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer’s selection for this role ranks as one of the most inspired in Hollywood history), that he feels the show’s reputation has been damaged irreparably. He takes his formidable skills and spotless integrity to the PBS documentary series Frontline.

Can we learn from the movies, which is to say, can we learn from history? Or are we doomed to a kind of Groundhog Day of human events?

You be the judge. 

In a paper published in January 2007 called Smoke, Mirrors, & Hot Air [q.v.], the Union of Concerned Scientists (America’s leading nonprofit science advocacy organization) demonstrated in forensic detail that ExxonMobil had learned from history and was determined to repeat it:

    In an effort to deceive the public about the reality of global warming, ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry misled the public about the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. As this report documents, the two disinformation campaigns are strikingly similar. ExxonMobil has drawn upon the tactics and even some of the organizations and actors involved in the callous disinformation campaign the tobacco industry waged for 40 years. Like the tobacco industry, ExxonMobil has:

    • Manufactured uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence.

    • Adopted a strategy of information laundering by using seemingly independent front organizations to publicly further its desired message and thereby confuse the public.

    • Promoted scientific spokespeople who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings or cherry-pick facts in their attempts to persuade the media and the public that there is still serious debate among scientists that burning fossil fuels has contributed to global warming and that human-caused warming will have serious consequences.

    • Attempted to shift the focus away from meaningful action on global warming with misleading charges about the need for “sound science.”

I know several intelligent people who believe that global warming is a conspiracy of hundreds of scientists from dozens of independent, nonprofit agencies and institutions, all abetted, of course, by the so-called “liberal media.” A convoluted argument? I’d sooner believe that there’s a blazingly fast little man in my refrigerator who turns on the light then vanishes when I open the door.

Hey, I don’t discount conspiracies. Arnold Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series (can’t wait to see how Major League Baseball celebrates that centennial!) When the Libor scandal broke in 2012, we discovered that the world’s major banks had been manipulating interest rates since as early as 1991, a cozy little fix on the fluctuations of around $350 trillion dollars. The Nasdaq enjoyed its own price-fixing scandal in the 1990s. From Teapot Dome to Enron, from the Black Sox to Baseball’s Collusion, history has marched one squad of fraudsters after another into the antiseptic light of day.

Conspiracies happen, but when considering them you must remember Rule #2: Follow the money.

So, 97% of scientific papers written about climate change argue that global warming is happening and that we are the cause.
The Academies of Science of 80 countries advocate this overwhelmingly consensus position. But I’m supposed to believe that scientists and newspaper reporters throughout the world are all in cahoots. 

For what?

What’s in it for scientists and field researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the National Academy of Science (NAS) or any of the other American and international scientific organizations which study climate change? A raise? A new slide rule? The chance, after decades of schooling, to never work again in the scientific community because you falsified research?

And what’s in it for ExxonMobil? Oh yeah, just billions of dollars.

Which conspiracy sounds likelier to you?

But we don’t need to speculate, we have motive and evidence. Internal e-mails revealed that Exxon, which employs its own army of scientists, knew as early as 1981 of the connection between fossil fuels and global warming. Naturally, they spent millions of dollars funding climate change denial campaigns, including $16 million between 1998 and 2005. 

After decades of such illicit activity, ExxonMobil (Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999) publicly acknowledged the dangers of climate change in 2014 . . . while they go on vigorously resisting any policies that might lower their bottom line.

From time to time, though, a conspiracy comes to light in which the motivation isn’t money. So I’ve got another movie for you, a real thriller like The Insider that has suspense, danger, fearless reporters portrayed by legendary actors (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman), Washington insiders, a middle-of-the-night caper bungled by bozos, and a paranoid monster pacing the Oval Office. No, it’s not a new film appearing in theaters this week…. It’s called All the President’s Men.

Smoke, Mirrors, & Hot Air
http://www.ucsusa .org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/global_warmi ng/exxon_report.pdf

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Patrick Walsh served four years as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. His articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
More at his Website:
He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2017 Patrick Walsh
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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