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Last updated January 1, 2014

Trade Secrets

Excerpt from Bill Moyers' National Press Club Speech, 03/03/2001


...But I am not here to scold my colleagues at the networks, or to hold myself up as some sort of beacon. I've made my own compromises, as I said, and benefited from the special circumstances of my own good luck. The fact that I have been so lucky in both opportunity and calling shows that it can be done. All that's required is for journalists to act like journalists, and their sponsors, public or private, to back them up when the going gets a little rough. Because when you are dealing with powerful interests, be they in government or private industry, and bringing to light what has been hidden, the going inevitably gets a little rough. We didn't play bean bag back in the Johnson administration, and it's hardly a kinder, gentler world for journalism out there today. If it weren't for the strong support - - I served under five public television presidents -- Pat Mitchell is the latest, and none has had a firmer backbone. Bob Coonrod heads the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- he's our heat shield, and he really takes it. But they've stood with us.

Let me just give you a couple of examples in closing of what I mean, why this battle is never ending. Some years ago my colleague Marty Kuhn, one of the great investigative journalists or producers of our time, came to me with a report he heard of efforts by the agricultural chemical industry to delay and dilute an important study the National Academy of Sciences on the effects of pesticide residues on children. David Banning of Frontline joined us as an ally, and we set out about doing a documentary.

Four to six weeks before we were finished, the industry obtained a purloined copy of the rough script, and mounted a sophisticated and expensive campaign to discredit the documentary before it aired. They flooded television reviewers and the editorial pages of newspapers with propaganda. A Washington Post columnist took a dig at the broadcast on the morning of the day it aired without ever having seen it, and later admitted to me personally when we had a drink in this building that the dig had been supplied by a top lobbyist in town. Public television stations were hit with an avalanche of disinformation and with demands that PBS, quote, "obey the law" -- such as the First Amendment.

Some station managers were so unnerved they protested the documentary with letters that had been prepared by industry. Several station managers later wrote me in their own words, and over their own signature, apologizing for having been suckered.

But here's what most perplexed us: eight days before the broadcast aired the American Cancer Society, a fine organization that in no way figured in our documentary, sent to its 3,000 local chapters a critique of the unfinished documentary, claiming wrongly that it exaggerated the hazards. That struck us as odd. Why was such a reputable organization taking the unusual step of criticizing a documentary it hadn't seen, didn't air, and didn't claim what the society alleged?

Well, an enterprising reporter in town named Sheila Kaplan later looked into this question for Legal Times, which headlined her story, quote, "Porter Novelli Plays All Sides." It turns out that the Porter Novelli public relations firm, which had worked for several chemical companies, also did pro bono work for the American Cancer Society. Sheila Kaplan found that the firm was able to cash in some of the good will from that pro bono work to persuade the staff, the communications staff of the American Cancer Society, to issue some harsh talking points about our documentary that had been supplied by, but not attributed to, Porter Novelli.

Others used the society's good name to discredit the documentary, including the right-wing polemicist here in town, Reed Irvine, who published a screed against, quote, "junk science on PBS," and called on Congress to pull the plug on public television again. PBS stood firm -- again. The report aired, the journalism held up, in contrast to the disinformation about it, and the National Academy of Science was liberated finally to release the report the industry had tried to cripple with propaganda.

None of this should have surprised us. This is the industry that 30 years earlier had mounted a blitzkrieg designed to destroy Rachel Carson's credibility as soon as the New Yorker published the first of her three-part condensation of "Silent Spring." Rachel Carson was accused of a communist plot to cripple American industry. One chemical company threatened to sue Carson and her publishers if the book was released. Others threatened to withhold advertising from Garden magazines and weekly supplements if they published favorable reviews of "Silent Spring." The industry invested millions of dollars in public relations that paid off in support articles in the New York Times, Time, Sports Illustrated and Reader's Digest. Then, like the American Cancer in our time, the American Medical Association was snookered by the industry. The AMA criticized Carson's book as a serious threat to the continued supply of wholesome, nutritious food.

Rachel Carson was dying of cancer at the time, but events totally vindicated her. And within a year 40 state legislatures had passed regulations concerning pesticides.

But there's always the next round. Next Monday, PBS will broadcast our documentary on trade secrets. It's a two-hour investigative based on the chemical industry's own archives, on documents that make clear in the industry's own words what the industry didn't tell us about toxic chemical, why they didn't tell us, and why we still don't know what we have the right to know.

These internal industry documents are a fact. They exist. They're not a matter of opinion or point of view. They state what the industry knew, when they knew it, and what they decided to do. But their value is not just historic or journalistic. They deal with one of the big stories of our time. Over the past 50 years you and I have lived through the chemical revolution. It has brought us many blessings -- better living through chemistry is true. But it also brought some results we didn't ask for. Tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals have been put into products on the market, into the environment and into our bodies -- pesticides, pollutants from industry and waste, chemicals found in ordinary household products. Simply by being alive, by eating, breathing, drinking, going to school or work, every one of you in this room carries traces of industrial chemicals in your bloodstream. So does every American alive today. This we know. But very little is know about the health effects this combination of chemicals may be having on us.

Just yesterday the Centers for Disease Control issued the first of several rounds of an investigation they are doing into these traces of chemicals in our bodies. For the purposes of our broadcast, I took part in a test of my own chemical burden at the Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, which is one of the pioneers in public and community health. You'll see the results of that test next Monday night. I don't want to scoop myself, but I will tell you that the test found a mix of 31 PCBs in my body, 13 dioxins, and 40 other varieties of synthetic or industrial chemicals. You will hear the research director tell me that only one of these chemicals, lead, which has been around since the beginning of time, only one of these chemicals would have been in my grandfather's or my grandmother's body, because this is too recent a phenomenon. I asked him if at age 66 I should be worrying. And he said, "Probably not. But if you were a 21-year-old pregnant woman, the story would be different."

The public policy implications of this documentary next week are profound. The document -- remember, documents that neither we or the public -- we journalists or the public were ever supposed to see -- revealed just how the industry set out to control the regulatory system that was supposed to provide the American people with oversight and protection. But that's an illusion. We live today under a regulatory system designed by the industry itself. And the truth is if the public, the media, independent scientists and government regulators had known what the industry knew about the risk of its products when the industry knew it, America's laws and regulations governing chemical manufacturing would be far more protective of human health than they are today. But the industry didn't want us to know. That's the message of the documentary. That's the story.

I wish I could tell you I came upon this story myself. I didn't. Jim Morris, now of U.S. News and World Report, got wind of them when he was at the Houston Chronicle and wrote about some aspects of their significance in a series called, "In Strictest Confidence." The environmental working group has been looking into them as well. But it took the indefatigable Sherry Jones and her team back at this team to burrow into thousands upon thousands -- hundreds of thousands documents to find the scarlet thread running across almost half a century. When she realized the magnitude of what she had undertaken, when she realized she needed allies and funding, she came to see Judith and me -- this was almost two years ago -- and our collaboration began.

We designed months ago the broadcast to include a half-hour discussion of the issues raised by our documents and our reporting. We invited industry representatives to participate, and they have now accepted. Terry Yosie, who is vice president of the American Chemistry Council, is here today. Terry and I have talked several times over the past month -- again just yesterday. He assured me that contrary to rumors the chemical industry was not pressuring stations to reject the broadcast. I believe him. But I wasn't sure for awhile. As I told Terry Yosie -- remember my experience eight years ago? The first person to contact us from the industry was a public relations firm here in Washington noted for hiring private detectives, former CIA, FBI and Drug Enforcement officers to do its investigation. The founder of the company is on the record in the Washington Post saying that sometimes corporations need to resort to unconventional resources. And some of those resources -- this is a direct quote -- "include using deceit." Quote, "I tell my clients that if you live by the sword you may die by the sword. But if you live by the olive branch, you still may die by the sword." For PBS it's a Damocles story. Would you believe that the single biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the chemical industry in the past 20 years in the House is the very member of Congress whose committee has responsibility for public broadcasting corporation.

For the full text of the talk, please see Moyers National Press Club Speech.


Related Articles

Full Transcript of Trade Secrets: A Bill Moyers Report

CDC National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals

American Chemistry Council Takes Issues with Moyers, Trade Secrets

PBS's Trade Secrets Site

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