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Robert Kenner Exposes America’s Lucrative Lies in ‘Merchants of Doubt’

Robert Kenner Exposes America's Lucrative Lies in 'Merchants of Doubt'

How do you talk about climate change without preaching to the choir? That was the quandary facing Robert Kenner, Emmy Award-winning director of “Food Inc.,” as he set out to make a documentary he hoped would get seen beyond the comfortable couches of liberal America. 

The answer, it turned out, was pretty straightforward: show the public how they have been systematically deceived. “I thought we could make people angry,” said Kenner. Indeed, no American should be able to watch “Merchants of Doubt” without feeling indignant. By exposing the degree to which politicians, corporations, and other public figures have successfully pulled the wool over our eyes in the service of financial gain, Kenner has created a portrait of a nation losing touch with truth. America, Kenner suggests, has become dangerously complacent; we ingest information from trusted sources without questioning it. More than anything, the film urges a return to the scientific method, asking its audience to leave the theater with a scrutinizing eye. 

READ MORE: Watch: Corporate Deceit Exposed in Exclusive ‘Merchants of Doubt’ Clip

“This film was as difficult a film as I’ve ever been involved in,” admitted Kenner. “How do you make a film about climate change when people are not in the least bit interested in the facts anymore? It was very hard to conceptualize what the story was.”

The best place to start, Kenner decided, was the infamous fifty years during which the American public was deceived about the carcinogenic and addictive properties of cigarette smoking. “We knew we wanted to do a film about science denial. We knew that, ultimately, [using the history of] tobacco was a great starting point. Back then, they knew they couldn’t say, ‘The science says it’s okay to smoke,’ so they figured out they just had to create confusion.” 

It’s the investigation into this confusion that sets “Merchants of Doubt” apart from other climate change documentaries. Rather than employing a barrage of facts to support a particular thesis (such as in “An Inconvenient Truth”), “Merchants of Doubt” focuses on identifying and interacting with the sources of this confusion. As such, the film interrogates the phenomenon of deception in order to conquer it.   

“If you can sell tobacco, you can sell anything,” says former tobacco executive Peter Sparber in the film. And it’s true: Expanding upon the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway on which it is based, “Merchants of Doubt” reveals how many of the big honchos behind the tobacco industry moved on to get paid to convince us that junk food, flame retardants, and myriad other harmful substances were innocuous. “It was total disregard for the general population in the interest of solely protecting their product,” explained Kenner. “Or in the case of some of the scientists, protecting their ideologies.”

Kenner employs a recurring gimmick of a magician teaching sleight-of-hand tricks to illuminate tools in the arsenal of deception. The tactics, among many: arguing ad hominem, creating doubt in scientific findings, obfuscating the real issue at hand, using the scientific community’s weakness — lack of PR tact — against well-oiled charismatic figureheads, and, the most terrifyingly effective, appealing to emotion. In one instance, a lobbyist testifies in defense of harmful products in two separate courts of law using a fabricated, cloying story involving the death of an infant. In both cases, the jury is swayed in his favor.

Kenner’s voice is heard intermittently in the film as he probes his subjects, and it quickly becomes apparent that his tactics stand in direct contrast to more abrasive documentarians such as Michael Moore. “I really like to be honest with my subjects,” said Kenner. “I’m not out to attack them. I was listening to them and trying to understand how they perceive their world.” Because he’s not chasing facts, Kenner has the freedom to explore the intentions of his subjects. “I became really curious, in this case, about the climate change deniers themselves. I found it more interesting having a real conversation with people than trying to have a ‘Gotcha!’ interview.  At the same time, though, I believe these people are causing incredible damage to the planet and to their own children and grandchildren. And it was hard to understand why.” 
Ultimately, the motivations varied. “You can’t speak about [my subjects] all in one voice. I think, for example, Marc Morano really likes the publicity,” Kenner said of the well-known proprietor of the publication Climate Depot. “He’s a smart guy; he’s very clever and funny. And he likes to be on camera.” For others, purely financial incentives reigned: “I think Tim Phillips is a hired operative for the Koch brothers, and sees himself as working in the system to get a job done for his employers. He’s very polished and good at what he does.” Though understanding their motivations helped Kenner to empathize with his subjects, he couldn’t conceal the extent to which he was disturbed by their persuasiveness. “I was amazed — these are smart people. They continually acted against human self-interest.”

Based on the unexpectedly positive reception of “Food, Inc.,” Kenner has high hopes for the social impact of “Merchants of Doubt.” “I wasn’t prepared for what happened with ‘Food, Inc.,'” he said. “It was shocking! It broke at this time when people were really interested in food. It became part of the zeitgeist and it really took off on many levels and helped change laws around the world. Hopefully, ‘Merchants’ will encourage people to take action on what is a harder issue than food, but a much more important one.”

Above all, Kenner is confident his film will land with the audience segment that needs it most. “I do believe this film can reach people, and it isn’t just talking to the converted,” he said. He mentions Bob Inglis, a politician and former climate change denier-turned-activist who is featured in the film. “Inglis certainly is feeling like he’s starting to reach people,” Kenner said. “There are major Republican politicians who would like to be part of this issue. I’m hoping this film will provide cover for some of them. The solutions to the problems could come in different forms. Liberals might want something more like a Manhattan Project and conservatives might want cost of carbon to be realistic and then have market solutions. I personally have been very influenced by a lot of conservative voices I’ve spoken to about what the solutions are. I think we have to recognize the problem — which is an absolute real problem — and then have a smart and intelligent conversation about what the solutions are.”

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