The media played a major role in the early 1990s in changing public perceptions of dioxin from deadly poison to misunderstood and maligned chemical. This is not altogether surprising. All newspapers depend on large quantities of paper produced at pulp and paper mills that discharge dioxin contaminated waste. The newspapers benefit from the cheaper paper prices that result from paper mills not having to install new equipment to eliminate dioxins nor pay out large sums as a result of lawsuits over dioxin pollution. Moreover many newspapers also own shares in these paper mills.
For example, the New York Times had major interests in four paper mills. At the time of the 1991 series on the harmlessness of dioxin one of the mills partly owned by the Times was the subject of a Canadian law suit claiming C$1.3 billion for polluting three rivers with dioxin.
Other papers also have financial interests in paper and timber companies and “have taken editorial positions supporting relaxed dioxin standards without disclosing their ties to the industry.” Vicki Monks, writing in the American Journalism Review, points to Central Newspapers, “owned by former Vice President Dan Quayle’s family”, which partly owns a newsprint mill and also owns the Arizona Republic and Indianapolis Star which have downplayed dioxin’s dangers in editorials. In a similar position is the Times Mirror Co and its paper the Los Angeles Times, as well as the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post. None have declared their conflict of interest in reporting on dioxin issues.
The New York Times was one of the leading papers to downplay the dangers of dioxin. In 1991 it devoted an editorial and two front-page articles by Keith Schneider, to government official Vernon Houk’s claims. One article headlined U.S. Officials Say Dangers of Dioxin Were Exaggerated stated that “Exposure to the chemical, once thought to be much more hazardous than chain smoking, is now considered by some experts to be no more risky than spending a week sunbathing.” The other article called for relaxation of “the current strict and costly standards” for dioxin.
Schneider’s stories were reprinted in more than 20 other major newspapers and the claims that dioxin was no longer dangerous were repeated by dozens of other media outlets. Headlines in other papers included “The Deadliness of Dioxin put in Doubt by New Data” (Los Angeles Times), “On 2nd thought, toxic nightmares might be unpleasant dreams” (Chicago Tribune) and “The Double Take on Dioxin” (Time magazine). No journalists bothered to contact the CDC to see what they thought of Houk’s claim that the CDC had made a mistake in evacuating Times Beach. If they had they would have found the same action would still have been taken twenty years later, based on the most up-to-date scientific evidence.
The comparison with sunbathing, which Schneider admits he thought up himself, was repeated in many media outlets variously attributed to “top federal scientists” (Arizona Republic), “some health specialists” (Newark Star-Ledger), “a widening group of scientists” (Sacramento Bee) and “some studies” (AAP and Dallas Morning News).
Whilst some newspapers reported the dioxin controversy well, most notably the Wall Street Journal which exposed the public relations efforts behind the Banbury conference, many followed Times’ lead, and ignored new evidence that was emerging that in fact dioxin was more harmful than previously thought because of its non-cancer effects. David Lapp, writing in Multinational Monitor, says that:
the media’s failure to report on developments that contradict industry’s dioxin message while giving so much attention to Houk and others’ questionable beliefs indicates the power of the forces confronting environmentalists and their allies.
New studies indicating the danger of dioxin was in fact worse than previously realised, were hardly reported in the US press. In fact, the New York Times and other papers continued to push the line that scientists no longer thought dioxin was so dangerous after all and gave the impression that the controversy over dioxin had in fact been resolved. Schneider wrote in 1993 that: “billions of dollars are wasted each year in battling problems that are no longer considered especially dangerous” such as dioxin.
However, the reinstatement of dioxin was not the sole preserve of the newspapers. One 1991 report on dioxin by National Public Radio (NPR) was examined by Charlotte Ryan. On the face of it, it appeared as if the coverage of the issue, which had included two government scientists, two environmental activists and an independent consultant, had been balanced and fair. But as Ryan points out, one of the two government scientists who were treated as neutral experts, was Michael Gough whose questioning of the toxicity of dioxin was based on industry funded studies, “one of which was written by Gough himself while on sabbatical from his government job.”
The other government scientist was Linda Birnbaum, an EPA scientist who had been temporarily convinced by the Banbury Conference that the EPA’s dioxin assessment might be wrong. The independent consultant was George Carlo, consultant to the Chlorine Institute. Only one of the two environmental activists was identified as a scientist although both were. And the whole piece was introduced with a statement that “recent studies suggest the dangers of dioxin may be overrated.” Ryan concludes:
While appearing to reflect diversity of opinion, NPR’s report on dioxin fell prey to...a “well-financed public relations campaign by the paper and chlorine industries.” Buying into mainstream journalistic assumptions about scientific objectivity and government neutrality, NPR did not help its listeners understand how federal government regulation and environmental research have been politicized.
Even after the EPA’s draft reassessment was leaked to the media in 1994 reaffirming that dioxin is a probable carcinogen but also concluding that other, non cancer health effects of dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals were far greater than previously thought, media coverage tended to suggest that the dangers of dioxin had all been exaggerated by emotional environmentalists.
In an article in Time magazine, Madeleine Nash makes no acknowledgment of any scientific basis for the hazards of dioxin. She states: “Now environmentalists say dioxin and scores of other chemicals pose a threat to human fertility” and that “with the escalating rhetoric, many professionals in the risk-assessment business are worried that once again emotion rather than common sense will drive the political process.” She quotes a risk analyst who “suggests that people should strive to keep the perils posed by dioxin in perspective and remember other threats that are more easily averted.”
“Phantom risks and real risks compete not only for our resources but also for our attention”, Graham observes. “It’s a shame when a mother worries about toxic chemicals, and yet her kids are running around unvaccinated and without bicycle helmets.”
Reporter Gina Kolata, who had replaced Schneider at the New York Times wrote a series of articles stating that the theory that chlorine-based chemicals might interfere with hormones has been “refuted by careful studies” which she does not name. The Times declined to publish letters to the editor by scientists refuting this allegation and a group of scientists actually paid for an advertisement so as to be able to point out the ‘inaccuracies’ in Kolata’s article.
In one article reviewing the book Our Stolen Future, written by three people, two of whom are scientists, Kolata suggested that the claims in the book had no scientific basis, despite the mountain of evidence cited in the EPA dioxin reassessment report, and were merely a trendy expression of political correctness: “In a warning supported by allies who include Robert Redford and Vice President Al Gore, some environmentalists are asserting that humans and wildlife are facing a new and serious threat from synthetic chemicals.”