Separate and Unequal, by David Bax
Early in Robert Kenner’s Merchants of Doubt, we are treated to a delightful clip of Morton Downey, Jr. obnoxiously upbraiding a health expert who is simply trying to convince people that smoking is bad for them. That expert, Stanton Glantz, is one of the scrappy, put-upon heroes of the documentary and Downey is the crude predecessor of their foes – a compelling and entertaining man with nothing to say but the ability to persuade you anyway with his blustery force of will.
The true subject of Merchants, at least ostensibly, is the real life people who do for a living what Aaron Eckhart’s character did in Thank You for Smoking. They appear on television dressed as authorities on one subject or another and then proceed to sell snake oil. Unfortunately, it seems Kenner would have preferred to make a movie specifically about climate change deniers and, after a couple of promising opening chapters, he mostly just did that instead.
No matter the subject, though, Kenner has a gift for taking large chunks of information and putting them in a manageable and attractive little package. As he did in Food, Inc., he edits his interviews together with video clips and bright, popping footage that keeps things moving with a pleasant momentum.
Kenner scores by securing candid interviews with a handful of the already small number of people who did this kind of work. They’re so confidently unrepentant, it’s almost easy to start liking them until Kenner reminds you of the impact of their lies. Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity announces of his stance on climate change, “It’s not about science.” Marc Morano is gleefully straightforward about the fact that his job is not to convince anyone of the facts but simply to attack the individuals on the other side of the argument.
That “other side” is a bit of a fallacy, though. One of the major results of what these “merchants” do is to make minority opinions and flat-out falsehoods seem like equal opposition to scientific and factual consensus. They are aided in this by journalistic organizations who do not see it as their job to clarify the truth for the public but simply to present pro and con positions equally.
Climate change may be a fact but the denial of it plays into the natural tendency of the public to preserve the status quo. The professional liars Kenner profiles help frame the truth as an attack on the American way of life. Merchants of Doubt may have more evidence on its side than they do but it also feeds off the leftist dispositions of its intended audience. The film argues that the only way to bring about necessary change to people who are resistant to it is through action by the federal government. It’s a good argument but Kenner leaves no room for any other path. That’s a flaw but it’s not the film’s main one. That would be the fact that it presented itself as an expose of a certain group of people and became a treatise on a certain issue instead.