'Silent Spring' is Now Noisy Summer
"'Silent Spring' is Now Noisy Summer"
By: John M. Lee
Date: July 22, 1962
About the Author: John M. Lee was a staff writer for the New York Times at the time that he wrote "'Silent Spring' is Now Noisy Summer."
Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was the first meticulously referenced, book-length attack by a scientist on the practices of an entire industry, in this case the pesticide industry. Silent Spring provoked a response that was also the first of its kind, as partly described in the 1962 article "'Silent Spring' is Now Noisy Summer" by John M. Lee. A many-fronted public-relations counterattack on Carson was mounted by corporations displeased by her book.
Carson knew that her book would come under fire. At her request the book's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, had lawyers review the manuscript line by line before publication. The book was also reviewed in detail by the New Yorker magazine, in which it first appeared as a serial. Carson insisted that Houghton Mifflin buy libel insurance and that her book contract specify a limit on her personal monetary liability.
The full extent of the industry response was not known at the time that Lee wrote his article. Besides the criticisms quoted there (published before the book version of Silent Spring appeared), the chemical and pesticide industry took a number of specific actions against Carson. A group of chemical companies, including DuPont, Monsanto, Shell, Dow Chemical, W.R. Grace, and the members of the Manufacturing Chemists Association, hired public relations experts to question Carson's credibility and even, on occasion, her sanity. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association spent over a quarter of a million dollars to oppose the book through ads, press conferences, and other public-relations methods. Velsicol Chemical Company, a pesticides manufacturer, threatened to sue Houghton Mifflin for libel. Velsicol also threatened Audubon magazine with a lawsuit if it published excerpts from Silent Spring, warning that printing "a muckraking article containing unwarranted assertions about Velsicol pesticides [might] jeopardize [the] financial security" of persons employed by the magazine and that of their families. One chemical company threatened to sue the New Yorker if the magazine ran the final installment of Carson's book. The editor responded, "Everything in those articles has been checked and is true. Go ahead and sue." In the end, however, no libel lawsuits were actually brought against Carson or anyone else involved in the publication of her book.
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Since Silent Spring, a number of books have appeared accusing industry of malfeasance or harm. The response of companies and industrial trade groups to these books has often followed the Silent Spring pattern, although with increasing sophistication over time. It should be noted that describing these tactics does not imply a blanket judgment on the factual correctness of the accusations made against industry: any public relations tactic may be used to defend either a valid position or an invalid position. The scientific accuracy of particular charges against the chemical, nuclear, pharmaceutical, pesticide, genetic engineering, food, and other industries must be decided on factual grounds on a case-by-case basis.
Industry responses to criticism such as Carson's take several basic forms. First, there are straightforward press releases stating that the criticism is inaccurate, biased, based on ignorance and fear, and so forth. Media interviews with company executives or representatives may be arranged.
Following are threats of legal action for libel. Lawsuits have been repeatedly threatened against authors of industry-critical books and their publishers. For example, Monsanto threatened Vital Health, the planned publisher of Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey's book Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food (1998), with legal action if the book were published; Vital Health dropped the book. It was later published by Common Courage Press. An important class of legal challenges to industry-critical speech invokes not traditional libel law but "food disparagement laws." These are laws passed by thirteen U.S. states in the 1990s that make it a criminal offense to publicly criticize perishable food products. The most famous food-disparagement lawsuit was brought by a beef feedlot operator and Cactus Feeders, the world's largest cattle feed supplier, against media personality Oprah Winfrey in 1996. Winfrey was sued for saying on her television show that what she had just heard about mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) "stopped me cold from eating another burger." Winfrey won the case, but on a technicality, not on Constitutional free-speech grounds: the judge ruled that beef was not a "perishable agricultural product" and so the law did not apply. Winfrey spent approximately $1 million defending herself against the lawsuit, did not recover costs, and ceased to speak out about the topic, even refusing to give out videotapes of the controversial episode to the press after her legal victory. Constitutional lawyers refer to such a silencing of criticism, even when no criminal penalties are levied, as a "chilling effect."
Finally, there is the conduct of public relations using "third-party organizations" or "front groups." The Center for Media and Democracy defines a front group as "an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned." The purpose of a front group is to provide increased credibility for claims that might be perceived as biased if the actual source were known. Front groups organized and paid for by industries such as those criticized in Silent Spring include the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (chemical industry) and the Center for Consumer Freedom (tobacco companies and agribusiness). Industry-funded groups that carry out public relations may also, without qualifying as front groups because they do not conceal their origins, adopt friendly-sounding titles modeled on the names of environmental-activist groups: for example, the Global Climate Coalition is an oil and coal industry group that disputes the reality of global climate change and the American Crop Protection Association was once the National Agricultural Chemicals Association.
In some countries, corporate or government attacks on environmentalist critics may be physical. In Brazil, over 800 rural activists working against rainforest destruction have been killed over the last thirty years. The killers are not government agents but gunmen hired by logging companies to squelch protest. In 1985, commandos of the French secret service bombed an unarmed Greenpeace vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, as it lay at dock in Auckland harbor in New Zealand. The Greenpeace ship was scheduled to sail to a part of the Pacific where France was carrying out nuclear weapons tests and protest there. Greenpeace activist Fernando Pereira was killed in the bombing; two of the team that carried out the attack were convicted in New Zealand courts.
Helvarg, David. "Poison Pens: When Science Fails, Try Public Relations." Sierra 82, 1 (January/February 1997). 〈http://www.mindfully.org/Pesticide/Our-Stolen-Future-Defense.htm〉 (accessed February 25, 2006).
Orlando, Laura. "Industry Attacks on Dissent: From Rachel Carson to Oprah." Dollars & Sense 240 (March/April 2002). 〈http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2002/0302orlando.html〉 (accessed February 25, 2006).
Center for Media and Democracy. "Front Groups." 〈http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Front_group#Examples〉 (accessed February 25, 2006).