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Pack Mentality

A media column about secondhand smoke stirs up a cloud of controversy.

According to Sullum, "People can't reasonably make the case that I am doing the tobacco industry's bidding. But that hasn't stopped them from trying."

Hobart shirks off Sullum's gripes: "He can quibble if he wants, but he's clearly participating in a well-thought-out, strategic public-relations campaign. I'm sorry he has such a thin skin." As evidence of collusion, she references two documents available online at www.tobaccodocuments.org. The first is an annual report from the Independence Institute's Center for Personal Freedom, which boasts about coordinating a book tour for Sullum. The second is a letter, dated January 25, 1999, from Institute president Caldara to Virginia Corwin, a representative of Philip Morris, revealing that the Center "was launched last year with the generous support of the Philip Morris Company." Caldara writes that he and Kopel would be "happy to meet" with Corwin, and he concludes with an overt solicitation: "So as to maintain the tempo and research we're conducting in the area of 'lifestyle choices,' the Independence Institute therefore respectfully requests $25,000 for funding of this year's Personal Freedom Center."

This amount matches the total Caldara admitted getting from "the tobacco industry" in a 1998 Denver Post article. In the report, Caldara, then near the end of his stint as chairman of RTD, said the donation had no effect on his belief that a ban against cigarette and alcohol advertising on city buses should be lifted, and he repeats this contention today. However, he declines to publicly make known how much the Institute has collected from tobacco outfits, explaining that "we don't disclose our contributors -- not because we want to hide who gives us money, but because we get money from a lot of individuals who, if we said they gave us money, might get into trouble. Like teachers who belong to unions, and people and companies who work on government contracts that, if the government found out they supported us, might not be awarded contracts in the future."

Why, then, did Caldara tell the Post about the tobacco contribution in 1998? "I probably shouldn't have," he replies. "I'd been on the job about a day and a half."

Even so, the highly quotable, famously wry Caldara concedes that the Institute has reeled in some cash from tobacco-connected enterprises -- "but we don't get nearly enough," he says. "Most of our money comes from individual contributors, and any money we get from tobacco or alcohol companies doesn't begin to compensate us for the incredible service we provide in sustaining individual liberties. I keep asking Philip Morris and other companies for free beer and cigarettes, but they never give us anything."

As for Kopel, he says that because he's not involved in or informed about fundraising at the Institute, he's not influenced by donors. Besides, he says, "I wasn't trying to come up with a conclusive analysis of secondhand smoke; I was just saying that the Post article was wrong, and here's some other stuff to look at. If the Rocky had written an article saying secondhand smoke helps children grow healthy bones, I would have criticized that, too.... But the fact that tobacco companies have been dishonest shouldn't justify dishonesty on the part of smoking prohibitionists, or justify media failure to scrutinize prohibitionist claims carefully."

News readers who'd like to scrutinize Kopel's public positions face a key obstacle: The tag at the end of his columns doesn't even mention his affiliation with the Independence Institute. (He says this was the Rocky's decision, not his.) Yet Greg Dobbs, whose media column previously alternated with Kopel's, was told by News execs that he'd have to stop writing after taking a job at radio station KNRC because, as a more active media participant, he'd no longer be "above the fray" ("Dialing for Differences," July 18).

If this is a contradiction, Kopel doesn't see it -- and neither does he believe he should have mentioned the Institute's tobacco connection in his smoking columns. "I have to be consistent with the ethics I try to uphold for other people," he says. "And if a writer has an affiliation with something he wrote about, but the article was basically fair, I wouldn't write about it. The article has to stand or fall on its own merits."

Sullum concurs -- but he also realizes that perceptions matter. "I don't see it as an ethical issue; I see it as a tactical issue. It's not relevant to evaluating the truth of what somebody's saying to know about his background, but it's certainly true that people are interested in it -- and if you seem to be concealing something, and you don't admit it up front, they'll say, 'Oh! Why didn't you tell me that?' So, tactically speaking, it's smarter to disclose everything you can."

The pirate saga continues: Civil disobedience has changed plenty of things in the world. But those changes seldom come quickly, as the men and women behind Boulder Underground Radio Group (BURG) know from experience.

BURG first appeared in these pages last year, after the radio rebels were given low-power broadcasting equipment by a Boulder resident known as Monk, whose unauthorized broadcasts of "Boulder Free Radio" were shut down by representatives of the Federal Communications Commission ("The Making of a Pirate," October 4, 2001). BURG suffered the same fate earlier this year, when FCC agents managed to trace its signal and order the plug to be pulled ("Revising the Standards," January 31). But like Monk, the outfit's members were able to prevent their gear from being confiscated, and after a period of laying low, they once again stuck their antenna into the sky and began beaming sounds across the Boulder valley.

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