Pack Mentality

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

 Dave Kopel is accustomed to pissing people off. As the research director of the Independence Institute, an area think tank that generally operates on the conservative end of the political continuum, he's defended the rights of firearms manufacturers, knowing that folks with opposing views will accuse him of giving aid and comfort to death merchants. So he understands why quite a few readers choked on "Paper Blowing Scientific Smoke," a June 30 Rocky Mountain News media commentary in which he disputed conventional wisdom regarding a similarly divisive subject: secondhand cigarette smoke.

"The tobacco industry obviously spent decades denying that smoking increases your risk for lung cancer," says Kopel, who smokes only the occasional cigar. "Most people my age remember those denials and know they were plainly false. But just because an industry said something that was false for years doesn't mean every accusation about the product is true."

Although Kopel's column, which appears biweekly in the News, wasn't as direct as this comment, it still provoked more than two dozen responses; he says they were more or less evenly split between correspondents thanking him for his words and others utterly shocked that he could have written such things. Representing the latter group was Robin Hobart, a Denver resident on the board of Berkeley, California's Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR), who penned a letter attacking what she saw as Kopel's complicity in "the industry's coverup." This missive appeared on the July 14 News opinion page beneath a followup column in which Kopel claimed his initial piece was concerned with correcting errors, not resolving a policy debate.

Mark Andresen

Other anti-smoking advocates took a more subtle tack, talking anonymously to Westword about what they see as Kopel's conflict of interest when it comes to this topic. And indeed, Kopel and Institute president Jon Caldara confirm that the organization has received a minimum of $25,000 from tobacco-industry coffers. Asks one of these sources, "Who's watching the watchdog?"

This question is extremely valid, says Hobart, because of Kopel's area of specialization. "Since he's sort of a self-described media critic who is periodically taking various media outlets to task for their perceived or real failures, he has a responsibility to fully disclose -- probably more so than other reporters would need to. And that's especially true if he's covering an issue where he has financial ties to an industry with a vested interest in what he's writing about."

Kopel, meanwhile, believes that Hobart, and others on her side, would rather kill the messenger than deal with the message. "As her letter illustrates, there are some people in the anti-tobacco movement who resort to personal attacks whenever anybody disagrees with them."

In the column that started this conflagration, Kopel set out to critique "Smoking Debate Lights Up Passions in Fort Collins," a June 16 Denver Post article penned by Coleman Cornelius of the paper's Northern Colorado bureau. Cornelius's article dealt with a proposed ordinance before the Fort Collins City Council that would outlaw smoking "in all enclosed spaces used by the public." Kopel praised Cornelius for collecting comments from ordinance supporters and adversaries alike, but took umbrage at one sentence in particular: "The Environmental Protection Agency classifies secondhand smoke as a cancer-causing substance with no safe level of exposure, causing 60,000 deaths each year in the United States." He maintained that "the EPA's classification of secondhand smoke as a carcinogen was declared null in 1998 by a federal District Court," argued that the "no safe level of exposure" declaration was misleading because "it's almost impossible to establish a safe level of exposure for anything," including sunshine, and asserted that the 60,000-annual-deaths figure (arrived at by a California state agency, not the EPA) was highly dubious.

As Kopel acknowledged in print, some of the data he used came courtesy of Jacob Sullum, a columnist for Reason magazine and the author of the book For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health. ANR boardmember Hobart looks upon this reference as a smoking gun. In her letter, she portrayed Sullum and Gigi Gori, co-writer of Passive Smoking: The EPA's Betrayal of Science and Policy, another book cited by Kopel, as "part of a stable of scientists and reporters paid by the tobacco industry to downplay the risks of secondhand smoke."

This depiction doesn't please Sullum, who's based in the Washington, D.C., area. And while he didn't contact the News directly to complain about its decision to publish Hobart's letter without contacting him first, he still thinks he should have received a call. "This is a pretty clear allegation she's making -- that I basically work for hire for the tobacco industry," he says. "It's completely untrue, and if the newspaper had contacted me, I would have told them that. But instead, they just ran it."

On one occasion, Sullum acknowledges, he was paid directly by a tobacco firm: In 1994, he received a fee from the R.J. Reynolds company to republish an item he'd written that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. (When asked the amount of this payment, he says, "Let's put it this way: It was not nearly enough to make it worth the grief I've gotten since then, and if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't do it.") He also notes that the Reason Foundation, which funds Reason magazine, accepts some money from tobacco sources, characterizing it as "far less than one percent of the budget." But he believes these incidents, which he mentioned in his book, fall far short of establishing a direct link between him and big tobacco. He says he began investigating the statistics used by the anti-smoking movement mainly because he objects to "paternalistic" government actions -- a libertarian philosophy that he applies to virtually all of his work. His next book, for instance, will tackle U.S. drug policy, which he perceives as intruding upon individual civil liberties.

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.

Then, last month, FCC agent Jon Sprague, who'd been involved in the previous busts, struck again, arriving at the Boulder home that was serving as a temporary station headquarters in the company of a Boulder police officer. A BURG spokesman says the twosome spent between 45 minutes and an hour grilling the person who answered the door. They asked questions about others who lived there (and called in the license-plate numbers of nearby cars) before asking permission to look inside. The house dweller refused to comply without a warrant, which neither Sprague nor his companion produced, and after threatening this person with a year in prison and fines ranging from $10,000 to $17,000 (the numbers apparently kept shifting), the law enforcers took photos, left a warning letter and departed. They subsequently headed to the Boulder home busted in January, but to no avail, since the BURG types had vacated the structure months earlier. But they left the owner with the very clear impression that their patience was wearing thin.

Most people would be intimidated by these warnings, but shortly thereafter, the BURGers were back on the air, operating out of a van that doesn't stay parked anywhere for long. And if the politically fired remarks of the BURG spokesman are any indication, they have no intention of going quietly into the night.

"This is censorship," the spokesman says via e-mail. "Not Big Brother, Mussolini, Stalin censorship.... They are not that open about it. But it is censorship, nonetheless. Clear Channel and all of its corporate brethren are very deliberately, and meticulously, and quietly, establishing control over the distribution of information. And the FCC is obviously aiding them. It's retarded.

"I don't have a problem with breaking rules," the spokesman adds. "I'm not hurting anyone."

Walking papers: For Dean Singleton, owner of the Denver Post, the joint operating agreement in Denver, which links business operations at the Post with those of the Rocky Mountain News, has been a veritable love fest compared to the one in Salt Lake City. In December 2000, the announcement that Singleton's company, MediaNews Group, planned to purchase the Salt Lake Tribune, which is locked in a JOA with the rival Deseret News, resulted in a lawsuit filed by the Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Company, whose principals believed they had an option to purchase the Tribune in 2002 ("Blood Feud," December 14, 2000). As the story played out, Utah's media writers witnessed legal maneuvering, name calling and a nearly unprecedented level of nastiness. Some people have all the luck.

On July 22, another important chapter of the tale was written: U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart told representatives of the publishing company that they must hand over management responsibilities at the Tribune to MediaNews on August 1. In an Associated Press report from that day, writer Paul Foy sketched out what would happen next, pending an appeal: "MediaNews chief executive Dean Singleton will fire publisher Dominic Welch and chief operating officer Randy Frisch..."

But something funny happened to Foy's article before it appeared in the July 23 Denver Post. Specifically, the word "fire" in the sentence above was replaced by much more benign vocabulary: "MediaNews executives say they will show up Aug. 1 to install new officers at the Tribune. Publisher Dominic Welch and chief operating officer Randy Frisch will be replaced as Singleton takes over as chairman."

Presumably, this sanitizing was done for Singleton's protection, but probably not at his behest, since he seems not at all squeamish about using heavy-handed verbiage in relation to this matter. In a July 23 Tribune piece, he said of Welch and Frisch, "Their time is up on Aug. 1, and they will be leaving. They will not be in the building. On July 31, they will be escorted out."

According to numerous on-scene reports, some members of the Post practically had to be poured out of the ESPN Zone last week following an open-bar party hosted by new editor Greg Moore; rumors of behavior alternately wacky and questionable have been zipping along the local journalism grapevine since well before the morning after. To say the least, the bash shows that Moore has a far different style from that of Glenn Guzzo, his proper, buttoned-down predecessor. Apparently, though, folks haven't loosened up enough to let Singleton be Singleton.

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