WASHINGTON — The chemical industry found itself locking horns with an unexpected adversary last week — the elder statesman of journalism, Bill Moyers.
Moyers' documentary Trade Secrets hit the airwaves March 26 offering a disturbing tale of vinyl chloride monomer industry workers getting cancer and dying from exposure to chemicals on the job, and industry attempts to cover that up.
The American Chemistry Council called the report "grossly inaccurate" and unfair, while an environmental group that industry has partnered with, Environmental Defense, issued a stinging rebuke of ACC for its misleading statements on the program about just how much health testing has been done on chemicals.
That's all played out very publicly. But one element of the story that has not played out so publicly — and that industry officials say bears on questions of fairness — is Moyers' off-camera role in funding environmental organizations.
Moyers is president of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, a private fund in Montclair, N.J., that has given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last four years to environmental groups.
A Plastics News examination of the Foundation's public tax records for 1996 through 1999, the last year available, reveals donations to groups that question the health effects of chemicals or that have been critical of other plastics industry environmental positions.
For example, the Foundation gave $125,000 in 1996 to the Environmental Information Center in Washington, to promote the book Our Stolen Future, which launched the debate about whether substances leaking from chemicals and plastics can disrupt human endocrine systems.
The fund also gave a total of $80,000, in two payments in 1998 and 1999, to the GrassRoots Recycling Network, an Athens, Ga., group that opposes plastics industry recycling policies and has led a campaign to get Coca-Cola Co. to use more recycled PET in its bottles.
The foundation has given tens of thousands of dollars to fund books and magazine articles on environmental issues and democracy, and gave $15,000 in 1999 to the Environmental Working Group to pay for ads describing problems of pesticides in the food supply. EWG President Ken Cook was on a panel discussion that was part of Moyers' program, and Moyers acknowledged the Schumann Foundation's support on the program.
Moyers argues that the documentary was fair, and he said by telephone that he practices what he calls "viewpoint journalism."
"While it may be unusual for a journalist to also be an activist, it's not unprecedented," he said.
But Moyers' role as both journalist and activist raises questions for some media ethicists.
"I think Bill Moyers has certainly run some significant risks to his credibility and his journalistic work because of his overlapping roles in philanthropy and journalism," said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Steele, who said he had not seen the program and was commenting on the general issue, said: "It certainly seems there is tension if not outright conflict between those two competing roles."
Steele said some journalists also have been activists and noted that Moyers is well-respected for taking on society's "sacred cows."
Moyers, who is paid $201,000 a year for his work at the foundation, was the subject of press reports in 1999 noting that his foundation donated to groups pushing political campaign finance reform, a topic that Moyers also has reported on.
Moyers said all that he does — his journalism and the foundation's donations — are in the public record and people can judge for themselves.
"I don't believe that to practice my craft I need to renounce my citizenship," he said. "I run the foundation as a citizen. As a journalist I produce broadcasts I care about. I left CBS and NBC so I could live this different life."
For some in the industry, it crosses the line. Tim Burns, head of the Vinyl Institute in Arlington, Va., said: "It appears that he is funding groups that will carry forward his agenda, and he's using his position as a broadcast journalist to promote these activities."
Last week Moyers and ACC released dueling press releases about the program's accuracy. But the one charge that appeared to catch ACC off guard was from New York-based Environmental Defense.
ED asked that ACC either document or retract a statement made on Moyers' program that chemicals "have been researched, they have been tested, and that information has been disclosed."
ED said March 27 that ACC and ED formed a partnership on chemical testing because of "joint recognition that most of the industry's top-selling chemicals have not been tested."
ACC spokesman Terry Yosie said March 29 that ACC values its relationship with ED and would communicate a message privately before talking publicly.
"ED is obviously under a lot of pressure from some of their peers in the environmental community," Yosie said.