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From Toxic Gas to the ‘Moonies’ – Behind the Scenes in Reporting

By BILL BONVIE | May 02, 2018

It was a bit like a case of déjà vu, only with a new dimension.

I’m referring to my reaction upon hearing the news that a Terminix employee had been indicted for illegally applying the highly toxic fumigation gas methyl bromide inside various residences in the U.S. Virgin Islands, including the St. John condominium resort complex where a Delaware family of four nearly died as a result back in March 2015.

As it happens, the use of methyl bromide, or bromomethane, in residential, structural and agricultural pest control, and its often deadly consequences were the topic on which my sister Linda and I began our writing collaboration. Only back when we first broached this particular subject in print, all those uses were still quite legal. And there being no internet at the time, much of our information came from trade publications and old-fashioned journalistic leg-work.

(At one point, I had the occasion to meet the late farmworker-rights crusader Cesar Chavez at an awards ceremony, and even asked him what he could tell us about methyl bromide, which was being used to fumigate soil. He replied, “What can you tell us about methyl bromide?”)

We subsequently wrote a number of magazine articles on the widespread application of this invisible and odorless killer, which in the early ’90s had begun to gain notoriety not so much for its lethality, but as an ozone depleter. They included horror stories, some even worse than the one in the Virgin Islands, such as the case of the little girl who died following a “tent fumigation” of her Savannah, Ga., home, after some of the gas got trapped in her mattress.

But the piece we wrote 25 years ago was the one I now find most memorable – and all on account of its postscript, which I think can be taken as a kind of object lesson in today’s fractured political climate.

It was done for a glossy, 440-page monthly publication called The World & I, which described itself as “a chronicle of our changing era,” one that was quite comprehensive in its range of subject matter, as well as highly informative. It was also put out by The Washington Times, a paper with a distinctly conservative political slant owned by the Unification Church and founded by its head, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

That’s right, it was a magazine published by the “Moonies.”

That fact, however, had no bearing whatsoever on the content of our article, “Fallout from a Pending Phaseout,” which was based on some rather time-consuming and scrupulous research. One aspect of it had to do with the way methyl bromide was being used in certain large-food storage facilities, including, at the time, the Hershey chocolate plant, which in 1990 alone vented over 40,000 pounds into the immediate environment surrounding Hershey Park, much of it on holiday weekends during the summer.

So were we sure that these were accurate claims, and did we have any proof? Yes, and yes. The figures and dates we cited came directly from the Environmental Protection Agency’s own “toxic release inventory” and had been provided to the EPA by the industries themselves. They were statistics that could easily be obtained by a reporter or anyone else who knew of their existence. In fact, we subsequently devoted an entire story for an environmental magazine to the Hershey emissions, and no one from the company ever challenged or disputed either account.

But after the article appeared in The World & I, along with a photo of the Hershey plant, it struck us that this was the sort of information that should be of considerable interest to print and broadcast media in the Harrisburg, Pa., vicinity, where the Hershey Corp. and its famous amusement park are situated. And we got to wondering whether they might pick up on our “scoop.”

That was when my sister and co-conspirator got the idea of contacting them while posing as a concerned parent about to take her family to Hershey Park and inquiring if they planned to do anything with the story.

The reactions she got were somewhat surprising in their skepticism. One of the editors she called, for example, asked, “If this is such a big issue, why don’t we already know about it?”

But the really mind-blowing response came from, if I recall correctly, the head of a TV news operation, who asked, “And just where did you read this, ma’am?”

“In a magazine called The World & I,” she replied.

“I see. And can you tell me who puts out this magazine?”

“It says it’s a publication of The Washington Times.”

“Oh, really? And do you know who it is that owns The Washington Times?

When Linda said she didn’t and asked who the owner was, the news exec replied, “Never mind. Just take your kids to Hershey Park and have a good time, and don’t worry about it.”

Of course, whether the venting of all that neurotoxic gas from the doors and windows of a building so close to a major tourist attraction was something visitors should have been worried about remains an unresolved question. Keep in mind that the gas could be used only by licensed applicators wearing special protective suits and masks. But our extracurricular discovery – that the veracity of a totally accurate article could be automatically dismissed, even by people in the news business who should have known better, due to distrust of the motives of the proprietor of the publication where it appeared – is one that continues to resonate a quarter century later, perhaps more so than ever.

What our little experiment revealed was an apparent assumption back then that any disclosure contained in a journal whose owner had conservative leanings, and was the founder of a foreign religious cult, no less, was highly suspect and probably deliberate disinformation. Today, what we keep hearing from a resurgent right, with encouragement from the current occupant of the Oval Office, is a mirror-image message: that the reporting you might read in papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times is not only biased, but actual “fake news” reflecting the supposed political agendas of their owners.

The truth, however, is that professional journalists, with few exceptions, are simply trying to do their jobs. They are doing their best to uncover facts, not twist them or engage in misleading fabrications to further an employer’s perspective.

To be perfectly clear, I’m talking about people trained and experienced in researching and reporting, as objectively as possible, on the events and issues of the day, using reliable sources. Those are the kinds of skilled hunter/gatherers of genuine information that reputable news operations usually depend on to stay in business, no matter who owns them.

In our current internet era, however, many people have a regrettable tendency to give credibility to websites specializing in rumor and innuendo while assuming that legitimate media are trafficking in trickery and deliberate deception. That’s not to say that all “alternative” sites are untrustworthy. Some, in fact, are first-rate purveyors of news the so-called “mainstream media” may have missed or underreported. But these can usually be distinguished by their ability to ferret out facts and cite valid sources, as opposed to those that make outlandish claims and promote preposterous conspiracy theories (e.g., school massacres were staged by people trying to turn the public against gun ownership).

Even the latter variety – for example, Alex Jones’ lunatic-fringe “Infowars” – aren’t wrong on every allegation they make, although they do unfortunately tend to discredit any cause they touch, whether valid or not. Nor are reporters for The New York Times immune to erroneous judgments. One particularly glaring example is the Times coverage of the rationale for the Iraq war. The reporter erred on the side of a conservative administration’s assertions, rather than questioning them as other liberal media did.

But my point is that no matter what your political persuasion, when you automatically assume that anything that appears to come from the opposing camp – even if it’s based on totally independent and nonpartisan research – is simply intended to fool you, you could well end up depriving yourself of important information.

You could even be missing out on a revelation that might potentially spare you from exposure to a life-threatening poison gas on your next vacation.

Bill Bonvie of Little Egg Harbor is a co-author of Badditives: The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet – and How to Avoid Them and author of the essay collection Repeat Offenders.

 

 

 

 

 

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