The Heartland Institute has spent decades peddling pseudoscience on behalf or major corporations. From helping big tobacco downplay smoking cancer risks to helping big telecom demolish popular consumer protections like net neutrality, Heartland can routinely be found peeing in the public discourse pool on behalf of its corporate donors. This week, the organization received some help spreading climate change denialism from the Washington Post. In a new report, the Post advertises the arrival of 19-year-old German Naomi Seibt, a self-described “climate skeptic” and aspiring YouTube celebrity. Seibt was recently hired by The Heartland Institute, a 35-year-old “think tank” with a long history of climate denialism. The organization has in the past sent out climate denial propaganda and disinformation in the form of newspapers sent to journalists, "books" sent to public school teachers, and videos that claim "carbon dioxide is not a pollutant." The organization has hosted climate denial conferences for more than a decade. Leaked documents revealed the group got millions in funding from fossil fuel companies and from the right wing billionaire Mercer family. In this case, Heartland was looking to undermine Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old activist whose anger over environmental idiocy has inspired millions. Seibt will soon make her US debut at the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where she’s poised to lament the rise of “climate alarmism.” “She’s a fantastic voice for free markets and for climate realism,” the Heartland Institute tells the Post, which identifies Heartland as “an influential libertarian think tank.” But even calling Heartland a think tank is a stretch. To be clear, “think tanks” often do take money from corporations to cherry pick data in order to parrot the positions of their donors. But reputable think tanks at least generally try to color inside the lines when it comes to science and economic theory, often taking positions in stark contrast to their corporate donors when science, and reality, warrant.
Heartland is an entirely different animal. Its record on perpetuating pseudoscientific drivel is clear, and many were quick to lambast the Post for giving the organization any platform at all.
From the very beginning, Heartland co-founder Joseph Bast made a name for himself denying smoking's links to cancer on behalf of the tobacco industry. Bast’s earliest columns brush aside smoking-caused health problems as alarmist, a position still reflected at the organization’s website under the thin guise of “smokers’ rights” advocacy. Heartland presents itself as a think tank, but it has far more in common with a K Street public relations firm for corporate interests. The organization often portrays noncontroversial subjects as falsely partisan to encourage division and derail meaningful public consensus. “There are many reasons to be skeptical about what professional anti-smoking advocates say,” Heartland’s website proclaims, informing readers that those worried about smoking cancer risks are funded by “a few major foundations with left-liberal agendas.” Heartland has been active on numerous other corporate disinformation efforts as well, including helping the US telecom industry shoot down rules protecting consumer privacy or net neutrality. In one such missive, Heartland informs its members that the push for net neutrality was a “Joseph Goebbels-style” “leftist lie,” despite the fact such anti-monopoly consumer protections routinely see overwhelming support from a bipartisan majority of Americans. Filings reveal the organization takes funding from companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon.
Heartland has been active for years on the climate change denialism front, helping the fossil fuel industry covertly bankroll climate science denialism in public schools and online. A recent undercover investigation by German outlets CORRECTIV and Frontal21 exposed how corporations use the organization to bankroll climate change deniers and influencers in Germany and the US “with the goal of undermining climate protection measures.” The Washington Post not only gives Heartland and Seibt a mainstream platform to spout climate science denialism, the paper parrots terms like “climate skeptics,” lending unearned legitimacy to a position the vast majority of global scientists say isn’t just false, but existentially dangerous. In addition to falsely implying that Heartland is a credible organization, the Post’s coverage features a glossy photo shoot of Seibt as she ponders her war on “climate alarmism,” ensuring significantly greater exposure to an inane public relations stunt that—until the paper got involved—had struggled to garner much attention here in the States. To its credit, the Post does cite disinformation experts like Graham Brookie, who makes it clear Heartland is trying to buy a counterbalance to Thunberg’s appeal.
“The tactic is intended to create an equivalency in spokespeople and message. In this case, it is a false equivalency between a message based in climate science that went viral organically and a message based in climate skepticism trying to catch up using paid promotion,” she said. Still, the very act of giving Heartland and Seibt a platform at an outlet the size of the Washington Post was a stellar example of “both sides” journalism, or what Columbia journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere”—a misguided attempt to frame all debates as symmetrical in a bid for fairness, even if one side is aggressively incorrect. The hour is getting late, and we no longer have the luxury of journalists who can’t identify and avoid obvious misinformation. At the very least, journalists have a responsibility to avoid amplifying bad faith nonsense spread by corporations looking to pollute the public discourse.