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Hey Journalists! Where's the Dirt on Non-Profits?

03/16/2012 01:44 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

There is a fairly widespread mentality in journalistic circles that goes something like this: Anything that is funded by, or associated with, the for-profit world of private industry is to be greeted with the utmost scepticism and should prima facie be considered false, unless proven otherwise.

Conversely, any claims made by groups of militants from the nominally not-for-profit realm should be accepted as the "Truth" coming down to us from the Heavens and should never be double-checked or challenged. This trend is most observable on environmental matters and on matters of so-called "public health."

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm certainly not advocating the reverse: i.e., to give a naive free pass to the "PR" people of the corporate world and to always assume that the Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace, and similar activist organizations systematically have some sort of a hidden agenda. I'm merely saying that journalists, and especially "investigative journalists," should be even-handed in the application of their critical thinking. "Fairness" and "balance" are, after all, supposed to be two pillars of professional journalism.

The latest example of this trend is a recent investigative piece done by CBC into the questionable science funded by the asbestos industry, aired the National.

The report claims that a McGill researcher, whose department had received money from the asbestos industry, was not credible because of a vested financial interest. Ok, fine. Then the story presents Dr. David Egilman: Everything he says is presented as the absolute truth to be trusted without any reservations by the viewers.

But here's the thing: Dr. Egilman has made large sums of money over the years working for trial lawyers who are suing the asbestos industry. In other words, Dr. Egilman is actually someone who has a personal financial interest in stirring up the anti-asbestos frenzy. Furthermore, the Honorable Frank Plaut, a First District Court American judge, once characterized Dr. Egilman as an expert who was, and I quote: "biased, prejudiced (...) and neither objective nor reliable." (You can also read Dr. Egilman's perspective on this particular aspect of this file).

None of these facts were ever mentioned by the CBC reporter.

Now, if Dr. Egilman is able to make a good living because of some expertise and rhetorical skills he has developed, I say good for him! And I don't think that this fact, in and of itself, should disqualify him from having an opinion on these matters. But, then, why the double standard by CBC toward the McGill researcher who, contrary to Dr. Egilman, has published peer-reviewed research on that topic? I'm merely saying it would have been interesting for the viewers to know about all this.

It may very well be that judge Plaut is dead wrong in his appreciation of Dr. Egilman. Judges are fallible human beings just like the rest of us. But, again, as a viewer, I would have liked to know.

For the record, I do not have strong views (either way) on the reopening of the Jeffrey asbestos mine as such. No, what worries me, and actually makes me quite upset, is this childish, superficial, and somewhat intellectually dishonest trend described in my introduction.

I'm not asking CBC's investigative reporters (or any other journalists) to be pro-this or anti-that. I'm just asking them to be fair and even-handed and to show a tiny bit of scepticism and critical thinking when dealing with activists who claim to be acting solely and exclusively for the well-being of the general public.

CLARIFICATION: The characterization of Dr. Egilman by the Honorable Frank Plaut was thrown out by a unanimous decisions of justices of the Colorado Court of Appeals. Justices Ney, Rotherberg, and Vogt in their September 5, 2002 judgment concluded that Dr. Egilman was denied due process. The Appellate court did not find any merit to Judge Plaut's comments. It should be clarified that Dr. Egilman testifies in asbestos cases at the request of both asbestos product manufacturing companies and victims or alleged victims.