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No hearts are breaking for Heartland

by Donald Prothero, Jun 27 2012

This was the first in a series of planned billboards that created real problems for Heartland Institute.

The Heartland Institute, a libertarian think-tank based in Chicago, has never been afraid of controversy. It was founded in 1984, originally to push free-market and libertarian causes. Heartland spent its early years as an apologist for the tobacco industry, fighting to deny or obscure the scientific evidence for the dangers of smoking and of second-hand smoke, and derail public health policies to protect people from smoking and smokers. In recent years, it has become more famous for being a hotbed of global-warming denialism, sponsoring conferences where all the “big names” of denialism get together and preach to the choir. They are also famous for their anti-environmental efforts across the board, especially with the debate over fracking, the safety of coal mining, and other controversial practices. In this regard, they are  not too different from some of the other “think-tanks” that push free market and libertarian policies, heavily supported by private industry and right-wing foundations.

But the business of pushing unpopular agendas like smoking is all about credibility and PR, and making your institute appear to be a serious defender of some worthy cause, not a hotbed of crazies. Thus, perception is everything. And it’s clear that in recent months, Heartland has “jumped the shark” and is now on a downward death spiral, as funding dries up and even their former supporters refuse to have their names associated with it. The problem started with their almost yearly conferences on climate change, which became more and more extreme so that even many mainstream climate-change deniers refused to participate. By 2006, ExxonMobil stopped funding them, and tried to distance themselves from the Heartland reputation as a bastion of loonies. Still, Heartland kept promoting their causes, and kept their climate-change conferences going nearly every year.

However, the past 4 months have not been kind to Heartland. In February, a series of emails were leaked revealing some of the internal communications of Heartland. The most damaging was the revelation (confirmed by multiple sources, including David Wojick, who was to have run the program) that they were planning a propaganda campaign for the public schools to expose kids to the AGW denial point of view. This is something that states like Louisiana and Tennessee could conceivably use with their new laws opening the doors to creationism in public schools. The leaks themselves proved to be a great embarrassment to Heartland and their financial backers, and caused many of their staunchest funders to pull out when their names were publicized. The list of who had been funding them was revealing: right-wing foundations like the Scaife Foundation, Castle Rock, the Olin Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation; energy giants like ExxonMobil (over $800,000 until 2006, when they withdrew funding), the Koch Foundation, Murray Energy, Illinois Coal Association, and the American Petroleum Institute; tobacco interests like Phillip Morris; and a number of private anonymous donors, one of whom gave as much as 25% to 38% of their annual budget. If there ever were any doubt about who was calling the shots at Heartland, clearly their agenda was driven by the big donations from energy and tobacco and right-wing funders.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was a billboard campaign that debuted on May 4, comparing climate scientists and those who agreed with them to Unabomber Ted Kaczynkski, Charles Manson, Fidel Castro, and Osama bin Laden. Only the Unabomber billboard went up, then was promptly taken down again in less than 24 hours after a storm of angry controversy lashed Heartland. Such a ham-handed and stupid ad campaign attempting “guilt by association” made you scratch your head and wonder who the heck authorized this almost suicidally bad PR decision. It outraged not only the environmental and scientific community to be compared to various mass murderers, but even the mainstream media and many of Heartland’s erstwhile supporters. As blogger Mike Lemonick pointed out:

Tough stuff, but you’ve got to love the reasoning, which Heartland explains on its website. “…what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the “mainstream” media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.” It’s a breathtaking tour de force in logic: if a murderous lunatic believes something—anything at all—then everyone else who believes it is a murderous lunatic. By this impeccable reasoning, you’d better not be against smoking, because…so was Adolf Hitler (believe it or not, this gambit has actually been played). Hitler was also a vegetarian, at least some of the time, so if you subscribe to both of these beliefs, you’re doubly despicable. Or maybe you’re a devout Catholic. So was the Spanish Inquisition’s chief torturer and burner-at-the-stake Torquemada. I even heard once, though I can’t confirm it, that former Ugandan strongman Idi Amin loved little kittens, and I have it on good authority that Genghis Khan was good to his horses.

The Unabomber billboard  was withdrawn, but Heartland was unapologetic about their actions, and their website full of even more outrageous assertions was still up. But the damage had already been done. Many of their former allies withdrew from the upcoming climate conference late last month in Chicago, including prominent denier Donna Laframboise who blogged:

Instead, those of us who had accepted Heartland’s invitation to take part in its conference found ourselves blindsided—a mere two weeks before the conference is set to begin—by a torrent of negative press. Suddenly, we were all publicly linked to an organization that thinks it’s OK to equate people concerned about climate change with psychopaths.
As economist Ross McKitrick said in an a strongly-worded letter to Heartland yesterday: You cannot simultaneously say that you want to promote a debate while equating the other side to terrorists and mass murderers.
Well here’s the problem. My name—and the name of my book—is currently on the same page of the Heartland website where the above quote appears. Without prior knowledge or informed consent, my work has been aggressively associated with this odious ad campaign. Forget disappointment. In my view, my reputation has been harmed. And the Heartland thinks it has nothing to apologize for.

But the real problems came when corporate sponsors began to pull out, one after another, including liquor giant Diageo (maker of Smirnoff, Guinness, Moet & Chandon, and Johnny Walker), General Motors, AT&T, several large insurance companies (including State Farm and many re-insurers), and many others. No large corporation wanted to be associated with the crazies who compared climate scientists to mass murderers. Meanwhile the protesters outside the Chicago conference put pressure on Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and some of the remaining big-name contributors to renounce Heartland. (The tally is laid out here). Heartland itself admitted that they were in a financial crisis, and had just lost at least $825,000 in funding, and it is unknown how big their losses are now. Their DC office has been closed, and most staffers have been let go.

By the time the Chicago conference rolled around on May 21-23, 2012, many speakers had pulled out like rats fleeing a sinking ship, and it was a pathetic shell of its former self. An undercover video showed a conference of nearly empty rooms (fewer than 170 showed up at an event that usually draws 800 or more), with just a few of the diehards (Anthony Watts, Harrison Schmitt, Lord Christopher Monckton, and their ilk) remaining on their program. Apparently, the speakers spent significant time making “birther” jokes and ranting that environmentalism was a “communist conspiracy”, a testament to how far they had gone off the deep end. At the end of the video there is a desperate plea by outgoing Heartland CEO Joe Bast (famous for defending the “Joe Camel” ads), asking for people to come up with money any way they could, and underlining their perilous financial situation. Shortly thereafter, Heartland announced that the 2012 climate conference would be their last.

In Hollywood, they joke that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But in the world of non-profit think tanks and organizations whose main job is PR, bad publicity can kill your reputation in a matter of hours. It’s even worse when it’s self-inflicted, as the idiotic decision about the billboards shows. One serious blunder and no one wants to have their name associated with you, and no corporation wants their name revealed. I’m counting the days now until we hear the news that Heartland is closing its doors and going under. I, for one, will not shed a tear….

22 Responses to “No hearts are breaking for Heartland”

  1. Somite says:

    Part of our current post-truth climate began when think tanks like Heartland and CATO were chosen by cable news organizations as the sources of expertise. I am sure the national academy of sciences and other legitimate scientific organizations have spokespeople that are seldom called by the news networks.

    This also feeds the current preferable laughable he said-she said journalism because you can always find a think tank that will support a contrarian idea regardless of how outlandish it is. In fact, clear exposition of the truth probably gets you banned from the news cycle,

  2. Max says:

    Heartland received donations from drug companies and the Koch Foundation for some healthcare project. It received donations from telecom companies for some IT project. Microsoft gives them free software licenses like it gives all nonprofits. If Microsoft should choose which nonprofits deserve free licenses, should it also choose which students deserve student discounts?

  3. Max says:

    Peter Gleick was reinstated by his Pacific Institute, which said, “An independent review conducted by outside counsel on behalf of the Institute has supported what Dr. Gleick has stated publicly regarding his interaction with the Heartland Institute.”

    Never mind the phishing, forgery, and libel. This ought to cost the Pacific Institute some donations.

    • Daniel says:

      At least most people have stopped pretending that the “discourage them from teaching science” memo that Gleick supposedly got in the mail was anything but a forgery.

      Pity though, I would think that if even someone as prominent as Richard Dawkins (who is an actual expert in evolutionary biology, as opposed to Gleick, who is not a climate expert) were caught forging a supposedly internal Discovery Institute memorandum (say the Wedge Strategy Memo) that he would be summarily dismissed from his teaching position. Even Dan Rather got fired for merely failing to take a skeptical view of a forged document that would hurt an undoubtedly crappy president.

  4. tmac57 says:

    Bast not only denies AGW,he is also in denial about the massive screw up that Heartland made:

    “Our digital billboard in Chicago produced a mountain of fake outrage and indignation from groups on the left, dutifully reported as though it were real by the mainstream media, which are deeply in the tank with the environmental movement.

    “But the billboard was factually correct and confirms what millions of people know. It has reinvigorated the debate over how much we really know about the causes and consequences of climate change.”

    Once a denier,always a denier.

  5. Clara Nendleshaw says:

    So the Heartland Institute is going down? Great news. Now can we get rid of the Marshall Institute?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I WISH! But they do seem to be less active and influential lately (especially since their founders are old and senile).

      • Max says:

        The founders of JREF and CSICOP are old, and the Founding Fathers of the U.S. are dead.

      • Russell C says:

        As the writer of a “Skeptic” magazine article, is it wise to make a comment having four separate unsupported and apparently inaccurate assertions, while also seeming to advocate the suppression of debate offered by critics of man-caused global warming? Since your use of capital letters here gives the impression of open hostility to the Heartland Institute, does this not undermine the credibility and underlying intent of your “Skeptic” magazine article? As it appears that you do scrub critical comments from this blog when they undermine your position, will you also scrub your own comment?

  6. Chris Howard says:

    So these guys aren’t Noam Chomsky Libertarians? ;-)

  7. Insightful Ape says:

    As Tmac57 said, Heartland never apologized. They probably still don’t think there was anything wrong with their ad.
    Alas, it may be too late for the human race, with or without Heartland.

  8. Trimegistus says:

    Why is it okay to mount a full-on attack on Heartland, its funding sources, its motives, and everything — but when deniers point out how much money Al Gore is making of the issue it’s unfair ad hominem argument?

    Quite simply, if Heartland are wrong Mr. Prothero should concentrate on refuting their evidence and arguments, not calling them meanyheads or making crackpot-sounding insinuations about their funding.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I did precisely that in recent issues of eSkeptic and the current Skeptic magazine. Their stuff is refuted on a daily basis by,, and “Climate Denier Crock of the Week”. No need to repeat all that in a brief post that is about a PR debacle, not about the arguments behind the organization.

    • Somite says:

      Because Heartland was willfully denying scientific conclusions. Al Gore was promoting those same conclusion. This is not a symmetrical difference.

    • Max says:

      Donald did post another blogger’s reductio ad absurdum response to Heartland’s reductio ad Hitlerum (“Hitler was a vegetarian.”)

      The point is that Heartland’s PR move was so bad that sponsors whose names had been publicized were pressured to pull their funding.

  9. d brown says:

    “refuting their evidence and arguments” How? its Hitler’s big lie. And as he said many people will believe a lie that’s big because they can’t believe anybody would said the opposite of the facts. He said people would keep believing it no matter if it was disproved.

    • Daniel says:

      Can we agree to stop using this quote in all discussions relating to matters of public concern? When used in support of an argument, it’s a textbook example of circular reasoning.

  10. Mustang55 says:

    These “think tanks” are the best funded propaganda tabloids of all time. Of course, they appeal to a certain clientele, and if you know the numbers of how many prescribe to the gossip rags and all that jazz, is it any wonder they have such a loyal and ignorant following?