Commentary The Death of Journalism
On August 11, 2023, I learned of the death of the American investigative reporter Paul Brodeur. It had taken some while for this news to make its way to London but it landed in my in-box the same day as an article about the increasing use of AI-driven content by Rupert Murdochs News Corporation.1 I had lost track of Paul, having met him briefly many years ago. I was glad to learn that he had enjoyed a long retirement, searching the salt waters near his Cape Cod home for bluefish and striper, but sad to learn that it had come to an end on August 2, 2023.
In online obituaries, Pauls friends and colleagues remembered him as a firebrand, and a great character with the sensitivity of a novelist, an investigative reporters zeal for detail and a jewelers eye for lifes tricky facets and buried fissures:
Whatever he did, he was aggressively passionate about. He was sort of this very ferocious human being a great raconteur and wonderful to have drinks or share meals with because he always had a great story or 12.
It would take someone with all these traits and more to expose the outrageous behaviour of the asbestos industry in 1968 when global sales were still on the rise. 2 Some of the profits from the commercial exploitation of the magic mineral were dispersed to trade associations and PR companies not only to defend the industry from attacks such as those found in the series of New Yorker magazine articles Paul Brodeur authored but also to build the political support needed to prevent the imposition of costly regulations.3
Four years after a seminal article documenting the high rate of cancers, including mesothelioma, amongst insulation workers4 was published and the landmark international conference on the Biological Effects of Asbestos was held in New York, Pauls first asbestos feature: The Magic Mineral appeared.5 It set off reverberations not just amongst readers of the New Yorker magazine but also amongst members of the public and the authorities who could no longer ignore the dangers posed by toxic exposures outside as well as inside asbestos factories. Other uncomfortable truths were revealed in the next 15 years as Brodeur detailed the conspiracy developed and sustained by the industrialmedical complex to prevent the truth about the links between asbestos exposures and diseases becoming public knowledge and the environmental and occupational hazard posed by the use of sprayed asbestos insulation on the steel girders of high-rise buildings like New Yorks World Trade Center.
Whilst writing this commentary, I referred to two of my go-to textbooks about the asbestos industry and was surprised to see that Paul had been relegated, more or less, to a historical footnote in both books. He was much more than that, and the part he played in denouncing the lies told by asbestos stakeholders should never be forgotten. Professor Arthur Frank of Philadelphias Drexel University concurred with this assessment commenting that:
Paul Brodeur wrote vividly about workplace and environmental hazards and his landmark writing decades ago in the New Yorker clearly put the issue of asbestos-related disease into the public consciousness.6
Professor David Rosner from Columbia University agreed:
Pauls work literally made the difference in tens of thousands of lives. Paul was the person that made a nation aware of the ways a corrupt industry was secretly killing us. While the battle to control asbestos-related diseases continues there is no doubt that his work led to the elimination of asbestos from thousands of products in our environment and the continuing efforts to hold a deadly industry to account for its misdeeds. We owe him our lives.7
On June 7, 1993, Pauls last byline for the New Yorker appeared under the headline LEGACY. Thirty-one years after Rachel Carsons article Silent Spring-18 had appeared in the pages of the New Yorker and 29 years after she had died, Paul assessed the impact of her work documenting the crimes committed by the chemical industry and its minions in supporting the indiscriminate use of pesticides around the world.9
The path first trod by Carson was one which Paul had followed and he shared her hope that government officials would one day: have the courage and integrity to declare that the public welfare is more important than dollars. Pauls optimism underscored by his signing off his final New Yorker piece with the words: Rachel Carson lives is one which I do not share. With AI-driven content crowding out the work of human journalism, what is the likelihood of another Rachel Carson or Paul Brodeur coming along anytime soon?
August 15, 2023
1 Smith, H. Obituary. Paul Brodeur, journalist who exposed asbestos hazards, dies at 92. August 11, 2023.
Marquard, B. Paul Brodeur, environmental writer who exposed dangers of asbestos, dies at 92. August 9, 2023.
An Environmental Crusader, Writer Paul Brodeur Dies at 92. August 9, 2023.
Barrett, J. News Corp profits dive 75% as Rupert Murdoch-owned company hints at AI future.
August 11, 2023.
2 Outrageous behaviour was part of the title of a book about the US asbestos industry that Brodeur published in 1985 the full title of the book was: Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial.
In 1973, Paul published the book: Expendable Americans: The incredible story of how tens of thousands of American men and women die each year of preventable industrial disease, which was a collection of the New Yorker asbestos articles.
3 According to the United States Geological Survey global asbestos consumption reached its peak in the early 1980s at 4,728,619 tonnes (t). Worldwide consumption in 1960 was 2,178,681t, in 1970 3,543,889t, in 1975 4,331,209t.
4 Selikoff, I., Churg, J., Hammond, C. Asbestos Exposure and Neoplasia. April 6, 1964.
5 Brodeur, P. The Magic Mineral. October 12, 1968.
6 Email from Dr Arthur Frank, August 13, 2023.
7 Email from Dr David Rosner. August 13, 2023.
8 Carson, R. Silent Spring 1. June 9, 1962.
9 Brodeur, P. LEGACY. June 7, 1993.