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Book Notes: White River Junction publisher pushing COVID conspiracy theories

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2021 9:54:08 PM
Modified: 8/14/2021 9:54:19 PM

At the top of a list of sayings that would be easy to overuse these days is this, from Voltaire, the 18th-century Enlightenment writer: “Cherish those who seek the truth, but beware those who find it.”

So much is in flux, and so many issues are dizzyingly complex — from election reform to climate change to the coronavirus pandemic — that the search for explanations can lead us to strange places.

For example, Chelsea Green Publishing, which made its name putting out books on organic gardening, permaculture, building straw-bale houses and other left-field subjects for independent thinkers, earlier this year published The Truth About COVID-19, a book by osteopath and natural health advocate Dr. Joseph Mercola and Ronnie Cummins, a founder and director of the nonprofit Organic Consumers Association.

Since then, Mercola has been recognized as the world’s leading source of online coronavirus misinformation, both by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate and in a story in The New York Times.

Meanwhile the Chelsea Green book has sold 250,000 copies at a list price of $24.95.

The Truth About COVID-19 asserts that the pandemic was preplanned as a tool of global elites who want to strengthen their control of the economy. It also casts doubt on the need for and effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccines. And it hawks vitamins and supplements that Mercola sells.

“Over the last decade, Dr. Mercola has built a vast operation to push natural health cures, disseminate anti-vaccination content and profit from all of it,” the Times reported, citing researchers who have studied Mercola’s network. The Times’ report also notes that in a 2017 disclosure, Mercola said his net worth was above $100 million.

How is it that a publisher whose new titles include The Living Soil Handbook, The Forager’s Garden and Sprig the Rescue Pig also sent into the world a book by a man who told InfoWars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ audience that the COVID-19 vaccine would kill more people than the virus?

Ron Charles, who writes about books for The Washington Post, noted in a Post newsletter last week that this puts the small publisher in the same territory as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., both of whom spread vaccine misinformation on social media, engendering recrimination from health experts and suspensions from social media platforms.

Charles reached Margo Baldwin, Chelsea Green’s president and publisher, and quoted her:

“Baldwin stands by the authors’ work. ‘We have very knowledgeable editors who are experts in their subject areas,’ she says, ‘a rigorous acquisitions and manuscript review process, and access to many medical and health experts we call on when content exceeds our own knowledge.’

“When I asked if she felt any responsibility for adding to the culture of fear and misinformation, Baldwin replied, ‘Our public responsibility is to the truth, as far as we can determine it. Creating a climate of fear and misinformation is what mainstream media seems to excel at, not independent publishers like Chelsea Green.’ ”

Why Baldwin thinks “mainstream media” is the only source capable of communicating fear is a mystery to me. Reporters and editors aren’t willing to attribute the pandemic to the U.S. and Chinese militaries, Big Ag, Big Pharma, Bill Gates and Tom Hanks (on page 39, no kidding), among others, because there is no hard evidence for these things, but Chelsea Green seems content to publish a multimillionaire doctor who warns that all of those people are out to get us.

It strikes me that this debate is less about ideology than about habits of mind. Seeking the comfort of definitive answers, as Voltaire’s advice suggests, isn’t the right approach to a dynamic, fast-moving event the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in a century. Instead, we have to sift, to look for what makes sense in the moment with the understanding that the evidence we’re looking at might turn out to be wrong. The search for truth is ongoing, not static.

I exchanged emails with Baldwin in April about the Chelsea Green’s decision to publish the Mercola book. At the time, my colleagues and I opted not to publicize a book about which we had reservations. The changing circumstances of the pandemic, and Dr. Mercola’s recognized status as a purveyor of misinformation, led us to reconsider.

Since the book’s publication, at the end of April, two aspects of the pandemic have intersected: In some parts of the country, including Vermont and New Hampshire, the vast majority of people age 12 and up have been vaccinated, but in other places, including many Southern states, less than 40% of the population have gotten a vaccine. And the more transmissible delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 has gone to town; nationwide, 97% of new COVID-19 cases and deaths are among the unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We published the book because, like all the books we publish, we believe in it and think that it has critically important information that people should have access to,” Baldwin said in April. “Publishers are in the business of ideas, and it’s their job to challenge prevailing narratives and consensus thinking because often those narratives turn out to be false. We pride ourselves on publishing books that are at the leading edge of whatever particular subject area they cover.”

I reached out to Baldwin last week. She declined to be interviewed, at least in part because I had expressed skepticism about the book’s authors and their claims last spring. In declining to talk, she did make sure to point out how well the book has sold.

Mercola started his career in Illinois in 1985 but now lives in Florida. He has been warned or sanctioned multiple times by federal watchdogs, including by the Federal Trade Commission, which brought a false advertising action against him in 2017 for his claims about the health benefits of tanning beds. In a settlement, he repaid $2.95 million to customers who’d bought tanning beds from his company.

He also received a warning from the Food and Drug Administration in February, telling him to stop selling “Liposomal Vitamin C,” “Liposomal Vitamin D3” and “Quercertin and Pterostilbene Advanced” — products that Mercola claims prevent or cure COVID-19.

In a March statement to the health website MedPageToday, Mercola said he is “committed to providing truthful information and having a rigorous scientific debate.”

“We have fully addressed the warning letter and put FDA on notice that it cannot stop speech it does not like,” the statement said.

(The FDA can in fact file injunctions against, fine and prosecute companies that make false medical claims about their products.)

Regarding Chelsea Green’s publishing standards, it isn’t a question of speech that people don’t like. There are, buried in The Truth About COVID-19, some truths that are worthy of discussion.

The authors assert — and it’s hard to argue with this — that ordinary citizens are beset by an economy that channels them toward unhealthy diets, expensive medical treatments and, in general, poor outcomes, often in the name of profit.

But to call that economy, and the coronavirus, part of a orchestrated conspiracy rather than an outcome of a flawed, fractious democracy is a dangerous leap. And to go even further and cast doubt on a life-saving vaccine comes across as irresponsible.

I spoke with Baldwin in January for a story about how divided the nation is and how the way we take in information contributes to that. In her view, censorship of social media was a bigger problem than misinformation and the bubbles so many of us live in, though she acknowledged that “there is a serious, deep divide in this country. It’s almost completely divided in half.”

And the pandemic was making it worse by keeping people at home, she said.

I’d like to ask her how she thinks promoting conspiracy theories will help the situation. Such theories are designed to provide explanations for complex events, and to cast blame. They should be beneath any reputable publisher.

In a 2015 profile in Enterprise, the Valley News’ business magazine, Baldwin said she studied biology and neurobiology at Stanford University and earned a master’s degree in public health at New York University before moving to Vermont and founding Chelsea Green with her husband, Ian, in 1984.

After some time off, she rebooted the company in 2002. The profile notes that “she had to pick winning books to turn things around.” At the time, Chelsea Green had estimated yearly sales of $5 million. The company is now owned mainly by its 28 employees and has an office in London.

It looks like Chelsea Green has another “winning book” on its hands with The Truth and its millions of dollars in sales. To paraphrase Voltaire, view it warily.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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