Next month will mark the second anniversary of the Great Alar Scare - one of the most hysterical episodes in the brief and often irresponsible history of mass media.
As often happens, the cameras moved on before the victims of the irresponsibility could be counted. But now some of them are starting to fight back.Recently 11 apple growers filed a class action suit against CBS and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the progenitors of the Alar scare.
The suit alleges that the defendants knowingly published false statements about the safety of apples treated with Alar, resulting in business losses estimated at $100 million.
No journalist could be happy about a suit that raises such troubling First Amendment questions. But the frustration that launched it is also troubling.
Alar, a growth regulator widely and routinely used on apples, became a household word after a "60 Minutes" report described it as "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply."
The panic was immediate and nationwide. Sales of apple-products plummeted. In an Academy Award-like performance, the actress Meryl Streep tearfully told Congress that our children were being poisoned by pesticides. Within months Alar's manufacturer withdrew the product from the market.
But not because of science. The objective evidence used by "60 Minutes" and NRDC (a major source for the story) was shaky or worse.
Cancer tests in lab animals, for example, had been inconclusive for Alar - even though the animals' dosage was equivalent to feeding a human 28,000 Alar-treated apples a day for life!
The science was bad, but the story was a rousing success for NRDC, which used the panic to enlist new members and raise more money.
It is often the case that "public interest" groups put their self-interest before the public's.
This irresponsibility only blackens the cause of environmentalism. Unfettered technology could indeed lead to cases of ecological disaster. But controls must be prudently exercised, governed by intelligent science.
An overemotional resistance to technological innovation, like that exhibited in the Alar scare, has no place in public policy.