Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Chicago’s Heartland Institute, the Group Behind the Unabomber Billboard

In early May, Chicagoans driving the inbound Eisenhower Expressway saw a digital billboard comparing people who believe in manmade global warming to Ted Kaczynski. Next to a photo of the Unabomber, the sign reads: “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” Bannering the bottom of the ad is the Heartland Institute’s website address. The billboard was paid for and created by the 28-year-old Chicago-based nonprofit…


 

In early May, Chicagoans driving the inbound Eisenhower Expressway saw a digital billboard comparing people who believe in manmade global warming to Ted Kaczynski. Next to a photo of the Unabomber, the sign reads: “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” Bannering the bottom of the ad is the Heartland Institute’s website address.

The billboard was paid for and created by the 28-year-old Chicago-based nonprofit, which describes itself as a “free-market think tank” with the mission “to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”

On its website, Heartland’s communications director, Jim Lakely, explained the thinking behind the global warming ad, which was to be followed by ads featuring Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden, among others. Lakely writes, “…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.”

Heartland ordered the image killed within 24 hours, under pressure and criticism from both global warming skeptics and believers. Lakely told me in a telephone interview this week, “A lot of our good friends and supporters were offended by the billboard, so at their request we took it down.”

The controversy brought Heartland, which operates below the radar, and its president and CEO Joseph Bast, a lot of media attention. Bast, 54, was still an undergraduate at the University of Chicago when he became Heartland’s first employee in 1984 and, nine years later, its president. He has since written 21 books and, with his wife, Diane, publishes six monthly “public policy newspapers” distributed to elected officials from the national to the local level in hopes of influencing them on such issues as school reform, climate, and healthcare.              

My request for an interview with Bast was refused. “He will not be available to talk to you,” Lakely told me. But Bast has had plenty to say on the group’s website, including his refusal to apologize for the aborted ad campaign: “The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are Charles Manson…Fidel Castro…and Ted Kaczynski…. Global warming alarmists include Osama bin Laden….” Bast explained that “this provocative billboard was always intended to be an experiment. And after just 24 hours the results are in: It got people’s attention. This billboard was deliberately provocative, an attempt to turn the tables on the climate alarmists by using their own tactics but with the opposite message….We know that our billboard angered and disappointed many of Heartland’s friends and supporters, but we hope they understand what we were trying to do with this experiment. We do not apologize for running the ad, and we will continue to experiment with ways to communicate the ‘realist’ message on the climate.”    

The striking in-your-face poor taste of the ad was a godsend to bloggers on the left. I spoke to Brad Johnson of Forecast the Facts and Stephen Lacey, a blogger/reporter for  ClimateProgress.org, at Think Progress. Think Progress denounced the billboard campaign as “one of the most offensive… in U.S. history” and characterized the campaign as “hate speech.”  

Johnson and Lacey also crowed about Heartland losing what the bloggers claim is a $1 million in corporate support. Among the corporations fleeing from Heartland were AT&T,  BB&T, GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly, RenaiisanceRe, State Farm, United Services Automobile Association, Diageo (parent of Guinness, Smirnoff, and Johnnie Walker). Some companies, like GE and Pepsico, withdrew before the ad went up.

Lakely denies that Heartland has taken a serious financial hit—as a 501©(3), the group is not required to disclose its donors—but he confirms, “Some corporate donors decided not to contribute this year, but we are not chiefly corporate funded.” He claims that the controversy has caused individual donations to soar. And Joe Bast has written, “We have now raised considerably more from current and new donors than we may have lost due to the controversy.”

Dan Miller, Heartland’s former Executive VP and current policy adviser, is well known in the Chicago journalism community as the former editor of Crain’s Chicago Business and the business section of the Sun-Times. Describing himself as a libertarian, Miller told me in a telephone interview that he used Heartland as a resource when he worked at those publications. He said that Heartland raises $7 million annually, about “half from individuals and foundations. We don’t take government money, … no endowment. We eat what we kill.”

Miller seemed unfazed by the ad, explaining that it was intended to draw attention to the group’s seventh International Conference on Climate Change, held on May 21-23. Under the theme of “Real Science, Real Choices,” the Chicago meeting featured Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who, in Lakely’s words, is “a vocal critic of climate change alarmism” (and in town for the NATO summit). Other speakers included Apollo astronauts Harris Schmitt and Walter Cunningham, and Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner. 

Both Stephen Lacey and Brad Johnson were there to report on protests along Michigan Avenue from the Hilton Chicago, where the conference was held. Lacey says about 60 people showed up to protest the billboard, as well as what Johnson describes as Heartland’s dedication to “denying the science of climate change.” Both bloggers told me that students from Shimer College were on hand, which leads to another interesting tidbit about Heartland. Joe Bast, with money provided by Barre Seid, a Chicago businessman, apparently tried unsuccessfully to take over the board and presidency of the tiny college, looking allegedly to bring a more conservative bent to the school’s Great Books curriculum. The faculty and students resisted and the two men backed off.   

Next on Heartland’s calendar: its annual dinner on August 9 at Navy Pier. Months ago, Bast—who was born in Appleton, Wisconsin and is a regular visitor to his weekend home near there—booked Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as Heartland’s keynote speaker. For Heartland devotees, especially in the wake of Walker’s victory last week, it doesn’t get much better than that.

 

Photograph: Heartland.org

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