The Ethyl Controversy: How the news media set the agenda for a public health controversy over leaded gasoline, 1924-1926
Kovarik, Wiliam J.
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This dissertation is a history of the public health controversy surrounding the introduction of Ethyl leaded gasoline between 1924 and 1926. It is the first historical study of the newspaper coverage of the Ethyl controversy and the first time that the news media have been used to establish a more comprehensive history of this controversy. The dissertation includes a content analysis of articles about the controversy printed by New York City daily newspapers between 1924 and 1926. The analysis concludes that the news media invested far more credibility in industry sources than in any other category of source, although Walter Lippmann's World newspaper gave significantly more space to university scientists critical of Ethyl leaded gasoline. The news media did not understand the scientific issues, however, and fell back on seemingly familiar political alignments when forced to decide between conflicting scientific experts of equal stature. Also, the news media failed to evaluate industry scientists' claim that no alternatives to Ethyl leaded gasoline were known to science. Actually, General Motors and Standard Oil Co. (N.J.) had patented and researched dozens of alternatives, and information about this work was available had the news media searched for it. The dissertation also analyzes primary industry documents made public in 1992 concerning the development of leaded gasoline. It concludes that G.M.'s original special motive for developing leaded gasoline was to gradually adapt automotive engines for higher quality alternative fuels of the future (especially ethyl alcohol from cellulose) in anticipation of the depletion of U.S. petroleum supplies. G.M.'s Charles Kettering and others saw leaded gasoline as temporary bridge to non-petroleum fuels, not a permanent part of the fuel supply. Standard Oil, on the other hand, resisted alternative fuels. These private corporate ideas and strategies were not reflected in the public controversy in part because the news media had difficulty understanding scientific and technological issues.