IN AUGUST, CNN DISPATCHED A NEWS CREW TO FLORIDA TO TRACK DOWN THE WORLD’S MOST PROLIFIC DISSEMINATOR OF COVID-19 MISINFORMATION: JOSEPH MERCOLA, an osteopath with 4.3 million followers across 14 social media platforms who has been identified by the Center for Countering Digital Hate as the No. 1 spreader of pandemic falsehoods on the internet.
In more than 600 articles posted to his Facebook page since the pandemic began, Mercola has questioned the efficacy of masks and peddled thinly researched studies about the dangers of vaccines; in February, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration forced him to remove content from his website claiming that vitamins C and D can prevent and treat Covid-19 infections.
After a fruitless visit to the Mercola corporate headquarters in Cape Coral, the nerve center of his enterprise to push unproven supplement cures under the guise of natural health, the CNN crew buttonholed their man riding a bicycle near his gated mansion in Ormond Beach, sporting nothing but a pair of black swimming trunks, a baseball cap and a peanut butter tan.
“Do you feel responsible for people who didn’t get vaccinated and possibly got sick and died because of what you’ve told them about the vaccines?” reporter Randi Kaye asked Mercola, who had just dismounted his bike at the entrance to the beach. Ignoring Kaye, he got back on and slowly pedaled away. Undeterred, Kaye fired more questions at him – “What do you say to families who’ve lost loved ones?” “Are you spreading misinformation?” “Why won’t you speak to us?” – as his shirtless, shoeless silhouette receded silently into the distance.
The CNN segment neglected to mention that Mercola had recently coauthored a book called The Truth About Covid-19: Exposing the Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal, which was released in April by a small, employee-owned outfit in Vermont called Chelsea Green Publishing. Founded in the mid-1980s by married duo Margo and Ian Baldwin, the company has established a cult following as one of the preeminent publishers of books on homesteading, gardening and sustainable agriculture. Some of its longtime fans regard the Mercola book, now a best-seller, as a betrayal of what they saw as Chelsea Green’s progressive-minded mission.
“Shame on @chelseagreen, which I’ve always admired,” journalist and Dartmouth College professor Jeff Sharlet tweeted in September. “This is murderous.”
Stephen Kiernan, a novelist who lives in Charlotte, was horror-struck. “As far as I’m concerned, Chelsea Green’s profit from this book is blood money,” he says.
But these criticisms have had little audience with Margo Baldwin, who has been the publisher of Chelsea Green and president of its board since 2002. In the few interviews she’s granted since the book’s release, Baldwin has not only argued for her right to print The Truth About Covid-19, she has endorsed its claims wholly.
“We have very knowledgeable editors who are experts in their subject areas, a rigorous acquisitions and manuscript review process, and access to many medical and health experts we call on when content exceeds our own knowledge,” she recently told Washington Post book critic Ron Charles. When Charles asked whether she felt any responsibility for seeding baseless theories about the pandemic, Baldwin responded, “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.”
Chelsea Green has always dabbled in fringier subjects, but in recent years, its anti-authoritarian ethos has taken the form of books, such as Mercola’s, that employ debunked science and alarmist rhetoric to challenge or outright reject the medical and scientific establishment. In a global health crisis that has raised the stakes of proliferating such misinformation, Chelsea Green has found itself in an ethically precarious position.
Kevin Ellis, a political strategist and one of Chelsea Green’s four board members, says he believes that publishers “have a right to be wrong”; the cost of their mistakes, in his view, is beside the point.
“Your next question is, ‘Well, yeah, but some people are going to die,’” he said. “And I’m going to say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, and we accept that.’ We accept highway deaths; we accept diabetes; we accept spending billions of dollars to repair the damage that we allow the junk food industry to do. People are too stupid to make judgments about their own health. I think that’s a problem with democracy, not some tiny little publisher in White River Junction.”
IF YOU GOOGLE HOW TO, SAY, BUILD A HOUSE FROM BALES OF STRAW, OR GROW SALAD GREENS IN YOUR CLOSET, OR MANAGE A WORM FARM, OR REWILD BRITAIN’S WATERWAYS WITH BEAVERS, YOU MIGHT STUMBLE UPON THE WEBSITE OF CHELSEA GREEN, an unlikely success story in the failure-riddled ecosystem of upstart publishers. The Baldwins moved from New York City to Vermont in the early ’80s, lured by the same visions of verdure and self-sufficiency that had seduced generations of back-to-the-landers before them.
Ian had worked in publishing in New York, and, in 1984, the couple scrounged $115,000 to start an independent press out of a farmhouse on the Chelsea town green, for which they named the company. The Baldwins’ early projects reflected their own roving interests: an illustrated guide to the cemeteries of Paris, a fable about a shepherd who spends his life planting trees in Provence, a compendium of the art and writings of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, before the organic food and climate movements became part of the popular consciousness, the Baldwins published three books that demonstrated their knack for anticipating the zeitgeist and defined their niche – Loving and Leaving the Good Life, a memoir by back-to-the-lander Helen Nearing; The New Organic Grower, a sort of bible for young farmers; and Limits to Growth, which pioneered the idea that the human population might someday exceed Earth’s carrying capacity.
Over the next few decades, Chelsea Green’s sales grew, from $2 million in 1999 to $5 million in 2015. The company is now fully owned by its 29 employees, with an office in London and a catalog of more than 400 titles, some of which have remained in print for more than three decades, on topics ranging from fermentation to the cultural history of okra.
But the Baldwins’ penchant for heterodox thinking has also manifested itself in books advocating vaccine skepticism, written by authors of dubious credentials. In 2018, Chelsea Green published two books linking autism and chronic disease to childhood vaccinations: How to End the Autism Epidemic by J.B. Handley, a businessman with no medical training, and Vaccines, Autoimmunity, and the Changing Nature of Childhood Illness by Thomas Cowan, a California doctor whose license to practice was suspended earlier this year as a result of his YouTube videos promoting the conspiracy theory that the 5G network caused the Covid-19 pandemic.
Vaccine skepticism has long existed in some of the wellness enclaves in which Chelsea Green books tend to succeed, and the Handley and Cowan books both sold exceptionally well. This April, in the midst of a pandemic that has galvanized a new wave of anti-vaccine activism, Chelsea Green released Mercola’s The Truth About Covid-19, which has become one of its best-selling titles yet.
THE BOOK, COAUTHORED WITH RONNIE CUMMINS, COFOUNDER OF THE NONPROFIT ORGANIC CONSUMERS ASSOCIATION, has already sold more than a quarter million copies. An Amazon search for the term “Covid-19” yields The Truth About Covid-19 as the top result, which prompted U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Los Angeles, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, to send a letter to the online retail behemoth’s top executives, imploring them to modify the site’s algorithms to limit the visibility of products that promote misinformation and conspiracy theories. (The Amazon page for The Truth About Covid-19 features a discreet blue banner advising customers to visit the CDC’s website for information.)
The book posits, among other things, that Covid-19 was engineered as a bioweapon, then leaked – deliberately, Mercola invites us to believe – from a poorly managed laboratory in Wuhan, China, then exploited by a cabal of global elites to strip us of our inalienable rights. Based on what appears to be a cursory review of all the journalism outlets that have ever received grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mercola assumes the Trump-like posture that mainstream media outlets – BBC, NBC, ProPublica, The Atlantic and Center for Investigative Reporting, to name a few – have been bought by Gates to advance falsehoods about the pandemic and, therefore, the Big Tech agenda.
“Very little makes sense anymore,” Mercola writes, “unless you look at it from the perspective we’ve tried to present to you here, namely that this pandemic has been used as a convenient cover story (and may even have been pre-planned) to facilitate and hide the transfer of wealth to unelected technocrats who control the pandemic narrative, while simultaneously justifying the erosion of your personal freedoms and civil liberties.”
Mercola has devoted a significant portion of his career to marketing vaccine hesitancy, and he allots a chapter of his book to selling the claim that Covid-19 vaccines are far more deadly than the virus itself. He refers to the virus, cleverly, as a “biological trigger” that worsens preexisting conditions, such as obesity, which are themselves the result of the cheap processed foods with which Big Ag has contrived to sicken Americans. “People are dying with Covid-19,” he writes, “as opposed to dying from it.”
Among the prevention and cure methods he touts are ivermectin, food-grade hydrogen peroxide inhaled through a nebulizer, and hydroxychloroquine, none of which have been approved by the FDA to treat Covid-19. Mercola also recommends a regimen of vitamin supplements, which he happens to sell on his website.
Through a spokesperson, Mercola says he intends to donate the proceeds from the book to the National Vaccine Information Center, the country’s leading anti-vaccine advocacy group. In 2019, the Washington Post reported that Mercola had already given $2.9 million to the organization over the past decade, supplying nearly 40 percent of its total funding.
“Mercola is an extremely sophisticated con man,” says Bernie Garrett, a professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Chelsea Green holds the U.S. rights to Garrett’s recent book, The New Alchemists: The Rise of Deceptive Healthcare, which contains a section on Mercola’s supplement empire. “He’s great at cherry-picking data from basic, low-quality lab experiments and computer studies, and he ignores mountains of randomized trials and high-quality evidence that disprove his points,” Garrett says. “It’s totally irresponsible of Chelsea Green to publish his book at this time, and it’s pretty depressing to me that my book is up on their website along with his.”
Margo Baldwin refused an interview, but agreed to answer questions by email if she deemed them “worth responding to.” In the end, she replied directly to just a few questions, among them, that her responses to Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic, sounded like a defense of the factual integrity of The Truth About Covid-19.
“Of course I am defending the factual integrity of the book!” she writes. “It is one of the most important books we have ever published. Given the incredible misinformation promulgated by the public health bureaucracy and the mainstream media, ordinary people need access to the truth about what is really going on.
“You may not agree with that, but that does not mean you have truth on your side.”
CHELSEA GREEN HAS LONG OCCUPIED A STRANGE PLACE AT THE CROSSROADS OF THE ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT LEFT AND THE LIBERTARIAN RIGHT. Stephen Morris, who ran the publishing operations from 1995 to 2002, recalls a book convention at the Javits Center in New York City in the early 2000s, during which someone approached the Chelsea Green booth, raving about their titles.
“He was saying how much he loved us, that he had every book we’d ever published,” Morris says. “The more we talked, the more it became apparent that this guy was a real survivalist, and his Chelsea Green bookshelf was in his bunker.”
Meanwhile, an editor who had worked on many of those books looked on in dismay. “He said, ‘Get this guy out of the booth! He doesn’t represent what we’re all about here!’” Morris recalls. “Yet they were united by the same assumptions. The guy believed in organic food. He believed we were in danger of losing our pollinators. He bought into all the stuff that we were publishing, but from a very different direction.”
In fact, according to several former employees, Chelsea Green has made a calculated effort to separate its audiences – the one that shows up for books on beekeeping and no-till farming, and the one that comes for books by Mercola, Cowan and Handley. That these groups overlap in real life is immaterial; the point, as one former employee says, is to avoid upsetting the fans of beekeeping a who would find Chelsea Green’s anti-vaccine treatises, internally known as “the health titles,” too outré for their tastes.
“The digital director would never put that stuff out on Facebook,” says an ex-employee, who requested anonymity for fear of hurting future job prospects. Instead, authors such as Mercola, who has more than 317,000 Twitter followers, deploy their own social media machinery to promote their books. “I think Margo is very aware that the health stuff will sell in the channels it needs to sell in without disrupting the other audience,” the ex-employee says.
This principle apparently does not apply to Baldwin herself, who tweets freely about the “fascism” of mask and vaccine mandates and “censorship” of Mercola.
In spite of Chelsea Green’s employee-ownership model, former staff members speak of a very top-down workplace, where people rarely feel empowered to disagree with Baldwin; the Chelsea Green board of directors has no employee representation. (In response to a question about what, precisely, the employee-ownership model entails, Baldwin wrote: “What business is that of yours and why is it relevant?”)
The common denominator among all of Chelsea Green’s editorial acquisitions, says an ex-employee, was Margo Baldwin. In recent years, he said, she’d become especially fond of books that take on the medical establishment, and she would tear down people who challenged her, often in front of their colleagues.
“We’d have meetings where these books would come up for discussion, but it just felt like a formality,” the former employee says. “If she wanted to publish a book, it was a foregone conclusion.”
WITHIN HER FIRST FEW WEEKS AT CHELSEA GREEN, ONE FORMER EMPLOYEE SAYS BALDWIN TRIED TO CONVINCE HER THAT 9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB; there was an unwritten rule in the office never to tell her about dentist appointments, several people say, so as not to find oneself on the receiving end of a lecture about how modern dentistry leads to mercury poisoning.
And yet, those kinds of theories occasionally contain some speck of truth, which can make them irresistible to people who already view powerful institutions as self-serving and corrupt. Garrett, the nursing professor, points to the decades of manipulation and deceit by drug-manufacturing giants such as Purdue Pharma, which downplayed the addictiveness of its painkillers and fueled an opioid epidemic that has claimed at least half a million lives.
“Every once in a while, something does get peeled back – look at the conservatives packing the courts, gerrymandering, the EB-5 scandal,” says Dan Wing, a retired doctor and author of the 1999 Chelsea Green book on artisanal bread and masonry ovens, The Bread Builders, which is still in print. “Is American agriculture just an economic phenomenon, or is it a conspiracy? It’s easy to imagine how someone might start with organic apple farming and go down the rabbit hole.”
Wing, who is immunocompromised, was horrified by The Truth About Covid-19. “I was fundamentally proud of having had my book published by Chelsea Green,” he said. “Now, I feel creepy about the association.”
Wing collects about $1,000 a year in royalties from his book. He doesn’t know whether it would even be possible for him to change publishers.
“If I took that $1,000 and gave it to the Union of Concerned Scientists instead, that would probably make me feel better,” Wing says. “But I don’t think anyone has fully solved this problem. If your grandfather purchased a share of an oil well, and you were receiving income from that oil well, and you sold your share because you don’t like fossil fuels, somebody else is still pumping oil. And what about Amazon? Do you have a Prime account because you want to watch a movie, even though you’re supporting a company that has bad labor practices? You can slice and dice it forever, until you wind up standing naked and alone.”
For her part, Baldwin seems to feel far from alone. In her defense of The Truth About Covid-19, she writes: “There are over 2,500 five-star reviews of the book on Amazon. Maybe you should spend some time reading them.”