Reporters: Beware of being used as pawns

Peter Phillips went to bed on May 6 a distinguished professor in the University of Saskatchewan Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

He awoke May 7 with his reputation besmirched, unjustly forced to wear a scarlet letter. In his case, it was an “S” — for shill, or sock puppet — that had been appliqued by the anti-GMO advocacy group, US Right to Know (USRTK). Which apparently now thinks Canada also has a “right to know” which academics should be publicly disparaged and demonized for daring to work with the group’s arch enemy — Monsanto.

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 10.09.18 AMBut USRTK can be effective only if it convinces journalists to participate in its scheme. And that’s often easy to do, given that many reporters are pressed for time, harboring their own anti-GMO sentiments, and not well-informed about biotechnology, academic research or more importantly, the tactics of USRTK

Here’s how it works: the Organic Consumers Association, which has a serious financial interest in destroying GMO food, gives USRTK the money to obtain emails through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. USRTK then presents the emails to a carefully selected reporter, along with a few juicy quotes. Once the article is printed, the anti-GMO channels trumpet it as “proof” that academics are a sleazy, bought-off lot whose research can’t be trusted.

In the case of Phillips, reporter Jason Warick of CBC News Saskatoon went right along, even leading with USRTK’s claim and identifying its director, Gary Ruskin, as a “researcher,” rather than anti-GMO activist, which would have changed the tone of the piece:

The University of Saskatchewan and one of its well-known professors are acting like “sock puppets” for agri-business giant Monsanto, says a U.S. researcher.

It wasn’t until the fourth paragraph that Phillips was allowed to dispute the smear, and by then, given the article’s sensational headline, its use of inflammatory outtake quotes and its overall “gotcha” set up, the damage was done.

And that’s a travesty, because in Phillips’ case, he’d done absolutely nothing wrong, ethically or academically. He never took any money from Monsanto, and even his critics agreed that he seems to “sincerely hold the beliefs he espouses publicly.”

Peter Phillips

As a journalist with more than 35 years in the business, I understand why this strategy is working. Most reporters, especially in these times of disappearing news sites and associated budget cuts, do not have the time or resources to request or review thousands of emails. When USRTK hands them a package, with the emails apparently providing sufficient “proof” of the claims, it seems too good a story to pass up.

But reporters need to question why USRTK is presenting them with this tidy bundle of “research.”

They need to scrutizine the funding source that paid for the email acquistion.

They need to ask whether they are being given the entire record, or just a cherry-picked selection.

They need to consider whether it’s appropriate to use the FOIA process to systematically attempt to discredit a certain segment of academic researchers, as USRTK has done.

They need to decide whether they are going to apply the same scrutiny to USRTK as they are to the group’s target.

Most importantly, they need to ask themselves whether they are being used as pawns to advance a political agenda.

In the article about Phillips, reporter Warick includes this comment from Ruskin, who gave him the emails and is heavily quoted in the piece:

Monsanto relies on these academics to spread their message to the public and to regulators, Ruskin said. Phillips and other professors should declare their Monsanto connections and stop helping corporations “hide their dirty laundry,” Ruskin said.

At its heart, this is about the public’s right to know about “experts” speaking and writing about our food system, he said.

Ruskin is using the media to do exactly what he accuses Monsanto of. Yet neither he nor Warick seem to grasp this irony.

Nor does Warick question the validity of Ruskin’s own role as an “expert” in speaking and writing about our food system.

Corporate influence on academia is a valid story. As is NGO influence on media.

Reporters need to exercise caution, lest they fall prey to the latter.

Because it’s more than a little disengenuous to claim an academic is “under fire” when the ammunition has been provided by a character assassin.

2 thoughts on “Reporters: Beware of being used as pawns”

  1. Basically what you are saying is that journalists should act like journalists, not stenographers. It seems the old journo adage, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” has been forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

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