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.”

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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.

In science, should all voices count?

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Cabbage damaged by diamondback moth caterpillars.

Though efforts are made to bring the general public into policy decisions around GMOs, I often wonder how much weight those lay views should carry.

That question came up again this week while I was writing a blog post about the ongoing comment period for a proposal to conduct open field trials of a genetically-engineered, self-limiting diamondback moth.

This project has tremendous potential to control — without the use of insecticides — an agricultural pest that inflicts an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion in global crop damage each year. It’s been carefully researched and planned, and the greenhouse and caged field trials have been promising. The next step toward commercialization is conducting open field trials in New York state.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) previously approved the tests, but had to withdraw the permit due to its own administrative errors.

So now the project is again up for review, with APHIS issuing a preliminarily favorable environmental assessment (EA) on the trials and opening a 30-day comment period that ends May 19.

Academic researchers like Bruce Chassy, Phillip Mulder, Charles Arntzen and Nina Federoff, among others, submitted thoughtful comments that indicated they had read the EA and understood both the science and the proposal.

Unfortunately, many of the supportive comments were buried in an avalance of reactionary, emotional, non-substantative comments submitted by anti-GMO activists. It was clear that most of them had no idea WTF they were talking about, despite an overuse of caps and punctuation marks. To wit:

Judith Maron-Friend: OMG!!!! WILL OUR MEDDLING WITH THE NATURAL ORDER NEVER CEASE?!?!?! THIS GE MOTH AND GE EUCALYPTUS TREE HAS DISASTER WRITTEN ALL OVER IT!!! HOW CAN WE POSSIBLE FORESEE THE REPERCUSSIONS OF SUCH INSANITY!!! THIS MUST NOT HAPPEN AND WE NEED TO TAKE OUR DIRECTION, WHEN IT COMES TO THE ENVIRONMENT, BACK TO A MORE NORMAL AND NATURAL APPROACH. ONE WHICH HONORS AND SUPPORTS NATURE AND NOT ONE WHICH BASTARDIZES OR MANIPULATES IT!!!

George Inashvili: STOP THE INSANITY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DO NOT let them release GMO moths!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Georgia Braithwaite: NO NO NO NO NO.

Carol Neill: fake bees, fake trees – guess that goes with fake food? why can’t we have real food instead of the fake food that shortens lives or kills us? real food is healthier. real bees…

Amanda Meck: No! Stop messing with what is natural. First our food and now our bugs? Leave nature the way she intended to be!

Becky Noyb: If you guys could stop finding new stupid things to do that might kill the people you’re supposed to represent that’d be great.

Justin Holt: This something from a scientific horror movie. Please do not do this!!!

Patti Spinelli: This is a horrible idea….. except of course for the company that will profit off of it, while of mankind pays the price. Once they are released it cannot be undone. MUCH MORE studying needs to be done first. And then don’t do it.

In other words, no matter how much scientific evidence is presented, many of these commenters will not change their contrarian views. So what’s the point of letting them weigh in on a decision that is supposed to be scientifically-based?

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Diamondback moth caterpillars feasting on crops.

Some of the commenters amusingly failed to detect the irony in their views:

Emina Bozek: I do not support this Field Release of Genetically Engineered Diamondback Moths. I think that our government is too excitable and quick to jump to extremes that have not been adequately vetted.

But most were just tragically ignorant:

ANONYMOUS ANONYMOUS: We do NOT want GE MOTHS released into our world…..EVERYTHING should be NATURAL NOT FAKE…..

Kimberly Waddy: The release of genetically engineered Diamondback Moths can potentially contaminate the food chain via transports of crops produced using this method of GE pest control.

Iragayle Konig: This makes no sense. We’re killing bees and they add to the viability of life. Moths do what, some contamination. We have man made concoctions that have a much more destructive impact than Moths. Sounds like it’s all about money, again!!!

Stacey Vila: I am opposed to utilizing genetically modified moths or other animals and insects into the environment. Generic modified beings are unpredictable in the long term effects. Concerns of impacts of life in each environment can be seen in those that have been utilized in the past. Evasive species and unforseen effects have occurred. GM salmon and insects released have produced problems that we should not ignore. Suggestions that I see that would be better is letting natural moths do the job. Let nature take care of it. Not the uncertainty of genetic modified beings.Add more real moths; not genetically modified organisms.

I’m not a scientist, but I think it would be terribly depressing to see scientific illiterates weighing in on my life’s work — much less think they could derail it.

Sandy Cornell: STOP ALL THE GMO ANYTHING>>>>>>>> WE THE PUBLIC DO HAVE A VOICE> SHAME ON THE WHOLE LOT OF YOU> SCIENCE GONE BAD!!!!!!!!

Yes, the public does have a voice.

But what should regulators do when that voice isn’t based in knowledge, science or even reason? Should it be given the same weight as credible voices that have taken the time to educate themselves on the topic at hand? When the public voice is talking bubbles, should it be heeded, or even listened to?