Keith Kloor: The Agrichemical Industry’s Favorite Writer

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Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist and an adjunct journalism faculty member at New York University who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Slate and dozens of articles for Discover Magazine promoting genetically engineered foods and attacking critics of the agrichemical industry, while also assisting industry allies behind the scenes.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, reveal instances in which Kloor coached and edited his sources, obscured the industry ties of a source, and selectively reported on information in ways that bolstered industry narratives. Kloor declined to respond to questions for this article.

Preemptive, selective release of FOIA emails

From 2015 to 2017, Kloor reported for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Issues in Science and Technology, and Slate on a public records investigation by U.S. Right to Know that revealed undisclosed ties between the agrichemical industry and publicly funded academics who promote agrichemical products, including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta. In each of these published pieces, Kloor framed the public records requests as an undue burden on academics.

The emails obtained via state records requests reveal that Kloor himself was part of the story he was reporting on; he had attended agrichemical industry-funded message-training conferences with Dr. Folta and assisted Dr. Folta with messaging. The correspondence shows that Dr. Folta reached out to Kloor to suggest a “preemptive” release of his emails “but selectively” to help mitigate the damage of the documents – which Kloor did, in the journal Nature. At the same time as Kloor was covering the story for top science publications, the documents show he participated in discussions with industry insiders about the challenges posed by the public records requests.

Timeline of coverage and collaborations:

  • March 2014: Kloor attended the Biotech Literacy Project boot camp, an industry-funded conference to train scientists and journalists how to frame the debate over GMOs and pesticides. The conference was hosted by Dr. Folta and organized by Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two groups that partner with Monsanto on public relations projects.
  • July 2014: Monsanto agreed fund Dr. Folta’s proposal for $25,000 for promotional events that Dr. Folta described as a “solution to the biotech communications problem” that arose from activist campaigns to label GMOs. (Folta donated the money to a food bank after the proposal became public.)
  • Emails show that in August and November of 2014, Kloor provided Dr. Folta with messaging advice about how to best challenge GMO critics (see examples below).
  • February 2015: U.S. Right to Know submitted public records requests for correspondence to and from professors at public universities, including Dr. Folta, to investigate undisclosed collaborations with the agrichemical industry.
  • February 2015: Kloor wrote about the USRTK investigation for Science Insider, quoting Dr. Folta and other industry allies who were “rattled” by the open records requests they described as a “fishing expedition” that could have a “chilling effect on academic freedom.”
  • March 2015: Kloor gave a presentation to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group that was campaigning against the public records requests.
  • June 2015: Kloor appeared at a second industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project boot camp message-training held at UC Davis, on a panel to discuss “FOIA Challenges” with Dr. Folta and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, whom emails later revealed had also been secretly receiving funds from Monsanto.
  • August 1, 2015: Dr. Folta emailed Kloor to report that his emails had been turned over to U.S. Right to Know in response to the open records requests. “I started going through this last night and I’m thinking that a preemptive release of the materials is a good idea, but selectively,” Dr. Folta wrote. He suggested a framing that “exposes the danger of the FOIA laws.”
  • August 6, 2015: Kloor reported on the emails in a forgiving article for Nature. The emails “do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Dr. Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to agriculture giant Monsanto,” Kloor reported.
  • August 8, 2015: Jon Entine, who organized the industry-funded messaging boot camps, complained to Kloor about his use of the term “close ties” to describe Dr. Folta’s relationship with Monsanto. “It’s both incorrect and inflammatory. It reflects poorly on what otherwise was first class reporting,” Entine wrote. Kloor said the term was “arguable” but backed away from it: “In my defense, I didn’t write that – it was added in the final edits.” He then tipped Entine off about the emails: “You and I should also talk. You are in the emails.” Kloor was also in the emails, which he did not mention in his reporting. (Subsequent requests turned up more emails involving Kloor.)
  • September 5, 2015: a front-page New York Times article by three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton reported that Monsanto recruited academics, including Dr. Folta, to fight against GMO labeling. The Times posted emails from Dr. Folta and Dr. Chassy revealing undisclosed industry payments to both men and their collaborations with agrichemical companies and their PR firms.
  • Kloor continued to engage in the debate as a journalist for industry events, such as a February 2016 forum hosted by GMO Answers, a marketing campaign to promote GMOs funded by Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, and DowDuPont, and managed by the public relations firm Ketchum.
  • Dr. Folta is now suing the New York Times and Eric Lipton over the 2015 article. Kloor reported on Dr. Folta’s lawsuit for Slate in 2017 without disclosing his now-public collaborations with Dr. Folta and other industry insiders.

Coaching, editing sources; obscuring industry ties

The emails suggest Kloor worked with his sources behind the scenes to hone their messaging in support of a key agrichemical industry cause: convincing wary consumers to accept genetically engineered foods. One of these sources was Dr. Kevin Folta, the University of Florida professor who was the key figure Kloor featured in stories he wrote for science publications about academic transparency.

Campaign to convert Bill Nye

In November 2014, Kloor used his Discover blog to challenge Bill Nye’s critiques about GMOs with an “Open Letter to Bill Nye from a Plant Scientist” signed by Dr. Folta. Emails indicate that Kloor asked Dr. Folta to challenge Nye, came up with the idea of the open letter and coached Dr. Folta on how to write it. He then edited Dr. Folta’s biography to avoid mentioning industry funding, according to the emails.

The emails show that Kloor drafted a bio for Dr. Folta that included the line, “No research is sponsored by Monsanto.” Dr. Folta asked him to adjust that sentence, noting that Monsanto indirectly sponsored some of his biotech outreach efforts and that he had received research money from a small biotech firm. Kloor decided on a bio that avoided mentioning Dr. Folta’s industry funding entirely: “his research is sponsored by federal and state agencies.”

In the email below, Kloor provided guidance to Dr. Folta about how to write the letter to Nye:

Around that time, Monsanto was also lobbying Nye to change his position on GMOs, which they eventually succeeded in doing. A March 2015 Washington Post story about Nye’s conversion claimed that Nye’s criticisms of GMOs “had angered many scientists,” but linked only to Dr. Folta’s letter on Kloor’s blog.

Discover: “Not our policy to prompt sources”

Emails from August 2014 show Kloor offering messaging advice to Dr. Folta and another source, Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, the media director of the GMO promotion group Biofortified. Kloor asked them to critique an article by Carole Bartolotto, a dietician who had written critically about GMOs. The emails show that Kloor edited the comments and suggested ways to strengthen the messaging: “My advice: keep the language as neutral and judgment-free as possible. You’re aiming for the fence-sitters, who may well be turned off by language that comes off as heavy handed.”

Kloor posted the Bartolotto critique on his Discover blog and described Drs. Folta and von Mogel as “two scientists who receive no funding from the biotech industry.” Emails later revealed that, just a few weeks earlier, Monsanto had agreed to fund Dr. Folta’s promotional efforts for GMOs; and, the previous summer, Dr. Folta planned to visit Hawaii to lobby against pesticide restrictions on a trip organized and paid for by a pesticide industry trade group (Dr. von Mogel was also included on those emails). Kloor’s article still appears on the Discover website without updates or corrections.

For a 2017 Huffington post article, journalist Paul Thacker asked Discover magazine editor Becky Lang to comment on the Bartolotto emails. Lang declined to comment on specifics, but said: “Of course, it’s not our policy now, and never has been, to prompt sources to write criticism, edit criticism, and then run it as independent. It’s also not our policy to ever help sources try to hide their industry relationships.” (Kloor’s Discover blog ended in ended in April 2015.)

Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project connection  

Kloor’s prolific writings in defense of the agrichemical industry can be viewed on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a promotional website for the agrichemical industry that features dozens of articles written by Kloor or quoting his work. Genetic Literacy Project is run by Jon Entine, a longtime PR operative who promotes and defends chemical industry interests. Entine is principal of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients included Monsanto. Kloor and Entine use similar messaging and frame the issues in similar ways, and appear to have a close relationship, according to the emails.

In a July 2013 email to a pesticide industry lobby group, Entine described Kloor as a “very good friend of mine” who could help broker a meeting with another Discover blogger to write about agrichemical industry activities in Hawaii. Another email shows Entine connecting Kloor with Rebecca Goldin at George Mason University to discuss “abuse of FOIA.” Goldin works with Entine’s former employer STATS, a group journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk.

In another email from October 2014, Kloor was the only journalist included in an email warning from Ketchum public relations firm about a possible hacking operation on corporate websites by the group Anonymous. The email was forwarded by Adrianne Massey, managing director of the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), to a group of industry allies, including Entine.

“I have no idea what type of attack. Private sector entities may be their only targets, but I don’t want any of you to be harmed who see you as industry allies,” Massey wrote.

Kloor was looped in on the email by Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University. Also included in the email were Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Val Giddings (former vice president of the biotech trade association), Karl Haro von Mogel (media director of Biofortified), Bruce Chassy and David Tribe (co-founders of the Monsanto front group Academics Review), and other key industry allies who promote GMOs and advocate for deregulation: Kevin Folta, Henry Miller, Drew Kershen, Klaus AmmannPiet van der Meer and Martina Newell-McGloughlin.

Industry allies frequently promote Kloor’s work; see tweets by Robb Fraley of MonsantoJon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project and the agrichemical industry trade group CBI.

Further reading:

A Short Report on Journalists Mentioned in our FOIA Requests

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Also see: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a conflict of interest?  
Washington Post Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto 

On September 23rd, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel admitted to receiving “plenty” of money from pro-agrichemical industry sources.

Following her admission, I thought it might be useful to report on journalists – including Haspel — mentioned in the documents we have received from state public records requests.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation of the food and agrichemical industries, their PR firms and front groups, and the professors who speak for them.

So far, three reporters come up in interesting ways: Amy Harmon, Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. These reporters appear in the context of Jon Entine, who is perhaps the leading PR operative working to promote the views of the agrichemical industry, and its pesticides and GMOs.

Entine is founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, which, along with the PR firm Ketchum’s GMO Answers, are the agrichemical industry’s two most visible front groups. Entine is also founder and president of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included the agrichemical giant Monsanto.

Amy Harmon

Amy Harmon is a reporter for the New York Times.  She was part of a Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and in 2008 she won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.

On September 23, 2013 at 7:44pm, Jon Entine emailed Renee Kester: “FYI, I think I’ve talked Amy Harmon into doing a Hawaii Hawaii [sic] story. . .  and I gave her your and Kirby’s email information, so she may call at some point if she indeed pursues this.” Kirby Kester is president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, an agrichemical industry front group.

On January 4, 2014, the New York Times published a front-page article by Amy Harmon, titled “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.” The story is datelined from Kona, Hawaii.

In 2014, Harmon won second place for the Society of Environmental Journalists “Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market” for “The Facts About GMOs,” a series that included the article “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.”

On September 30th, Harmon is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote GMOs. The group is running a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Slate and other outlets.  Kloor has written many pro-GMO articles that have been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

Kloor is mentioned in two places in the FOIA documents.

In one email, Jon Entine refers to Keith Kloor as a “very good friend of mine”.

In another email, on October 18, 2014, Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University, emails Adrianne Massey of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), along with several others, to forward an alert from Lorraine Thelian, vice chairman of the PR firm Ketchum that “the hacker community Anonymous is planning a series of attacks on biotechnology and food industry websites…Trade association and corporate websites of CBI [Council for Biotechnology Information] members are being targeted in this planned attack.”  Dr. Prakash writes, “Adrianne I have copied Kevin Folta, Karl von Mogel, David Tribe and Keith Kloor here as well.”

Dr. Prakash cc’d the email to Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy (agrichemical industry advocate) Val Giddings (former VP of BIO), Henry Miller (agrichemical industry advocate), Drew Kershen (agrichemical industry advocate), Klaus Ammann, Piet van der Meer, Martina Newell-McGloughlin (agrichemical industry advocate), Karl Haro von Mogel (member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified, a pro-GMO website), Kevin Folta (agrichemical industry advocate), Keith Kloor and David Tribe (agrichemical industry advocate).

Keith Kloor was the only journalist who received this email.

The email implies that Kloor works closely with the agrichemical industry’s prominent advocates.

Kloor has written three articles that were critical of U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests, in Science Insider, Discover and Nature.

On March 23rd, 2015, Kloor gave a talk for the Cornell Alliance for Science, which is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Tamar Haspel

Tamar Haspel is a columnist at the Washington Post.  She has written many columns for the Post defending or praising GMOs that have later been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

In 2015, Haspel won the James Beard Foundation Award for her Post columns.

In June 2014, Haspel spoke to a pro-industry conference about “How can scientists best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public?”  The conference was coordinated by Jon Entine and Cami Ryan, who is currently social sciences lead for Monsanto.  The conference was led by two agrichemical industry front groups, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, along with the University of Florida, which receives major funding from agrichemical companies, as noted in a September 6 article in the New York Times.

Haspel also moderated a panel organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”

In a September 23 chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Ms. Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” Later that day, I asked Ms. Haspel on Twitter how much money she had received from the agrichemical industry and its front groups.  She replied, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!

Is it appropriate for a Washington Post columnist to write glowing columns about GMOs while appearing at such pro-industry conferences?  Is it a conflict of interest for Haspel to accept money from agrichemical company interests that she covers as part of her beat as a Post food columnist?  How much money has Haspel received from agrichemical industry interests?

Some journalists have criticized journalists for “buckraking” on speakers’ circuits. For example, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said, “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”

Haspel wrote in the Washington Post that she will only speak at events where “if for-profit companies are involved in the event (which they often are), they can’t be the only voice.  So, I will speak at a conference co-sponsored by, say, Monsanto and the USDA and NC State University, but not an event sponsored by Monsanto alone.”  However, at the June 2014, conference at which Haspel spoke, no consumer advocates were slated to speak, only pro-industry advocates.

On October 16, Haspel is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO group that is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Haspel has been critical of the U.S. Right to Know FOIA requests.  On August 17, on Twitter, she wrote: “The money/time/brainpower wasted on @garyruskin’s mean-spirited, self-interested attack on @kevinfolta! Can we move on to something useful?” Others did not agree with her news judgment.  On September 6th, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton wrote an article largely based on our FOIA requests – especially of University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta – which ran on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The article revealed how Folta, who repeatedly denied ties to Monsanto, in fact had received an undisclosed $25,000 grant, as well as writing assignments from the company, and worked closely with it and its PR firm Ketchum, which ghostwrote text for him and organized media and lobbying meetings for him.

U.S. Right to Know is a consumer advocacy group.  We try to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know.  We believe it is useful for the public to see how the food and agrichemical companies do their public relations work.  That is one way we can help consumers to assess the claims and information they receive from the companies involved in our food production, their PR firms and operatives, and the journalists who work with them.