Newsweek’s Bizarre Standard for Opinion Writers

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Update 2/6/18
Upheaval at Newsweek: The news outlet is imploding amid a financial scandal and poor leadership. Some editors “recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness … I’ve never seen more reckless leadership,” wrote Newsweek’s political editor Matthew Cooper in his resignation letter.

By Stacy Malkan, 1/31/2018

Facts don’t matter in commentaries printed by Newsweek so long as the writer “seems genuine.”  That’s the takeaway from a troubling email exchange I had with Newsweek Opinion Editor Nicholas Wapshott after I raised concerns about a commentary in Newsweek attacking the organic industry.

The organic hit piece carried the byline of Henry I. Miller, who lost his platform at Forbes last year after the New York Times revealed that Miller had published an article in Forbes under his own name that was actually written by Monsanto.

In his recent Newsweek article, Miller spent several paragraphs attacking Danny Hakim, the New York Times reporter who wrote about that ghostwriting scandal; but Miller didn’t disclose to readers either the scandal or his collaborations with Monsanto.

Yet Monsanto’s fingerprints were all over Miller’s Newsweek article, as I reported here.

Miller made false claims about organic farming using pesticide industry sources.

Miller used pesticide industry sources to make false claims about organic farming and attacked people who were named on a target list that had been developed by Monsanto and Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of corporate communications, who was quoted in Miller’s piece with no mention of the Monsanto affiliation.

None of this appears to bother Newsweek Opinion Editor Nicholas Wapshott, according to an on-the-record email exchange.

Miller ‘Flatly Denies’ Facts 

On Jan. 22, I emailed Wapshott to raise concerns that Newsweek continues to publish Miller’s commentaries without disclosing his relationship with Monsanto. I told him I was writing a story, and asked if he was aware that:

1) The New York Times reported in August that Miller had been caught publishing an article ghostwritten by Monsanto under his own name in Forbes, in violation of Forbes’ policy. Forbes ended its relationship with Miller and deleted all his articles from the site.

2) A 2015 internal Monsanto PR plan (recently released by lawyers involved in litigation against Monsanto) lists “Engage Henry Miller” as one of its first action items.

3) A source Miller used in his Newsweek article, Jay Byrne, is a former Monsanto employee (not identified as such). According to emails I reported here, Byrne worked with Monsanto to set up a front group of “independent” academics, secretly funded by industry, who attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam,” the same theme in Miller’s Newsweek article.

4) Miller has a long history of partnering with – and pitching his PR services to – corporations that need help convincing the public their products aren’t dangerous and don’t need to be regulated.

Wapshott responded, “Hi Stacy, I understand that you and Miller have a long history of dispute on this topic. He flatly denies your assertions. Nicholas”

I wrote back to ask for clarification.

Hi Nicholas, to clarify:

Miller denies he published a column ghostwritten by Monsanto under his own name in Forbes and that Forbes has since deleted all his articles? (NYT story, Retraction Watch story)

Miller denies the Monsanto’s PR plan to address the IARC cancer rating of glyphosate lists “Engage Henry Miller” on page 2, item 3?

Miller denies that Jay Byrne, the former Monsanto employee not identified as such in his Newsweek article, was involved with setting up Academics Review as a front group? (Byrne has not denied writing these emails.)

Miller and I have disagreed yes, we were on opposite sides of a political campaign to label GMOs, but the above facts are facts, and provable. Do you think it’s fair to your readers to continue to publish his work without disclosing his ties to Monsanto?

Wapshott responded, “I think so. I have met Miller and he seems genuine. And I find it hard to believe that his flat denial is a lie. We would need a full trial to determine the truth and those resources are, thank goodness, beyond our means.”

Jumbled Mix of Conflict Disclosures

I find it hard to believe that his flat denial is a lie.

I wrote back to Wapshott once more, pointing out that a trial is not necessary in the Miller case, since the facts have been established by reporting in the New York Times and corroborated by Forbes’ spokeswoman Mia Carbonell, who told the Times:

“All contributors to Forbes.com sign a contract requiring them to disclose any potential conflicts of interest and only publish content that is their own original writing. When it came to our attention that Mr. Miller violated these terms, we removed his blog from Forbes.com and ended our relationship with him.”

Does Newsweek have a similar policy to require writers to disclose potential conflicts of interest and use only their own writing? 

Newsweek editors have not responded to that query. But the problem of weak, confused or non-existent conflict-of-interest disclosure standards goes far beyond Newsweek.

For a 2015 article in CJR, journalist Paul Thacker asked 18 media organizations that cover science to describe their disclosure standards for both journalists and the sources they use in their stories, and 14 responded.

“The responses present a jumbled mix of policies,” Thacker wrote. “Some draw a bright line — preventing journalists from having financial ties to any outside sources. Others allow some expenses and speaking fees. To complicate matters further, some organizations have written rules, while others consider incidents on a case-by-case basis. Standards advocated by professional societies also seem to differ.”

Some outlets apply different standards to reporters and columnists, as I learned when I asked why Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel can take speaking fees from agrichemical industry groups while writing about that industry as part of her regular column beat. Reporters at Washington Post aren’t allowed to do that, but in the case of columnists, the editor decides.

It’s all very murky. And some outlets are clearly crossing a bright line by publishing the views of groups and people who work with corporations to promote pro-industry science views without telling readers about the corporate collaboration.

Henry Miller’s attack on organic food in Newsweek is one example. Another is USA Today’s regular publication of science columns from the American Council on Science and Health, a front group for the tobacco, chemical, fossil fuel, pharmaceutical and other industries seeking to discredit scientific information about the harm of their products.

USA Today Lends Platform to Corporate Front Group  

In February 2017, two dozen health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today asking the paper to stop publishing science columns by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), or at least provide full disclosures about who funds the group.

Leaked financial documents from 2013 reveal that ACSH solicits money from corporations to defend and promote their products; for example, ACSH spins science on fracking, e-cigarettes, toxic cosmetics and agrichemical industry products, and solicits funding from those industries in exchange. Recent reporting establishes that ACSH works with Monsanto on messaging campaigns.

“USA Today should not be helping this group promote its false identity as a credible, independent source on science,” the two dozen groups wrote to the editors. “Your readers deserve accurate information about what and whom this group represents, as they reflect on the content of the columns.”

Nearly a year later, USA Today is still publishing columns by ACSH staff and still failing to notify its readers about ACSH’s funding from corporations whose agenda they promote.

In an email response dated March 1, 2017, USA Today Editorial Page Editor Bill Sternberg explained:

“To the best of our knowledge, all of the columns in question were authored or co-authored by Alex Berezow, a longtime member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Mr. Berezow has written some 25 op-eds for us since 2011, and we consider him to be a credible voice on scientific issues. He holds a PhD in microbiology from the University of Washington, was the founding editor of RealClearScience and has contributed to a number of mainstream outlets.”

Berezow is now a senior fellow at ACSH, and his “@USAToday contributor” status appears in his bio on Twitter, where he frequently attacks critics of the pesticide industry, for example this recent vile tweet featuring a sexually graphic illustration of a nurse giving a patient a coffee enema.

Does USA Today really want to be associated with this type of science communication?

Integrity and Transparency in Science Reporting

News outlets can do better than these examples at Newsweek and USA Today, and they must do better. They can start by refusing to publish columns by corporate front groups and PR surrogates who pose as independent science thinkers.

They can implement clear and strong policies that require all columnists and journalists to disclose potential conflicts of interest for themselves and the sources they cite in their work.

At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of the news media, it is more important than ever for all publications to follow the highest standards of journalistic ethics and serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible.

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USA Today Fail: Trump Science Column by Corporate Front Group

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By Stacy Malkan

USA Today fell to a new low in science and election coverage this week with a column speculating about presidential candidate Donald Trump’s science agenda, written by two members of a corporate front group that was not identified as a corporate front group.

The column, “Would President Trump Be a Science Guy?”, was authored by Hank Campbell and Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health, a group that promotes various corporate agendas via its science commentaries while secretly receiving significant funding from corporations, according to leaked documents reported by Mother Jones.

ACSH has made many indefensible and incorrect statements about science over the years – for example, the group has claimed there is no scientific consensus on global warming, that “fracking doesn’t pollute water or air,” and that “there is no evidence” that BPA in consumer products is harmful to health.

A paper trail further suggests that ACSH works quid pro quo for its corporate funders. In one email from 2009, ACSH staff solicited a $100,000 donation from chemical giant Syngenta to produce a paper and “consumer friendly booklet” about pesticide exposures that would help defend Syngenta’s pesticide atrazine. The donation was to be “separate and distinct from general operating support that Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years,” according to the email.

In 2011, ACSH released a book written by Jon Entine, along with an abbreviated position paper, about the public’s “irrational fear of chemicals,” featuring atrazine as a primary focus.

[For more see: Why You Can’t Trust the American Council on Science and Health]

None of this context was apparent to readers of USA Today’s Trump Science column written by ACSH president Hank Campbell and ACSH senior fellow Alex Berezow.

The main point of the column seems to be to plug their pro-industry websites and promote themselves as thinkers of science. Without many facts to illuminate Trump’s science agenda, the authors are left to engage in naval-gazing speculation, and to “imagine Trump championing a moon colony” because of “his fondness for real estate.”

A second big problem with the column – besides the fact that it promotes the science ideas of a corporate front group that isn’t identified as such – is how it normalizes the notion that it’s no big deal to have a major party presidential candidate whose policy ideas are so opaque or hidden that media outlets are reduced to runaway speculation just to have a story on the topic.

Let’s see (belly gaze), will science get a “funding bonanza” from President Trump, or more of that unpleasant vaccine talk? We’ll just have to cross our fingers!

This type of speculation is not normal; it’s not acceptable. USA Today’s readers don’t need to hear theories from corporate front groups about how Trump might view science. They deserve to have these questions put to candidate Trump himself until he answers them.

They deserve to read not one more story about Trump that isn’t grounded in facts and serious journalism about his policy positions – and especially not a self-promotional exercise from a corporate front group disguised as a column in the nation’s most widely circulated newspaper.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group that voluntarily discloses its funding here. She is a former journalist and author of the award-winning book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”