Public Interest Groups to USA Today: Ditch Corporate Front Group Science Columns

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The following letter was sent by more than two dozen health, environmental, labor and public interest groups, and several doctors, to the editors of USA Today expressing concerns that the paper has been publishing science columns by members of the American Council on Science and Health, without identifying that group as a corporate front group with a history of spinning science for corporate benefactors. 

February 9, 2017

Dear Patty Michalski, Editor in Chief, USA Today:

We are writing to express our concern that USA Today continues to publish columns written by members of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate-funded group with a long history of promoting corporate agendas that are at odds with mainstream science. USA Today should not be helping this group promote its false identity as a credible, independent source on science. Your readers deserve accurate information about what and whom this group represents, as they reflect on the content of the columns.

These are no idle allegations. Many of the undersigned health, environmental, labor and public interest groups have been tracking ACSH’s work over the years. We have documented instances in which the group has worked to undermine climate change science, and deny the health threats associated with various products, including second-hand smokefrackingpesticides and industrial chemicals – all without being transparent about its corporate backers.

We note that financial documents obtained by Mother Jones show that ACSH has received funding from tobacco, chemical, pharmaceutical and oil corporations. Public interest groups have reported that ACSH received funding from the Koch Foundations between 2005-2011, and released internal documents showing that ACSH solicited $100,000 from Syngenta in 2009 to write favorably about its product atrazine – a donation that was to be “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years.”

At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of the news media, we believe it is vital for publications such as USA Today to follow the highest standards of journalistic ethics and serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible.

We respectfully ask you to refrain from publishing further columns authored by members of the American Council on Science and Health, or at the very least require that the individuals identify the organization accurately as a corporate-funded advocacy group.

Sincerely,
Alaska Community Action on Toxics
Beyond Toxics
Breast Cancer Action
Breast Cancer Fund
Californians for Pesticide Reform
Center for Biological Diversity
Center for Food Safety
Citizens’ Environmental Coalition
Clean and Healthy New York
Community Science Institute
Empire State Consumer Project
Farmworker Association of Florida
Friends of the Earth – US
Greenpeace
Healthy Building Network
Health Care Without Harm
Learning Disabilities Association of Maine
Made Safe
Organic Consumers Association
Pesticide Action Network North America
Real Food Media
The 5 Gyres Institute
US Right to Know
Vermont Public Interest Research Group
Women’s Voices for the Earth
Ann Blake, PhD, Environmental & Public Health Consulting
Josh Freeman, MD (Emeritus Chair of Family Medicine, University of Kansas School of Medicine)
Matthew Anderson, MD (Associate Professor, Dept. of Family and Social Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center)
Martin Donohoe, MD, FACP (Adjunct Faculty, School of Community Health, Portland State University; Board of Advisors, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility)

(identification purposes only)

Julie Kelly Cooks Up Propaganda for the Agrichemical Industry

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Connect the dots on the chemical and junk food industries’ PR campaigns to manufacture doubt about science, promote risky products and dismantle environmental health protections. Also in this series: 
Jon Entine: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger
Why You Can’t Trust Henry I. Miller
Why You Can’t Trust the American Council on Science and Health
Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry 

Julie Kelly is a food writer and cooking instructor who emerged in 2015 as a fierce advocate for the agrichemical industry, criticizing organic food, GMO labeling and science that raises concerns about pesticides. Her writing on these topics has appeared in the National Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. She does not disclose her funding sources.

Julie Kelly’s husband, John Kelly Jr., is a lobbyist for the agribusiness giant ADM, among other corporate clients including Blackstone and CVS; and government clients including DuPage County where Julie Kelly formerly worked as a policy consultant to county board chairman Dan Cronin.

Julie Kelly’s writings since 2015 have followed typical tobacco-industry style PR tactics deployed by the chemical industry — manufacturing doubt about science; attacking academics, reporters and transparency advocates; and calling for deregulation of polluting industries.

Kelly’s work includes:

Casting doubt on the science of climate change in the National Review

Calling on Congress to defund the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, in The Hill.

  • IARC has “been accused of stonewalling conflicts of interest and using shoddy science to promote a politically motivated agenda,” Kelly wrote.
  • IARC has noted publicly that it and its scientists have faced intimidation tactics, including broad subpoenas by Monsanto lawyers, as well as a “pattern of consistent but misleading reports about the IARC Monographs Programme in some sections of the media, beginning after glyphosate was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Attacking organic agriculture as an “evil empire,” in Forbes. In an article co-written with Henry I. Miller, Kelly argues:

  • “Like the buggy-whip manufacturers who ridiculed and reviled the horseless carriage, the organic industry is on the wrong side of history.”
  • “Organic products are expensive and offer no benefits, but devotion to them has become a kind of cult.”
  • The article contains blatant errors, for example, claiming that University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta “turned over almost 5,000 emails,” in response to pubic records requests, “only one of which showed any connection with Monsanto.” In fact, the New York Times posted 174 pages of Folta’s emails showing many interactions with Monsanto and Ketchum, the agrichemical industry’s PR firm.

Making inaccurate statements about GMOs, claiming they lead to lower pesticide use and create huge advantages for farmers; in fact, GMOs have led to higher overall herbicide use due to herbicide-tolerant GMO crops and farmers have experienced many problems.

Kelly co-authors articles with Henry I. Miller, a Hoover Institution fellow and former FDA official who has a long history of promoting junk science and flawed policy, and manufacturing doubt about the risks of dangerous products such as tobacco, pesticides and nuclear radiation. Together Kelly and Miller have:

  • Argued that organic farms are “an affront to the environment.”
  • Promoted DDT as an effective pesticide that should not have been banned, and argued that “green zealots” and “ignorant ideological activists” could ruin the food supply by pressuring EPA to ban Monsanto’s glyphosate.
  • Described the Trump Administration as likely to usher in an era of “greater governmental transparency and accountability, and a more level playing field” that could be a huge boon to the GMO industry.

The Hoover Institution, which promotes Kelly’s work, has a mission to “limit government intrusion into the lives of individuals.” Its top funder is the Sarah Scaife Foundation, which was identified in a 2013 Drexel University study as among “the largest and most consistent funders of organizations orchestrating climate change denial” and a foundation that promotes “ultra-free-market ideas in many realms.”

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.”