Open Letter to STAT: It’s Time for Stronger Transparency Standards

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Dear Rick Berke and Gideon Gil,

At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of news media – and science itself – it is important for health and science publications such as STAT to serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible. We write to ask you to step forward as leaders to address a serious problem in science coverage: readers are being hoodwinked by corporations that are pushing policy agendas through PR writers who pretend to be independent but aren’t.

On February 26, STAT failed its duty to the public to provide transparency when it published an opinion column by Henry Miller, even though Miller had previously been caught publishing Monsanto-ghostwritten work under his own name in Forbes.

After the New York Times revealed the Miller ghostwriting scandal in August 2017, Forbes dropped Miller as a columnist and deleted all his articles because he violated Forbes’ policy that requires opinion writers to disclose conflicts of interest, and to publish only their own work – a policy STAT should also adopt. (Update: STAT has a conflict of interest disclosure policy here and informs us that Miller reported no conflicts.)

Since the ghostwriting episode, Miller’s work has continued to raise serious red flags.

His recent column attacking the organic industry in Newsweek was sourced with information provided by a former Monsanto spokesman, Jay Byrne, whose relationship with Monsanto was not disclosed, and Miller’s column closely followed messaging that Byrne had worked out with Monsanto while collaborating to set up a front group of academics to attack industry critics, according to emails uncovered by US Right to Know. In his Newsweek article, Miller also tried to discredit Danny Hakim, the New York Times reporter who revealed Miller’s Monsanto ghostwriting scandal – without mentioning the scandal.

In addition to these recent failures to disclose his conflicts of interest, Miller has a long, documented history as a public relations and lobbying surrogate for corporations.

In a 1994 PR strategy memo to Phillip Morris, APCO Associates referred to Miller as “a key supporter” in the global campaign to fight tobacco regulations. In 1998, Miller pitched his PR services to corporations in a “Work Plan Promoting Sound Science in Health, Environmental and Biotechnology Policy.” A 2015 Monsanto PR plan to “orchestrate outcry” against the scientists of the World Health Organization’s IARC cancer panel listed as its first external deliverable: “Engage Henry Miller.”

Were corporate interests also behind Miller’s opinion, published this week by STAT, that the National Institutes of Health should no longer fund integrative health studies?

Praise for Miller’s STAT article from the likes of Jeff Stier, who works for the Koch-affiliated Consumer Choice Center, and Rhona Applebaum, the former Coca-Cola executive who orchestrated a front group to spin the science on obesity, makes the article seem even more like some kind of corporate front group hit piece.

It wouldn’t be the first time the pharmaceutical industry got away with using STAT to promote its political and sales agenda. Last January, STAT allowed two members of the corporate front group American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) to opine that the government should not be allowed to restrict doctors from prescribing OxyContin. But the article did not disclose that ACSH has received funding from drug companies and pitches its services to corporations in quid pro quo agreements to defend their products and policy agendas.

In September, STAT retracted an article published under the name of a doctor who praised pharmaceutical industry sales reps, after Kevin Lomangino wrote in HealthNewsReview.org that the doctor had received over $200,000 from drug companies. An investigation then revealed that a PR firm had ghostwritten the doctor’s article.

“Big pharma’s attempt to ghostwrite in STAT ended badly – but not badly enough,” pointed out journalism professor Charles Seife in Slate. “STAT retracted the story, but for the wrong reasons and without addressing the real problem.”

It’s time for STAT to address the problem, and become part of the solution in bringing truth and transparency to science reporting. The public has a right to know when corporations ghostwrite, or have their fingerprints all over the opinions of academics who claim to be independent.

“Just as medical journals started tightening rules about conflicts of interest, forcing more disclosure of the hidden motives behind certain research articles, media outlets have to have a reckoning as well,” Seife wrote in Slate.

“They must learn to stop amplifying the messages of front groups and winking at practices like ghostwriting in their editorial pages. In short, the media must realize that every time they repeat a sock puppet’s message, it directly undermines the outlet’s credibility.”

For the credibility of STAT, and for the trust of its readers, we urge you to implement a clear and strong policy to require all your writers to provide full disclosure about conflicts of interest, including payments they receive from corporations, and work they do behind the scenes with corporations or their PR firms to promote corporate agendas.

Sincerely,
Stacy Malkan
Gary Ruskin
Co-Directors, US Right to Know

Update: Note from Kevin Lomangino, managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org: “Thanks for calling attention to our work and this issue, which I agree is important. To be clear, @statnews did tighten up their COI/transparency policies in response to our reporting as we wrote here, “STAT becomes 3rd organization to revise policies after our scrutiny.” However, in this case the author has apparently failed to disclose the role of ghostwriters in his past work, so I’m not sure that STAT could/should trust any assurance he provided that the content is original.” 

USRTK response: We’re glad to see STAT tightened its COI policy but they must do better, as the Miller case demonstrates. In addition to the 2017 ghostwriting scandal, Miller has recent faulty disclosures and a long history of corporate fronting. See also our response to STAT editors about their COI disclosure policy. 

Follow the US Right to Know investigations by signing up for our newsletter here, and please consider making a donation to support our reporting.  

Henry Miller Dropped by Forbes for Monsanto Ghostwriting Scandal

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Update: In August of 2018, Miller left his perch of two decades as a fellow at the Hoover Institution for unknown reasons. He is now a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, a think tank funded by right-wing foundations related to the Koch Brothers that promotes climate science skepticism and seeks to end environmental regulations.

Henry I. Miller, MD, is a former FDA official and founding director of the FDA Office of Biotechnology; he has a long history of arguing against public health protections and taking positions outside of the scientific mainstream. Dr. Miller has claimed nicotine “is not particularly bad for you,” said low levels of radiation may be beneficial to health, and calls for the re-introduction of the insecticide DDT. He is perhaps the most prolific and best-known promoter of genetically engineered foods, writing for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Forbes and other outlets.

In August 2017, Forbes deleted all columns authored or co-authored by Miller in the wake of revelations that Monsanto ghostwrote a column that Miller published under his own name in Forbes.

Monsanto ghostwriting / dropped by Forbes

On August 1, 2017, the New York Times reported:

“Documents show that Henry I. Miller asked Monsanto to draft an article for him that largely mirrored one that appeared under his name on Forbes’s website in 2015. Forbes removed the story from its website on Wednesday and said that it ended its relationship with Mr. Miller amid the revelations.”

The emails between Miller and Monsanto’s Eric Sachs show how corporations and writers sometimes work together to promote corporate talking points in ways that are not disclosed to editors or the public.

In the emails, Sachs asked Miller to write about the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) on the cancer hazard of glyphosate. Miller replied, “I would be if I could start from a high-quality draft.” Sachs provided what he called a “still quite rough” draft, which he described to Miller as “a good start for your magic.” The draft appeared a few days later, largely unchanged, in this Forbes column that appeared under Miller’s name.

According to Retraction Watch, Forbes removed Miller’s work because it violated Fobes.com rules that contributors declare any potential conflicts of interest and publish only their original writing. “When it came to our attention that Mr. Miller violated these terms, we removed all of his posts from Forbes.com and ended our relationship with him,” said Mia Carbonell, senior VP of global communications at Forbes.

Forbes also removed articles co-bylined by Miller and other chemical industry allies, including Julie Kelly, Kavin Senapathy and Bruce Chassy.

Project Syndicate added this editor’s note to the top of articles written by Miller (and later deleted the columns entirely):

Legitimate objections have been raised about the independence and integrity of the commentaries that Henry Miller has written for Project Syndicate and other outlets; in particular that Monsanto, rather than Miller, drafted some of them. Readers should be aware of this potential conflict of interest, which, had it been known at the time Miller’s commentaries were accepted, would have constituted grounds for rejecting them.

Named as deliverable in Monsanto PR document

A Monsanto PR document describes the company’s plans to “protect the reparation and FTO of Roundup” by discrediting a cancer agency’s report about the cancer hazard of glyphosate. Page 2 of the plan describes the first external deliverable: “Engage Henry Miller.” Documents reported by the New York Times show that a Monsanto executive asked Miller to write about the cancer report and provided him with a draft that Miller posted largely unchanged under his own name in Forbes.

Read more about the Monsanto PR plan to discredit IARC here.

Funding and pitching his PR services

The Hoover Institution, where Miller resides as a fellow, has received funding from corporations and industry groups, including Exxon Mobil and the American Chemistry Council, as well as right-wing foundations — Sarah Scaife Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation, Donors Trust – and other leading funders of climate science denial that also push deregulation across the economy.

Miller pitched his corporate PR services in a 1998 “Work Plan Promoting Sound Science in Health, Environmental and Biotechnology Policy.” The document, posted in the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Library, describes Miller’s fees for writing articles, $5,000-$15,000, and proposed an expanded “science and risk communication” program to include arranging speeches, improving web presence and publishing a book. (Source: «Monsanto Papers»: la bataille de l’information, by Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel in Le Monde, June 2, 2017.)

Friend and trustee of corporate front group ACSH

Miller is a “friend and longtime trustee” of the American Council on Science and Health, and he has also been described as a “director” of that group. ACSH is a corporate front group that pitches its services to corporations for product defense, according to a 2012 leaked financial plan.

Defending the tobacco industry

In a 1994 APCO Associates PR strategy memo to help Phillip Morris organize a global campaign to fight tobacco regulations, Henry Miller was referred to as “a key supporter” of these pro-tobacco industry efforts.

In 2012, Miller wrote that “nicotine … is not particularly bad for you in the amounts delivered by cigarettes or smokeless products.”

Denying climate change

Miller is a member of the “scientific advisory board” of the George C. Marshall Institute, which is famous for its oil and gas industry funded denials of climate change.

Claiming nuclear radiation exposure may be “good for you”

In 2011, after the Japanese tsunami and radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, Miller argued in Forbes that “those … who were exposed to low levels of radiation could have actually benefitted from it.” He asked in Project Syndicate, “Can radiation be good for you?

Defending the pesticide industry 

Miller defended the use of widely-criticized neonicotinoid pesticides and claimed in the Wall Street Journal that “the reality is that honeybee populations are not declining.”

Miller has repeatedly argued for the re-introduction of DDT, a toxic pesticide banned in the United States since 1972, which has been linked to pre-term birth and fertility impairment in women.

Attacking the organic industry

Miller’s has written numerous attacks on the organic industry, including “The Colossal Hoax of Organic Agriculture” (Forbes), “Organic Farming is Not Sustainable” (Wall Street Journal) and “The Dirty Truth About Organic Produce” (Newsweek). Newsweek has refused to disclose Miller’s conflicts of interest; a 2018 Newsweek article by Miller attacking the organic industry was surrounded by Bayer ads.

Miller’s rhetoric about the organic industry, like many of his scientific claims, is far outside of mainstream science and common sense. In May 2017, Miller claimed, “Organic agriculture is to the environment what cigarette smoking is to human health.”

Defending the plastics industry

Miller defended the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA), which is banned in Europe and Canada for use in baby bottles.

Miller’s prolific pro-industry writings include

Jayson Lusk and Henry I. Miller, “We Need G.M.O. Wheat.” New York Times, February 2, 2014. Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, “General Mills Has a Soggy Idea for Cheerios.” Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “India’s GM Food Hypocrisy.” Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2012. Henry I. Miller, “Organic Farming Is Not Sustainable.” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “More Crop for the Drop.” Project Syndicate, August 7, 2014. Henry Miller, “California’s Anti-GMO Hysteria.” National Review, March 31, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “Genetic Engineering and the Fight Against Ebola.” Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2014. Henry I. Miller, “Salmon Label Bill Should Be Thrown Back.” Orange County Register, April 4, 2011. Henry I. Miller, “GE Labels Mean Higher Costs.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 7, 2012. Gregory Conko and Henry Miller, “Labeling Of Genetically Engineered Foods Is a Losing Proposition.” Forbes, September 12, 2012. Gregory Conko and Henry I. Miller, “A Losing Proposition on Food Labeling.” Orange County Register, October 11, 2012. Henry I. Miller and Bruce Chassy, “Scientists Smell A Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study.” Forbes, September 25, 2012. Jay Byrne and Henry I. Miller, “The Roots of the Anti-Genetic Engineering Movement? Follow the Money!Forbes, October 22, 2012.

Miller articles removed from Forbes include: Henry I. Miller and Julie Kelly, “How Organic Agriculture Evolved from Marketing Tool to Evil Empire,” Forbes, Dec. 2, 2015; Henry I. Miller and Julie Kelly, “Federal Subsidies to Organic Agriculture Should be Plowed Under,” Forbes, July 12, 2017;  Henry I. Miller and Julie Kelly, “Government Favors and Subsidies to Organic Agriculture: Follow the Money,” Forbes, Sept. 23, 2015.

Articles About Miller 

“Some GMO Cheerleaders Also Deny Climate Change” — Mother Jones

“Pro-Science GMO and Chemical Boosters Funded by Climate Deniers” – The Ecologist

“DDT and Malaria: Setting the Record Straight” – Pesticide Action Network

“TV Ad Against Food Labeling Initiative is Pulled” – Los Angeles Times

“Stanford Ad Demands Anti-Prop 37 Ad Be Changed” – Palo Alto News

Chemical Industry Allies

USRTK has compiled a series of fact sheets about writers and PR groups the agrichemical industry relies on to manufacture doubt about science that raises concern about risky products and argue against environmental health protections.
– Why You Can’t Trust Henry I. Miller
Why Forbes Deleted Some Kavin Senapathy Articles
Julie Kelly Cooks up Propaganda for the Chemical Industry
– The American Council on Science and Health is a Corporate Front Group
– Jon Entine of Genetic Literacy Project: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger
– Trevor Butterworth / Sense About Science Spins Science for Industry
Does Science Media Centre Push Corporate Views of Science?

Follow the USRTK investigation of Big Food and its front groups: https://usrtk.org/our-investigations/