March 2019 update: Newsweek gets ad money from Bayer; publishes op-eds favorable to Bayer
By Stacy Malkan
Facts don’t matter in commentaries printed by Newsweek as long as the writer “seems genuine.” That’s the troubling implication from an email exchange I had with Newsweek Opinion Editor Nicholas Wapshott after I raised concerns about a column attacking organic food that had been written by an author who failed to disclose his pesticide industry ties.
The organic hit piece by Henry I. Miller ran in Newsweek several months after the New York Times revealed that an article in Forbes with Miller’s name on it had been ghostwritten by Monsanto. Forbes severed its ties with Miller and deleted all his articles from their site. Miller disclosed none of that in his Newsweek piece even though he spent several paragraphs attacking Danny Hakim, the New York Times reporter who revealed the ghostwriting scandal.
Miller made false claims about organic farming using pesticide industry sources.
The op-ed went downhill from there, using pesticide industry sources to make false claims about organic farming and attacking people who appeared on a “target” list that had been developed for Monsanto by Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former communications director. Miller quoted Byrne in the piece with no mention of the Monsanto affiliation.
None of this appears to bother Wapshott, according to an on-the-record email exchange.
Miller ‘Flatly Denies’ Facts
On Jan. 22, I emailed Wapshott to ask if he was aware that:
- The New York Times exposed Miller for publishing an article in Forbes under his own name that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto, and that Forbes has since deleted all his articles
- A 2015 Monsanto PR plan that discusses the company’s plans to defend glyphosate against cancer concerns lists as its first action item: “Engage Henry Miller
- 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 group of “independent” academics who were secretly funded by industry. The front group called Academics Review attacked the organic industry as a “marketing scam,” the same theme in Miller’s Newsweek article.
- 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.
Here is Wapshott’s response: “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 seeking clarification.
Hi Nicholas, to clarify:
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, but the above 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.”
Standards for COI Disclosure?
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? Wapshott did not respond to that inquiry. (Less than a week later, there was “upheaval at Newsweek” amid staff changes and financial troubles. Political editor Matthew Cooper wrote in his resignation letter, Some editors “recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness … I’ve never seen more reckless leadership.”)
A Problem Far Beyond Newsweek
Weak, confused, non-existent standards for disclosing conflicts of interest is a problem that 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.
USA Today Has Bizarre Standards for Opinion Writers Too
In February 2017, two dozen health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote the editors of USA Today asking them to stop publishing science columns by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group that receives funding from chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies to spin science.
Leaked financial documents from 2012 show how ACSH solicits money: by asking oil, tobacco, cosmetics and chemical companies for funds in exchange for product defense campaigns. Recent reporting establishes that ACSH worked with Monsanto to defend glyphosate from cancer concerns.
“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.
Stacy Malkan is co-director and co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public interest, consumer and public health research group.