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. 

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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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Monsanto’s Fingerprints All Over Newsweek’s Hit on Organic Food

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Update: Newsweek’s bizarre response

By Stacy Malkan

“The campaign for organic food is a deceitful, expensive scam,” according to a Jan. 19 Newsweek article authored by Dr. Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution.

If that name sounds familiar – Henry I. Miller – it may be because the New York Times recently revealed a scandal involving Miller: that he had been caught publishing an article ghostwritten by Monsanto under his own name in Forbes. The article, which largely mirrored a draft provided to him by Monsanto, attacked the scientists of the World Health Organization’s cancer panel (IARC) for their decision to list Monsanto’s top-selling chemical, glyphosate, as a probable human carcinogen.

Reporting on an email exchange released in litigation with Monsanto over cancer concerns, the Times’ Danny Hakim wrote:

“Monsanto asked Mr. Miller if he would be interested in writing an article on the topic, and he said, ‘I would be if I could start from a high-quality draft.’

The article appeared under Mr. Miller’s name, and with the assertion that ‘opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.’ The magazine did not mention any involvement by Monsanto in preparing the article …

Forbes removed the story from its website on Wednesday and said that it ended its relationship with Mr. Miller amid the revelations.”

The opinion wire Project Syndicate followed suit, after first adding a disclaimer to Miller’s commentaries noting that they would have been rejected if his collaboration with Monsanto had been known.

Desperate to Disparage Organic

The ghostwriting scandal has hardly slowed Miller down; he has continued to spin promotional content for the agrichemical industry from outlets such as Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, without disclosing to readers his relationship with Monsanto.

Yet Miller’s Newsweek hit on organic food has Monsanto’s fingerprints in plain sight all over it.

For starters, Miller uses pesticide industry sources to make unsubstantiated (and ludicrous) claims about organic agriculture – for example, that organic farming is “actually more harmful to the environment” than conventional agriculture, or that organic allies spent $2.5 billion in a year campaigning against genetically engineered foods in North America.

The source on the latter inaccurate claim is Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto (not identified as such in the Newsweek article), who now directs a PR firm called v-Fluence Interactive.

Email exchanges reveal how Monsanto works with people like Jay Byrne – and with Byrne specifically – to push exactly this type of attack against Monsanto’s foes while keeping corporate involvement a secret.

According to emails obtained by my group US Right to Know, Byrne played a key role in helping Monsanto set up a corporate front group called Academics Review that published a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam – the exact theme in Miller’s Newsweek article.

Jay Byrne’s hit list of Monsanto foes. 

The concept of the front group – explained in the emails I reported here – was to create a credible-sounding platform from which academics could attack critics of the agrichemical industry while claiming to be independent, yet secretly receiving funds from industry groups. Wink, wink, ha, ha.

“The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” wrote a Monsanto executive involved in the plan.

Byrne’s role, according to the emails, was to serve as a “commercial vehicle” to help obtain corporate funding. Byrne also said he was compiling an “opportunities” list of targets – critics of the agrichemical industry who could be “inoculated” from the academics’ platform.

Several people on Byrne’s “opportunities” hit list, or later attacked by Academics Review, were targets in Miller’s Newsweek article, too.

Miller’s Newsweek piece also tried to discredit the work of New York Times’ reporter Danny Hakim, without disclosing that it was Hakim who exposed Miller’s Monsanto ghostwriting scandal.

As with other recent attacks on the organic industry, all fingers point back to the agrichemical corporations that will lose the most if consumer demand continues to rise for foods free of GMOs and pesticides.

Monsanto’s “Independent Academic” Ruse

Henry 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.

And Monsanto relies heavily on people with scientific credentials or neutral-sounding groups to make those arguments – people who are willing to communicate the company script while claiming to be independent actors. This fact has been established by reporting in the New York Times, Le Monde, WBEZ, the Progressive and many other outlets in recent years.

A newly released Monsanto document provides more details about how Monsanto’s propaganda and lobbying operation works, and the key role Henry Miller plays within it.

This 2015 “preparedness plan” – released by lawyers in the glyphosate cancer lawsuits – lays out Monsanto’s PR strategy to “orchestrate outcry” against the IARC cancer scientists for their report on glyphosate. The first external deliverable: “Engage Henry Miller.”

The plan goes on to name four tiers of “industry partners” – a dozen trade groups, academic groups and independent-seeming front groups such as the Genetic Literacy Project – that could help “inoculate” against the cancer report and “protect the reputation … of Roundup.”

Miller delivered for Monsanto with a March 2015 article in Forbes – the article later revealed as Monsanto’s writing – attacking the IARC scientists. The industry partners have been pushing the same arguments through various channels again and again, ever since, to try to discredit the cancer scientists.

Much of this criticism has appeared to the public as a spontaneous uprising of concern, with no mention of Monsanto’s role as the composer and conductor of the narrative: a classic corporate PR hoodwink.

As more documents tumble into the public realm – via the Monsanto Papers and public records investigations – the “independent academic” ruse will become harder to maintain for industry surrogates like Henry I. Miller, and for media and policy makers to ignore.

For now, Newsweek is not backing down. Even after reviewing the documents that substantiate the facts in this article, Newsweek Opinion Editor Nicholas Wapshott wrote in an email, “I understand that you and Miller have a long history of dispute on this topic. He flatly denies your assertions.”

Neither Miller nor Wapshott have responded to further questions.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer watchdog and transparency group, US Right to Know. She is author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry” (New Society, 2007). Disclosure: US Right to Know is funded in part by the Organic Consumers Association which is mentioned in Miller’s article and appears on Byrne’s hit list.