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From Watchdogs to Lapdogs: How Corporate Media Mislead Us on GMOs

Despite assurances in mainstream media that GMOs are safe, consumers remain skeptical.

The Washington Post won lasting acclaim for its bold investigation of the 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters that led directly to the White House and ended with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. The reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein under the guidance of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee is undisputedly a pinnacle of American journalism. But the “Watergate Affair,” as it was known, proved to be an anomaly whose legacy was lost in a decades-long wave of corporate takeovers that culminated with just five corporations owning roughly 90% of all media outlets.

In this climate of consolidation, investigative reporters, science writers and ombudsmen began to disappear, and over time the journalistic watchdog became a lapdog. When Ben Bradlee died last October, Post editors spent page after page reminding readers of the golden moment in American journalism that was Watergate and the central role that the Post played. But that message was lost on a growing number of skeptics who believe that the Fourth Estate has evolved into what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges calls a “class of courtiers that captivates us with the hollow stagecraft of political theater” and in the name of journalism “ignores what the corporate state wants ignored.”

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this paradigm shift has been the biotechnology industry, or big biotech, whose genetically modification of agriculture (GMOs) swept across the U.S. like a prairie fire during the 90s and now stands poised to dominate world markets. But the engineering of food is an imprecise technology that has been long on promise and short on delivery. GE food got a pass thanks to the wishful thinking of greedy politicians at the highest levels of government eager to fast-track it without considering the consequences. Today, the U.S. government, its regulatory agencies and the media simply stand aside while lobbyists buy the influence of revolving door regulators who have the industry’s back and the votes of Congressmen who override or simply sidestep safety and environmental concerns.

Because of a news diet over-weighted with celebrity gossip, scandals, and endless distraction stories, few Americans until relatively recently knew little about GMOs other than that they are supposedly needed to “feed the world.” Over the years, many scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised safety concerns about the science, and its value. But political expediency trumped caution, and in 1992 “substantial equivalence” replaced the long entrenched “precautionary principle,” paving the way for commercialization of GE foods, which public interest attorney Steven Druker calls “the greatest fraud in U.S. history.” In Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public, Druker documents how the FDA covered up the warnings of its own scientists, repeatedly lied, and deliberately broke the law in enabling GE food to flood the market without any vetting.

Many critics believe that glyphosate, the broad-spectrum systemic herbicide marketed as Roundup that’s key to GE crop production, harms both our health and the environment. Because of the government-media-industry alliance, however, safety questions have gone unchallenged and GE crop production has exploded. According to the USDA, it now constitute 93% of all soy and 94% of all corn grown in the U.S, most of which is processed into the packaged foods found on grocery stores shelves.

Despite assurances in mainstream newspapers that GMOs are safe, consumers remain skeptical and, according to polls, the vast majority wants them labeled. But because grocery ads easily account for the lion’s share of the 69% in ad revenue that the Pew Research Center says that the average U.S. newspaper takes in, and critics argue that this guides news coverage and editorial content. The result has been in blackouts of newsworthy items such as the May 23 March on Monsanto, which took place in 428 cities in 38 countries, and a scarcity of news and op-eds critical of the technology. My own piece on “the myths and truths of GMOs” was finally killed without explanation 13 months after it was assigned vetted and accepted by the Washington Post.

GMO advocacy is not just limited to editorial pages. The 47% drop in newspaper ad revenue between 2005 and 2011 and staff cutbacks of 25% between 2006 and 2009 seems to have translated into more clout for advertisers who stuck around. In the case of biotech, that meant not only running articles favorable to the technology but routinely dismissing critics of it as “anti-science,” often in concert with industry front groups.

Some journalists have refused to march in lockstep, beginning with award winning reporters Steve Wilson and Jane Akre who set out in 1997 to expose the problems associated with rBGH bovine growth hormone milk in the debut segment of their television show, “The Investigators.” But a fax sent by an attorney representing GMO giant Monsanto that warned of “dire” consequences if the heavily documented, four-part series aired frightened Fox station WTVT in Clearwater, Fl. into pulling it and eventually firing Wilson and Akre. Their smackdown imposed an ominous silence among reporters that foreshadowed broad acceptance of rBGH here in the U.S.

But Monsanto encountered unexpected difficulty in marketing the hormone abroad after Health Canada scientist Dr. Shiv Chopra turned down a $1 to $2 million bribe to rubber stamp and fast track it north of the border and instead went public with his inauspicious findings. Dr. Chopra’s lost his job and his career of 35 years for speaking out, but because of the uproar from his revelations rBGH was never approved in Canada and elsewhere. Today, the U.S is the only country in the world where it is legal. Meanwhile, only a handful of mainstream journalists report critically about GMOs. Earlier this year, Monsanto tried without success to have one of them, Carey Gillam, fired from her job of 16 years covering agriculture for Reuters.

In March, Gillam reported on a whistleblowing complaint filed by 10 US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists who accused GMO promoters of exploiting vaguely worded policy guidelines to manipulate their findings, enabling the USDA to suppress and alter research that, regardless of merit, might negatively impact big agribusiness. This, she wrote, gives companies “access to top agency managers,” empowering them to order scientists to withhold data, rewrite, retract and delay scientific papers, and lodge complaints. Scientists whose work could cause industry regulatory headaches, her article stated, face lengthy, intimidating investigations and disciplinary action.

“It is not the proper role of the USDA to engage in a cover up for Monsanto and other agrichemical companies,” noted Gary Ruskin, head of the pro-labeling group US Right to Know, in a letter demanding that the US House and Senate agricultural committees investigate the matter. News of the complaint appeared in the Huffington Post and the alternative media, but not the Washington Post and other “opinion leaders.” An exhaustive search of various databases failed to find a single mainstream publication that ran Gillam’s piece about the bullying of the USDA scientists.

The biotech industry’s domination by a few powerful companies that push a technology that offers consumers no real advantages caught the attention in 2010 of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which launched an investigation of Monsanto for allegedly anticompetitive practices in the U.S. seed market. But in 2013 the DOJ mysteriously withdrew its complaint without providing additional information. Even stranger, Monsanto itself announced an end to the investigation.

But instead of taking a page from Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee, and drilling down about why an official three-year investigation ended quietly without any explanation on a Thanksgiving weekend, the mainstream media simply let the matter drop. The media also failed to examine whether GMOs could be linked to the surge in allergy, cancer and autism that began roughly about the time that these controversial foods appeared on the market, or why the U.S. has become what the National Research Council has referred to as the sickest rich nation in the world despite having the world’s best medical technology. Even enterprising reporters would have difficulty getting to the bottom of such a complex story, especially since biotech companies do only short term testing which because of patent rights is off limits to outsiders.

All told, 1803 scientific studies have reported adverse reactions to GMOs, while about 1700 others – most conducted by industry – declared them harmless. But rare long term studies have produced results that are troubling. A particularly high profile study conducted by Eric-Giles Seralini and his research team at the University of Caen found that rats weaned on a diet of BT corn laced with glyphosate, the chemical integral to GMO production, sustained severe liver and kidney damage, breast tumors and died young. When images of Seralini’s grotesquely deformed rodents went viral in 2012, the vast majority of journalists had no idea what to make of it.

So for guidance many of them turned to the Science Media Centre and other self-styled scientific bodies which offered assurances that Seralini’s study had no merit because it didn’t include enough of the right types of rats, even though the Sprague Dawley animals used in the experiment were identical to those employed by Monsanto in its own short term tests. What many journalists didn’t know was the SCM is largely funded by big biotech, resulting in largely negative coverage that according to SpinWatch was filled with “ready-made quotes from scientists savaging the study” that had been “spoon-fed” to news outlets by SMC. The New York Times even referred to one of the SMC’s “experts” in its coverage. Subsequent to the uproar over Seralini’s work, hundreds of scientists who assessed the study found it significant and criticism of it unconvincing and politically motivated.

The unbalanced reporting prompted independent GMO scientists and academicians to write an open letter lambasting reporters for not including “even minimal coverage of support for the Seralini paper.” The mainstream media similarly overlooked the findings by the World Health Organization (WHO), which in March announced that glyphosate, the chemical central to industrialized GE crop production, is “probably carcinogenic.”

Compare the mainstream’s underwhelming coverage of the Seralini study, the WHO announcement, the marches against Monsanto in hundreds of cities around the world and the virtual news blackout of the USDA whistleblowers with the headline grabbing letter signed by 10 “prominent” physicians who demanded the resignation of staunch GMO labeling advocate Dr. Mehmet Oz from his post as chairman of Columbia University’s surgery department and cancellation of his popular television show for touting naturopathic remedies on the air but almost certainly because of his advocacy for GMO labeling and his ability to curtail drug purchases by members of his large viewing audience.

The Washington Post, National Public Radio, USA Today, Fox News, Forbes and other “opinion leaders” that rely on advertising by pharmaceutical companies, grocery producers and other special interest companies professed outrage because many of Oz’s essentially harmless recommendations that probably don’t kill anybody are not “evidence-based” while ignoring the fact that evidence-based prescribed medication causes at least 100,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.

Dr. Bob Arnot, chief medical correspondent of NBC News, caught his peers with their pants down by linking the manufactured assault on Oz by dog pack journalists to special interests tied to the $30 billion a year drug industry and the pro-GM lobby, pointing out that one of the “prominent” doctors who signed the letter, Gilbert Ross, spent nearly four years in prison for Medicare fraud before heading up the American Council of Science and Health, an industry front “astroturf” group for GMO, drug and tobacco producers. Another “prominent” signatory, Dr. Henry Miller, turned out to be a vocal biotech industry shill who in 2012 claimed false connections to Stanford University during the heated battle over California GMO labeling initiative Proposition 37.

The media attack dogs were at it again in May, this time targeting Chipotle for becoming the first fast food restaurant to go non-GMO. “Chipotle’s Gimmick is Hard to Swallow,” blared the Washington Post. “Why We Can’t Take Chipotle’s GMO Announcement All that Seriously,” chimed in NPR. “We’ve come to expect a complete and utter lack of balanced reporting and journalistic integrity when it comes to some of the issues the natural health community cares about,” commented the Alternative Health Daily, “but this sort of vindictive screed against a company for simply trying to satisfy its customers strikes us as particularly egregious and appalling.”

The harshest criticism came from the editorial board of the Washington Post, which blasted Chipotle’s “global propaganda campaign” not only for being “contrary to the best scientific knowledge but also potentially harmful to vulnerable populations,” suggesting that scientists whose work reveals inconvenient truths about GMO technology (presumably including the 10 USDA whistleblowers) are not the “best” scientists and perhaps even “anti-science” as well as personally reprehensible for preventing the biotech industry from “feeding the world,” when there is already more than enough food to feed the world, 40% of which goes to waste because faulty or non existent distribution networks. Most significantly, these “opinion leaders” seem to be saying that any restaurant chain that dares to follow Chipotle’s lead can expect to be savaged by dog pack journalists.

This article originally appeared in Natural Solutions Magazine.

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