Why Monsanto Tried to Discredit a Book That Has No Factual Errors

Janine Jackson: There’s an old saying but true: “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed. All else is advertising.” And while many a reporter would tell you they are telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may, relatively few seem to really tread on toes powerful enough, forcibly enough, to generate a response.

Our next guest is wearing that particular badge of honor at the moment. Carey Gillam is a veteran reporter, covering food and agriculture for Reuters for many years, and is now research director at the group US Right to Know. One thing Gillam thinks we have a right to know about is the impacts of pesticides made by Monsanto, which she explores in her book Whitewash: The Story of a Weedkiller, Cancer and the Corruption of Science; it’s out now from Island Press.

Who doesn’t want you to know what’s in that book, or take it seriously? Monsanto. And the agrochemical giant, now owned by Bayer, is willing to go to some lengths to try and prevent that. Carey Gillam joins us now by phone from Kansas. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Carey Gillam.

Carey Gillam: Thank you, thanks for having me.

I know that you don’t want this to be about you; you’re not Monsanto’s only target. They go after all kinds of critics or questioners: journalists, activists, Neil Young, you know. And there’s no mystery why they’re so aggressive about image management: People have lots of concerns about genetically modified organisms, another product of theirs, and they’re losing lawsuits about the carcinogenic effects of their weedkiller Roundup, which you have researched extensively. So I would first like to ask you just to tell us a little bit about the book Whitewash, and then about the nature of Monsanto’s backlash, which started, as I understand it, before the book was even published.

Right. Yeah. I mean, the backlash started, well, more than a decade ago. As far as the book Whitewash, I started calling it The Book Monsanto Doesn’t Want You to Read. They filed a motion in court in one of the lawsuits, one of the big cancer lawsuits, before it went to trial, asking the judge to bar my book from being introduced as evidence.

And what we’ve seen recently is that they had in place a strategic plan, they involved a consulting company from Washington, D.C., they had 20 different line items on a spreadsheet, all aimed at discrediting the book before it was released.

But the book is really—I’ve tried to make it very reader-friendly. It’s almost an academic exercise. It’s based on a lot of documents and a lot of data, and tracks the history of the rise of this chemical to become so pervasive in our environment that it’s found in our own bodies, that it’s found in our food and our water, and it’s in the soil and it’s affecting the environment and reducing biodiversity. It really has become, as I’ve said, very pervasive.

And so the book explores how that happened, how Monsanto manipulated and collaborated with regulators to affect public policy and reduce the regulatory restrictions that should have been placed on this chemical. And it involves a lot of farmers and real stories of real people. So, it did win the Rachel Carson Book Award, and I’m very proud of the book.

Monsanto—as we know now through a recent release of internal Monsanto documents—Monsanto really does not like the book, and really has worked very hard to try to discredit the book, and to discredit me and my work.

Let’s just underscore it: Monsanto hasn’t come forth with any factual errors included in the book, have they?

No, and there are no factual errors in the book, save for a typo in the very end. Got a letter wrong in a word, but that’s been corrected in a reprint. But, no, as I said, I was very careful in writing this book to have everything documented and to footnote everything in the book.

I just want to add, in terms of the backlash, you have your own spreadsheet, you are “Project Spruce” at Monsanto/Bayer, and they outlined a lot of things, including kind of harassing you online, including inserting bad reviews, including talking to your editors and trying to get you moved off the beat, and including trying to upstream negative search results on the book.

Your group isn’t called “Monsanto Critics United”; it’s “US Right to Know,” and the book is about science, but it’s really also about the manipulation of science and public opinion, and that seems to be the thing that they want to squelch.

Right. And the harassment against me started while I was at Reuters, and continued after I left Reuters at the end of 2015, and has ramped up since I wrote the book. And, you know, it’s not unusual for a big company to be unhappy with reporters and stories that don’t follow company propaganda, and aren’t in line with the company’s talking points. That’s not unusual. But Monsanto’s pressure, and the extent of the pressure, is very unusual. But what is really egregious is the fact that the company doesn’t want to just stand up on its own and say, “We have a problem with Carey Gillam, and we have a problem with her book.” I mean, that’s fair, right? If that’s the way they feel, you know, bring it on.

What we know from the release of these internal Monsanto documents is that they are enlisting secret, third-party strategies to try to do things that come from them, but don’t look like they come from them, to try to discredit me. Because, of course, if Monsanto is the one laying out the criticism, you’re going to be maybe a little more skeptical of that. But if you hear it from a third-party academic, or somebody who looks like they’re a farmer or a dietitian or a scientist, you might think that that criticism is valid. And that’s their goal, and they lay that out, how they use the third-parties—ghostwritten blog posts, things like that, ghostwritten book reviews—how those things are really going to be effective.

And that, to me, is where media come in so forcibly; they really play into this phenomenon of third-party sources, by quoting in a story, for example, three supposedly different sources, without identifying financial relationships. And by that, they allow Monsanto, for example, to get a degree of distance. So it sounds as though their perspective is being echoed by farmers or by academics or by scientists, when, actually, it’s just people who are being paid to say the same thing. So I have to criticize journalists there, and an unwillingness to identify financial relationships of sources, or to interrogate them for amplifying—your colleague Gary Ruskin at US Right to Know calls it “creating a choir.” A company can’t do that without media’s buy-in, to some extent. And so my problem is with journalists as well.

Well, I guess I don’t take quite as harsh a view. If you’re new, if you’re a young reporter, if you’re new to the beat, if you haven’t covered agriculture, you don’t really know the backstory and the players and the history. You’re not going to necessarily know that you need to deeply check out the affiliations of a professor at the University of Illinois, for instance; you’re not going to know that he secretly is getting funding and direction from Monsanto. Or the University of Florida, or the university UC Davis. And, again, this is all things that we’ve only learned because of public record requests, and Freedom of Information, and discovery through court documents that have been turned over. You know, we wouldn’t know any of this. It’s designed so that the public won’t know any of this.

Right.

And so that reporters won’t know. It’s subterfuge. It’s a fraud upon the public, it’s an intended fraud upon the media, and it’s designed to control the narrative and control the news.

Journalists are not encouraged to interrogate every source that they receive, and, also, some players are better positioned to pepper journalists throughout the day with ideas and stories, and other folks are not similarly situated, and just don’t have the same relationship to journalists. So a multibillion-dollar corporation is always going to have the leg up, in terms of controlling that narrative.

I have noticed that you’ve been doing media about the backlash from Monsanto against your book. And when you do that media, Monsanto doesn’t show up to debate you. They don’t have to; they send a piece of paper that says, you know, “We’re rubber, you’re glue,” and that’s kind of the end of it.

And I always have to notice that if an activist or a researcher said, “Well, I have some complaints about Monsanto and their pesticides, and I have concerns about their health effects. But I’m not going to talk about them, I’m just going to send you a written statement,” I’m not sure that journalists would engage that in quite the same way. And so I guess for listeners, I want them to know that the silence benefits the powerful corporations in this regard, doesn’t it?

It certainly does, yeah. And this is what is so alarming, is that the company certainly doesn’t fight fair, and they have a lot of money and a lot of power. And they are wielding that power to try to control what the public knows about their products.

You’re certainly not stopping. In fact, you’re working on a new book, right? So this is not the end of the road for you, in terms of digging up what Monsanto might not want folks to know.

Oh, definitely not. With these trials, Monsanto’s turned over roughly 15 million pages of internal records. And those have opened up an entire new world of revelations about our regulatory system, about corruption of science and scientific journals and scientific literature. There’s a lot more to say about this subject.

Let me just ask you, finally: I called out reporting as part of the problem here, and I’m going to stand by that. But I also recognize reporting as part of the answer, you know? And I want to ask you, just finally, what do you hope other reporters will take from your story? What do you hope folks will get from the experience that you’re going through right now?

Guess a couple different things. One, we’ve also seen through the documents how they cultivate reporters. They will offer exclusives and exclusive interviews, and, you know, “We can really make you look great and give you access to our high-level executive, if you’ll write this story the way we want you to write it.”

I know that looks great for your editor, you’ve got an exclusive with a big company, but you really have to think seriously about promoting propaganda; you have to always report both sides, you have to be sure you’re understanding the story behind the spin.

And if you’re a reporter and you’re just reporting a story out there, and you’re quoting somebody who seems, you know, really, really enthusiastic about a particular company or product, take the time to do a little bit of googling, to see if there’s a connection there that maybe you’re not aware of. At least try to make that effort, because that’s part of the playbook that we are seeing from these corporations, are these secret liaisons that are designed to manipulate the media, and we need to be aware of it and try to be on top of it if we can.

We’ve been speaking with Carey Gillam. She’s research director at the group US Right to Know; they’re online at USRTK.org. Her book is called Whitewash: The Story of a Weedkiller, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, and it’s out now from Island Press. Carey Gillam, thanks for joining us again this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you for having me.