Barbara Keeler and Robert Sterling
"Science is highly politicized .... Beware of science that feeds political agendas."
John Stossel, 20/20 reporter, "Junk Science: What You Know That May Not Be So"
The 20/20 hit piece on organics by John Stossel is old news to readers of alternative publications. Long a controversial voice in journalism, Stossel became more so after his February 4, 2000 20/20 report, "The Food You Eat."
Stossel's main hatchet man on the segment, Dennis Avery, was not identified on 20/20 as the author of SAVING THE PLANET WITH PESTICIDES AND PLASTIC, or as an employee of the Hudson Institute. Agribusinesses such as Dow, Monsanto, ConAgra, and Novartis are leading funders of the Hudson Institute.
Represented on Hudson Institute's board is the biotech industry's PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, involved in a massive PR campaign to counteract the escalating global anti-GE movement in the US and abroad. Those familiar with Avery and the Hudson Institute were not surprised that he was eager to smear the organic food industry on 20/20.
The unanswered question about the segment was why Stossel chose a mouthpiece for pesticides, biotech, chemical fertilizers, and agribusiness as 20/20's expert on organics. Moreover, why would a respected journalist create a segment calculated to mislead his audience about organic food?
We cannot say for sure, and maybe the question will never be answered for certain. We have, however, connected the dots from Stossel and ABC back to Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, ConAgra and others with vested interests in discrediting organic foods.
As the segment was produced, ABC was receiving a percentage of sales from "Stossel in the Classroom," educational materials published by the Palmer R. Chitester Fund and based on Stossel's ABC reports. The Chitester Fund is a conservative foundation dependant on contributions from the likes of the John M. Olin Foundation. The Olin Foundation was created and is still controlled by the Olin Corporation, a top producer of agricultural chemicals.
On the Board of Associates of the Chitester Fund sits Herb London, the President of the Hudson Institute. London also holds the John M. Olin Professorship of Humanities at New York University. The Hudson Institute received grants from the Olin Foundation of $125,000 in 1993 and $300,000 in 1994.
All of the above suggests an inbreeding of interests between two conservative foundations, a conservative think tank, and a supposedly independent journalist. Add the funding Hudson receives from chemical and agribusiness companies and the inbreeding appears potentially corruptive, even before factoring the representation of a biotech PR firm on its board.
The interlinks go further. The Olin Corporation was, along with Occidental Chemical and Dupont, one of the major firms involved in the Love Canal environmental scandal in Niagara Falls, NY. Here is Stossel's comment during a January 9, 1997 special report, titled "Junk Science: What You Know That May Not Be So":
"What happens when government policy is based on junk science? Billions of dollars are misspent, and people's lives altered forever. Love Canal. Times Beach. Defoliant Agent Orange. These names arouse fear because of the chemical dioxin. Dioxin is very poisonous. We know that from animal tests. Tiny amounts kill guinea pigs. That's why our government's spending hundreds of millions of dollars to protect us from dioxin."
"But is that good science? Just because a chemical hurts animals, does that mean it's harmful to us?"
Stossel proceeds to argue that dioxin isn't harmful, and that cases such as Love Canal are based on faulty science. The Environmental Protection Agency begs to differ. A draft of a long-overdue EPA report concludes that dioxin is indeed a dangerous and persistent "human carcinogen." Along the way, he manages to smear a variety of other supposed cases of "junk science," including breast implant lawsuits, during his report.
Apparently, Stossel hasn't learned his lesson: on July 15, he did another dishonest slam piece of the story behind the film ERIN BROCKOVICH. Though the giant utility company PG&E admits to illegally releasing the carcinogen chromium-6 in Hinkley, CA (they settled for $333 million with local residents), Stossel claimed there is no proof that chromium in drinking water can cause cancer. PG&E's own documents concede "the material is toxic," and covered up the fact that they had released high concentrations of the material in the water (up to 20 parts per million, according to PG&E's own measurements.) When the real-life Brockovich, a legal assistant who uncovered the corporate pollution, challenged Stossel to give himself and his family chromium-6 laced water, he declined. His main source for the piece, incidentally, was Michael Fumento, a Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute.
To be fair to Stossel, these connected dots do not prove he is for sale. It would be too easy to demonize him as an unprincipled hack for business interests. In truth, Stossel has been at times a surprisingly lone voice of courage in the mainstream media, speaking out in defense of free speech against frightening examples of censorship in America. If he were merely a cynical opportunist, he would have little reason to take stands where the rest of the establishment media remains silent.
Whatever his faults, Stossel appears to be sincere in his libertarian-like quest to limit the power of the state. If he was seduced by his ideology into supporting dubious claims, he certainly wouldn't be the first. Even so, nothing excuses his promotion of deceptive science that serves big business.
By incompetence or outright deceit, John Stossel has participated in what many regard as a libel of a multi-billion dollar industry with rapidly rising political influence. Such a blunder is rarely ignored. Some critics believe Stossel's more questionable works are catching up with him. For better or worse, many predict his is on his way down.
Barbara Keeler has focussed on nutrition and food safety as a journalist and contributor to nutrition, child development, parenting, health, and science textbooks.
Robert Sterling is publisher of Konformist.com, and the LA Meeting Coordinator for the international Great Boycott targetting the leading multinational producers of pesticides, GE food seeds, and toxic chemicals. He has spoken about green and food safety issues on the BBC and a variety of other radio and televsion stations.
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OTA Applauds EWG's Exposure of 20/20
Activists Say Stossel's Organic Apology Falls Short 8/14/00
OTA Says Planned Apology Falls Short, May Sue 8/8/00
Group Calls For Stossel's Job After Organic "Lie" Exposed 7/31/00
Prime-Time Organic Story Called Unfair
"Erin Brockovich, Fact or Fiction?" Josh Grossberg E! Online
FAIR On John Stossel
"Prime-time Propagandist" David Mastio
BUYING A MOVEMENT: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics
"Corporate Junk Science In The Media," Edward S. Herman
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