FrankenJournalism

By Keith Kloor | May 29, 2013 10:15 am

Whatever your opinion of the worldwide protest against Monsanto this past weekend, one thing is true: It deserved media coverage. Lots of noisy people with colorful signs took to the streets to voice their opposition to GMOs and the company that has come to symbolize them. It was an event tailor made for TV.

So when CNN’s Jake Tapper announced on Tuesday that his show–The Lead–was covering the Monsanto protest, I looked forward to watching the segment. Tapper is one of the best political journalists in Washington. I’ve long admired his work. (In 2013 he moved from ABC to CNN.) He recently scored big with a major scoop on the Benghazi ‘scandal.’ Tapper is a journalist who gets a story right.

Alas, his reportage on the Monsanto protest was flawed from the start, when he matter of factly told viewers that 2 million people in 436 cities and 52 countries had turned out for the March on Monsanto. This is a claim that the protest leaders have made and spread with much success. Reporters know better than to repeat verbatim the turnout claims of organizers. In this case, there is also good reason to think that the 2 million number is a tad inflated, to put it charitably.

At any rate, on the website where the segment appearsCNN exhibited the right perspective and skepticism after the show aired:

Two million people in more than 50 countries marched over the weekend in protest against a company called Monsanto, organizers claimed. CNN could not independently verify those numbers.

But what annoyed me most about the piece is when Tapper used a much maligned 2012 study as a sensationalist prop to explain what, in part, was firing up the protesters about Monsanto:

Some of the outrage was sparked by shocking photos showing massive tumors that developed on rats that ate genetically modified corn over a lifetime.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Caen, France. It has been criticized by many in the scientific community, and by the European food safety authority, who said it is simply not up to scientific standards.

Even so, the disturbing tumor photos lead many to question their own standards about what exactly they are eating.

This is the same study that some reporters allowed themselves to be manipulated on, which then allowed the dubious research findings to be uncritically reported in the first wave of media coverage. Even though Tapper correctly noted the eventual widespread scientific criticism of the study, I still find it disingenuously used in the CNN segment. I guess the producers found those photos of the tumorous rats irresistible.

Tapper, to his credit, engaged with my initial criticism on Twitter and said I was making a “subjective assertion,” which is a fair rejoinder. Still, it just seems like a vicious cycle, in which a badly reported (and scientifically rebuked) study from last year is now recycled in a new story about why people are fearful of GMOs. I also have a feeling that those pictures of the tumor-ridden rats splashed across TV screens probably made a greater impression on viewers than Tapper’s acknowledgement of the scientific criticism of the study. But that’s just my subjective interpretation of how people process information.

My other complaint about the segment is the way Monsanto is framed as the other side of the story on the health and safety aspect of GMOs, resulting in this:

On its website, Monsanto states, “plant biotechnology has been in use for over 15 years, without documented evidence of adverse effects on human or animal health or the environment.”

CNN could have presented that same information as coming from recognized scientific authorities, such as the AAAS and the World Health Organization, or other credible experts, like Pam Ronald. That would have given viewers unfamiliar with the GMO issue a more accurate take on the state of the science.

As far as the impetus for the weekend protest, what is most likely responsible for fanning the flames of GMO outrage in the United States is the recent passage of a congressional provision that has been widely referred to informally as the “Monsanto Protection Act.” This measure has been depicted rather one dimensionally as giving special regulatory exemptions to agricultural seed companies like Monsanto, but as NPR reports,

a closer look at the language of the provision suggests it may not be granting the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] any powers it hasn’t already exercised in the past.

“It’s not clear that this provision radically changes the powers USDA has under the law,” Greg Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

If you read the provision closely (it’s on page 78, Sec. 735, of this PDF), you’ll see that it authorizes the USDA to grant “temporary” permission for GMO crops to be planted, even if a judge has ruled that such crops were not properly approved, only while the necessary environmental reviews are completed. That’s an authority that the USDA has, in fact, already exercised in the past.

Nonetheless, appearances have trumped reality and the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” has become a rallying cry for GMO opponents. Tapper in his CNN report covered this angle of the story but overlooked the nuances provided by NPR. For a more entertaining version of the simplistic narrative, watch this Jon Stewart bit.

I understand that, with a visual medium like TV, the GMO controversy is bound to be depicted in stereotypical fashion. But need the stories always be outfitted with white hats and black hats?

Look, is Monsanto a multinational behemoth that aims to maximize its profits and protect its own interests? Of course, just like Apple, Nike, and other industry titans. And activists and journalists should do what they do to keep these giants accountable for their corporate behavior.

But making a company out to be an evil bogeyman is something else entirely. I realize it helps advance the anti-GMO cause, but that doesn’t mean journalists have to play along to the same script. This may come as a shock to some, but activists, be they well-intentioned or not, have their own agendas. And if one of them tells you that 2 million protesters participated in a march against Monsanto, you probably shouldn’t take that at face value. And if one of them tells you that Monsanto is poisoning humanity with its GMOs, you probably should ask someone other than Monsanto if that’s true, preferably a reputable outside expert or two.

Unfortunately, the norms of journalism being what they are, I fully expect future news stories about GMOs to continue to be rife with Frankenfood tropes, hyperbolic rhetoric, and villainous portrayals of a certain agricultural company.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs, science, select
  • Mike Bendzela

    Wait…you mean I get to be the first one to call you a “shill”?

    (Just joking.)

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    Ya know, and I understand the people selling books are eager to be on TV and are available, but do they have to always be the ones commenting?

  • Arnold Rosielle

    Great piece.

  • Buddy199

    Unfortunately, the norms of journalism being what they are

    ——-

    The norms are what they are because the average American reads at a 7th to 8th grade level. If your journalism can’t attract eyeballs you can’t attract advertisers. Add in a healthy dose of ideological bias on the part of journalists and there you have it, folks.

  • Clear Food

    Nice job. All the opponents of plant biotech have to go on is demonizing a corporation as they have no science. It reveals their battle is political in nature and has nothing to do with food, health or the environment – other than to create instability for their own political (and on the organic side, economic) gains. Putting such conspiratorial and evil “human” values on a company ignores the reality of the people working there. It would be much, much harder to convince the world that thousands of evil scientists are conspiring to control the world’s food supply and poison the planet so just label it as some singular faceless villain called Monsanto. Sadly these claims make for juicy headlines that the lowest common denominator and ill-informed journalists dominating our news services today covet.

    • carolannie

      You are confusing the fact that a company can behave as an entity with the behavior of its components. This is the fallacy of composition in reverse. If some subset of individuals working for Monsanto are simply good guys, then the whole of Monsanto must be good. Which of course is idiotic, since the corporate behavior of Monsanto has been much less than exemplary.

      • Charles Rader

        carolannie, it’s nice to see some common sense about this. One of the things I find particularly silly is assuming that a corporation that sold Agent Orange over fifty years ago is somehow still not to be trusted, even though nobody who makes policy in Monsanto today was making policy then.

  • carolannie

    I find it fascinating that you agree that Monsanto only wants to maximize profits but then say that it isn’t “evil”. An immoral pursuit of profit, which includes the legal pursuit of so -called non-royalty paying farmers whose crops are contaminated by unwanted Monsanto GMOs don’t make the behemoth a kindly neighbor full of benevolence. If anything, the history of capitalistic entities is one of predation and intimidation, not of jolly green ranchers striding across the fields full of benevolence towards the country and its inhabitants.

    This has absolutely nothing to do with GMOs by the way, but a whole lot to do with the implication that Monsanto is somehow benevolent and its products beneficent. I think the fact that people focus on the wrong aspects of the GMO discussion (not the harm done by GMOs but the harm done by CEOs with no conscience) does weaken and dilute the strength of their arguments,

    • Buddy199

      CEO’s have only one obligation: to maximize value for shareholders within the boundaries of the law. A CEO does not have a primary obligation to be a “good corporate neighbor”, provide a social welfare state for his employees or hand out fairy dust on Earth Day. If that’s immoral, well, such has produced an abundance of food, energy, convenience, medical and tech advances that have lifted billions out of subsistence poverty, hunger and disease in a manner unparalleled in human history. What criminality has Monsanto been convicted of?

      • jh

        ‘A CEO does not have a primary obligation to be a “good corporate neighbor”

        One would think CEOs would have some motivation to provide benefits to society. But as we can see from the discussion in the previous thread, no good corporate deed goes unpunished. Even when McDs adds piles of healthy foods – foods that provide lower profits than it’s regular offerings – the nutcases just keep right on complaining that corporations are immoral and seek only profit for themselves.

    • Shi

      Dear carolannie,

      Some farmers took Monsanto to court over the idea that they might get sued for patent infringement in the case of GMO contamination, but their case was dismissed because couldn’t cite any such cases: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/10/18/163034053/top-five-myths-of-genetically-modified-seeds-busted

      That being said, what I think Keith is trying to say is, if corporate behavior is the issue, how come Nike and Apple aren’t as hated as Monsanto?

      • tropicgirl

        They just use slave labor. Monsanto kills people to reduce the population for our own good.

        Although Monsanto serves organic food in its cafeteria. Wonder why? Look it up. And don’t give me the “cover my butt after getting caught red handed stuff”…

    • jh

      Why is the pursuit of profit “immoral”?

      Profit brings tax revenues. Tax revenues fund education and scientific research. Are tax revenues immoral? How would we obtain them if there were no profits to tax?

      • tropicgirl

        Its immoral when you poison people to get money.

        It really is. I hate to break it to you.

  • dogctor

    So, if I understand the critique of the CNN piece, the reporter should not have highlighted that those marching against Monsanto and for GMO labeling are concerned about the impacts on their health from untested GMOs and their toxicity, as implied by the Seralini study. It was not sufficient to say that the study was heavily criticized,as is true. The reporter shouldn’t have mentioned it at all, just as the rest of mainstream media which blacked the study out, or should have characterized it as a discredited invalid study.

    This in spite of the fact that the rabid and coordinated criticism was orchestrated by scientists with blatant conflicts of interest, and regulatory agencies expectedly engaged in CYA, as well as the fact that hundreds of independent scientists are recognizing scientific fraud and are on record offering Seralini support.
    http://independentsciencenews.org/health/seralini-and-science-nk603-rat-study-roundup/

    As someone who considers herself a scientist I have a couple of points to say on the subject.

    1. Most, if not all, of the criticism levied against Seralini are applicable to all of the industrial safety studies, including the most commonly cited red herring on the use of a cancer-prone rat. The same rat is also a kidney- disease-prone rat (CPN), so it is amazing to read that rudimentary tests of kidney function are not performed on these rats and the sample sizes chosen are too small to detect anything but near- lethal kidney failure in 90 days.

    2. Most importantly, though-the scientific way to refute a study is to replicate it minus the perceived experimental design flaws, demonstrating with contradictory data that the published conclusions are false. To my knowledge there are no life-long feeding trials on record, in spite of multiple different unrelated scientists from different nations recommending long term feeding trials. Furthermore, scientific replication of studies demonstrating harm from GMOs is never carried out by Monsanto et al.

    I did find the title of this post ironically appropriate. It takes a real science journalist with balls to go against mainstream dogma, and courage to report such facts, it seems, is in incredibly short supply.

    • danguss

      There has never been a life-long feeding trial on anything. It’s not realistic, nor is it even REMOTELY necessary to establish safety.

      • tropicgirl

        Its like bashing a kitten in the head to see if it will harm the kitten.

        Duh….

      • dogctor

        Seralini did one.

        Others have done multigenerationl studies and recommended further analysis of http://www.biosicherheit.de/pdf/aktuell/zentek_studie_2008.pdf reproductive effects as well as an analysis of upregulated and downregulated genes in rodents’ metabolic organs. The findings were not what I’d consider straight forward and this study disappeared like the proverbial unicorn.

        As to remotely necessary….as a medical scientist, I and other thoughtful people, believe it is necessary.

        The current crop of GMOs millions to billions of people and animals are ingesting today has been bombarded with particles of DNA, which inserted desirable and superfluous DNA randomly into the genome of plants, created truncating proteins and fusion proteins…and we do not know how these affect us.

        And there are reasons to be concerned about Round Up due to escalating population exposure expected with the EPA’s recommendations to raise (double?) acceptable contamination levels.

    • http://geneticmaize.wordpress.com/ Anastasia

      You may want to re-check the literature. There are many independent, multi generational feeding trials.

      If you were director of R&D for Monsanto, would you bother redoing a study like Seralini’s rodent study? Even if it wasn’t full of methodological and statistical errors, a redo would never be trusted since it’s evil Monsanto. There’s no point.

      • dogctor

        Yes, I would Anastasia. I would definitely redo it. It takes deliberative thought and planning but if I was CEO of Monsanto, I would be paying a third party (such as NIH ) to coordinate and run the research through the public sector.

    • Tom Scharf

      Untested GMO’s?

      Isn’t the usual anti-GMO euphemism “not independently tested”? Get your talking points straight.

      • dogctor

        The kidney function is most definitely not appropriately tested, because it is impossible to assess kidney function in a species of rat prone to kidney disease, without a urinalysis, repeat data to assess metabolic trends and a large sample size experimented on, for a sufficiently long period of time to measure effects.

    • FosterBoondoggle

      “As someone who considers herself a scientist”…

      Which is in contrast to what everyone else considers you.

      I saw up close just how scientific doctors are when I taught college physics to pre-meds 30 years ago. (At UC Berkeley, in case you wondered.) They’re not. Being able to regurgitate citations from low quality journals doesn’t make you a scientist.

      You’ve repeatedly demonstrated in these pages & others that whenever someone responds directly to your claims with clear refutation, you’ll throw up a smoke screen of complicated sounding but meaningless verbiage. And also make up additional reasons why whatever labeling regime someone suggests or notes that you have alternatives that meet your claimed needs, albeit not absolutely perfectly, it’s never enough. Such as “I eat in restaurants a lot, and I don’t trust the ones that say they’re organic.” Are you trying to persuade? Or is this just a feel-good exercise for you?

      • dogctor

        Hi Foster. Thanks so much for your concern about my essence and bodily fluid. Being Russian, and raised as a little commie, your concern was an interesting twist of fate.
        When you called the local organic restaurants I frequent,
        did you ask them the following questions:

        Do you use GMO soy in your tofu and veggie burgers?
        Do you use canola, soybean, corn -oils to fry the foods?
        Do you use sugar from Round Up Ready sugar beets?
        Can I see a poll and its margin of error, please :)

    • tropicgirl

      “scientific replication of studies demonstrating harm from GMOs is never carried out by Monsanto et al”

      Of course not. Then they would be murdering their scientific subjects and they don’t want to go there.

      You poison lovers are too much.

      • FosterBoondoggle

        We must all be dead. Weird… I hadn’t noticed.

      • dogctor

        Hi tropicgirl.
        I don’t want to speak to motives, because truthfully there is no way for me to know what they are.
        They could be as simple as cheapness and unwillingness to invest $ into research, because it is expensive. Seralini spent $2M.
        Or-lack of expertise in laboratory animal medicine and internal medicine
        Or-intent to hide harm to protect profits, which is a fiduciary duty of a corporation.
        I do not know which of those it is, and there is always a possibility that I lack perspective of other motives, as well.
        I tend to give people the benefit of doubt, where it comes to motives, and I find science much easier in this regard, because science in its pure form simply shows what the current state of scientific facts are today.

        • TrackTheMoney

          AS TO MOTIVES>>>

          It doesn’t matter. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act specifically bars the F.D.A. from including any information about pesticides on its food labels.

          I thought about Maryanski’s candid and wondrous explanations the next time I met Phil Angell, who again cited the critical role of the F.D.A. in assuring Americans that biotech food is safe. But this time he went even further. ”Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food,” he said. ”Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.’s job.”

          >>> Quote from Monsanto Executive from New York Times article in 1998. Here is the link:

          http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/25/magazine/playing-god-in-the-garden.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

    • Shadeburst

      Dear dogctor, millions and millions of diabetics have been using insulin made from gmo yeast for over 30 years now, three to four times a day, with zero ill effects. But of course as far as you’re concerned gmo’s are still untested because you’re not wearing your scientist hat now, you’re wearing your hysterical hat.

      • dogctor

        The recombinant insulin, erythropoietin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erythropoietin
        , interferon http://www.biotecharticles.com/Healthcare-Article/Recombinant-Interferon-as-Drugs-196.html,
        G-CSFs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filgrastim
        are made by an entirely different process.
        1. the genetic engineering technique itself is completely different and produces a precise product, down to a single amino acid
        2. They are labeled
        3. They underwent clinical trials
        4. Benefits and risks of using them are considered and discussed with patients
        5. The organisms are contained and are not contaminating others

        I use them and have been quite pleased with their effects. I only wish we could afford species specific medical products, because cats and dogs can develop antibodies to products designed for humans.

        • TrackTheMoney

          Well said! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Monsanto has apparently hired a guy named Jon Entine from the Genetic Literacy Project as their PR man to protect their interests and to write op-ed pieces for Forbes and others. He claims to be a science writer but is also the founder of ESG Media Metrics, a public relations firm, that has Monsanto as a client.

          http://www.esgmediametrics.com/

          • dogctor

            He is also totally ignorant of science. I’ve debated him before. And he censors posts he doesn’t like.
            If you are on G+, I posted a screenshot of his handy work in censorship–the reason I call his site the genetic illiteracy project.

            Thank you & you are very welcome!

  • Tom Scharf

    You are going to love this one, headline news at NPR:

    GMO Wheat Found In Oregon Field. How Did It Get There?http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/05/30/187103955/gmo-wheat-found-in-oregon-field-howd-it-get-there

    This is covered more breathlessly than the latest SARS outbreak.

  • TrackTheMoney

    So, why can’t we just label our food so that consumers can make an informed choice. Oh yeah, they passed a law that prevents states from requiring labels.

    • FosterBoondoggle

      False. As five seconds with google could have told you, if you cared about facts as opposed to perpetuation of tribal myth.

      As usual, this comes out of some true germ of fact, processed through the game of advocacy telephone until it reaches an apotheosis of bogosity. (rBST milk formerly couldn’t be labeled as rBST-free, since it could still contain non-r BST which is chemically identical. But that was a regulatory decision, was only about rBST, and was overturned by a federal court 5 years ago.)

      There’s already an independent organization that certifies “non-GMO” food. Companies can pay for the certification and then label their food accordingly. See here: http://www.nongmoproject.org.

      • TrackTheMoney

        Thanks, Foster.
        What do you know about Jon Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project?

  • tropicgirl

    Keith, you like poison in your food? Really?

    Instead of pissing your pants over numbers, why not think about what GMO is doing to you, your kids, your parents…

    Are you human at all? Or just a tool?

    Sleep well.

  • tropicgirl
    • FosterBoondoggle

      Stick to your own hand-grown wheat, harvested with a brass sickle during a new moon and you should be fine.

  • Tom C

    Keith – Great how you put scandal in quotes re Benghazi. Yeah, there was was no effort by the WH to mislead, even though Obama was emphasizing the false video narrative fully three weeks after the attack. Pathetic.

    • kkloor

      Tom C-

      You’re going all on this, heh? Be careful of the rabbit hole the GOP has gone down. I noticed that notorious lefty NYT columnist David Brooks recently tried to tamp down the fever:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/opinion/brooks-the-next-scapegoat.html?_r=0

      • Tom C

        Keith – Your debate strategy here mirrors the one you use for CAGW. Ignore the crux of the issue and focus on one component of it that is easily defendable. So, while the issue might be “will AGW cause massive environmental problems” you can sidestep this difficult and crucial debate by arguing about whether increasing CO2 will lead to warming. Along the way you can demonize your interlocuter and name drop social scientists and fancy terms like cognitive bias, blah blah.
        Here also you sidestep the real issues and the scandal and focus on a minor point “who modified the talking points” which can possibly be defended in Clinton’s and Obama’s favor. But the serious points remain, despite your misdirection: Why, 3 weeks after the event, when there was clarity, was Obama at the UN going on about “insulting the prophet”?; why did Clinton tell the father of one of the victims that “we will jail the person that made that video” before it was known who made the video? [remember that thing called free speech, Keith]; why, fully 3 months after the event could Clinton, in testimony, still not discuss it as a terrorist attack?
        These are scandals of purposely lying to the public for politcal purposes. A shame that you are an enabler.

  • 013090

    Ironically, so many of these anti-GMO’ers say such nasty things about young earthers and climate change deniers, but when you read their posts it becomes quite clear they have a good bit in common.

  • GodsGoodCountry

    The “silent killer” argument, used by anti-GMO folks proves their claims are unscientific. Those researchers able to engineer life-processes in order to make a unique product must first know what the standard product looks like, a “baseline”, in comprehensive detail. Any unintended modifications or products will be clearly seen against that comprehensive “baseline” through routine analysis.

  • harkin

    Dood is crediting Tapper with his Benghazi “scoop” more than a week after it was proven false? lol

  • mertsj

    Here’s what I want to know…if evolution is occurring why would plants not be genetically modified by nature itself? And if some company wants to accelerate the process a bit…what’s the big deal?

  • johnwerneken

    Myself, I’d be happy to march in a mob demanding the permanent incarceration of Monsanto’s opponents and the entire wacko yuppie multicultual agalitarian envronmental terrorist conspiracy. At least until they admit they have values confused with facts.

    • dogctor

      There are neither honest facts on your side, values to aspire to (ethics) nor precise science. So, march away, against 90%+ of the population demanding your untested mutant inventions are labeled.

      Considering the frequency with which such rearrangements
      are known to occur in economically important food
      crops, it is surprising that the functional insert in GTS
      40-3-2 Roundup Ready soybeans was not well described until Windels et al.’s study (2001), several years
      after regulatory approval
      for the use of this genetically
      engineered strain had been granted in the United States
      for food, environmental and animal feed uses (Payne,
      1994). The 3′ region flanking the functional gene insert
      had undergone an extensive rearrangement, involving
      among other things, partial duplication of the functional
      insert and deletion of genomic DNA (Windels et al.,
      2001). It is apparent from the regulatory documents
      submitted to the United States Department of Agriculture that full disclosure of the molecular characteristics of the functional insert and its flanking genetic material had not been made (Payne, 1994). Subsequent to regulatory approval in the United States, GTS 40-3-2 was approved for use in several countries in South and Central America, Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and Southern Africa. Despite many detailed studies on the GTS40-3-2 strain prior to regulatory approval, the effects of the rearranged DNA on the stability and function of the GTS40-3-2 strain, the functional insert, or its effect on other genes and regulatory elements within the
      plant have not been studied

      http://richardacollins.com/images/public/FoodControl2004(15)471-478.pdf

      cc. Robert Wagner who claims that insertional mutagenesis is screened for and characterized before marketing.

  • Jerry Ligon

    With a topic so controversial, we must have the choice whether to buy GMO products on the grocery shelves or not. Individual knowledge will allow the choice to be made, but only IF we know what is or is not GMO products.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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