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USA Today Ridiculed for Column by Industry Front Group

usa today

Story at-a-glance -

  • USA Today publishes “science” columns authored by members of corporate-funded industry front group the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH)
  • In a letter to the editors, doctors and public-interest groups called on USA Today to stop publishing ACSH content or at least require that the organization be identified for what it truly is: a corporate front group

By Dr. Mercola

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is a non-profit organization with the motto "Science. Not Hype."

It claims to be an independent research and advocacy organization consisting of concerned scientists who are devoted to debunking junk science, with a mission to "publically support evidence-based science and medicine."1

So, to hear that ACSH members have authored science columns published by USA Today may not immediately seem concerning, nor newsworthy, but if you dig even slightly beneath the surface it becomes clear that ACSH is not an organization to be trusted and viewed as an independent source on science.

In a letter to the editors of USA Today, more than two dozen doctors and health, environmental, labor and public-interest groups called on the news outlet to stop publishing ACSH content or at least require that it be identified for what it truly is: a corporate front group. The letter begins:2

"We are writing to express our concern that USA Today continues to publish columns written by members of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate-funded group with a long history of promoting corporate agendas that are at odds with mainstream science.

USA Today should not be helping this group promote its false identity as a credible, independent source on science. Your readers deserve accurate information about what and whom this group represents, as they reflect on the content of the columns."

ACSH Tries to Shape Science to Support Its Corporate Funders

The ACSH has defended everything from fracking and pesticides to bisphenol-A (BPA) and genetically engineered (GE) foods.

A quick review of their website reveals discussions of "chemophobia — the irrational fear of chemicals"3 and other questionable statements, like "there is very little evidence that alleged conflicts of interests are significantly distorting scientific research."4

There are articles in support of toxic flame retardants5 and artificial sweeteners,6 disputing the dangers of air pollution7 and even one claiming that organic food companies and environmental groups are "attempting to undermine the American public's confidence in science by … telling people to fear what they cannot pronounce" in household products and ingredients.8

It reads like chemical-industry scripture, which may not be too far off from reality. In 2013, leaked documents obtained by Mother Jones, an investigative non-profit news organization, showed ACSH, while claiming to be independent, relies heavily on corporate funding as well as directly "solicits donations from these industry sources around specific issues."9

From July 2012 to December 2012, 58 percent of the group's donations came from corporations and large private foundations, including Syngenta, 3M, tobacco giant Altria, Bayer Cropscience, Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola and more.

"ACSH's donors and the potential backers the group has been targeting comprise a who's-who of energy, agriculture, cosmetics, food, soda, chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco corporations," Mother Jones reported, explaining:10

"From the start, ACSH has faced questions about its funding … By the early 1980s, ACSH's donors included Dow, Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Mobil Foundation, Chevron and Bethlehem Steel.

In 1984, Georgia-Pacific, a leading formaldehyde maker, funded a friend-of-the-court brief filed by ACSH in an industry-backed lawsuit that overturned a ban on formaldehyde insulation.

… Initially, ACSH disclosed its donors, and it was obvious that the group embraced numerous causes connected to its funders. ACSH defended the chemical Alar, used to regulate the growth of apples — and accepted donations from Uniroyal, which manufactured and sold Alar.

It also opposed new mandatory nutrition labeling requirements — and pocketed money from Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg Co., Nestle USA and the National Soft Drink Association."

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ACSH Solicited $100,000 From Syngenta to Produce Positive Spin for Atrazine

The letter to USA Today highlights one of the most egregious acts by ACSH (at least that have been outed) — soliciting Syngenta to write a literature review about atrazine, the second most commonly used herbicide in the U.S.

Studies have linked atrazine exposure to impaired sexual development, some cancers, birth defects, insulin resistance and infertility.

In a 2009 email released by public interest group Source Watch, former ACSH director, Dr. Gilbert Ross (he's now listed among the ACSH Board of Scientific and Policy Advisers) — and who by the way served 23 months in jail after being convicted for defrauding New York State's Medicaid program out of about $8 million11 — wrote to his "Syngenta friends":12

"As we made clear, ACSH is eager to commission a literature review on the general subject of pesticide exposure and human health. This paper would, of course, not exclusively be about atrazine, but the recent and ongoing 'controversy' would be a primary focus.

… Our budget for a project of this size is $100,000. This is separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years, which we request to continue at current or increased levels."

Perhaps the "controversy" they spoke of had to do with research by Tyrone Hayes, Ph.D., an integrative biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, which found atrazine may be chemically castrating male frogs, essentially turning them into female frogs.

Hayes conducted research for Novartis, which eventually became Syngenta, but he resigned his contractor position after the company refused to allow him to publish the results of studies they had funded.

After resigning, he obtained independent funding to repeat the research, which was subsequently published and found that atrazine causes hermaphroditism in frogs. Syngenta attempted to discredit Hayes after the damaging research was released.

Truth and Transparency Is Needed, but Hard to Come By

USA Today clearly needs to be careful in publishing columns with ties to ACSH, especially without disclosing its true colors. The letter to USA Today editors continued:13

"At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of the news media, we believe it is vital for publications such as USA Today to follow the highest standards of journalistic ethics and serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible.

We respectfully ask you to refrain from publishing further columns authored by members of the American Council on Science and Health, or at the very least require that the individuals identify the organization accurately as a corporate-funded advocacy group."

Unfortunately, USA Today is far from the only media outlet that's published articles from questionable industry-funded sources.

Media Outlets' Sponsors Wield Power Over What Topics Are Covered

The drug industry spends billions of dollars a year advertising with the mainstream media. The influence this creates is insidious, as discussed in my interview (above) with award-winning investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, author of "Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama's Washington."

She refers to it as "soft censorship" — that situation in which a media outlet's sponsors wield power at the corporate level over the types of stories and topics that are covered. It's important to realize that you simply will not get the truth from the media on certain topics for this reason.

Attkisson actually quit her job because she got fed up with her inability to run important stories, simply because they ran afoul with corporate sponsors. Unfortunately, the trend of diluting the depth and scope of investigative journalism can even be seen in high-quality programs like CBS' 60 Minutes, which has been a favorite show of mine since its inception over four decades ago.

As noted by Attkisson, the reasons for the decline of investigative journalism are complicated. But a big part of it is due to commercial concerns: Basically, commercial and corporate influences came into play, and media outlets grew to accept commercialization as part of the news process.

And Then There's Astroturfing

Industry front groups publishing supposedly scientific columns in mainstream media outlets is only one way that corporations try to further their agendas. There's also "astroturfing."

Astroturfing is the effort on the part of special interests, whether corporate or political, to surreptitiously sway public opinion and make it appear as though it's a grassroots effort for or against a particular agenda, when in reality such a groundswell of public opinion might not exist. Sharyl explains:

"They turn to things like social media — Facebook and Twitter — using pseudonyms and multiple accounts to spread things around. They use their partners who blog for them, write things, and pick up on one another's work until sometimes it's been picked up in the mainstream media as if it's a fact.

It's all intended to make you feel as though if you hold a certain opinion that they don't want you to have, you're the outlier. Everybody else agrees with 'X' except you, and that may not be the truth. This is a huge business ... There are actually PR firms that specialize in these sorts of tactics.

Astroturfing is now more important, I am told by lobbyists and PR firms, to many clients than the direct lobbying of Congress because it's so effective to reach out to the public. They may have someone write a letter to the editor and you don't know that person is being paid by a special interest to advance a certain opinion.

They may start as a nonprofit without saying out front that they're behind the nonprofit. The nonprofit may then look like a charity that's advancing a certain opinion, which is actually acting on behalf of the corporate interest or the special interest. Again, it's very widespread..."

Those Who Speak Out Against Industry Often Become Targets

True investigative journalists, such as Attkisson, often become targets of intimidation and harassment. For example, at one point her computer and phone lines were hacked to find out what she was working on. Scientists also become targets if their work interferes with industry agendas.

For instance, biotech trade group CropLife America launched a "full-fledged assault" against the team of International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) scientists who determined glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, is a probable carcinogen.

Along with trying to get IARC's U.S. funding cut, CropLife is demanding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reject IARC's classification of glyphosate and allow for its continued virtually unchecked use in the U.S. The IARC team continues to stand behind their finding, stating that it is scientifically sound and was not politically motivated or predicated on the economic consequences it could have on the industry.

Tell USA Today to Stop Furthering ACSH's Corporate Agendas

If you want to get involved in furthering truth and transparency in the media and forcing industry front groups to disclose their true identities, you can share your opinion by filling out an online comment to be sent to the USA Today editor.14 To learn more about ACSH's sordid history, you can also read the Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) 1982 report "Twisted Consumerism: The Golden Assurance of the American Council on Science and Health."15

And remember to always dig beneath the surface when considering new information, especially if it feels counterintuitive. Although most researchers, media outlets and sponsoring companies will insist the research or journalism is sound and unbiased, it's well-known that industry-funded research and investigations almost always favors industry.