Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A quick note on journalism (in defense of BuzzFeed and Brooke Borel)

This note is quick, but for it to make sense, please first read the excellent article by Brooke Borel, Seed Money: How Kevin Folta got entangled with Monsanto, created a shady podcast alter ego, and spurred a hot public debate over conflicts of interest in big ag. I want to summarize the article, but the story is so bizarre and the writing by Ms. Borel so good, I can't do it justice with a summary. Just read it.

While the article is good, for me personally, it is painful. It's painful because I have been actively defending the scientist Kevin Folta over the past few months against media attacks on him. I am 100% pro-GMO. I know that the science Kevin promotes and teaches is sound and correct. I deeply appreciate the efforts by Kevin over all these years to dispel the myths around GMOs.

The problem is that Brooke Borel's article is not a smear campaign or a hit piece. It's an example of excellent journalism. When I first clicked on the article, I was ready to push back and defend Kevin. By the end, unfortunately, I found Kevin's actions indefensible.

And I know that many scientists and GMO-supporters felt the same way as I did. Many of us said this publicly or privately to Ms. Borel. The problem is that some people felt the same way, and given that there is really no way to defend Kevin here, decided to instead attack Ms. Borel or BuzzFeed. I won't point to the many different tweets on this, but essentially these are as follows:
  • BuzzFeed is clickbait and they just published it for views.
  • Brooke Borel shouldn't have covered it because it doesn't advance the conversation on GMOs.
  • This topic is too important to focus on Kevin Folta - should talk about GMO issues instead.
  • We've talked about Kevin Folta enough; why write another piece?
  • There are bigger problems in the world.
Journalism doesn't work this way. Good journalism is not about promoting an agenda - it's about good and important stories. GMOs are important. This story is good. Kevin was doing things that are likely to result in the opposite of his intentions - less trust in science and GMOs. If you know anything about journalism, it's almost unfathomable that Ms. Borel shouldn't have written this. 

It's not okay to bully journalists when they have written a thorough and factual article by telling them, "you are hurting a cause, so shut up." It's not okay to tell them, "there are bigger problems, don't write about this." If you do, you are practicing the My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage.

So I understand that it's unpleasant when we read something that we wish weren't true. But if it's true, we have to deal with that. If you can't defend the actions or dispute the content of an article, there's a problem, and it's not helpful to tell the media or the journalist to shut up. Most importantly, we should all strive to avoid doing things that will give us coverage like this. But when we accidentally make mistakes, which we all do, instead of attacking the journalist, we should apologize and work to prevent them from happening in the future.

P.S. I emigrated from what was then still USSR. That was a country where journalism worked with an agenda. Today, Russia still has a deep problem with free speech. A Russian citizen recently tried to defend Putin to me by saying, "We do have freedom of speech; we just don't have freedom of the press." There are good and healthy reasons to have freedom of the press and to have journalists decide what they want to cover, agenda aside.


  1. fair enough, but the linking to sites like natural news, health ranger's twitter, etc. is irresponsible. a journalist would know that sites like that and twitter handles like that are known loons and cranks. all of these appear in the article. not one word on the lies and misinformation from gary ruskin and co. other than the conversation is "complicated." this is not the work of a journalist, but of a bystander watching a fight happen without knowing the history of either party. kevin folta is not the bad guy here.

  2. I don't think Ms Borel's article was balanced, she brushes over what in many people's opinion the more grievous problems with Dr. Charles Benbrook in terms of conflict of interest. She said that Benbrook did not return her call. Is that an acceptable excuse to gloss over the more serious conflicts of interest of Benbrook, or for that matter Gary Ruskin?