Monday, August 30, 2010

Legends, Hoaxes, and the Big Lie: Who’s Zoomin’ Who

Sometimes we can tell when someone has perpetrated a hoax. Sometimes, we know that somebody’s hoaxing someone, but it’s difficult to tell just who’s playing whom. Maybe both parties are playing each other. Then again, maybe someone else is getting the drop on everybody.

One of the most well-known UFO stories in the last twenty-five years happened in Gulf Breeze, a tiny city in northern Florida. On 11 November 1987, a fairly well-to-do business contractor named Ed Waters claimed that at 5:00pm he saw something “unusual” from his front yard. He rushed into his home office to snatch an old Polaroid camera that he frequently used for work, and hustled to his porch where he took a series of photographs of what appeared to be a flying saucer. In his words:
It seemed to be nearly as big as the houses below it and three times as high. It glided along without a whisper of sound. There was no hum, no wind, not a single disturbance of the air, trees, or houses as it passed over them. While rocking back and forth, it did not seem to spin, so I never saw all sides, only what is in the photographs...A lot of small details don't show up in the pictures. Central between the large black squares that look like windows were small openings that I believe were portholes. Some of the portholes were lit, some were not. There were also some diamond shapes between some of the large black squares and, unseen on the photos, there were definitely horizontal lines going around the main body.
Figure 1. Early Ed Walters UFO photograph

Okay. Big deal. People shoot UFO photos all the time. But Walters’ story had one sensational detail: the damn thing abducted him:
Bang! Something hit me. All over my body, I tried to lift my arms to point the camera. I couldn't move them ... I was in a blue light beam. The blue beam had hit me like compression. It was pressing me firmly, just enough to stop me from moving ... The best I can tell, this all took less than twenty seconds. Then my feet lifted of the ground. I screamed. A voice groaned in my head. 'We will not harm you.' I screamed again. The deep computerlike voice said, 'Calm down.' But it was in my head, not my ears. I screamed, as well as I could, 'Put me down!' A few seconds passed as I slowly rose away from the pavement...The voice came back, but now it seemed to be female. An easy hum filled my head. Suddenly, from within my head, came the sharp vision of a dog ... The hum continued. I had the sensation I was four feet above the ground. Wham! I hit the pavement hard and fell forward onto my knees.
Walters immediately told his wife, Frances. According to them, they first decided to keep the experience to themselves. On second thought, however, they decided that the public should know, lest they face the same peril. So, on 17 November 1987, he went to Duane Cook, the editor of the Gulf Breeze Sentinel, a local newspaper. Claiming to represent a man whom he called ‘Mr. X’ (no relation), Walters presented him with the photos, along with a letter explaining their origins.

Soon afterward, scores of local citizens claimed that they too had seen unusual craft, making Gulf Breeze one hell of a UFO hot spot.

At the center of that hot spot would stand Ed Walters. And his UFO encounters would heat up dramatically over the next few years. But his encounters with skeptics would heat up even more.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Legends, Hoaxes and the Big Lie: The Right to Hoax

Here’s a bit of background. The (United States) Radio Act of 1927* declared the airwaves public property. Thus, in order to maintain their broadcasting privileges, radio stations had to air material in the ‘public interest.’ Congress also prohibited the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) from censoring any broadcaster.

Of course, the prohibition on censorship could come smack up against the public interest. As the law stood then, nothing stopped broadcasters from broadcasting material injurious to the public interest. For example, a broadcaster could read Penthouse-style letters over the air, all day long if he/she took the letter of the law to the extreme.**

Seven years later, Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934,*** partly to clarify some of the issues the previous legislation muddied up. First of all, they defined censorship as ‘prior constraint.’ In other words, if a broadcaster really wants to read Penthouse-type letters over the air, there would be nothing that the FRC (or its successor, the Federal Communications Commission) could do to stop it. What the FRC and FCC could do, however, was to note any and all transgressions committed by a broadcaster, and take sanctions against them, either immediately or in the future. When it came time for that broadcaster to renew his or her FCC license, the agency could cite examples of obscenity as incongruous to the public interest, and thus refuse to grant a new license–a punishment that could cost the broadcasters untold millions. The FCC could also take less drastic action, such as suspending a license, or exacting a fine against a broadcaster for not airing material consistent with the public interest–whatever that is.****

You see, Congress made numerous references to ‘public interest’ in the text of the Communications Act. Problem was, they still didn’t clarify what the term meant, in essence defining it as “that which interests the public.” This presented a problem both to broadcasters and the actual public. If we don’t know what our interests actually are, how can we tell if they’re not being served? If you’re a broadcaster, how would you know if you’re screwing up?

Over the years, the FCC has issued a number of guidelines to help broadcasters navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of public interest. These are different from FCC regulations, which are defined by Title 47 of the US Code. FCC regulations are highly technical and legalistic, dealing with such matters as transmitter strength, the saturation of markets by a single owner, and so forth. FCC guidelines, on the other hand, caution broadcasters against such things as saying George Carlin’s seven dirty words, letting Janet Jackson bare her nipple during the Super Bowl, graphic sex and violence during family hour, and out-and-out lying to the public.

Most people confuse FCC regulations with FCC guidelines. The regulations establish broadcast law. The guidelines address content within the context of public interest. In effect, the guidelines are there to tell broadcasters “Look, follow these suggestions, and you won’t have any problems from us, especially when you renew your license.”

This distinction between FCC regulations and FCC guidelines would form the basis of Fox News’ appeal of the jury verdict against them in the suit brought by reporter Jane Akre. Florida’s Whistle-blower’s Act indeed provides relief for employees who are wrongfully terminated for reporting a violation of law:

It is the intent of the Legislature to prevent agencies or independent contractors from taking retaliatory action against an employee who reports to an appropriate agency violations of law on the part of a public employer or independent contractor that create a substantial and specific danger to the public's health, safety, or welfare. It is further the intent of the Legislature to prevent agencies or independent contractors from taking retaliatory action against any person who discloses information to an appropriate agency alleging improper use of governmental office, gross waste of funds, or any other abuse or gross neglect of duty on the part of an agency, public officer, or employee.
Fox News argued that the Whistle-blower’s Act only counts if the employee reported a violation of law. The FCC guideline against lying was not a law, but rather a suggestion. As Fox attorneys put it, “The FCC’s policy against the intentional falsification of the news–which the FCC has called its ‘news-distortion’ policy–does not qualify as the required ‘law, rule, or application.'”

In other words, Fox argued that it didn’t matter that they lied, since there weren’t technically any laws to keep them from doing so, merely suggestions. Although one could possibly construe the FCC guideline as a rule or application, if not law, the Appellate Court sided with Fox, and vacated the jury verdict.

Not content to leave well enough alone, Fox then countersued Akre and Wilson for $1.7 million to recoup their court losses. A court finally ordered Wilson to pony up $156K for Fox attorneys.

Some critics have characterized the Appellate Court’s decision as upholding “the right to lie.” Counter-critics say that the decision did no such thing. Technically, the counter-critics are correct. After all, when it comes time to renew WTVT’s license, one can always argue that their dishonesty–as found by a jury in a court of law--runs counter to the public interest–whatever that is. Yet, it’s rare for the FCC to revoke a company’s license, and when it does its often for violating regulations, not for anything to do with the public interest. Simply put, if a broadcaster lies to its viewers, there’s little chance that someone will do something about it. So while the counter-critics are technically correct, the decision certainly gave Fox the ability to lie, and the de facto right to hoax.

After all the verdicts were in, Wilson and Akre left Florida for the cold winters of Detroit, where the former works as the chief investigative reporter for local TV station WXYZ. Earlier this year, WXYZ decided not to renew Wilson’s contract, so he’s planning on starting a not-for-profit news organization called the Michigan Center for Investigative Reporting. Currently, Akre serves as editor-in-chief of In 2003, they both participated in the filming of the documentary The Corporation

Figure 1. Wilson/Akre segment of The Corporation

Meanwhile, WTVT remains on the air as a network-owned Fox station.

*Some texts refer to this as the Broadcast Act of 1927. Both terms refer to the same law.

** If you think that’s farfetched, click here to read about a service advertised on radio during this time.

***Some texts refer to this as the Broadcast Act of 1934. Both terms refer to the same law.

****It is a violation of federal law to air material that is obscene, so criminal sanctions could also apply. Problem is that it’s often extremely difficult to determine what fits the legal criteria for obscenity. Furthermore, such action doesn’t address the concept of prior restraint. And the FCC has no law enforcement capacity, so that would be in the purview of the FBI, US Marshals, or other federal agencies.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Legends, Hoaxes and the Big Lie: Fairly Unbalanced

Jane Akre and Steve Wilson’s whistleblower lawsuit alleged that Fox News ordered them to falsify a report in violation to what Federal Communication Commission (FCC) rules require. In order to win their case, they had to prove that Fox, under pressure from it’s client, Monsanto, ordered them to distort a piece of news that all had agreed was objective, fair and accurate. They also had to prove that they suffered damages from Fox’s actions. Most important, they had to prove that what Fox wanted from their news piece was unethical. Although not essential to their case, they could score big if they could convince a jury that rBGH was a bonafide public health menace.

Proving damages wouldn’t be a problem. After all, the reporters were fired. A number of expert witnesses, some of them quite famous, helped out with this and other aspects of their case. Ralph Nader testified about a station’s responsibility to air items in the public interest. From the witness stand, revered anchorman Walter Cronkite characterized what Fox did as a “violation of every principle of good journalism.” It also helped tremendously that Fox had to admit that Wilson and Akre’s original report was accurate. But arguably one of the key moments of the trial came when Akre testified as to her reasons for pursuing the story so ardently, and refusing to falsify it.

As a mother, I know this is important information about a basic food I've been giving my child every day. As a journalist, I know it is a story that millions of Floridians have a right to know. We were fired for standing up for the truth. Solely as a matter of conscience, we will not aid and abet their effort to cover this up any longer. Every parent and every consumer has the right to know what they’re pouring on their children’s morning cereal.
The verdict was a strange one. The jury found that Fox wrongfully terminated Akre, but not Wilson.* They then ordered Fox to pay her $425K in damages.

Not surprisingly, Fox refused to take its medicine lying down. The network appealed the decision, based on a judicial error that gave new meaning to the word ‘technicality.’

*Some have suspected that the jury found Wilson’s demeanor “overbearing,” and just plain didn’t like him. Whatever the case, they found against him, but not Akre, despite the fact they were doing the same thing, and suffered the same consequences.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Legends, Hoaxes and the Big Lie: What a Difference a Change Made, Pt. 2

Topic 3: Cancer turns into long-term human health effects

Wilson and Akre’s version:

[Pt. 4] Narration 1: It’s one of the big reasons Ben and Jerry, makers of some of America’s favorite ice cream, are so opposed to farmers injecting their dairy cows with Bovine Growth Hormone genetically engineered in a Monsanto chemical lab. It's now used throughout Florida and elsewhere to rev up the cows so they'll produce a lot more milk…but some well-respected scientists are worried. They cite studies which show injecting cows with BGH changes the milk we drink and that it contains a higher level of another hormone believed to promote cancer in humans.

Monsanto says there is absolutely no cause for worry, its product is entirely safe.
Monsanto-approved version:

Narration 1: It's one of the big reasons Ben and Jerry, makers of some of America's favorite ice cream, are so opposed to farmers injecting their dairy cows with Bovine Growth Hormone genetically engineered in a Monsanto chemical lab. They do it to rev up the cows to produce a lot more milk...but there are fears the government may have approved synthetic BGH without testing potential long-term human health effects on you and your family....Monsanto says there is absolutely no cause for worry, its product is entirely safe.

Here again, reporters are instructed to delete any reference to the true cause for concern: the possibility of a link between BGH milk and cancer. Viewers are misled and the story distorted when the cause for concern is not clearly reported.
The studies cited by the reporters made a very specific and clear link between rBGH and cancer, not to some nebulous “potential long-term human health effects.” The latter term would include anything from cancer to temporary bloating, or other minor maladies. By cloaking the potential dangers in doublespeak, the public cannot fairly judge the risks that they might be taking with their product.

Topic 4: Peddling influence

One last example. Wilson and Akre’s version:

[Pt. 2] Dr. Collier: There are no human or animal safety issues that would prevent approval in Canada once they’ve completed their review, not that I’m aware of.

Narration 10: But long-term human safety is exactly the concern expressed by a Canadian House committee on health. Here are the minutes of a 1995 meeting where members voted to ask Canada's Health minister to try and keep BGH off the market for at least two more years. Why? '…to allow members of Parliament to further examine the human health implications' of the drug.

It's still not legal to sell the unlicensed product north of the border despite the company's efforts to gain the approval of government regulators....

Narration 11: In the Fall of 1994, Canadian television quoted a Canadian health official as reporting Monsanto offered $1-2 million if her government committee would recommend BGH approval in Canada without further data or studies of the drug. Another member of her committee who was present when Monsanto made the offer was asked: 'Was that a bribe?'

File video clip of CBC documentary, CBC Correspondent to committee member: Is that how it struck you?

Dr. Edwards [Dr. Michele Brill-Edwards]: Certainly!

Reporter Jane Akre on camera: Monsanto said the report alleging bribery was 'a blatant untruth,' that Canadian regulators just didn’t understand the offer of the money was for research. Monsanto demanded a retraction. The Canadian Broadcasting Company stands by its story.
The Monsanto-approved version:

Dr. Collier, Monsanto scientist: There are no human or animal safety issues that would prevent approval in Canada once they've completed their review, not that I'm aware of.

Narration 10: For more than three years now, Monsanto has fought an uphill battle to get Canadian government approval. It is still not legal to sell the unlicensed product north of the border.

Clip of CBC documentary: Monsanto Canada whose representative allegedly raised the subject of money...

Narration 11: In the Fall of 1994, Canadian television quoted a Canadian health official as reporting Monsanto offered $1-2 million if her government committee would recommend BGH approval in Canada without further data or studies of the drug. Another member of her committee who was present when Monsanto made the offer was asked: 'Was that a bribe?'

Clip continues, CBC Reporter to committee member: Is that how it struck you?

Dr. Edwards, Health Canada: Certainly!

Reporter Jane Akre on camera: Monsanto said the report alleging bribery was 'a blatant untruth,' that Canadian regulators just didn't understand the offer of the money was for research. Monsanto demanded a retraction. The Canadian Broadcasting Company stands by its story.
In letters to Fox management, Monsanto has insisted upon characterizing as a "voluntary moratorium" the fact that BGH cannot be legally sold in Canada because government regulators have refused to approve it. Reporters contended there is nothing voluntary about not selling BGH in Canada because all unapproved drugs are banned. Reporters even provided evidence that Canadian border agents have confiscated BGH as a banned substance. Nonetheless, reporters were instructed to minimize the significance of Canadian non-approval by simply reporting 'an uphill battle to get Canadian government approval' and that 'is not legal to sell the unlicensed product' there. Adopting Monsanto's corporate spin which suggests there are other reasons for non-approval in Canada, misleads viewers about the significance and true reasons the product is banned there and in many other countries.
In other words, Monsanto characterized Canada’s ban on rBGH only as a current or temporary ban, and pressured (partly though what would appear to most of us as bribes) officials to try to raise an issue Health Canada was about to put to rest. This is kinda like a super-scuzzy guy, after getting turned down several times--in no uncertain terms--by the prettiest woman in the room for sex , going back to his buddies and saying, ‘She just hasn’t said ‘yes’ yet.' But Canada wasn’t the only nation saying no. The European Union also banned rBGH, as did Australia and Japan. And the appearance of bribery didn’t end there, either. One must also take into account the $200K Fox offered Akre and Wilson to walk away from the report.

In summary, Steve Wilson and Jane Akre wrote a report on the use of rBGH in Florida dairies. In order to put that report together, they consulted farmers, grocers, government officials, scientists and rBGH producer Monsanto. They carefully identified the position and qualifications of each speaker. They let everyone have their say, but didn’t allow anyone on either side to make unchallenged statements. What emerged is that Florida farmers were being compelled to use an inadequately tested substance that has at best questionable effects on humans, and undeniably devastating effects on cattle. This position is confirmed by peer-reviewed research, the opinions of such leading experts as Dr. Epstein and Dr. von Meyer, and the experience of farmers who actually used the stuff. Moreover, rBGH also made substantial changes in the nutritional and chemical quality of the milk produced by cows treated with it. This was affirmed by a number of other studies, including one done by Monsanto. Worse yet, the company that made rBGH available resorted to political pressure not only to remove bans on the substance in local jurisdictions, but managed to lobby states to pass laws that prohibited products from promoting themselves as rBGH free.

The report eventually aired by WTVT, by comparison, depicted rBGH as a thoroughly tested substance that had received the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration. Those protesting its use were uniformed, didn’t have the qualifications to cast aspersions on it, and most likely had commercial (e.g., Ben & Jerry’s) or political (e.g., the EU ban) motives for banning it. While it’s true the company made some mistakes, such as offering research grants in such a way that appeared to be a bribe, these were just innocent misunderstandings. And while nobody can predict what complications might arise in the future, Monsanto did its due diligence in making sure rBGH was safe.

In essence, by airing the lopsided report, and by preventing massive and solid contradictory evidence, Fox News perpetrated a hoax in order to mollify and promote a favored client. Understanding the fraudulent nature of the whole deal, Wilson and Akre sued Fox News for wrongful termination in April 1998. As Wilson explained:

This isn’t about being fired for no cause. This is about being fired because we refused to put on the air something we knew to be false and misleading. We were given those instructions after some very high-level lobbying by Monsanto and also, we believe, by Florida’s dairy and grocery industries.
When the dust settled, this suit became one for the books. Literally.

Click here to read earlier posts in this series.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Legends, Hoaxes and the Big Lie: What a Difference a Change Made

In order to understand the nature of the hoax that WTVT played upon its viewers for the sake of a major sponsor, one has to see the editing which completely changed the story's meaning. On their website, Akre and Wilson posted the twenty-eighth version that they approved, and a script closer to what Monsanto wanted, and what Fox News aired. They also provided commentary to highlight the differences between the scripts, and to explain why the changes severely compromised the truth. I will show just a few of the examples, to give you the gist. If you wish to read to read their commentary in its entirety, click here.

In order to highlight the comparisons, I will put both versions side-by-side. Underneath will appear Akre and Wilson’s comments in italics, followed by my own observations after the quote.

Topic 1: Badmouthing the experts

Akre and Wilson’s version:

[Pt. 1] Narration 3: Dr. Epstein is a scientist at the University of Illinois School of Public Health. He's earned three medical degrees, written eight books, and is frequently called upon to advise Congress about things in our environment which may cause cancer. He and others like Dr. William von Meyer point to what they say is a growing body of scientific evidence of a link between IGF-1 and human cancers which might not show up for years to come.

Dr. Samuel Epstein, Scientist, University of Illinois: …there are highly suggestive if not persuasive lines of evidence showing that consumption of this milk poses risks of breast and colon cancer."
Monsanto-friendly version:

[Pt. 1] Narration 3: The drug some Florida farmers don't want you to know they're using is a laboratory version of a hormone cows produce on their own. So is there something to worry about in the milk produced by Florida cows getting extra doses of this new product called Posilac?

Dr. Samuel Epstein, Scientist, University of Illinois: …there are highly suggestive if not persuasive lines of evidence showing that consumption of this milk poses risks of breast and colon cancer."

Pt 1., Narration 4: Dr. Samuel Epstein, a scientist at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, is an expert on the environmental causes of cancer.... He is opposed to Posilac going into cows that produce the milk your family drinks. His view is based on what he says is a body of peer-reviewed research, including many studies he cited in an article published in last year's International Journal of Health Services, that raises some troubling questions. And Dr. Epstein is not alone:
Reporters were repeatedly instructed to remove information that more completely details Dr. Epstein's widely acknowledged expertise. The deliberate omission of those known facts minimizes the credibility of this BGH critic and thereby slants the story in favor of the product.

Cancer warnings from ‘experts’ with dubious qualifications have left viewers skeptical of all such claims. It is important for that reason, as well as proof of responsible documentation, that viewers understand Dr. Samuel Epstein's background and qualifications to reach such the conclusions he voices in the report. But despite his three medical degrees, a professorship of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, his frequent Congressional testimony as an expert on public health and environmental causes of cancer, his authorship of seven books, and countless editorials appearing in some of America's leading newspapers, reporters were repeatedly blocked from describing him more completely.

Original references to him as a "reputable scientist(s)" which was acceptable in Versions 1-3, was later changed to "respected scientist(s)" which was acceptable in Version 11, and then "well-credentialed M.D." which was okay in Versions 10-18 until, ultimately, reporters were told no such reference was acceptable, making him sound like a run-of-the-mill academic with no specific or relevant expertise.

Reporters have located and confirmed more than a dozen independent studies of the artificial hormone published post-FDA-approval. These raise legitimate concerns about the risk of cancer to adults and children who drink milk from cows injected with BGH. Nonetheless, reporters were first instructed to mischaracterize the available research simply as "publicly available at the time of approval". When reporters demonstrated how that mandated language was inaccurate, they were instructed to call it "a body of peer-reviewed research". This is also inaccurate and deliberately misleads the viewer by presenting a distorted picture that fails to more accurately and fully report that many of the troubling findings are from recent research, and that the evidence of a cancer link appears to be growing more clear.

Monsanto, on the other hand, contends the latest research confirms the overall safety of its synthetic hormone. In fact, the research Monsanto most frequently refers to is a study of the synthetic hormone's effects on BGH-treated cows monitored by Monsanto, not people who drink the cows' milk. Reporters were not allowed to make this fact clear in the report.
As with Dr. Epstein, the sanitized version of this report also understates the credentials of another leading scientist, Dr. William von Meyer. So, when pitted in the report against Monsanto’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Robert Collier, it appears that Collier has far more expertise than Epstein and von Meyer, when in fact the reverse is true. Moreover, since Drs. Epstein and von Meyer aren’t on Monsanto’s payroll, we could naturally see them as more objective. Dr. Collier, in saying “what he [meaning Epstein] says is a body of peer-reviewed research” misleads the public into thinking that Epstein could be exaggerating or in error, when there is actually a body of peer-reviewed research supporting his position. Naturally, as a Monsanto employee, Dr. Collier doesn’t offer us any surprises when he characterized rBGH as safe:
Dr. Robert Collier, Monsanto chief scientist for BGH product: In fact, the FDA has commented several times on this issue after there were concerns raised. They have publicly restated human safety this is not something knowledgeable people have concerns about.
By inference, Dr. Collier is saying that Drs. Epstein and von Meyer are not knowledgeable persons. Because the viewer has been prevented from knowing their credentials, Dr. Collier’s snideness now seems reasonable.

One more thing: although Dr. Collier cited the FDA as an authoritative source that confirmed the safety of rBGH, the Agency’s tests were incomplete. In fact, the FDA’s only known test on rBGH lasted for ninety days, and involved only thirty rats. FDA policy requires a minimum of two-years, using hundreds of rats, before declaring something non-carcinogenic.

Topic 2: Academic complicity

Akre and Wilson’s version:
[Pt. 2] Narration 5: Right after he started using the drug on his herd near Wachula three years ago, [farmer Charles] Knight says his animals were plagued with those problems and serious infections of his cows’ udders. Troubles he attributes to Posilac eventually caused him to replace the majority of his herd. He says when he called dairy experts at the University of Florida and at Monsanto, they both had the same response.

Farmer Knight: It was like overwhelming because they said you’re the only person having this problem so it must be what you’re doing here you must be having management problems.

Narration 6: The University of Florida, by the way, did much of the research on BGH and has received millions in gifts and grants from Monsanto. Knight says neither the university nor the company ever mentioned Monsanto research that showed hundreds of other cows on other farms were also suffering hoof problems and mastitis, a painful infection of the cow’s udders. If untreated, the infection can get into the cow’s milk so farmers try to cure it by giving the cow shots of antibiotics…more drugs that can find their way into the milk on your table, which could make your own body more resistant to antibiotics.
Monsanto-friendly version:
[Pt. 2] Narration 6: Knight later learned his troubles were not unique. Monsanto never mentioned its own research that showed hundreds of other cows on other farms were also suffering hoof problems and mastitis, a painful infection of the cow's udders. If untreated, the infection can get into the cow's milk so farmers try to cure it by giving the cow shots of antibiotics...more drugs that can find their way into the milk on your table, which could make your own body more resistant to antibiotics.
Deleted from these reports is all reporting of the involvement of the University of Florida in the research development, promotion, and approval of BGH. These facts include the university's role in minimizing adverse BGH effects (UF people reportedly told Knight and others they were unaware of animal health problems which were, in fact, being reported to them), significant financial support from Monsanto to UF in the form of research grants and gifts including the Monsanto Dairy Barn facility, and the hiring of former UF BGH researchers and professors now in key positions with Monsanto and the FDA.
By deleting the reference to the University of Florida, and its financial dependence on Monsanto, we can now see a conflict of interest at best, and downright fraud at worst. The deceptive response the University gave to Knight indicates that it had at least some complicity in helping Monsanto maintain the fiction that rBGH had received thorough testing. Given the superfluous nature of the FDA’s testing, one has to wonder how extensive the UF testing was, especially since a growing body of peer-reviewed literature show rBGH to be unsafe.

Click here to see later posts in this series.

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Legends, Hoaxes and the Big Lie: Mystery Milk

In 1996, husband and wife reporting team Steve Wilson and Jane Akre (left) thought they had landed their dream job when hired by Fox-owned affiliate WTVT (Tampa, FL). The station assigned them to produce a series of stories called “The Investigators,” its tagline, “Uncovering the truth. Getting results. Protecting you.”

Early on, Wilson and Akre decided to investigate the health consequences of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) injected into dairy cattle. Despite the fact that rBGH increased milk production by as much as 25%, farmers using it noted that their cows were increasingly suffering from udder infections and hoof problems, and dying younger. When prodded by Akre and Wilson to explain why they used it if that were the case, the farmers reluctantly explained that Monsanto, the company that sold rBGH under the brand name Posilac, threatened to sue them if they didn’t.

More important, a number of studies showed a link between rBGH and cancer. The hormone did not break down in the body of the cow, and was subsequently secreted through the milk, something that might (pending further study) influence human development at the DNA level.*

The reporters compiled their story and presented it to their boss, General Manager David Boylan. Boylan enthusiastically ordered promos shot with the introductory teaser, “What’s in your milk?”

Thinking that they had just hit one out of the park, Akre and Wilson were understandably surprised when Boylan called them in to make some “edits” to their original piece in order to make it more “fair and balanced.” Boylan’s change in attitude stemmed from a directive by Fox News President Roger Ailes. As one of the twenty-two local stations owned by Fox, WTVT had to submit to Ailes’ control. The fact that Monsanto had purchased a large chunk of advertising time on Fox weighed heavily in his decision.

Fox offered Wilson and Akre $200,000 for their resignation, and a promise to keep the story a secret. But Akre and Wilson went to bat for their piece, and finally reached a compromise. If the station would delay production for just a little while, they would draft a script that they, the station and Monsanto could live with. Eighty-three versions later, the reporters still couldn’t water down the piece enough to suit the chemical leviathan. They eventually offered Fox an ultimatum: if WTVT didn’t air the true story, they would report the station to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for “broadcasting false signals.” So, Fox fired them in December 1997.

Meanwhile, WTVT aired a version of Wilson and Akre’s report approved by Monsanto. If you’re assuming that the approved script turned a piece about corporate malfeasance into a VNR for rBGH, then you make good assumptions.

*One fear about rBGH, for example, is that it might cause early pubescence in girls. (Update 8/30/10: Ray--of Ray's-X--has found these links from The Daily Mail and The Huffington Post.)

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Hoax that Launched a Thousand Ships, Pt. II

Edited 8/4/10 to include more detail.

On 10 October 1990, a pretty teenybopper testified before the US Congress’ Human Rights Caucus chaired by Rep. Thomas Lantos (D-CA). Using the name Nayriah, she told of her life as an Iraqi nurse who witnessed unimaginable atrocities committed by Iraqi soldiers, allegedly under the orders of Saddam Hussein.

Figure 1. Testimony of “Nurse Nayirah”

One can easily see why young Nayirah made a compelling witness, especially for television. In addition to her physical appearance, she spoke fluent American English, with only a hint of a Kuwaiti accent. Her constant reference to her sister, and her nephew's plight spoke directly to US obsessions over ‘family values.’ And her testimony, down to the sobs, painted such a powerful black-and-white picture that could only make Americans seem downright immoral if they did nothing short of stopping Saddam Hussein, whom the PR flacks mentioned in the previous post had already likened to Adolf Hitler.

Like urban legends and other hoaxes, Nayirah’s baby-dumping tale seemed like it should have been true, given what others were saying about evil Iraqis and “madman” Hussein at the time. Moreover, the story had appeared almost a month earlier in a Reuters report, which quoted eyewitnesses, two evacuated Americans (referred to only as ‘Cindy’ and ‘Rudi’). President Bush made a reference to it a day before Nayirah’s testimony to Congress.

Problem was, the part about baby dumping was untrue. And like urban legends and other hoaxes, it was easy to disprove–not that it mattered.

Almost immediately, Harper’s editor John R. MacArthur began to question Nayirah’s testimony. In opposing op-ed pieces written for the New York Times in January 1992, he and Rep. Lantos accused each other of distorting the Nayirah story. While Lantos could not provide independent corroboration that Nayirah told the truth, MacArthur found plenty to refute it.

As it turns out, Nayirah wasn’t even a pseudonym (they lied about that too). Her full name was Nayirah Al-Sabah. That’s right. She was a scion of Kuwait’s deposed royal family. Specifically, she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States.

In March 1991, ABC News reporter John Martin interviewed Kuwaiti hospital officials, who flatly denied that the atrocities took place. Moreover, no one at Al-Adan* recognized her. In fact, we cannot definitely place her in Kuwait at the time these events allegedly occurred. For all we know, she was still in Washington, DC with the rest of her family.

Given the Al-Sabahs’ business dealings with Hill-Knowlton, MacArthur would have ample reason to suspect that the PR firm was behind the whole of Nayirah story. HK vice-president Gary Hymel presented Nayirah to Representatives Lantos and John Porter (R-IL), and arranged the hearing in the first place. Lantos and Porter jointly founded the Congressional Human Rights Foundation in 1986. Not only did HK contribute to the campaigns of both lawmakers, but in the days after 2 August 1990 donated $50,000 to their foundation. The HRF also maintained offices in the same building as Hill-Knowlton, who donated the space. Around the time of Nayirah’s testimony, the Congressman named HK executive Frank Mankiewicz to the foundation’s board. Furthermore, the Human Rights Caucus chaired by Lantos and Porter was not a formal part of Congress, and seemed like an ideal forum in which to wage HK's PR campaign.

In short, Nayirah had Hill-Knowlton’s greasy little fingerprints all over her. MacArthur further suspected that Lauri Fitz-Pegado,** the HK executive who oversaw the Kuwait account, played a profound role in developing Nayirah’s testimony, going so far as to coach her vocal inflection and crocodile tears.

Despite the critical work of MacArthur, Martin and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Fifth Estate segment that exposed the Nayirah story for the hoax that it was, it didn’t matter in the long run. After all, Operation Desert Storm continued as planned on 17 January 1991, with an extensive US air campaign. The conflict resulted in the deaths of between 25,000 to 30,000 Iraqi soldiers (depending on which side you’re on), 135,000 civilian deaths, and 381 deaths among coalition forces--about a fourth due to ‘friendly fire.’ According to the UN, the ensuing sanctions against Iraq caused about 500,000 additional deaths over the following ten years, many of them children.***

Despite the solid and thorough debunking the Nayirah hoax has received from a number of responsible sources, some still cite it as true, or as credible. Home Box Office (HBO), for example, presented the story as true in its 2002 docudrama Live from Baghdad, even though a disclaimer in the credits state that Nayirah’s charges were never substantiated.

More telling was the response of the Al-Sabahs. Wanting to combat criticism about the veracity of the baby-dumping story, they hired Kroll Associates, an international private investigation service, to look into the claims. Even though Kroll was paid by the royal family, their conclusions weren’t what the Al-Sabahs had hoped. Although Kroll suspected that as many as seven children might have died as a result of incubator looting, the company couldn’t produce written records verifying that, and eyewitness testimony conflicted. Kroll also called Nayirah everything but a liar. While investigators believed she had actually been in Kuwait at the time the atrocities were supposed to have occurred, she was never a volunteer nurse, as she claimed to the US Congress. In fact, Kroll said that she only dropped by a hospital one day for a few minutes, and happened to see a single child briefly outside of its incubator.

As Washington Monthly writer Ted Prowse wrote in a September 1992 article:

The Kroll report to a large degree corroborated the conclusions of Middle East Watch, which stated that after interviewing dozens of Kuwaiti hospital personnel, it ‘found no basis to the allegation’ that Iraqis took babies en masse from incubators and left them to die.

Why would the original ‘witnesses’ have made such charges only to deny them later? The Middle East Watch report offers a speculation: ‘We do not know whether these doctors, all employees of the Kuwaiti government, might have become part of that government's wartime public relations effort or whether they were influenced by the rumormongering that often accompanies cataclysmic events.
In other words, the story sounded as though it should have been true to those spoiling for war.

Here, we can charitably see the press as unwitting dupes serving some sinister party as conduits of a hoax. Sometimes, however, the press has taken on a more active, hands-on role to perpetuating a hoax begun by one of its clients.
*Some sources give the spelling as ‘Al-Addan.”

**Fitz-Pegado, working for the Livingston Group, would later become one of architects of the Jessica Lynch hoax of 2003. Because of the (arguably heroic) honesty of the subject, this hoax also unraveled fairly quickly in the mainstream press. As of 2008, Fitz-Pegado was working for the Council for a Democratic Iran.

***US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when presented with the UN figures, characterized the loss of life as “acceptable.”

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