In April 2016, Monica Eng of WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, published a critical story revealing that the agrichemical giant Monsanto had quietly paid a professor at the University of Illinois to travel, write, and speak about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and even to lobby federal officials to halt further GMO regulation. In a grueling, year-long reporting project, Eng uncovered documents proving that Monsanto made the payments to University of Illinois professor Bruce Chassy, and that he advised Monsanto to deposit money in the university’s foundation, where records are shielded from public disclosure.
“I knew that this would be a big story,” Eng says.
What she didn’t expect was the massive blowback: The university accused her of being an activist, not a journalist, and she was hounded by Twitter trolls who jumped on her story and waged a campaign to discredit her personally.
“I’ve worked as a professional journalist in Chicago for more than three decades,” Eng says. “I’ve uncovered questionable activity in government groups, nonprofits, and private companies. But I don’t think I have ever seen a group so intent on trying to personally attack the journalist covering the issue.”
Eng’s experience is just one example of a strategy first invented by Big Tobacco to smear critics, spin reporters, and tamp down information that could damage the industry’s image.
In recent months, media outlets have reported on a disturbing trend of corporate-sponsored journalism. The British Medical Journal exposed a multiyear campaign by Coca-Cola to influence reporters covering obesity by secretly funding journalism conferences at the University of Colorado. The watchdog group Health News Review reported that two journalism professors at the University of Kansas asked more than 1,100 health-care reporters about their views on opioids in a survey that was funded, in part, by the Center for Practical Bioethics, a group the U.S. Senate Finance Committee investigated for its ties to opioid manufacturers.
The biotech industry is particularly focused on taming controversies surrounding GMOs and the chemicals that are used on genetically modified crops, including Monsanto’s weedkiller glyphosate. The world’s most widely used herbicide, glyphosate is critical for the successful cultivation of GMO corn and soybeans. A recent study found that the chemical’s use by farmers has jumped fifteen-fold since 1996. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”