The press plays an enormously important role in our society. It informs us about important events and reveals problems we might not have been aware of before. At least that's the theory. Sadly, while the free press of the past indeed served the role of watchdog and independent informer, the press we have today is far from free and unbiased.
In fact, it's hard to look at today's press corps as champions for the free-flow of information. Most reporters simply aren't, anymore. They do shape society, though — just not in the way you might think. Evidence reveals a deep trend of manipulation occurring in many fields, but it appears particularly prevalent in science and medicine.
One way by which industry and even government are shaping and manipulating the press is by way of press embargoes, and the so-called "close-hold embargo" in particular. Another way is through the creation of front groups, and there are now many dozens of industry front groups masquerading as independent information organizations.
Virtually every major industry employs front groups to give the appearance of independent thinking and reporting on industry affairs when, in reality, they're simply spouting industry PR. As such, they are an integral part of an industry propaganda machine.
Recognizing Industry Front Groups
I've previously published information about several such front groups, including the International Food Additives Council (IFAC), the Coalition Against Costly Food Labeling Proposition and Alliance to Feed the Future.
Back in 2013, the Center for Food Safety also published a report with the telling title, "Best Public Relations Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups,"1 which reveals how the food and agricultural industries hide behind friendly-sounding organizations aimed at fooling the public, policymakers and the media.
The report highlights specific tactics used by industry front groups to deceive or shape public opinion, such as:2
• Astroturfing (creating fake grassroots campaigns)
• "Shooting the messenger" — ridiculing, marginalizing and discrediting critics
• Paying for science that supports the industry narrative
American Council on Science and Health
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is a respectable-sounding front group for Monsanto and other multinational biotech companies. A 2013 Mother Jones3 article spilled the beans on who's actually funding this pro-industry science group.
They defend everything from fracking to pesticides, the toxic plastic ingredient bisphenol-A (BPA) and genetically engineered foods — all in the name of squelching "unwarranted fear mongering by those who don't understand the science."
The ACSH claims to be an independent research and advocacy organization consisting of "concerned scientists" who are devoted to debunking "junk science."
But once you understand who this front group really serves, it becomes easy to see why the scientific basis for the ACSH's recommendations may be questionable at best. As reported by Mother Jones:4
[I]nternal financial documents ... show that ACSH depends heavily on funding from corporations that have a financial stake in the scientific debates it aims to shape.
One prominent player has been Hank Campbell,5 president of the ACSH from 2015 until 2018.6 He also founded, purchased or was otherwise tied to a string of websites and organizations focused on science reporting, including ION Publications LLC, Science 2.0, Science Codex and ScienceBlogs.com.
In a November 17, 2018, Twitter post,7 NYU professor Charles Seife illustrated Campbell's network of science blogs in "Mapping a Monsanto-Loving Octopus,"8 showing the intricate connections between ACSH and the various blogs, and how these various sites all promote Big Biotech's products and aims. As reported by U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) in December 2018:9
According to documents10 released via litigation, Monsanto paid the American Council on Science and Health in 2015 to defend glyphosate and help discredit11 the scientists of the World Health Organization's cancer research panel for their report raising cancer concerns about the herbicide.
The documents indicate that Monsanto executives were uncomfortable about working with ACSH but did so anyway because 'we don't have a lot of supporters and can't afford to lose the few we have,' Daniel Goldstein, Monsanto's senior science lead, wrote in an email to colleagues.
Seife is accurate enough in his description of Campbell's science network as an octopus. It's a rather bewildering maze of ties. Here, I will summarize just one. ScienceBlogs was founded in 2006 by Seed Media Group, whose board at one point included the now infamous Jeffrey Epstein,12 who recently died in prison pending trial on sex trafficking charges.
In 2010, journalist Gaia Vince published an article13 in The Guardian discussing ScienceBlogs' decision to publish a nutrition blog written by scientists contracted by PepsiCo, and her dealings with Seed Magazine, a Seed Media Group publication. (Recall: Seed Media owned ScienceBlogs).
Vince recounts how the magazine dropped one of her stories for the simple reason they were "in the midst of advertising negotiations with Dow" and her piece happened to be critical of the company.
"It seems I had to run my articles past the ads department. In more than a decade working in the industry, I had never come across such a blatant disregard for editorial independence," Vince wrote.14
After languishing and being shut down toward the latter end of 2017, ScienceBlogs was picked up by ACSH's president Campbell in 2018.15