Dear National Press Foundation: Thank you for helping @MonsantoCo to buy more journalists

TO: Sandy K. Johnson
President of the National Press Foundation:

Ms. Johnson, I respect your career as a journalist, particularly your legacy as Associated Press COB in Washington, DC. I also respect the mission of the National Press Foundation, especially these days when journalism as a craft and a community is on the ropes.

Yet I was so very dismayed to learn of the National Press Foundation’s Food, from Farm to Table “bootcamp,” which sounds like little more than junket, paid at least in part by Monsanto. As disheartening were your recent comments defending such a program.

“Johnson did say that she personally initiated the NPF’s sponsorship relationship with Monsanto after she found herself seated next to a member of the Monsanto board of directors at a dinner party in January. She also said that once Monsanto signed on as a sponsor, the NPF decided to locate the conference in St. Louis in order to include a visit to the company’s labs in their programming. When asked if she was familiar with Monsanto’s controversial reputation, Johnson replied, “In whose eyes? In your eyes? I’m familiar with the Monsanto that created research and science around agriculture that has allowed the United States to feed the world.”

Now I understand that the food journalism community can be pretty quick to pounce. And there are many sides to the complex story of food and food politics. But this program and your conversation with Helen Rosner at Eater reveal two disturbing problems.

FUNDING.
Now, you might rightly stand on your word that this junket would be fair and balanced, that adult journalists can decide for themselves, that NPF wants to shed light on a multifaceted issue, etc. I agree that a tour of Monsanto should be included in such a program as should your planned tour of an organic farm. And yes, I think that Monsanto’s side needs to be heard, and questioned critically. I think a visit Whole Foods and to Aldi is on order. I think checking out the refrigerators of the rich in Clayton and the poor in North St. Louis would be revealing. Go stand in the middle of vast corn fields in southern Illinois. Compare their soil to that of a permaculture plot developed by EarthDance Farms of Ferguson, Mo. Speak with scientists at the Missouri Botanical Garden (or bring some from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or the University Missouri at Columbia). Take a day trip up to Decatur, Ill. and visit Archer Daniels Midland. On your way back check the small and largish dairy production around Breese, Ill.

Such activities will surely make your junket less junket-y.

But why should Monsanto foot the bill? Do you/NPF not see a real conflict of interest? Do you not think that there’s at least the potential for impropriety or the appearance there of? Can you swear that Monsanto at no point has influence on the itinerary? Do you not see that by taking Monsanto’s money, you allow them to buy influence? The rules of the exchange are changed, right?

I remember the old AP “rules” that I learned as an intern and stringer. We took free water if we were thirsty; the rest of the sponsorships, junkets, food at events, transportation with the campaign — I was taught — was to be refused or paid back if absolutely necessary. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten why those rules — informal or official — were so strictly promoted as a code of conduct.

Is it the case that the junket couldn’t happen without Monsanto funding? I do suspect you wouldn’t be able to offer an all-expenses-paid trip to St. Louis. Which is also probably what Monsanto wants. In that case, don’t do it; find other funding creative ways to train journalists on these matters without compromising your/NPF’s integrity.

BIAS
Now, on a more personal note, your blathering and defensiveness reveals you as biased on these issues — consciously or not.

You say got the idea from a NatGeo issue? You were sitting at a dinner party next to a Monsanto bigshot and struck up a conversation? Congratulations. Are you so removed from these concepts that you weren’t already aware of their complexity and Monsanto’s role? Are you really claiming you are unaware that Monsanto is controversial and not always considered an altruistic corporation interested in ending hunger? Do you think Monsanto critics are just some hippy fringe? There’s no reason for concern with GMOs and the politics of GMOs and corporate control of the food system? You’re absolutely unbiased in all this?

No, Ms. Johnson, I think you have plenty of bias, and you quite plainly reveal it. You apparently got riled up and pushed back at Ms. Rosner, but in doing so, you openly take a stand on your benefactor Monsanto — and apparently the highly contentious politics of food, aid, subsidies, intellectual property rights, trade, policy, freedom of expression, tort law and more. Your unskeptical description of Monsanto as supporting the food-providing United States is company salespitch and/or jingoistic propaganda more than truth.

As a final justification, you attempt to dismiss your skeptical interviewer because you claim some authority, having grown up on a farm. I agree that once perhaps put you closer to some of these issues (though probably not the extensive complexity of agro-food politics today) than people who don’t grow up in and around farming towns.

But that last credential doesn’t excuse your (and NPF’s) abrogation of basic journalistic principles. You might like Monsanto enough to take their money. And you apparently can’t see your own bias (bias is funny that way).

But I hope enough journalists do see through Monsanto’s attempt to buy media coverage, in which you are now complicit.

Sincerely,

Adam Jadhav

P.S. Before you dismiss me. My very first job was detasseling corn. My second was stocking food at a grocery store. Several years later I interned with the Associated Press. I became a political reporter in St. Louis. I left journalism for a graduate degree in global environmental politics. I now live in India conducting research (and hands-on experiments) in sustainable agro-ecology. From there to here, it’s very interesting to how Monsanto and the United States do or do not “feed the world.”

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Can you forget how to ride a bike? How easily? What about how to think?


Spotted this evening on Treehugger.

Take the time to watch the above. Aside from just being wonderfully nerdy about bicycles and weird science, this video also seems like a really, really, really instructive lesson about how brains (ours, others, etc.) might approach a dynamic social, ecological or political problem.

I’m betting most of us see this and think, at least at first, “I could figure it out.” Then, after watching a lot of people fail, some of us still probably think, “OK, difficult, but I could still do it.”

Maybe we invent tricks we think will help — closing our eyes to tamp down the visual miscues, crossing our arms to maintain the “push with the right, turn to the left” muscle memory, etc.

And most of us would still probably faceplant if forced to do it at any speed.

I’m left wondering, then, how much this ingrained processing of bicycle riding also applies to how we process OTHER information, ideas, biases, etc. Do beliefs/constructs/paradigms/language really get as hard-wired as bicycle riding?

If so, I suppose I probably would continue to believe the government is good/evil, climate change is real/fake, gay people are people/sinners, guns are safe/dangerous, ice cream is tasty/the scourge of thighs, the earth is round/flat, dogs can/can’t look up, and other binaries entirely because of my neuro-wiring and irrespective of compelling “reason,” “logic,” “science,” “information,” “knowledge,” “humanity,” etc. with which I am presented.

In the backwards bicycle case, I very clearly can see that I need to push with my left to veer/counterbalance left. Yet my brain still won’t do it, at least not without eight months of reorientation (that apparently can also be overcome in several minutes re-reorientation). In other words, I’m sitting there on the pedals telling myself that reality has changed, with everyone else also explaining how the world is now different, and I need to adapt and push with the left to go left, and yet my brain tells me and everyone else, politely, to eff off.

Similarly, if my brain also says X is a hoax, how difficult is actually convincing myself that X is true?

And of course, with most thorny issues, we know that most ideas are not simply the product of knowing the A, B and C of X. Enter the halo effect, social capital, limited but repeated experiences, memory loss, ego, fear, group-think, shifting baselines and all other common obstructions to changing our made-up minds.

In real-world conditions, then, my brain tells me to X is wrong because I should distrust person E who believes X because Y is my routine experience and person B also supports me as a member of clan R which adheres to community norm set M; in addition, I’ve actually forgotten the A, B, and C of X, which I encountered Z months ago surrounded by people L while I was in mood T; and, in any case, I imagine myself to be person type Q and to even consider believing X would actually make me person type J.”

Makes me really take a step back on the strategies we use to win hearts and minds. Say, for instance, in favor of climate reality or sustainable living or equality under law.

So what if believing Y (and not X) really is like riding a bike? What would it actually take to help/encourage people forget Y and choose X? Some pretty difficult truths for all who are interested in making social change a reality.

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