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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When we actually ask people in SE DC what they think about cycling…

An early table from the 2013 survey

An early table from the 2013 survey

In 2012 and 2013, American University Prof. Eve Bratman and I worked with two of her classes to survey more than 250 commuters in Washington, DC’s Wards 7 and 8. While much of the city — and indeed the country — has seen a cycling renaissance (hooray!), commuters in predominantly poor, predominantly black Wards 7 and 8 aren’t exactly part of the boom.

Above is an early table from the 2013 segment of the survey that specifically asked commuters at a wide range of places what barriers they could identify to cycling. Meanwhile, we note that the overwhelming preference among our respondents in both surveys is still for an automobile.

Ultimately, this leads us to conclude there is more serious work to be done; and we have a few policy suggestions. For a more developed argument, see the initial findings of our exploratory, shoestring research published today by The Atlantic‘s CityLab.

Many thanks to CityLab for listening to us. And thanks to all the co-conspirators (fellow students) in this research. We’re looking at publishing a much more thoughtful, articulated and data-heavy version in the coming months.

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Winter cycling, not exactly a staring contest with Sauron’s eye

Winter wonderland? Meet morning ride last year

Winter wonderland? Meet morning ride last year

My blog has been on hiatus for a number of reasons. I have a long list of comments, rejoinders, articles, anecdotes and the like that I would love to write. But I’m supposed to be either tudying Hindi or writing scholarly things about fish.

However, I can’t restrain myself…

Atlantic Cities has a post this week about prepping for winter cycling. Lots of good and thoughtful and helpful tips. While we’re at it, I have two names: SmartWool and Icebreaker.

But, if you read the comments, there is also a fair bit of subtle bragging which may be read by the wary as a sign that we all believe this is indeed something difficult. Here’s a counterpoint that can’t be emphasized enough: Winter biking is absolutely doable and not much more difficult than many other types of weather, terrain or distance, or even other manners of commute.

Still the post and in particularly the comment thread rings with such talk as “how to survive” or “how much money it’ll cost” or “here’s what the hardcore pros do” or “I do it because I care so much” or “look at me I’m tough” only reinforces the fallacy that to ride in cold/wet/slush/snow is actually Herculean.

As a winter cyclist during the two years I lived in DC, I may have fallen prey such mild self-congratulatory behavior. Here’s the truth: Is cycling in the winter as easy as sleeping in? No. But it’s probably not much more difficult than getting out of bed some days. Or, say, walking a mile to Metro on unsalted sidewalks.

However, if we constantly suggest that “Winter cycling is difficult but you too can overcome adversity,” the perception of reality begins to mold to the outlines of the discourse. We (society) begin to think winter cycling actually requires some beyond-normal capacity. Furthermore, we (cyclists) tend to reinforce this through our own egos, because we believe that we have now conquered such difficulty. Which isn’t really fair, because winter cycling is hardly a journey into Mordor.

Meanwhile, such suggestions that winter cycling is difficult fit neatly into the larger but false narrative about cycling (sold to society by a certain brand of development ) — that a cycling-dependent mobility strategy requires some combination of guts, desperation, fortitude, eccentricity and, of course, a willingness to defy social convention. Reinforcing said narrative is the real damage, because while both cold fingers and a snotty nose can be solved by a good pair of gloves with a fleece patch for wiping, no technical gear or stylish-but-functional hat (both recommended in the post) will weaken the stereotype that cycle commuting is abnormal.

I’m reminded of Darren Zook’s great discourse analysis in Agrarian Environments, titled “Famine in the landscape: Imagining hunger in South Asian history 1860-1990.” Boiled down, one of Zook’s arguments is that both Indian nationalists and British overlords tended to overstate or manipulate the issue of famine and hunger in India and use it for their own purposes. Nationalists seized famine — an inherently social construct — as proof that British were ruining the country. The Brits said the opposite: India can’t even feed itself; we need to stay. In both cases, the discourse shaped the perception of reality according to prevailing political or egotistical interests.

Perhaps a discussion of colonial politics is a bit heavier than cribbing about biking in winter. But the parallel is there: The discourse can shape reality and, as such, we must be careful how we speak.

On the one hand, discussions like this one at Atlantic Cities are trying to encourage more cyclists, which is just plain good in uncountable ways. But on the other hand, when we make it sound like an extraordinary challenge that must be overcome, then we may actually do the cycling cause some disservice.

Not suggesting that everything in the AC post is even remotely bad, but just something to keep in mind the next time we’re about to respond to that familiar: “Oh my lord, how do you manage to cycle all winter long?”

P.S. I miss biking and am very excited to finally get back to the road when I shift to Bangalore.

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