THE AMERICAN JOURNALIST, AN ENDANGERED SPECIES?

NOVEMBER 2013

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(Posted Fri. Nov 22nd, 2013)

By Rick Tolman

CEO, National Corn Growers Association

 

Wikipedia, the apparent new standard for definition in our electronic virtual society, defines an endangered species as “a native species that faces significant risk of extinction in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.  Such species may be declining in number due to the threats such as habitat destruction, climate change or pressure from invasive species.”

 

Beyond spotted owls, long-nosed bats, black-footed ferrets, kangaroo rats and the short-nosed sucker, it seems that we now must add the American journalist.  And what has led to the decline of the American journalist? Let’s take a look.

 

Habitat Destruction:  “The Internet has brought forth an unprecedented flowering of news and information. But it has also destabilized the old business models that have supported quality journalism for decades. Good journalists across the country are losing their jobs or adjusting to a radically new news environment online.”  -- Nieman Journalism Lab, Harvard University

 

Climate Change:  “What this latest research says to me is that journalism has added interpretation to its core practice, but we’re not really talking about it. The profession still operates with a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ disclaimer that no longer describes what it actually does. Perhaps this is part of why media credibility has been falling for decades.”  -- Jonathan Stray, journalist and computer scientist

 

Pressure from Invasive Species: “Journalism has a long, sorry history of professional pundits whose analyses of politics and economics turn out to be no better than guessing.” -- Jonathan Stray

 

Here are three current examples, from sources I had considered to be long-time standard bearers of good journalism and strong objective reporting that have seemingly now succumbed to endangered-species status.

 

First, see an editorial Nov. 17 in the Wall Street Journal, titled “Big Ethanol Finally Loses.” We can argue the gray areas with the Journal and their seeming inherent bias against renewable fuels, but what must be refuted are the factual errors in the editorial, including a real whopper. The Journal cites a Congressional Budget Office report from 2009: “Ethanol raised food prices by 5 to 10 percent.”  The reality is that the report actually says, “ethanol contributed between 0.5 and 0.8 percentage points of the 5.1 percent increase in food prices,” a huge difference and an unforgiveable error for a newspaper that should know better.

 

A Nov. 12 Associated Press story about the impact of ethanol production on corn acreage is another example.  The AP story focuses on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, yet it missed the most fundamental facts regarding CRP – like the fact that it’s not about “native prairie.” Only land that had a crop production history was eligible for CRP enrollment. Also, current law strictly prohibits the conversion of sensitive ecosystems to cropland. The law requires that corn used to produce renewable fuels for RFS may only be sourced from land that was actively engaged in agricultural production in 2007, the year of the bill's enactment. Further, EPA is required to annually evaluate whether the RFS is causing U.S. cropland to expand beyond the 2007 level, and the 2012 cropland total was at its lowest point since EPA began its annual analysis.

 

Finally, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, NCGA’s hometown paper, published the AP story and reproduced a political cartoon based on it without doing any fact checking nor checking with sources to determine the accuracy or balance of the story. The Post-Dispatch did this despite the fact that the story was widely disparaged as being fact-challenged and error-filled and we’re headquartered right in the Post-Dispatch community – as well as a lot of other agriculture organizations and companies that could have pointed out the errors and provided balance to the story.

 

In an area totally unrelated to ethanol, I’d like to provide another startling example, from Michael Pollan, a prominent food writer and journalism professor at the University of California, who is often a thorn in the side of production agriculture. Speaking at a forum in his home state, Pollan talks about how efforts like the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s Food Dialogues have made it harder for him to get his way with his friends at The New York Times. Allow me to quote him at length:

 

“The media has really been on our side for the most part. I know this from writing for the New York Times where I’ve written about a lot of other topics. But when I wrote about food I never had to give equal time to the other side. I could say whatever I thought and offer my own conclusions. Say you should buy grass feed beef and organic is better, and these editors in New York didn’t realize there is anyone who disagrees with that point of view. So I felt like I got a free ride for a long time.

 

“And then about two years ago, maybe three years ago, the industry decided they had to fight back and since then they’ve organized a very well-funded PR campaign that sometimes you’ve seen some evidence of…  There is something called the Food Dialogues presented in various places to talk about how food is produced and greater transparency and I found this…  And, they are lobbying newspapers and editorial boards saying you have to give equal time and so you see all these kind of anti-locavore pieces and pro-GM pieces on the op-ed page everywhere. So I think they have kind of spooked the newspapers into realizing they need to give equal time on this issue and it is an issue with two sides.”

 

You can watch the video here. It does not present The New York Times in a very good light.

 

We should pity the decline of the American journalist and its joining the ranks of endangered species.  I unfortunately and sadly join many of you in what appears to be a farewell salute to the age old pattern of collecting information by conducting interviews, engaging in research and checking facts with objectivity and lack of bias.  I have closed my eyes to this for quite some time, but it is clear that those once-noble media outlets I mention above and many of their colleagues have joined the ranks of ferrets, bats and suckers.