ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

4 January 2002


A Teflon Correspondent

John Stossel has high Q-ratings, so he doesn't have to worry about the rules

John Stossel, television's million-dollar bonus baby, has given new meaning to the old journalistic maxim "Follow the money." ..."I ran into him one day, kidded him about his metamorphosis and asked what had happened. 'I got a little older,' John answered. 'Liked the idea of making real money. So started looking at things a little differently.'"

...for its viewers ABC still packages Stossel as a reporter--a dogged, take-no-prisoners investigator. But they allow him to play by a vastly different set of rules than mainline reporters ...Were they strictly enforced, John Stossel might also be long gone, as he appears to have violated them repeatedly. For example, the standards caution that "especially when there is controversy or accusation, give the person speaking his or her best shot in the context of the report." But when Stossel did a show trashing organic food, he not only badgered Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, but also took some of her remarks out of context and left on the cutting-room floor comments that would have balanced those of the program's main organicfood opponent (see "Food Fight," this issue).

Food Fight

by Mark Dowie

One of the most heavily quoted sources in John Stossel's "The Food You Eat"--in which Stossel claimed that "buying organic could kill you"ówas an outspoken critic of organic farming named Dennis Avery. Stossel introduced Avery as "a former researcher for the Agriculture Department," but it was Avery's more recent position with the Center for Global Food Issues, a project of the conservative Hudson Institute, that informed his ardent support of chemical agriculture. The Hudson Institute and Avery's project are both supported by generous contributions from Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, ConAgra, DowElanco, The Olin Foundation and the Ag-Chem Equipment Company, all of whom profit from the sale of products prohibited in organic production.

Avery maintained that organically grown food is no more nutritious than conventional food (an unproven claim), that organic food had been found contaminated with E. coli (a true but misleading allegation, as most E. coli is harmless) and that pesticide residues had not been found on organic or conventional produce, a finding, Stossel said, of studies that had been contracted by ABC News to an independent laboratory.

After "The Food You Eat" aired, the network was inundated with angry mail. Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, who was interviewed for the show, called the story "distorted and inaccurate." Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group in Washington offered hard evidence that the studies Stossel said had been done on pesticide residues had never been performed. And Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a New York media watchdog group, questioned Dennis Avery's claims and credentials.

ABC vice president Kerry Marash, whose job includes watching for infractions of editorial practice, invited critics in to present their case. Marash declined to be interviewed, on the instructions of the network's media relations director, but people who know her say she was
deeply disturbed by Stossel's handling of the organic food and farming story, as well as other Stossel programs and that she wanted to talk about it.

Subsequently, ABC announced that Stossel would offer a public apology, live, on 20/20, involving aspects of the program. Stossel did apologize--to his audience, but not to an industry he had badly damaged. "I said our tests found no pesticide residues on either conventional or organic produce," he said. "That was just wrong.... I apologize for the error [and] am deeply sorry I misled you.... All we have in this business is our credibility--your trust that we get it right--I will make every effort to see that it never happens again." In a personal letter to Katherine DiMatteo, Marash did apologize "to organic farmers."

David Fitzpatrick, the producer of the show, was eventually let go by ABC in one of those severances shrouded in mutual secrecy. Fitzpatrick did tell me that he received "a cash settlement," but not before signing "a detailed nondisclosure agreement about the incident." Was Fitzpatrick sacrificed? Many who knew him at ABC and remember the incident think so. Stossel, they believe, was carefully positioned by network executives as an unwitting victim of sloppy reporting by a subordinate. It was easier and less expensive for ABC to buy off and silence a low-six-figure producer than to cancel the contract of a million-dollar superstar.

Stossel's Heroes



Steven Milloy is founder and president of Citizens for the Integrity of Science, an organization housed at his home address in Potomac, Maryland. Milloy is also executive director of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), which is run by a division of Grey Advertising called APCO. TASCC is funded by Dow Chemical, Exxon, the National Pest Control Association, Amoco, Lorillard, Occidental Petroleum, Phillip Morris (Grey's largest client), W.R. Grace and other corporations interested in discrediting epidemiological and toxicological studies contrary to their interests, which Milloy attacks on a website called Milloy is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and a columnist for

When Dr. David Rall, founder of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, was fatally injured in a car accident, Milloy posted this "obituary of the day" on his website: "Scratch one junk scientist.... He was a bad guy when he was alive [and] death did not improve his track record." (When pressed by the Environmental Working Group to apologize to Rall's family, Milloy refused.)

Elizabeth Whelan is president and founder of the American Council on Science and Health, which shares many of the same sponsors as Steve Milloy's TASCC. She holds degrees in public health from Yale and Harvard. Her books Panic in the Pantry and Toxic Terror contain many of the ideas that Stossel turns into  his "Give Me A Break" commentaries run on 20/20 and ABC radio. Whelan says: "I've been called a paid liar for industry so many times I've lost count."
Professor B. and his multi-award-winning Smoking Pantaloons

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