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Distortions in the Media: A Case Study of Fox and Monsanto

Much of the news that gets aired on the mainstream media has been sterilized and reworked to be commensurate with dominant interest groups. The distortions of facts in the media stand mainly unchallenged because of the massive offensives launched by corporations and lobbyists to protect key interests. We may read incredulously about the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, but the censorship of the past pales in comparison to the sophisticated methods of today.

A Tale of Two Journalists

In the mid-1990s, a successful husband-and-wife team of investigative journalists were given the go-ahead by the Florida TV station WTVT to create a four-part news series on Polisac®, a genetically-engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) that some critics feared would lead to potentially dire health risks to both cows and humans alike. Not only would rBGH cause dairy cows to produce much more milk, but it would also make Monsanto, its maker, the undisputed leader in the biotechnology industry. The series would not only be an exposé about the possible health risks of rBGH, but it would also expose a Monsanto executive on film repeatedly lying about the proven safety of the hormone.

But the exposé as Akre and Wilson had prepared it would never be shown on television. Right before the first installment would be aired on the advertised date of 24 February 1997, Fox received a letter from a prominent lawyer representing Monsanto, stating that the story be delayed for a week due to the story’s heavy ‘bias’ and unscientific nature: “There is a lot at stake in what is going on in Florida, not only for Monsanto but also for Fox News and its owner,” the lawyer wrote. WTVT and nine other stations had recently been acquired by the Fox network.

What followed next is a perfect example of how the largest corporations and their lobbyists can dictate to the news media what should be censored, what would be aired, and how under what terms.

The piece was condemned as one-sided and full of lies, when in fact the two reporters had provided documentation as solid as possible in such a case. The broadcast was cancelled.

Already any dairy companies or stores that sold products advertised as “rBGH-free” had been sued or threatened to be sued, as the “rBGH-free” suggested that there might be something wrong with the hormone injection; in the realm of media, journalists were being monitored according to the stories they ran regarding the hormone. “Friendly” reporters were rewarded; “hostile” reporters were essentially intimidated into submission.

Experts who dared to question the safety of rBGH were discredited (propaganda labeling) as scaremongers or illegitimate within their field. The Dairy Coalition (a wide network of drug and dairy industry groups, including Monsanto-funded university researchers and sympathetic ‘third party’ ‘experts’) began to educate reporters and editors as to the ‘facts’. Of course, ‘educate’ in this sense is a euphemism for ‘intimidate’.

Akre and Wilson’s story had been delayed so that it could be checked for inaccuracies, but WTVT lawyers and editors could find none; the Monsanto lawyer wrote back, this time much clearer: “Indeed, some of the points clearly contain the elements of defamatory statements which, if repeated in a broadcast, could lead to serious damage to Monsanto and dire consequences for Fox News and its owner.” [italics mine] To put it succinctly, Murdoch’s corporation would be risking millions of dollars worth of Monsanto advertisings not only for Fox, but for the entire News Corporation, which includes the advertising agency Actmedia, a major client of which was, of course, Monsanto.

After over 70 rewrites and half a dozen delays, the reporters were offered cash settlements to keep quiet about the story and not to file an official complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The saga of Akre and Wilson generated very little outrage at the time; of course not–their story hardly received any national media attention. Theirs was a story of intimidation, of censorship, of the suppression of potentially life-threatening news, and yet it was not deemed newsworthy.

The couple sued Fox based on the whistle-blower laws, won, and then lost an appeal from FOX, since news distortion is a policy, an ideal, but not a law. In May 1998, Fox finally did air a report on rBGH that did not dispute any of Monsanto’s claims regarding the safety of the milk, and nor did it include any of Akre and Wilson’s original criticisms or diligent investigative journalism.

The modern propaganda offensive is, therefore, much more elaborate and subtle than what we assume it to be.

When it comes to propaganda, many people respond to it in a jaded manner: “it’s all propaganda!” It is one thing to repeat prefabricated phrases, but as the Fox-Monsanto case study illustrates, the news we receive is so heavily censored and reconstructed according to the interests of the most powerful political and economic groups. Important information was withheld from public knowledge, and ironically it is the story that was aired that was heavily one-sided.

Auto-Censorship is your Biggest Enemy

In the Fox-Monsanto case, the work of investigative journalists Akre and Wilson was silenced. Many other reporters, editors, and experts whose work did not compliment Monsanto were either discredited (and/or fired) or ‘pacified’ to submit to the Monsanto credo.

The world of investigative journalism has been rendered sterile when not only free speech, but in this case solid, factual, informative investigative pieces are silenced to benefit the military-industrial complex. It is doubtful that many journalists would be willing to undergo the same legal and professional struggles that Akre and Wilson endured during this period.

This is external censorship, and censorship’s most obvious form; but there is also auto-censorship. There are a series of social constraints that keep us from speaking out regarding a situation, or at a deeper level, from even questioning ideas. Socialization has a powerful effect on how we act. If we learn about an event or new trend in the news that may disturb us, or if we intuitively see incongruences in the manner in which the story is presented, we may be compelled to point this out. More often than not, however, we see that no one else (friends, classmates, colleagues, fellow citizens) is reacting, and so we create a definition of the situation: this is normal.

Freud got it all wrong: it is not sexual desire that dictates our behaviour, but rather it is fear. The fear of becoming a social pariah is so great that it will prevent the average person from stating his or her beliefs, or simply expressing an opinion which is different from that of the majority. In certain situations, expressing disagreement can also lead to being harassed as unpatriotic, institutionalized as mentally unfit or dangerous, or imprisoned. Social intimidation is the police force of the propaganda machine.