Media Labels Groups for Political Effect

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Dr. Henry Miller is a director of the American Council on Science and Health (which runs HealthFactsAndFears.com), and an angry letter writer recently told him that it is absurd for him to say ACSH acts in the "public interest" if we receive some of our funding from companies. The letter writer didn't mention how neutral, objective organizations are funded, but presumably there are grants from government and left-wing foundations involved those being pure, morally superior sources of cash. Naturally, the letter writer didn't bother to attack any of Miller's arguments about public health. The funding issue was, in the letter writer's mind, sufficient to make the "public interest" label off-limits to Miller and to us.

And that would be fine, if it weren't for the fact that countless other groups, regardless of their funding sources, get to use labels such as "public interest" and "consumer advocate" with impunity as long as they're pushing environmentalist and pro-regulatory agendas. You see, the major media don't have to fess up about the fact that they're taking sides on contentious political issues when they get to pick the labels that shape the debate and quietly tilt things in favor of the groups they like. Soon, gullible readers such as Dr. Miller's critic absorb the biases underlying the slanted labels.

Interestingly, almost every mention of ACSH in the New York Times is accompanied by a mention of the fact that some of our funding comes from companies, while similar but left-wing organizations such as Center for Science in the Public Interest are described as if they are neutral and, presumably, utterly divorced from political concerns and the vile cash nexus. The Times recently had to print a correction, in fact, after going a bit too far in the (mis)labeling game and calling ACSH part of the "food industry" (and omitting our president's Dr. honorific while using one for a CSPI representative).

ACSH's associate director Jeff Stier once asked a reporter why he kept referring to ACSH's funding while merely labeling the chemical-fearing group Health Care Without Harm a "non-profit." The reporter, without apparent irony (or self-awareness), said it was because Health Care Without Harm was "doing good." So much for our efforts.

But it's not just ACSH that suffers from this nasty little habit of the media's. The group Judicial Watch, for instance, was always labeled "conservative" when it was suing President Clinton, but once the group sued Vice President Cheney, pressuring him to release financial documents, the "conservative" label vanished in some newspapers not to be replaced by the label "liberal" or "moderate," mind you, but by bland, neutral descriptors suggesting that Judicial Watch is a non-partisan, objective public interest organization. No doubt in many reporters' minds, attacking conservative politicians is precisely how one proves one's objectivity.

ACSH inadvertently benefited from this bias recently when we brought a lawsuit against Whole Foods, an organic food seller, for violating California's Proposition 65 law that says all potential carcinogens must be labeled as such our point being that by the law's absurdly broad standards, even the most wholesome and natural foods ought logically to be labeled, since virtually anything, including acrylamide in bread, may give lab rats tumors in large enough doses. While a baffled press was still sorting out our motives but for a change thinking of us as anti-chemical crusaders we found ourselves labeled a (presumably objective, non-partisan) consumer education group instead of defenders of industry.

Soon, ACSH returned to its usual battles against laws such as Prop. 65, and now we'll once again be labeled free-market advocates, industry spokespeople, or perhaps a pro-chemical hate group but whatever they call us, and no matter how mild and reassuring the epithets applied to our intellectual foes are we'll be squarely on the side of science, which may be the only truly objective form of knowledge the human race has yet devised.