The New York Times has again attacked an upstanding scientist based on claims made by duplicitous activist groups. This episode illustrates why the public's trust in media is plummeting.
Public trust in media is near an all-time low. “Just 7% of Americans have 'a great deal' of trust and confidence in the media, and 27% have 'a fair amount,' Gallup reported on October 18. “Meanwhile, 28% of U.S. adults say they do not have very much confidence and 38% have none at all in newspapers, TV and radio.”
Why do so many people have so little trust in journalists? Explanations run the gamut: the public doesn't know how to navigate newspapers; there's too little local news coverage; too few people rely on fact-checkers when browsing the headlines, and so on. None of these answers capture the real problem—reporters are transparently incompetent and ideological. They don't have the public's trust because they've abused it for years on end.
Another hit piece
Consider this recent front-page New York Times Story: “He’s an Outspoken Defender of Meat. Industry Funds His Research, Files Show.” The exposé targeted Dr. Frank Mitloehner, an air-quality specialist at the University of California, Davis. Never mind his position at a respected research institution and stellar publication record; the Times wants you to know that Mitloehner's work is funded by “farming interests” trying to deflect blame for climate change:
“According to internal University of California documents reviewed by The New York Times, Dr. Mitloehner’s academic group, the Clear Center at UC Davis, receives almost all its funding from industry donations and coordinates with a major livestock lobby group on messaging campaigns.”
There's no need to refute the story's allegations; that's already been done. The Clear Center has always disclosed its industry funding. Mitloehner has also responded to the story, explaining that his research team uses the grant money to devise solutions that help “reduce the environmental footprint of animal agriculture.” We've discussed some of this impressive work in recent articles. Other scientists have pointed out that none of the Clear Center's work deviates from the scientific consensus on climate change.
What we'll do here is compare the Times' hit piece on Mitloehner to an equally disingenuous article it published in 2015 attacking Dr. Kevin Folta, a plant geneticist at the University of Florida, as a lobbyist for the biotech industry.  The names and dates were changed, but the recent story was essentially a clone of the earlier piece, right down to identical sentence structure in some cases.
The 'industry documents' gambit
Both stories tried to sell the narrative that Folta and Mitloehner are secretly in cahoots with corporate interests, Folta with Monsanto and Mitloehner with the “livestock lobby.” Here's how reporter Eric Lipton framed the story about Folta in 2015:
The moves by Monsanto … are detailed in thousands of pages of emails that were at first requested by the nonprofit group U.S. Right to Know [USRTK] … The New York Times separately requested some of these documents, then made additional requests in several states for email records of academics with ties to the organics industry.
As of April 2022, the Clear Center had also received more than $350,000 from other industry or corporate sources, the documents show … The documents were obtained by Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace U.K … The New York Times also independently obtained the files from officials at UC Davis.
First and foremost, industry commonly and openly funds scientific research. Without support from corporate sources, nearly 75 percent of the research American universities produce would go unfunded, according to a 2019 estimate. The Times did not obtain hidden financial records; it reprinted out-of-context communications to put a nefarious spin on information Folta and Mitloehner have voluntarily disclosed over the years.
USRTK and Greenpeace are shameless activist groups with no scientific credibility. We've documented multiple instances in which both organizations have misused sources and botched the science surrounding vitally important topics. Citing these outfits as authorities on agriculture is like quoting RFK, Jr. as an expert on vaccines: it's inexcusable. Incidentally, USRTK routinely works with Kennedy.
Anticipating some of this criticism, both Times stories included qualifiers exonerating Folta and Mitloehner of any wrongdoing. Here's the escape clause from the 2015 Folta story:
There is no evidence that academic work was compromised, but the emails show how academics have shifted from researchers to actors in lobbying and corporate public relations campaigns [emphasis mine].
And from the profile of Mitloehner last week:
There is no indication that Dr. Mitloehner or the Clear Center violated disclosure requirements … The Clear Center said in a statement that it discloses funding in line with University of California policy … but the extent of the private funding and collaboration were not previously known [emphasis mine].
Here's a simple question for the sapheads at the Times: if neither scientist you profiled compromised their academic work or violated their schools' disclosure policies, why were these stories written? To claim you've uncovered the “extent” of industry influence or assert that these researchers are lobbyists for Big Ag is dishonest editorializing. Both Folta and Mitloehner are well within the mainstream in their respective disciplines and widely respected for their science-communication efforts.
By the way, if the Times is worried about undue influence in science, perhaps the paper can explain why one of its journalists allowed FDA tobacco regulators to vet her reporting on electronic cigarettes. “Quote approval?? Please..How about entire story vetting! That would be a story,” one FDA official wrote to his colleagues about the incident.
With all this information in mind, let's revisit our opening question: why do so few Americans trust corporate media outlets? Could it be that major newspapers and networks:
Malign the character of honest academics
Inject radical politics into their reporting
Lie about the dangers of baby food
Claim that grapes prevent Alzheimer's
Allege that climate change causes heart attacks
Blame ocean pollution on Halloween candy
Promote 'fat acceptance'
Claim that half a beer shrinks your brain
No, it couldn't be this documented history of sloppy journalism. Surely we just need to teach the public how to use fact-checking apps. That'll solve the problem.