by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
January 29, 2006
MICHAEL FUMENTO'S WAR WITH THE JOURNALISTIC PURITANS
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 30, 2006 -- Is this just another story about a conservative columnist who got caught with his finger in the jar, or is it something else entirely - perhaps a story about the illogical restrictions imposed by traditional journalistic ethics? It all seems to depend on how you look at it. What will become apparent as we consider the case of Michael Fumento is that traditional journalistic criticism misses an important side of the story.
Fumento's column was just dropped by the Scripps-Howard News Service over allegations of impropriety. This media critic, for one, finds the reasoning behind this action a bit shaky.
Michael Fumento is an author of books and columns who has specialized in health and science issues. As a political conservative, he occasionally tosses off an attack against the enemies of good old-time conservative policy. Sometimes these topics overlap, as when Fumento defended the use of depleted uranium in battle, or the many times he has supported the use of genetically-engineered crops.
It is this latter point that is at issue, because Fumento is now on the hot seat for having once had a financial relationship with the Monsanto corporation. Monsanto is the developer of genetically engineered "Roundup Ready" crops that can grow in the presence of the herbicide Roundup. Monsanto has gone on to extend its research and development to many different crops and several different types of genetic interventions, in the process becoming what is arguably the most successful developer and seller of genetically engineered organisms in the history of this technology.
It is a fascinating but controversial story. There are those who support the use of genetically engineered crops as necessary to carry our increasing worldwide population, and then there are those who view genetic engineering as something akin to the spawn of Satan. The two sides don't get along very well. The arguments are wrapped up in the technical arcana of biochemical genetics, evolution and toxicology - that is to say, topics about which most mainstream journalists remain blissfully ignorant.
Along comes lawyer-turned-journalist Fumento, who not only tolerates technical discussions, he positively revels in them. He likes nothing better than to argue the arcana of statistical probability calculations, epidemiology and the like. In a profession with its share of technophobes, he is the opposite.
Fumento positively loves the idea of genetically-engineered crops, and he doesn't mind saying so. It wouldn't be surprising if the leftist technophobes went after Fumento, but in this case it has been Business Week and the National Review, not exactly what you would call the anticapitalist revolutionary front. With Business Week telling the world that Fumento had taken money from Monsanto without giving disclosure, things have heated up.
So what actually happened? Fumento explains: In 1999 he asked for grant funding support from Monsanto to work on a book about genetic engineering. Monsanto provided $60,000, which was paid to Fumento's employer, the Hudson Institute. Apparently this money was applied to Fumento's salary. The process of getting grant funding to cover salaries and supplies is not unusual of itself. The only question has to do with the source of the funding. Fumento's book BioEvolution was published in 2003. In that same year 2003, he was taken on as a columnist by the Scripps Howard News Service.
Everyone seems to agree on at least one thing: Fumento did not formally disclose to Scripps Howard or the readers of his column that he previously had applied for and received the book grant from Monsanto.
In this at least, it has to be conceded that Fumento could have been more forthcoming. A simple remark just about anytime in his recent column history would have sufficed: "Disclosure: I once received grant funding from Monsanto to work on my book BioEvolution." It is unlikely that this would have prejudiced many of his readers against his work. Actually, it is unlikely that it would have had much effect at all. Paul Krugman continues to write and get published, in spite of the fact that he took a princely sum from Enron once upon a time.
It is a bad moment to get accused of financial conflict of interest. Doug Bandow was just forced to resign from the Cato Institute when it came out that he had been taking money from Jack Abramoff - as much as $2000 per column - for writing articles in support of Abramoff's clients' interests. There was the case of the White House correspondent with the malleable name - James Guckert, aka> Jeff Gannon - who got special favors in return for asking softball questions. Recent scandals involving government payments to journalists such as Armstrong Williams and to Iraqi newspapers were well publicized throughout the year 2005.
The subject has been getting a lot of play all across the spectrum. "Pundit payola" is the term used in a National Review column by Catherine Seipp that attacks Bandow and Fumento both. " ... there's one major line in this business you don't cross - accepting money from either the subject of a story, or from someone (besides the publication you're writing for) who has a vested interest in the subject."
There are at least a couple of different ways we can think about Michael Fumento's current difficulty. First, it is clear that Fumento did not engage in "pay to play" in the same way that Bandow and others were guilty of. There is a big difference. Bandow and others were, in essence, paid shills putting out propaganda on a piecework basis. In their cases, the directed payments determined the content of the work.
For Michael Fumento, as for Paul Krugman, there was a one-time financial arrangement. However you perceive those past payments, it is clear that the columnist writing in the present moment is not employed by an illicit source in the production of tomorrow's column. Seipp's "major line" that is not to be crossed becomes a little hazy when it comes to financial obligations that have long since expired. This is not to say that Krugman, Fumento and their colleagues should keep the rest of us in the dark about their sordid pasts. Just mention it once and be done with it.
Fumento makes his own case pretty much along these lines, but dressed up in his own slightly pugnacious style at http://www.fumento.com/media/witch-hunt.html.
I think Fumento is making a straw-man argument in claiming that he is being asked to give disclosure forever, as he sarcastically implies: "Therefore the grant must also be disclosed unto eternity - 2006, 2016, 2036, whatever." No, but once would have been nice.
Still, the overall argument is legitimate to at least this extent, that every day is a new day, every column is a fresh start, and absent an ongoing financial arrangement, it is not so much a conflict of interest we are observing as a point of view working its way out in prose.
That would be the traditional way to construct a defense for Michael Fumento, if you think he needs one. It works, but it is way too limited in scope. There is a much more significant question that is being ignored.
Simply put, is he right or is he wrong? Does his work have merit as a statement of scientific findings? Is it logical and coherent?
In other words, let's do a critique of the columns rather than of the man. Fumento tries to write about scientific issues at a popular level. Traditional journalism, with its fetishes about "objectivity," neglects this responsibility almost entirely, because its definition of objectivity has more to do with the identity of the employer than the quality of the author's mind. Instead of getting an objectivity of content, we get an objectivity of writerly character.
And that's the problem, because the people criticizing Michael Fumento wouldn't know a genetic promoter element from an intervening sequence, so they can't challenge him on the scientific level. So instead, we get to see this catcalling over the technicalities of proper disclosure, six years after the fact.
Having put forth this bold assertion, the burden falls on me to show how one might begin to do such a critique. Well, actually I already did it, in one of the first "On Media" columns I wrote for this site, untold eons ago (ie: Jan 5, 2004). At the time, I found him to be a capable writer who managed to explain some fairly complex material in an understandable way, viz: "It was a breath of fresh air to read a popularization about a serious scientific question that was neither patronizingly simple nor embarrassingly ignorant. In short, my first experience of Michael Fumento revealed a serious mind who was capable of distilling a large mass of scientific literature and communicating it in a way that would make sense to the lay audience."
At the time, I was particularly impressed with two books he wrote early in his career, "The Myth of Heterosexual Aids," and "Science Under Siege." The latter is a readable account of how crackpot notions and popular hysterias undermine public confidence in modern technology.
I shall confine the rest of this brief evaluation to columns Fumento has made available on his website (www.fumento.com) and further confine these remarks to the biotechnology columns available in the archive section.
The verdict is mixed. There is a lot of interesting material, but much of it fails to be entirely convincing, at least to this scientifically trained skeptic. For example, one article is a rah-rah treatment of antiangiogenic drugs coming down the pipeline. Written in November, 2003, it includes a tribute to Celebrex, a drug developed as an arthritis remedy and later tested for its ability to retard tumor growth. Of course, as everyone knows, Celebrex was later found to cause increased cardiac risk and was taken off the market.
Many of Fumento's recent columns are negative about the promise of embryonic stem cell research, while perhaps a bit unrealistically optimistic about the promise of adult stem cell advances. In this, I begin to sense a political or religious agenda that is not in keeping with the scientific objectivity that Fumento has demanded of his critics all along.
There is also an increasingly pugnacious tone that invades Fumento's prose. In an article titled "The Villainous Vandana Shiva," Fumento skewers an icon of the anti-genetic-engineering crowd, writing, "Shiva was born into wealth and her soft palms have never worked a plow. Weighing in on the heavy side of "pleasantly plump," hunger to her is something she reads about in the newspapers." This has nothing to do with the quality of her thought. I should think that Michael Fumento, in fighting to be taken on the content of his writing rather than of his paycheck, would avoid such ad hominem attacks.
But Fumento, the author of a book on dieting and weight control himself, likes to make fun of people who are a little overweight. The original Dr. Atkins was one of his targets, even after his demise.
What I found most curious in the recent work is a negative view of the human genome project. There is a lot of criticism of minor technicalities buried under a serious lack of understanding of the importance that the project has played in defining the way scientists go about research nowadays.
It is a little hard to explain without going into details, but try to think of it like this: there is an element of looking back, not forwards. It may well be that adult stem cells can be manipulated in ways we don't yet imagine, but it is highly likely that embryonic stem cells will provide a wider range of options once they are better understood. The human genome project is incomplete, but it has engendered a (dare I use this overworked term) paradigm shift in the way that research is organized.
You have to be close to where research is done, or at least lectured on, to understand this intuitively, but it is true. These are not major faults, but observations that a writer as gifted as Michael Fumento might consider.
That is the beginning of how I would evaluate the work of Michael Fumento: on its own merits. Where the cash in his wallet came from is less germane to this kind of critique. He's still a good writer who says things that the rest of mainstream journalism misses.