Apr 16 2010

Ben Lilliston on genetically engineered foods, Barbara Miner on Teach for America


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This week on CounterSpin: A New York Times report gives the impression that the debate over genetically engineered foods is largely over; the paper’s writeup of new research says that, despite some caveats and critics’ warnings, GE crops are good for the environment and the economy. Others come away with more questions than answers though. We’ll hear from Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Also on CounterSpin today: On the surface, Teach for America sounds like a great idea: sending bright young college grads into needy schools to teach. But there’s much more to it than that, as journalist Barbara Miner found. She’ll join us to talk about her new article for Rethinking Schools.

All that’s coming up but first, as usual, we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—Tax season generally provides a bumper crop of right wing myths of various stripes; this week’s variant is about beleaguered rich people and the freeloading poor, kick-started by an April 5 AP report headlined: “Rob Thy Neighbor: Half of American Households Pay No Fed Income Tax.” “Tax Day is a dreaded deadline for millions,” began the piece by Stephen Ohlemacher, “but for nearly half of U.S. households it’s simply somebody else’s problem.” The Drudge Report and Fox News surprised no one by flagging the AP piece and it’s central datum that the “top 10 percent of earners—households making an average of $366,400 in 2006—paid about 73 percent of the income taxes collected by the federal government.” It’s not clear if those who get their news from Drudge also read the New York Times but one can hope they saw the Times‘ David Leonhardt’s April 13 column, in which he demonstrated that both that 47 percent number and its implication, that the country’s richest face an increasingly higher tax burden and that more Americans are on the dole, are false, and rely on “a cleverly selective reading of the facts.” For one, focusing on federal income tax is misleading, given that people’s tax burden includes payroll and state and local taxes that can actually be regressive. If you do look at federal taxes, the Congressional Budget Office comes up with about 10 percent of households that qualify for enough credits to wipe out their tax liability, not 47 percent or even close. And yes, the rich are taxed at a higher rate, but Leonhardt underscores that it’s meaningless to talk about that absent the context of how vertiginously the incomes of the wealthiest have risen in recent years, and downright deceptive to leave out that their tax rates have actually fallen in the last 30 years more than any other group.

—Andrew Breitbart is the right-wing Internet provocateur behind the ACORN video hoaxes, which purported to show a pretend pimp and prostitute getting criminal advice from the community organizing group. That’s not what happened, but Breitbart’s inaccurate presentation was taken at face value.

And some in the media are still treating Breitbart seriously. Washington Post ombud Andrew Alexander wrote a column on April 11 taking his cue from Breitbart’s latest effort, which is to cast doubt on the widely reported racist incidents at Tea Party protests at the Capitol on March 20, the day of the final health reform vote. Two black Democratic Representatives—Andre Carson and John Lewis—say they were called the N-word. Breitbart says they’re liars, and he’s posted videos of the protests in which no racist invective can be heard. Of course, that alone wouldn’t disprove the claim and Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington pointed out that the videos Breitbart is touting were shot after the racist incidents took place.

So a guy who pulled off one very successful media hoax is trying to pull off another one. You’d think that after being burned on the ACORN story journalists wouldn’t pay much attention to Breitbart. But not Andrew Alexander, who closed his column on Breitbart’s latest efforts by saying that they might be

publicity-seeking theater. But it’s part of widespread conservative claims that mainstream media, including the Post, swallowed a huge fabrication. The incidents are weeks old, but it’s worth assigning Post reporters to find the truth. After all, a civil rights legend is being called a liar.

There are lots of things reporters should be looking into. This is not one of them, especially considering that the guy leading this campaign pulled off a “huge fabrication” of his own—suckering outlets like the Washington Post. Alexander is right that John Lewis is accused of being a liar, but it should mean more that the charge is coming from someone known to be one.

—Veteran journalists often dismiss the Internet age for delivering news with a point of view. In the good old days, you received a broad array of information from a broad array of guests, they tell us. Appearing on the BBC to talk about a new survey of journalists, former Nightline host Ted Koppel lamented,

We now feel entitled not to have the news that we need but the news that we want. We want to listen to news that comes from those who already sympathize with our particular point of view.

Koppel went on to explain that back in his day, there were fewer media outlets, but they spent more time serving the public interest—somehow.

Rhetoric aside, Koppel’s actual record suggests another thing entirely. FAIR’s landmark study of Nightline found a striking bias toward elite, right-leaning guests. Koppel’s four most frequent guests were Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Elliott Abrams and Jerry Falwell. Guests were overwhelmingly white and male; few represented public interest groups or were critics of U.S. policy. Later on, in a seven-week stretch in early 1995, Koppel spent almost half his airtime discussing the O.J. Simpson trial. And during the turbulent protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999, Koppel’s program chose to skip that news entirely.

Now, Koppel should feel free to lecture about the decline of journalism and the problems inherent in having multiple sources of information coming from different perspectives available in the world. But back in the good old days, Koppel wasn’t doing much to bring a broad public debate to the national airwaves… unless, that is, you’re a big fan of Henry Kissinger.

—In a recent presentation to advertisers, CNN made its pitch by saying, “We’re the cable network doing objective reporting, unlike Fox and MSNBC.” But CNN was sending a different sort of message to right-wing bloggers. Some of the cable channel’s recent coverage of the right-wing tea parties has won them praise from conservative websites… praise that the network was apparently actively seeking.

Pundit Michelle Malkin and the site NewsBusters both received email pitches from CNN‘s PR department touting the network’s new report, which was based on the idea that the Tea Party protesters weren’t as bad as the supposed stereotypes being advanced by the rest of the media. The email CNN sent to NewsBusters, according to a report by the website Mediaite, was more revealing: “Clearly our critics from the left don’t think we should be covering the Tea Party movement in the way we are and clearly CNN thinks it’s a legitimate and important story.” So the non-partisan CNN is sending cheery messages to right-wing media critics touting their friendly portrayal of conservative activism. Speaking as left-wing media critics, we can say we’ve never been on the receiving end of similar outreach from the network.

—And finally, while he is filling in as interim host of ABC‘s This Week, Jake Tapper has agreed to an idea suggested by New York University professor Jay Rosen: that he have someone, the website PolitiFact.com, fact-check the on-air statements of This Week‘s powerful guests. Maybe not quite as good as having a host who can fact-check guests in real time, but a good impulse and better than nothing. Although, not according to some others, including David Gregory, host of NBC‘s Sunday chat-fest Meet the Press. He had a novel response when asked if he’d consider such an arrangement: It’s an “interesting idea,” Gregory told the Washington Post, but not necessary because “People can factcheck Meet the Press every week on their own terms.”


CounterSpin: Genetically engineered crops provide substantial environmental and economic benefits to American farmers, declared an April 14 New York Times story, pronouncing that as the primary finding of a new assessment released by the National Research Council. Though the piece noted there were concerns about problems stemming from overuse of the technology, these were held against the lower production costs, higher outputs and reduced need for harmful chemical spraying readers were told GE crops provide. Forget about the future, genetically engineered food is the present: Does this research mean we should basically be happy about that?

Ben Lilliston is Communications Director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and co-author with Ronnie Cummins of Genetically Engineered Foods: A Guide for Consumers. He joins us now by phone from Minneapolis.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Ben Lilliston!

Ben Lilliston: Thanks for having me.

CS: Well, not every report offered quite as sanguine an overall rendering of the NRC assessment as the New York Times; others seemed to come away with more questions. What for you, first of all, was the most significant takeaway, if you will, from this new report?

BL: Well, the big news in sort of the agriculture community was the rapid growth of weed resistance to genetically engineered crops. This is something that in the scientific community as well as sort of farm advocates and nonprofits and others have been saying this is going to happen for a long time. And so, essentially, there are now nine different species of weeds in the United States that have developed resistance to one of the types of genetically engineered crops used primarily for corn, soybeans, and cotton. And then the other main type of genetically engineered crop, which actually puts the herbicide inside of the crop itself and is designed to address pests—two different types of pests have developed resistance to these. So, you know if you listen to the press conference, which I did, of the researchers announcing this report, that came out loud and clear, and they were really trying to issue a warning that this technology is losing its effectiveness and is going to cause some real problems moving forward.

CS: Well, I did see, a little in the Times piece and also in the Kansas City Star some space given to this idea that of course planting these herbicide-resistant crops has sped—as you’re saying: it’s already happened—the evolution of weeds that can’t be killed that way, and that is going to erase the gains that the GE crops provided. But the way I’ve seen that information that you’ve just talked about presented, at least in the Kansas City Star, was called literally “too much of a good thing,” that’s the problem. That doesn’t seem to me to quite characterize this resistance problem you’re describing.

BL: Well that’s absolutely true, it doesn’t really get it. And another really interesting finding, I thought, of this report is that part of their mission was to look at 15 years of genetically engineered crops and find out okay this is good for farmers, this is good for the sustainability of the farm, and this has never really been done, which is kind of remarkable. You introduce a technology on the market, which when it was introduced had very few regulatory hurdles to overcome, and you do it in a way that’s somewhat secretive because genetically engineered foods are not labeled, so consumers don’t know about them. And then you don’t really monitor what the effect is on the farm. And so this is the first time for them to kind of go back and look at the data and their main sort of finding there was that we don’t know. We don’t have enough data to determine what this kind of weed resistance and pest resistance means for farms. We don’t know what the effects are on water systems, whether good or bad. We don’t know the effects of this technology on choices for farmers, in terms of buying seeds, and particularly choices for farmers who are not using genetically engineered crops. This is a big, big issue in agriculture, where a lot of farmers want to buy non-GMO, conventional seeds, and they can’t find them. And then the other part of that is organic farmers who are really trying to obviously not plant any GMO, and they not only can’t plant genetically engineered crops, but they can’t have any kind of genetically engineered material in what they produce at all, zero percent, and so they are required to do a lot of testing that they have to pay for, a lot of really stringent cleaning and segregation. So none of that has really been looked at in the introduction of genetically engineered crops in this country. And this report really highlighted that: that we just don’t know overall whether this is a good thing.

CS: And here we are 15 years or so in. Well, the Times states “The rapid adoption of the crops is evidence that American farmers see the technology as beneficial.” But gee, as we recall, this stuff was marketed pretty intensely, wasn’t it? I mean don’t we have to compare what we know or don’t know now against the sort of promises that were made by Monsanto and others about the boon that GE technology was going to provide?

BL: That’s absolutely true. The technology does provide some benefits for farmers and you know one of the big benefits is that it doesn’t require as much work, it doesn’t require as much treatment for their fields, and so forth. So it really does allow—it’s kind of a time saver in many ways, and allows a lot of farm families to take off-farm jobs and a lot of the agriculture community will say that’s one of the biggest benefits of this. But if you look, you know, over the past 15 years, you know, we’ve lost a lot of family farmers. There may be some benefits to the ones who’ve remained. But if you look at the bigger picture now, when you’re seeing increased weed resistance, so farmers are having to pay more and more to treat their fields, so their cost of production is going up. Another really important factor that they highlighted was that genetically engineered crops, and the introduction of these seeds, has really consolidated the food industry. So you have fewer and fewer companies controlling the germplasm of what’s available out there for farmers. And the Justice Department actually has initiated an investigation right now of Monsanto because of these concerns. When you have only a few companies controlling that germplasm, they’ve really jacked up seed prices, and so a lot of farmers are losing the benefits, if there are such benefits, they’re losing that because they’re having to pay more and more just for their seed. There’s just a lot of really open questions about this technology.

CS: Well, and finally, we usually hear that the “market rules” in this country, and reporters often claim to be speaking from the perspective of the consumer. You touched on this earlier, but certainly we know that people have expressed a lot of aversion and concern to GE foods, and yet here we are with 80 percent of soybeans, corn, and cotton being genetically engineered. What is drowning people out in the public debate?

BL: Well, it’s real simple. When they first introduced this technology they forbade and really blocked efforts to label it, and so consumers don’t have a choice when they go into the supermarket. The choice that they do have is to buy organic, and they know that that’s non-GE, but otherwise, you know, they don’t know. Now they do argue that there’s some level of consumer acceptance, but I think if you look at where they were at the beginning and, as you said, all the promises that were made 15 years ago, and how many have not panned out. For example there are really only three main crops that are genetically engineered right now: corn, soybeans, and cotton. And those, corn and soybeans primarily, are not foods that we eat directly. It’s not the sweet corn that you would buy in the supermarket; it’s corn used for animal feed and corn that’s used for processing high fructose corn syrup and stuff like that. Soybeans are also used primarily for animal feed. And so what you haven’t seen, and when they first introduced it they said look we’re going to have GE tomatoes, we’re going to have wheat, we’re going to have all kinds of fruits and vegetables out there…

CS: We’re going to feed the world…

BL: …people are going to get all these nutritional benefits out of it. None of that has happened. And there’s a reason: it’s because there’s still that big consumer stigma out there, and they know that: that if they introduce a type of genetically engineered food that people are actually eating and can buy in the supermarket, that there’s going to a backlash. So they’re sticking with these crops that sort of slide in under the radar and enter our food supply in an indirect way.

CS: Lots of issues and questions there for journalists to follow up on. I’d like to thank you very much. We’ve been speaking with Ben Lilliston; he’s Communications Director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. You can find their work on GE foods, and other issues, on the web at IATP.org.

Thank you very much for joining us the week on CounterSpin.

BL: Thanks so much for having me.


CounterSpin: Most people have heard a little bit about Teach for America. And the premise sure sounds fine: send bright young college grads to teach in poor schools. Dig a little deeper, though, and things start to look a little more complicated. That’s what Barbara Miner found in her new article for Rethinking Schools, “Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America.” She calls the group a “national organization that is as sophisticated, slippery, and media savvy as any group I have ever written about.”

So what is Teach For America’s political agenda in the debate over education reform? And how do they treat journalists who ask simple questions about what they do and what they want to do? Joining us now to shed light on this is Barbara Miner.

Welcome back to CounterSpin.

Barbara Miner: Well, thank you, Peter.

CS: Well, the backstory on Teach for America is pretty well-known: A Princeton student named Wendy Kopp comes up with this idea for education that is sort of modeled on the Peace Corps. College grads do two-year stints in low-income schools. Obviously that’s bound to sound appealing to most people, and as you note in the piece, they have received an enormous amount of positive media coverage. So what happened to you when you approached them to do your story?

BM: Well first of all, it was interesting because I did the traditional, you know, call their media contact person on the website—they’re very web-based—and the person said well who are you and what do you want to do and well, can you send me some articles you’ve written? And I explained I wanted to go to St. Louis, and do more than just talk to people on the phone but go to classrooms, talk to real people in real classrooms. And she said okay I’ll get back to you, and I sent her some articles I’d written for Rethinking Schools, and I get back this email that basically says sorry we can’t help. And I of course was flabbergasted and I said what do you mean you can’t help? I did the right thing, I wanted to go through the media office and now you’re saying no you can’t help me? This is crazy, you guys help journalists, bend over backwards, you’ve had articles in the Times, Newsweek, Good Morning America, Readers Digest. So we sent out an email on the Rethinking Schools listserv that night basically saying listen, we want to talk to Teach for America people. We don’t want this to be some sort of, you know, sort of reading articles that were in the Times and trying to do an analysis, but Teach for America won’t help us. Can you contact us if you work with or are in Teach for America? Well, interestingly, the very next morning I get this call from the national communications person from Teach for America so, so sorry there’s been a mistake and she was going to help. And she did help. And they were very helpful. Until at a certain point they didn’t like some of the questions I was asking. It was sort of like well, if we like what you’re asking, we’ll help, and if we don’t we won’t. That’s kind of the conclusion I came to, ultimately.

CS: They don’t get a lot of critical coverage, and it does seem like when people are critical of their work, they’re rather surprised and go on the attack. I mean, there are studies that don’t seem to show any discernible upside to Teach for America in terms of student achievement, but people who publish those studies can get, can receive an enormous amount of flack from the group.

BM: What you’re referring to is in the nutshell what happened to Linda Darling-Hammond, which is pretty well-known in education circles. She’s a well, well-respected researcher, and she did these studies that said: hey listen these TFA, they’re not doing any better, and actually they’re not doing as well as experienced and qualified teachers who come out of schools of ed. And just from that day forward, Teach for America, they go nuts over Linda Darling-Hammond. And in fact Wendy [Kopp, Teach for America founder,] in her memoir, just spends pages and pages on her. You know, but before I go on, I really do want to differentiate between the Teach for America recruits on the ground and the national organization. It’s not too dissimilar, oftentimes, from teachers on the ground in any school and the criticisms, whether they’re of unions or schools, some deserved some not deserved. And, you know, the Teach for America recruits, you know, by and large they’re hardworking, great kids, a little bit idealistic and, I think, naïve, and they’re working their butts off. But the national organization, twenty years, they have just, and always have been, and they’re just amazing media savvy, fundraising savvy. They can call Thomas Friedman, Wendy calls Thomas Friedman, he picks up the phone, and not only picks up the phone but he quotes her. They’re about as well-connected as any non-profit I can think of.

CS: And trying to place them in the national debate about education reform is important, and you spend a lot of time trying to do that. Business leaders are tripping over each other to give them money. They also have some more politically-oriented offshoots, which sort of fly under the radar. One of them is called Leadership for Educational Equity, and you wrote about this. What is this supposed to do?

BM: Well that’s what’s so fascinating because Teach for America makes clear that Leadership for Educational Equity is essential to their strategic goal, which they argue is shaping the country’s education policy agenda. I have not found a single media article on Leadership for Educational Equity, and when I asked their staff person, I said, “Well has the media written about you?” and she says, “Well, no.” And again I was just flabbergasted, but you know, Leadership for Educational Equity is not particulary open or transparent about what they’re trying to do. I mean they have a website, which is where a lot of what really happens, but you can’t access their website without a login. I asked for a login, I said just you know to get a sense of what your organization’s about. They refused. I asked for their IRS documents because they’re tax exempt, and today, literally, I asked for those in early November, we have yet to receive those IRS documents, which by law are supposed to be handed over within 30 days. We had to hire a lawyer; our lawyer called Teach for America and Leadership for Educational Equity. They returned one phone call and then stopped returning phone calls. So we had to file a complaint with the IRS, which is now in the IRS bureaucracy. I’m not quite sure what will happen to it, but here’s an organization that argues for transparency in public policy and boy, damned if I could find out hardly anything about them that was public. And even more flabbergasting, it appears I was the first media person to even ask about what they’re about.

CS: This is what’s so fascinating about the article, which people can read at Rethinking Schools‘ website. You point out that Teach For America is, in the kind of media discussion about this, sort of lumped in with the kind of the pro-market approach to education reform: anti-teachers union, pro-charter schools, and so on. They receive huge support from major corporations and from foundations that are involved in those kinds of initiatives. They don’t take public positions on these issues, though, and they have these kind of shadowy side groups that are supposedly where they do their political work. So I guess the question is, after spending so much time looking at them more critically than much of the rest of the media, what is Teach for America? Is it a group that has a clear political agenda, or is it a well-intentioned project that has just made common cause with these powerful corporate interests in the debate over education?

BM: That is a very important question, and I think it’s a little bit the elephant in the room. You know you look at one part of the elephant, and you’ll describe it one way, and you go around and look at the front of the elephant and you’ll describe it another way. But what is clear is that they themselves say they want to affect educational policy. They’re very clear about that. But if you’re going to affect policy then you have to sort of at some point explain well, what is your policy. Because if you don’t then it of course raises the concern that well, are you doing this all behind the scenes? And if it’s behind the scenes then it’s not really a public discussion about public policy. And so then you go well is this just in the education field, a sort of age old you know kind of the modern updated boys network, where they can say whatever they want in public and then behind the scenes do what they want to do. And it’s an important question that no one seems to be really asking.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Barbara Miner. Her new article for Rethinking Schools, “Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America,” can be read at RethinkingSchools.org

Barbara Miner, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

BM: Well, thank you, Peter, and good luck to you folks.


Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

—”Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America,” by Barbara Miner (Rethinking Schools, Spring 2010)