Nov 1 1999

Brill’s Content: Sweet on Sugar

Media magazine can't admit flaws in its attack on Time

About once an issue, Brill’s Content–Steven Brill’s for-profit, advertiser-supported magazine of media criticism–has an article about a corporation that Content says was mistreated by the media. In its July/August 1999 issue, the magazine came to the rescue of the Flo-Sun sugar company, which Time magazine’s Don Bartlett and Jim Steele (11/23/98) had cited as a prime example in their special series on corporate welfare.

Bartlett and Steele–best known for their books based on their Philadelphia Inquirer reporting, America: What Went Wrong? and America: Who Stole the Dream?–are considered one of the nation’s premier investigative reporting teams. But Content found that in their reporting on Flo-Sun and its owners, Florida’s Fanjul family, “readers weren’t given all the facts” and “a Time fact-checker got lazy”; “Time Maligns Sugar Co.” was how it was summed up on Content‘s cover.

Content‘s criticism provoked a lengthy response from Time editor Norman Pearlstine, along with counter-responses that appeared in the next two issues of the media magazine. Pearlstine charged that “every single error that Brill’s Content attributed to Time was, in fact, a mistake by Brill’s Content.” Pearlstine’s claim is an exaggeration; Content did note at least one actual, if minor, problem in Time‘s article that Pearlstine declined to acknowledge. (Pearlstine is not always friendly to critics; he once called an Extra! writer “sick, twisted scum”–Extra!, 5-6/90.) But Pearlstine did point out genuine errors in the Content piece–errors that had more bearing on the piece’s central point, and that the media magazine was just as reluctant to own up to.

Content made four main points about Time‘s report. One is that Time misrepresented a figure on how much of the Army Corps of Engineers spends to aid sugar producers in south and central Florida: “Of the $63 million” spent on water control, Bartlett and Steele wrote, “the Corps estimates $52 million is spent on agriculture, mainly sugar-cane farmers, in the Everglades.” In fact, the $52 million number is a calculation made by two other federal entities, the Office of Management and Budget and the Council of Environmental Quality, based on Corps statistics. “The Corps estimates” is too short a shorthand for this calculation.

Another point made by Content is murkier: The magazine criticized Bartlett and Steele’s description of environmental problems they attribute to the sugar industry: “Polluted water spills out of the glades into Florida Bay, forming a slimy, greenish brown stain where fishing once thrived,” they reported, a condition referred by the duo as a “by-product of corporate welfare.”

Actually, there is an ongoing debate about whether the sugar industry plays a significant role in Florida Bay’s ecological woes. (If it does have a big impact, it’s mainly from diversion of fresh water, not from pollution per se.) Challenged by Content, Time did produce numerous citations to back up its contention–including one article from a publication then owned by Brill (Legal Times, 8/30/93), which said that “the [sugar-related] troubles in the Everglades have spilled into Florida Bay, a sport-fishing haven, where dark clouds of algae now mar the expanse of water.”

Content, on the other hand, quoted two sources who strongly disputed the idea that sugar had anything at all to do with the bay’s problems–former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, who says that link is “just not biologically accurate among any of the experts I know,” and Florida water expert Ron Jones, who says it’s “about as true as the moon is made of cheese.”

What Content didn’t tell readers is that both Lehtinen and Jones are consultants for the Miccosukee Indian tribe, which, like the sugar industry, opposes the reflooding of Everglades land. Though both are described by Content in terms of their past opposition to the sugar industry, Jones has been working for the past year with the sugar companies on a water-purification plan (Miami Herald, 9/20/99).

Content also takes issue with Time‘s report that sugar growers are paying only $240 million for a $3 billion-$8 billion “cleanup” of the Everglades; Content suggests this is an unfair criticism of the sugar industry, because the “$8 billion Restudy project has little to do with pollution cleanup.” Jones is again the magazine’s expert witness: “The Restudy has nothing to do with what the farmers have done in the Everglades.”

Jones’ claim, if accurately quoted by Content, is peculiar: The Restudy is a project aimed at restoring the flow of fresh water to the Everglades (St. Petersburg Times, 4/4/99). The overwhelming majority of the water diverted from the Everglades is removed to keep the Everglades Agricultural Area from reverting to swampland, and nearly all of the agriculture in the agricultural area is sugar. It’s not precisely a pollution cleanup, but it has everything to do with repairing environmental damage done to the Everglades–damage whose prime beneficiary is sugar.

Finally, Content got it flat wrong when “correcting” Time for reporting that one of Flo-Sun’s owners, Alfonso Fanjul, had a 22-minute private conversation with Bill Clinton about “a proposed tax on sugar farmers to pay for the Everglades cleanup,” a tax which “has never been passed.” Content‘s rebuttal: Time didn’t “explain that the tax proposal–a state referendum in 1996–was defeated because voters rejected it, not because the president caved.” But the tax Time was referring to was a federal tax proposal that Al Gore had announced the same day as the Clinton/Fanjul phone call (2/16/99); the referendum on a state tax Content was thinking of had not even been formally launched yet.

Rather than apologize for the error, Content reporter Abigail Pogrebin used a Web-posted response to Pearlstine to (sort of) admit having confused the taxes. But she claimed that the real fact of the White House-proposed tax “makes our point even more compellingly”–in other words, that Content was right by accident. (Her point was that Clinton could not have been influenced by Fanjul, because the administration proposed the tax in the first place.) In a note attached to the exchange, Brill himself claimed that “any reader” who goes through it will be convinced that Pearlstine is “dead wrong, point by point.” Not this reader, anyway.

Pearlstine’s response criticized Content for not disclosing that the general counsel for Flo-Sun–the lawyer who suggested that the Fanjuls take their complaint to Brill’s Content–has done legal work in the past for Steven Brill. There’s a more important question: Might a media magazine dependent on corporate advertising have a tendency to find unfair treatment of corporate America even if it isn’t there?