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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Goldman Winners

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ever since bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, entered the nation's dairy supply back in 1994, genetically-modified foods have been making headlines. You may remember activists dumping milk in the streets and consumer groups calling for labels on milk. Today the Food and Drug Administration does not label genetically-modified products like rBGH. And food never intended for human consumption, including Starlink bioengineered corn, is making its way into the food supply. Two journalists who were fired by a Fox television affiliate in Florida over their story about the Monsanto Corporation and the nation's milk supply were among this year's winners of the Goldman Prize. The Goldman Prize recognizes environmental activists around the world with a $125,000 award. Joining us now are Jane Akre and Steve Wilson. Welcome to Living on Earth.

AKRE: Thank you, Steve.

WILSON: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, there are really two issues here. One is the potential danger of bovine growth hormone itself. The other, of course, is the censorship in the newsroom. But why don't we start, actually, with looking at rBGH, this genetically-modified hormone? What did your investigative reporting turn up that had Fox and Monsanto so scared?

WILSON: I think Monsanto's biggest fear was that we were blowing the whistle on the fact that promises that had been made to consumers, that this stuff was not going to be used on dairy cows, it was not going to find its way into the public milk supply, those promises had been broken. And nobody ever told the consumers. It wasn't put on the label. They just quietly, behind the scenes, started injecting cows. And here we were, about to tell consumers that there is a little bit of this in every jug of milk you bring home from the store.

CURWOOD: How is the milk different?

AKRE: There is, in milk from a treated cow, more of something called IGF1, insulin-like growth factor one. And that's because of the BGH use. IGF1 is found in nature. It's found in mother's milk because its role in nature is to help cells proliferate and divide. And, unfortunately, what it does in various studies, one out of Harvard, another one printed in Lancet a couple of years ago, is it helps cancerous cells proliferate and divide. And this is what scientists around the world have concerns about. Why do we want to increase the consumption of IGF1? Why do we want to put more of that in our diet?

CURWOOD: Now, what happened to you is, of course, every investigative reporter's nightmare. That just as they are going to air or print with the hot story they've developed, it gets killed. And your story was killed just before it was to be broadcast. How did you find out, and what were the reasons given to you?

WILSON: Well, late Friday afternoon, just before it was supposed to air on Monday, they called us to the news director's office and they handed us the latter that Monsanto had faxed to Roger Ailes at Fox News in New York. And they said, "Have you seen this?" And we looked at it, and we said, "Oh, well, you know, this isn't right, this isn't right, that's not true." And that's how we found out about it. We actually saw the letter at that time.

AKRE: And asked the news director, is this why you're pulling the story? And he said yes.

CURWOOD: And Mr. Ailes is?

WILSON: Roger Ailes is the former Republican political operative who is now head of Fox Network News in New York, the Fox news channel.

CURWOOD: It's not all that unusual for an editor to kill a story from time to time or ask for extensive rewrites. Explain to me how it is that what happened to you is different from the kind of routine editorial decisions that are made in newsrooms every day around this country.

AKRE: It was so clear that this was not an even-handed editorial process. This was: Take out the substance of the story. Remove any discussion about cancer. Remove that word completely. Call it human health effects. Take out any discussion about IGF1 and how it's found in milk. Take out the credentials of the critics, so we don't know who these people are that are raising concerns around the world. And also, I think what's important here is that this editorial process was being conducted by lawyers. And it's very, very dangerous when lawyers are fully in charge of the editorial process, because they are not there as journalists. They are there working for their corporation. It should never happen that way.

CURWOOD: I'd like to play for you one of the last versions of the story, and maybe you could explain how the lawyers watered it down. So, this clip is from Part Three of your four-part broadcast. And again, this was never broadcast, but this was the version mandated by Fox management.

AKRE: Grocers and the dairy industry know synthetic BGH in milk worries consumers like Jeff and Janet LeMaster. A whopping 74 percent of those questioned in this University of Wisconsin study released just last year expressed concern about unknown harmful human health effects which might show up later.

COLLIER: What they need to know is that the milk hasn't has changed. And that's the important thing here. The milk hasn't changed.

WILSON: That was the cornerstone of what we told our editors was the big lie. Monsanto has said consistently, "This does not change the milk that you pour on your child's corn flakes every morning. It's the same safe, wholesome product it's always been." That is a lie. It's not spin. It's not interpretation. It's not somebody trying to give a different look. Because Monsanto was well aware that the content of that milk has changed. Now, you can argue that the change isn't significant, it won't give you cancer, it won't lead to antibiotic residues in your milk. You can make all those arguments. But you cannot say to people that the milk is the same. Obviously, from Monsanto's point of view, if they could convince consumers that there's no difference in the milk, none of us has to worry. If the milk is the same, how could there be a problem? But that is not true.

CURWOOD: What was the influence of the Monsanto Corporation on your story? What do you know and what do you suspect?

AKRE: Well, we actually saw the letters that they wrote, and the first letter came on the Friday before the Monday air date. And it said that we were terrible reporters and we had our facts all wrong, and the sort of thing you would expect from a corporation. And the second letter one week later made a not-so-veiled threat that there would be dire consequences for Fox News if the story is to air in Florida.

CURWOOD: What does your experience tell you about the state of America's media today?

WILSON: It's a disaster. And what has happened is, these large corporations that have now acquired news organizations look at the news just like they look at their light bulb division or their jet engine division. It's another place to make money. And stories that used to be judged based on their importance and based on the public's need to know and the public's right to know are now being judged just like they judge any other business decision. The attorney for Fox Television looked at us when we were trying to get this story on the air, and they said to us, "Look, we just don't think it's worth it." We said, "How can you say that? We're talking about milk." And she looked at us and said, "Look, the bottom line here is, we just don't feel that it's worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars to go up against Monsanto."

CURWOOD: We're just about out of time, but let me ask you this. What's the situation now for the use of bovine growth hormone in milk in Florida? And what has Fox Television told the people of Florida about that?

AKRE: Well, Steve, it isn't just Florida. I mean, what happens in Florida happens all around the country. If you are drinking milk from your grocery store, it is likely coming from cows injected with bovine growth hormone. You don't have the labels to know that, but that's likely what's happening. And the only way you're not getting it is if you're buying organic milk and spending two to four times the price.

WILSON: And what they told the viewer was essentially what Monsanto all along wanted the viewer to know: that there's no difference. That the milk is the same. That the United States government has approved this, without a whole lot of detail about the fact that the United States government doesn't test anything. Monsanto did all the tests, or hired people to do it. Monsanto decided which tests would be submitted for the approval process, and if a test didn't work out exactly the way they wanted, they could just simply redo the test so that they'd get the results they want and submit that. So, the people of Florida were told that, essentially, your government is there to protect you. You don't see anybody dropping dead from cancer drinking milk, do you? That's one of my favorites. As though if you smoke a cigarette today and you don't drop dead, tobacco must be fine. All that worry about cancer down the road? Oh come on. And that's essentially what the viewers were told: that the government is protecting you, that there is no difference, there's nothing to worry about.

CURWOOD: Jane Akre and Steve Wilson used to work for Fox Television in Florida, and they're winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize. Thank you both for joining me.

AKRE: Thank you.

WILSON: Thanks.

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CURWOOD: Other winners of this year's Goldman Prize include a Rwandan who risked his life to save the last of that country's mountain gorillas. And a Bolivian labor leader who stood up to a U.S. corporation and his own government over attempts to privatize the public water system.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Turner Foundation.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we come back: The return of the golden lion tamarin. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Star Light Mints, "The Bandit")


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

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