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In case you saw yesterday’s Opinionator blog and thought it warranted some questions to the New York Times, we did too. More and more we see columnists hiding behind opinion when they spout spoon-fed activist rhetoric and in this case we thought we’d bring just such an occurrence to the Times attention.
Dear Ms. Hall:
A piece by Mark Bittman in the Opinionator blog, in part attacking the safety of eating tuna, deceives readers in several key respects and it appears he unethically colluded with a lobbying organization that is leveraging policies at issue in the article.
Here are the specifics:
The most prominent source in Mr. Bittman's piece, Dominique Browning, is described innocuously as "a journalist and a mother" who, according to Mr. Bittman, founded a group called "Moms Clean Air Force." Ms. Browning is quoted saying she's "neither an environmentalist or an activist" and merely someone "who could no longer ignore important issues."
But the truth is that Moms Clean Air Force is actually part of the Environmental Defense Fund which bankrolls and organizes that group. EDF of course is a multi-national activist organization with an operating budget that exceeds $100 million annually and raised more than $112 million last year alone. In its own annual report, the head of EDF's lobbying arm specifically credits their Moms Clean Air Force initiative as one of the primary tools of lobbying leverage that EDF uses to influence legislators.
Indeed, Ms. Browning and EDF are now repurposing Mr. Bittman's piece to solicit further donations, enlist new members, and as part of direct outreach to public officials -- highlighting it in several online platforms and direct mail. Mr. Bittman is thanked effusively by name in some of that communication, where EDF says it is "thrilled" someone so "esteemed" is "writing about our campaign." Ms. Browning's bio also indicates she is a regular contributor to the Times itself, another corrupting fact withheld from readers.
Why was the easily-verified connection with EDF hidden from readers and how do Times editors justify presenting Ms. Browning as a grassroots advocate when in reality she is being paid to take part in a multi-million dollar lobbying effort?
Mr. Bittman also misleads readers about the underlying science in the piece. In the first paragraph, for instance, he asserts that tuna contains "unsafe levels of mercury and that childbirth-age women and nursing mothers…are warned off these fish." But the FDA guidance that he cites in the hyperlink says no such thing. In fact, the FDA urges two servings per week of fish including tuna during pregnancy. Nowhere, ever, has the FDA warned women not to eat tuna. Quite the contrary, the FDA has repeatedly advised that Americans are not eating enough fish in their daily diet.
One critical reason the FDA is so concerned about the under-consumption of fish is the prevailing research from leading medical authorities showing that low seafood/Omega-3 intake is nearly the largest dietary cause of preventable death -- resulting in some 84,000 deaths annually. Authorities including U.S. National Institutes of Health, Harvard Medical School, Harvard University School of Public Health, the Journal of Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition have all advocated that the benefits of seafood vastly outweigh any theoretical risk. Yet Mr. Bittman ignores that well-known research, insisting instead that the EPA regulations that he and his lobbying sources prefer are the best way to save lives.
Similarly misleading is Mr. Bittman's citation that "200,000 babies are born in the United States each year with mercury levels high enough to cause concerns from lower I.Q. to reduced hearing, seeing and speech to impaired mobility and more." That statistic is based on a manufactured estimate by a former EPA official -- a statistic that was disavowed even by the agency itself. What's more, there's not a single case in the whole of peer-reviewed, published medical literature of anyone in this country suffering mercury toxicity from the normal consumption of commercial seafood. But federal agencies and the same medical authorities cited above have warned repeatedly that pre- and post-natal babies are at risk of lower cognitive outcomes if their Omega-3/seafood intake is curtailed. So, Mr. Bittman's theoreticl statistic is utterly at odds with the actual, contrary risks that are observable in the real world.
We would have been glad to explain all of this to Mr. Bittman prior to publication but he never reached out to us -- or any source that wasn't part of an eco-activist group. What's surprising is that the last time the Times peddled these kinds of alarmist falsehoods about tuna, the story required a lengthy correction, was rebuked by the Public Editor, and was dismantled by a host of independent media critics. As the supervising editor of that piece, James Gorman, admitted in the public editor's column, "I should have raised more questions about the general presentation."
If you could provide some explanation for why Mr. Bittman's piece also lacked any oversight, we would appreciate it. In particular I would welcome any suggestions on how you might set the record straight in print and, especially, what steps the Times can take to prevent this kind of dangerous and agenda-driven misinformation on tuna from occurring in print in the future.
National Fisheries Institute
Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor
James Gorman, Science Editor
Sue Edgerley, Dining Editor
Trish Hall, op-ed editor
John Haskins, managing editor, New York Times Magazine