Tag Archives: Huffington Post

Beginning of the end of nasty anonymous comments?

Arianna Huffington announced that Huffpost is moving toward eliminating anonymous comments. This is remarkable given the high level of commenting activity on the popular news site.

It is well known and often remarked about how the civility of our society has been degraded by the Internet–well, not the Internet, the amazing number of people who are rude, nasty, impolite, over-opinionated, and downright ugly. I read a recent academic paper (sorry, lost the reference) which linked the quite dramatic loss of trust in government in part to the sheer nastiness and extreme partisanship of our online conversation. I was conducting a workshop yesterday when one participant commented that the Internet created essentially a global small community which is true, but, unfortunately this quaint little town we live in called the Internet seems to have been overtaken by the most vulgar, inarticulate and cynical citizens of the planet.

(Do you have any idea yet how I feel about the Internet nastiness?)

That’s why I heartily welcome this move by HuffPost as well as the rapidly emerging trend of requiring users to sign in using their Facebook or Twitter accounts. It simplifies sign-ons and does make it a bit harder to hide, although Twitter to best of my knowledge still allows people to hide behind anonymity (such as @theeviltweeter).

Anonymous comments represents a dilemma for organizations wanting to use interactive tools during a crisis or emergency. It makes it harder to verify online information that could be important for emergency response. It makes it more challenging to determine actual sentiment. It poses the dilemma of whether or not to delete comments or end a nasty thread, thereby entering into the conversation in a controlling way which is anathema to the digital mob. What is particularly great about HuffPost requiring actual identities, if they indeed do this, is it may turn into a trend and certainly something organizations experiencing the nastiness to also eliminate anonymous comments with the statement that HuffPost does it.



Oregonian opens curtains on devious PR behavior

This is the kind of press report that drives me buggy. The Oregonian reporter Jeff Mapes, on Oregonlive pulls the curtain on the horrible goings on an Oregon PR firm that dares to help a chemical company defend its product.

First, let me be clear. I don’t know whether the accusations against atrazine are legit or not and I am certainly not involved in this controversy in any way. I have no dog in this hunt.

According to Mapes the PR firm “has come under scrutiny” for its role in defending the herbicide atrazine which is being criticized as a public health threat. What is this scrutiny? Is the scrutiny anything beyond that which the Oregonian itself is doing? The role of the PR firm was unveiled, as if a deeply held secret, by the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch. The subtitle of this site, prwatch.org is “reporting on spin and disinformation since 1993.” I’m just hazarding a wild guess here but any PR firm that shows up on that site is going to be judged guilty of spin and disinformation automatically. I get the impression that anyone advocating a position in opposition to the beliefs of the “Center” is going to be accused of deviousness and dishonesty. But, never mind that, says Mapes. These people uncovered the dirt.

The article from this completely unbiased source identified the work the PR folks did in looking into who the reporter on Huffington Post was who was writing several stories about the dangers of atrazine, a weed killer. The research showed that the writer of these stories had ties with the Tides Foundation which helped fund the Huffington Post Investigative Fund and also worked with Bill Moyers.

Clearly, from Mr. Mapes point of view, a PR firm doing background research on the people who are attacking a client’s products is a very bad thing. Other devious activities of this PR firm included having one of the manufacturer’s scientists work one or ghostwrite a chapter on atrazine included in a 2011 book written by John Entine of the American Enterprise Institute. The book is titled “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens the Public Health.”

The Mapes article concludes by addressing how much the PR firm got paid for their work. The fact that that amount is not known and the firm’s refusal on general policy terms to talk about work done for specific clients is added onto the pile of deviousness.

Sure, I’m overstating the tone of the article. But who can deny what Mr. Mape’s viewpoint on all of this is. The writer of the Huffington Post article and others raising questions about atrazine are never questioned as to their motives or biases. But, anyone working on behalf of the company to counter or address the questions raised about the product are subtly described as dishonest, devious, and untrustworthy. Come on.

What writers like Mapes and the Oregonian editorial staff need to come to grips with is that open debate and exposure of the important public health and safety issues is important. Debate implies two perspectives, both of which need to heard and evaluated. Why do they only want one perspective heard or treated as honest and trustworthy? I raise this issue because it is not limited to the Oregonian, but resides in much media coverage and certainly in internet discussions as well. We want to limit discussion to those whose opinions or perspectives we already agree with. That’s natural, but when this level of bias is demonstrated by a supposedly respectable media outlet, it needs to be called out.

If it can be shown, which it clearly was not in the Mapes article, that the PR firm engaged in dishonest or devious tactics, then it should be identified and their concern about PR tactics should also be our concern. But Mapes’ problem is simply that someone, a local PR firm at that, should be hired by a Swiss company and actually make money on defending their product. Everyone in honest PR should be concerned about this kind of obvious bias.

Orange juice import ban reflects a smoldering crisis

On January 11 the FDA announced it was banning imports of orange juice from all foreign countries. This is a serious action. The mere possibility of it caused orange juice futures to soar to an all-time high.The impact on US growers may very well be significant. The impact on global trade may also be significant as affected orange farmers in other countries, particularly Brazil where this hits hardest, look to their governments for retaliation.

Since this is serious, there must be a very serious reason for this strong action. On the face of it, it looks like there is. The problem is a fungicide called carbendazim. It is used to prevent black spot, a type of mold that grows on orange trees. The problem is the fungicide is illegal to use in the US, but not in Brazil.

Orange juice is big business. In 2009 we Americans drank 1.2 billion gallons of the healthy stuff, or almost 4 gallons per person. A lot of the orange juice comes from concentrate from Brazil. Since Brazilian orange juice is more tart than most domestic juice, the juice we drink usually comes from different sources. The biggest brands of orange juice are Minute Maid and Tropicana, owned by CocaCola and Pepsico respectively. It was CocaCola which alerted the FDA to the presence of the carbendazim in Brazilian concentrate.

This may appear to be a simple case of the US government doing for us what we expect it to which is to protect our food supply and help keep us safe and healthy. I wish it were that simple. But food safety and health issues are all caught up in pseudo-science, in politics, in global trade issues, in hatred and mistrust of big corporations, in media fear-mongering.

The carbendazim that was discovered by CocaCola is in the parts per billion range. Extremely low levels. I doubt there is a single credible scientist that would say that drinking orange juice with carbendazim in it at 10 parts per billion represents any kind of health risk–unless maybe you are a lab rat and the force feed you forty gallons of the stuff. Testing of elements in food has gotten very, very good. We now test for things at minute levels where before we had no idea they were there because our technology didn’t allow us to test for it. But there is a dark side to that. Find one thing at some minute level and the world can go crazy.

That brings me to my old subject: how does the media deal with this. Case #1: Huffington Post. The headline makes it clear what their intention will be: “Orange Juice Shows Us the Toxic Side of International Trade.” That’s beautiful, we got toxins, orange juice and the evils of international trade all in one attention-grabbing headline. The article, written by professor so who could question his credentials, goes on at great lengths to point out the extreme danger of this thing called carbendazim:

This fungicide is closely related to the phased out benomyl, eliminated over concerns that it causes birth defects. Carbendazim also causes birth defects in lab animals and is probably the reason benomyl does so since benomyl breaks down to carbendazim in the body. Both fungicides also damage male fertility and cause liver cancer. FDA has responded to this information by disallowing carbendazim use on food crops in the US and has no acceptable tolerances for this fungicide on imports such as orange juice.

That’s enough to scare me. But the above paragraph does not point out that there is a relationship between danger and exposure. It isn’t until the very last paragraph where the author admits something that is rather important to this whole story:

Fortunately the concentrations of carbendazim found in orange juice so far are below what would constitute a frank health risk.

OK, at the parts per billion level we are talking about there is no health risk. The FDA said so themselves:

“Consumption of orange juice with carbendazim at the low levels that have been reported does not raise safety concerns,” the FDA said in a letter to the Juice Products Association, a trade group. “FDA does not intend to take action to remove from domestic commerce orange juice containing the reported low levels of carbendazim.”

It turns out that the lack of safety concern expressed by the FDA is a bit of an understatement. According to the EPA the benchmark for products on the market is 80 parts per billion and that level is 1000 to 3000 times lower than the levels that would indicate a health concern. So, if my math is correct, the EPA says the parts per billion would have to be from 80,000 to 240,000 parts billion before there would be a health concern.

These levels do not raise safety concerns? Then why did the FDA take the action it did? Why does HuffPo link orange juice with toxins, why do they scare the bejesus out of everyone with the terrible risks this imported juice represents? Why does even an innocuous business article about this issue include the “on-the-street” interview with a customer who says, “I’m not going to buy anymore of it until they say all of the orange juice is okay.”

You would think the US growers would be ecstatic. Clearly this will raise prices of domestic oranges. But they are realistic:

“There might be concerns in some consumers’ minds about there being chemicals within the juice. I think that could almost counter-balance the increase in futures prices and subsequent returns to Florida growers,” said Ray Royce of the Highland County Citrus Growers Association in central Florida.

Royce also said something that should be of concern to all of us who buy food: “Obviously food safety issues are probably going to play a bigger and bigger role in driving food or commodity prices in the future.” I’m sure you don’t mind and I don’t mind paying more for food if safety is improved. But I hate like heck having to pay more for political purposes or because the news media need to get more eyes on their websites and do so by doing everything they can to scare people whether there is justification or not.

Why is there a growing state of fear relating to orange juice in this issue? Is because the US believes Brazil is dumping oranges on us? That motivation is entirely possible given this action by the US in 2009 against dumping accusations. Might the growers in Florida look to the administration for a boost and the administration see opportunity relating to an election later this year?

I’m really not into conspiracy thinking. But I am very interested in the public being made aware that screaming headlines about the next great danger to our food may not be accurate, fair or in our best interests. I am convinced that the food production business from the farmer to the giant manufacturer is in for a very interesting time. The shifting values of the American consumer are at the heart of it, but those shifting values are created or inflamed by the necessity of media outlets to attract and audience. And there can be no doubt that visceral emotion is their greatest strategy. They create fear — often at the expense of the truth. And when politicians and regulators sense fear or outrage, they believe it is their duty to step and create new laws or more restrictive regulations.

We all want our food supply to be safe. But I want decisions about that to be based on reality, not screaming headlines and government action based on unreasonable public fear and unproven accusations.

Huffington Post publishes an article I really like!

Yes, I must admit that I probably don’t fit the profile of the typical HuffPost reader. Part of that online filter bubble thing I just blogged about. But today they published an article I really, really like–and it even has my name in it.

It is a review of the film “Lost Airmen of Buchenwald” which was based partly on my book “A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald” and for which I had the privilege of serving as Executive Producer.

A couple of weeks ago my 90 year old fighter pilot friend, Joe Moser, and I were at a sold-out screening of the film in Tacoma. Afterwards, Carla Seaquist came up and introduced herself as a reporter with the Huffington Post. She did a fabulous job with this review and I really like the suggestion that PBS pay attention. This is a story that deserves to be told far and wide, in part to give honor to these brave wonderful men, all near or above 90 years of age, but also to honor all those who served with them who are no longer here to hear our expressions of admiration and appreciation.

Help spread the word–DVDs are available at www.lostairmen.com and Christmas is coming!

Who's a reporter when it comes to press credentials?

One of my esteemed colleagues sent me a question about policy relating to press credentials today. A very relevant issue for many. The old rules don’t apply in the era of new media. But it certainly doesn’t mean you give equal access to anyone who happens to know how to turn on wordpress. Below is the answer I provided. What’s yours?

That’s a tough one. The advice I give to clients is that while there may be 300 million citizen journalists out there (anyone with a cell camera can quickly send images to any major news outlet) that doesn’t mean that you need to treat all of them the same. The same basic criteria should apply to reporters–the stringer from a wild and crazy sometime newspaper with four readers should not necessarily receive the same focus as the reporter from the New York Times. Of course, if we are talking about adding to a list to send out updates, that is different–include everyone. But press credentials is more difficult. The truth is blogs are media. There are now 400,000 bloggers who make their livings with their blogs. Many have thousands of readers (my daughter is one of the top food bloggers in the country according to Financial Times anyway). And some have influence far beyond their limited readership.

My suggestion is to start with the understanding that bloggers are journalists and some far more reputable than others. Your group may have to come up with some criteria to decide if a blogger should be treated as a legitimate journalist some of which could be objective–how many visitors per month, how many commenters, etc., and part subjective: does this “journalist” have any credibility, is he/she responsible in the way information is treated, etc. Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post is one of the keynote speakers at the fall PRSA conference. She is hardly unbiased but her blog is considered one of the most influential in the nation–and most heavily visited. It would be insane not to grant her press credentials because she doesn’t write for newsprint.

I don’t know if that helps but my suggestion is work on a criteria for admission that is based on credibility and reach and include bloggers.