Columnist Michael Fumento Fired for Monsanto Link

Business Week’s Eamon Javers reports that Scripps Howard has fired columnist Michael Fumento for writing about Monsanto without disclosing his business relationship with the agribusiness giant.

In a statement released on Jan. 13, Scripps Howard News Service Editor and General Manager Peter Copeland said Fumento “did not tell SHNS editors, and therefore we did not tell our readers, that in 1999 Hudson recieved a $60,000 grant from Monsanto.” Copeland added: “Our policy is that he should have disclosed that information. We apologize to our readers.” In the Jan. 5 column, Fumento wrote that St. Louis-based Monsanto has about 30 products in the pipeline that will aid farmers, “but also help us all by keeping prices down and allowing more crops to be grown on less land.” He listed some of the products Monsanto has on tap: drought-resistant corn, crops that could reduce the need for environment-damaging fertilizers, and soybeans that might reduce heart disease.

In his career at Hudson, Fumento has carved out a specialty debunking critics of the agribusiness and biotechnology industries. In 1999, he says, he solicited $60,000 from Monsanto to write a book on the business. The book, entitled BioEvolution was published in 2003. A spokesman for Monsanto confirmed the payments to the Hudson Institute.

Asked about the payments, Fumento says, “I’m just extremely pro-biotech.” He says he solicited several agribusiness companies to finance his book, which was published by Encounter Books. “I went after everybody, I’ve got to be honest,” Fumento says of his fund-raising effort. “I told them that if I tell the truth in this book, the biotech industry is going to look really good, and you should contribute.”

[…]

The author says he sees no conflict of interest in his recent columns because the grant came several years ago. “If you’re thinking quid pro quo,” he says, “I think there’s a statute of limitations on that.”

[…]

Fumento insists that disclosure of financial transactions between op-ed columnists and the companies they cover wouldn’t be practical. The op-ed money trail is only now getting attention, he argues in an e-mail, because of BusinessWeek Online’s recent revelation that Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff had paid two columnists for years to deliver good press to his clients (see BW Online, 12/16/05, “Op-Eds for Sale”).

“We’re in a witch-hunting frenzy now but, as after all witch hunts, people do return to their senses and regret the piles of ashes at their feet,” Fumento writes. “Often it happened fast enough�the witch hunters found�themselves tied to the stake.�I do hope that happens here.”

Fumento also points out that he criticized Monsanto publicly in a 1999 Forbes magazine column, calling the company “chicken-hearted” for caving in to pressure from environmentalists to terminate a seed program. “I acted completely ethically, and within a month or two nobody will doubt that,” Fumento says.

The number of these cases is growing. I would have to agree, though, that there is something of a statute of limitations on what business relationships one might be expected to divulge in the space of an 800-word column.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ken says:

    Full disclosure should be provided by every columnist. It can help the reader better understand what nfluences the writers opinion, and it should not hurt the writer as long as all relationships with the subject is disclosed.

    What cannot be tolerated in this age of failing credibility is hiding the factors that influence a writers work. This is deadly to the institution that pays the writer. Let them give full disclosure then let the market decide whether they are worth reading.

  2. djneylon says:

    Let’s see, six years ago he accepted a grant to write a book, which he did. Can someone tell me what is wrong with this, other than offending the high priests of correctness?