The scandal over genetically engineered (GE) animal feed making its way into the human food supply just keeps getting bigger. But the story can’t seem to make its way out of the L.A. Times business section. StarLink biotech corn, which was not approved for human consumption because of questions about its potential to cause allergic reactions, nonetheless turned up last month in an array of tortilla food products, notably supermarket taco shells. The story made the Times’ front page on September 23, when Kraft Food pulled its Taco Bell–brand taco shells off the shelves in the first-ever GE food recall. News of the series of rolling tortilla-product recalls that followed, however, was relegated to the business pages, despite its increasing significance. Mission Foods Co. on October 13 recalled all of its tortillas, taco shells and snack chips made with yellow corn; the company’s Web site says it supplies at least four local supermarket chains (Ralphs, Mayfair, Jons and Food 4 Less), and corner groceries, hospitals and restaurants across the Southland.
GE food producers fear that PR debacles like the taco-shell recalls could raise the kind of popular alarm here that halted GE-food distribution in Europe in its tracks. The chances of a public outcry are limited, however, if the story is played as a corporate snafu rather than as a public-health or -safety issue. Now we know it isn’t popular to question corporate influence on the media, but we couldn’t help but ask: Does the Times’ GE news gray-out have anything to do with the presence of PepsiCo. Inc. board member Arnold R. Weber on the board of the Tribune Co. (owner of the Times)? Sabritas Mexicali, a unit of PepsiCo., manufactured the recalled Kraft Food taco shells, according to the Times.
Absolutely not, said Times spokesman David Garcia. “The Times maintains strict editorial independence,” Garcia said in an e-mail. Still, we wonder why the media are so loath to see the corporate hand in their own affairs, and so quick to see it in others’.
CANDY FROM STRANGERS
When OffBeat recently received an e-mail warning about depraved men using ether-laced perfume samples to lure women in mall parking lots, we didn’t run out to buy a handgun or sign up for a self-defense class. Instead we consulted the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society’s Urban Legends Reference Pages to track down what we guessed was another false e-mail rumor. Sure enough, the story is a variant of the classic “Scratch and Sniff” hoax (not to be confused with the “Ether Bunny” legend: male college student sodomized by ether-wielding roommate).
With Halloween in the offing, the Web site is working overtime on spooky but spurious tales. OffBeat found the folklorists’ debunking of Halloween candy-poisoning myths particularly illuminating (most are phony; the few that pan out turn out to be parents who poisoned their own kids and blamed it on candy from strangers).
An oft-repeated Halloween tale involves a woman who seduces her “husband” at a party, only to find it was a stranger inside his costume. Then, there’s the haunted house so scary that no one has ever come out of it alive. But what about L.A.-area legends? LSD-crazed college students blinded by staring too long into the Southern California sun?
Disney horror stories are some of Southern California’s most popular urban legends. Who hasn’t heard whispers of unreported kidnappings and employee or patron death cover-up stories at the Happiest Place on Earth? OffBeat’s favorite Disney rumor is “Walt on Ice”: Uncle Walt (or just his head in some versions) cryogenically preserved inside Pirates of the Caribbean.
Although discredited in some quarters as a “prophet of doom,” Mike Davis, in his book Ecology of Fear, cleverly limned some L.A.-specific urban legends. Subtitled Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, the book looked at local hysteria about mountain lions in the chapter “Maneaters of the Sierra Madre” to examine how much these fears cost taxpayers in terms of resources wasted “protecting” suburbanites from “black bears in hot tubs, plague-carrying squirrels, killer bees, and even goat-eating vampires.” (Anyone besides Davis and OffBeat remember Chupacabra?)
What do Angelenos fear most during this election year? One story that’s currently making the rounds at USC concerns Dick Cheney’s “planned heart attack” — part of a purported Republican scheme to bring Colin Powell onto the ticket at the last minute. There’s only one way to stop this evil Republican conspiracy: E-mail all your friends.
MURDOCH'S NEWS VALUES
This August, a Florida jury awarded journalist Jane Akre $425,000 from her old employer, Fox-owned WTVT in Tampa. Akre and her husband and reporting partner, Steve Wilson, claimed the station sacked them for refusing to slant a story on the alleged dangers of Bovine Growth Hormone in milk.
MThe pair filed suit under Florida’s Whistle Blower Act, citing a threat they had made to go to the Federal Communications Commission with charges the station rigged the story to satisfy BGH maker, and big-bucks Fox advertiser, Monsanto Corp. The jury denied Wilson’s claim, but upheld Akre’s, making her one of the few journalists anywhere to successfully challenge alleged censorship in the era of corporate media consolidation. So you might expect to find Fox management holed up, licking their wounds, while Akre fields fat offers from 60 Minutes, Dateline and PBS?
Well, no. Former WTVT general manager Dave Boylan was promoted to KTTV Fox 11 in Los Angeles, Rupert Murdoch’s number-two station. Akre, at last report, was out of work.
“We had no idea it would cost this much and take so long,” Wilson said during a lunch break from a digital-video conference the couple attended last month at the Long Beach Convention Center. “Given the general climate of TV news, it’s highly doubtful anyone will hire us.”
Boylan bristles at any suggestion that he earned his Fox 11 stripes by dumping the reporters.
“I’m still reeling over the accusation I was promoted because of what happened to Steve and Jane,” Boylan said. “Let me just indicate by saying for the last two years [the Tampa Bay station] was named the number-one Fox affiliate for its performance.”
But Boylan’s arrival has brought little joy to serious journalists at Fox 11. As one staffer puts it, news under Boylan “is organized like the Mickey Mouse Club.”
Fox is challenging the Akre decision on the grounds that the jury was asked to find that Akre had a “reasonable good faith” belief that the station was slanting the news, not that there was an actual news distortion; that the Florida Whistle Blower Act does not apply, and that the damage award was unjustified. Wilson is also trying to vacate his verdict, citing a jury instruction that the FCC threat had to be the sole basis for his firing.
BGH, a synthetic hormone that boosts milk production by as much as one-third, was approved by the FDA in 1993, but banned in Canada and Europe because of suggestions from scientists, contested by Monsanto, of links to cancer. In 1997, Akre and Wilson discovered that Florida grocers had broken a promise to keep BGH out of the state milk supply, and prepared a four-part series for sweeps week.
Days before the series was to begin, a Monsanto lawyer sent a letter of warning to the station. Fox management pulled the story. Akre and Wilson testified that they re-edited the story more than 80 times (Fox lawyer Ted Russell says the number is “misleading”), but balked at including information they considered untrue, such as Monsanto’s assertion that BGH milk was the same as regular milk. Akre also testified that Boylan told her, “We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is.” (Boylan remembered it as “When you can own your own TV station . . . you can do it your way.”) The reporters’ contracts were not renewed in 1997, and their series never ran, although a BGH story by another WTVT reporter was broadcast after Wilson and Akre filed suit.
During the trial, Fox portrayed the reporters as fractious malcontents who refused to be edited. After the trial, Fox somehow managed to spin the verdict as a victory that cleared the station of news-distortion charges. But, in fact, jurors were instructed to find for Akre only if they were convinced that “a reasonable person” would have believed that WTVT’s news management made efforts to intentionally falsify the news report.
OffBeat believes there are unfailingly pleasant investigative reporters, but we don’t know many. We also know that some reporters are biased. But we wonder, if the story was so bad, why didn’t Fox simply kill it? Or were they afraid of the fallout if Akre and Wilson went public with the dispute?
Clearly, different philosophies of investigative reporting were at work. Says Fox lawyer Russell: “The story was not that milk was unsafe; the story was there’s a controversy over the milk.” Counters Wilson: “They wanted us to put both sides out there and let the viewers decide; but if I have evidence that what one side says is untrue, I’m going to put it in.” Unfortunately, a St. Petersburg News headline may have provided the epitaph for the whole affair: “Verdict is not expected to affect TV news.”