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Michael Fumento will no longer write columns for the Scripps Howard News Service after BusinessWeek Online disclosed that he had received $60,000 from agriculture company Monsanto, a topic of nine columns in recent years. Fumento has been very pro-biotechnology in the columns.
Fumento denies that he has done anything wrong, and mentions that he criticized Monsanto in a 1999 column in Forbes. But Monsanto helped fund a book he wrote about the biotech industry, and such relationships between business interests and columnists have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.
Here’s a copy of his most recent column, which went out on the Scripps Howard wire on Jan. 5. It includes this passage: “Now consider some of the approximately 30 crops in the development pipeline of a single company, Monsanto of St. Louis. Many of these will primarily aid farmers but actually help all of us by keeping prices down and allowing more crops to be grown on less land, thereby leaving more land for nature.”
Here is a link to the November 1999 column in Forbes. In it, Fumento writes: “Why did Monsanto turn chicken-hearted? Because it has a huge amount at stake in biotechnology, and it is very much on the defensive these days in the public relations arena. Monsanto has been devastated by the backlash that the greens have whipped up against its biotech crops.” That’s still seems pro-biotech and pro what Monsanto was trying to accomplish.
Read the BusinessWeek Online article here.
Fumento has been a legal writer for the Washington Times, editorial writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, and was the first “National Issues” reporter for Investor’s Business Daily. In 2005 he reported from Iraq as an embed with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Fallujah.
Maybe it’s just me, but the smart thing to do always as a columnist is to divulge any sort of financial relationships to your boss. For reporters, there’s a stricter guideline since columnists voice their opionions and business reporters are supposed to be objective. I personally have always felt as if you couldn’t write about any company or industry in which you were an investor or had a personal interest. The one time I had to deal with this as a business reporter, my editor told me to go ahead and cover the story.
The one stock I have owned — power company Southern Co. — was received from my grandfather’s estate, and the one time I was asked to cover this company — the CEO giving a speech about downtown Atlanta development, not the energy industry — I went to my editor to make it clear that I owned this stock before I covered the speech.
As David Warsh, editor of economicprincipals.com, so eloquently puts it, “It may not be a golden age of economic journalism. The traditional means of support — advertising — has been too undependable for that, thanks to a cataract of technological change. But there are plenty of new rafts on the river. There’s even reason to hope that, before long, the worst of the turbulence will be past.”
Who are these new rafts in the river? Warsh names four reporters who currently cover the economy as being particularly strong. They are:
1. James Surowiecki of The New Yorker. Surowiecki, according to Warsh, can “blend background knowledge and skepticism in just the right degree.” I am a big Surowiecki fan, and require his anthology on business crime reporting to be read by my Business and the Media seminar course. Surowiecki, in the interest of fair disclosure, is a UNC grad, where I teach.
2. Steven J. Dubner is a former writer for the New York Times Magazine, but he is better known as the co-author of Freakonomics with noted University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt. Dubner is more a big-picture writer about economics.
3. Daniel Altman of the Times has also worked at The Economist. His focus has been on writing about the neoeconomy, and he is at the forefront of that movement. Said Warsh: “What exactly is a “neoconomy?” Apparently one in which government policy can affect the growth rate. (Like China, perhaps?)”
4. The last one is Jon E. Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal. According to Warsh, “nearly four years, Hilsenrath, 38, has put a steady stream of stories about technical economics and economists in the paper, large and small, short and long, growing steadily more acute — a powerful demonstration of the utility of covering the beat.”
Warsh’s evaluation of current economics reporters also says that the WSJ’s Greg Ip — what a great byline — has become the journalist whose coverage of the Federal Reserve is watched the closest, replacing John Berry, formerly of the Washington Post and now at Bloomberg.
Warsh’s review of the current situation on economics reporting is perhaps the most detailed I have seen on the subject in the past 50 years — and I just finished doing some research into the subject and how it has been portrayed. Warsh is right. We have gone through a time period in journalism where economics reporting has been on the downswing in terms of importance. But maybe we’re on the upswing now. Warsh’s entire article can be read here.