by Eamon Javers
Michael Fumento’s failure to disclose payments to him in 1999 from the agribusiness giant has now caused Scripps Howard to sever its ties to him
Scripps Howard News Service announced Jan. 13 that it’s severing its business relationship with columnist Michael Fumento, who’s also a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. The move comes after inquiries from BusinessWeek Online about payments Fumento received from agribusiness giant Monsanto — a frequent subject of praise in Fumento’s opinion columns and a book.
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 received 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.
“YOU SHOULD CONTRIBUTE.” 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 Monsanto grant, he says, flowed from the company to the Hudson Institute to support his work. A portion went to overhead and “most of it” went into his salary. He says the money was simply folded into his salary for that year, and therefore represented no windfall to him personally.
“STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS.” The book’s acknowledgements cite support from The Donner Foundation and “others who wish to remain anonymous.” Fumento didn’t disclose the payment from Monsanto either in the book or in at least eight columns he has written mentioning Monsanto since 1999. He explained in his recent column that he focused exclusively on Monsanto due to a “lack of space and because their annual report was plopped onto my lap while I was hunting for a column idea.”
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.”
BioEvolution argues that advances in biotechnology are overwhelmingly positive for humanity, and it quotes Monsanto scientists, along with those from other companies, at length. In one section, Fumento writes that Monsanto allowed outside researchers to use plant patents it had developed without a licensing fee, to help alleviate suffering in the Third World. “Has this all been good PR for Monsanto?” Fumento asks in the book. “Yes it has, as headlines have made clear. But a good deed is a good deed.”
ONGOING RELATIONSHIP. Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner acknowledges two 1999 payments to Hudson of $30,000 each, but he says the company’s records don’t indicate whether the payments were expressly for the book, as Fumento says. “It’s our practice, that if we’re dealing with an organization like this, that any funds we’re giving should be unrestricted,” Horner says.
He adds that Monsanto maintains an ongoing financial relationship with Hudson, but explains that the company did not pay for the recent Fumento op-ed or any others he has written. “He received a press release from us, as did lots of others in his profession, and he chose to write about it on the basis of that,” Horner says.
New York-based Encounter Books says it doesn’t have an immediate response to queries about the book’s funding.
“WITCH-HUNTING FRENZY.” 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.
While Fumento doesn’t think he should have disclosed the payments to his readers, Hudson’s CEO Kenneth R. Weinstein is less sure. Asked if the scholar should have disclosed his financial relationship with Monsanto, Weinstein pauses and says, “that’s a good question, period.”