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Revealed: How Syngenta Investigated the Press and Shaped the News About its Controversial Weed-Killer Atrazine

A new investigation shows the global chemical company spent millions spinning news coverage and tracking journalists as concern grew over potential health risks of atrazine.

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The ghostwritten chapter was for a book to be published in conjunction with someone at the  American Enterprise Institute, a DC think tank that is funded in part by large donations from corporations. It is not known whether Syngenta has funded this think tank or any of its “fellows,” directly or indirectly.

Also Needed: An Investigative Reporter to Rattle the EPA's Cages

On December 3, 2009, Syngenta’s in-house PR staff held a planning meeting to deal with the fallout from theNew York Times investigation, the  agenda (PDF) was to “[o]btain the services of a well know (sic) investigative reporter to probe around the EPA” and, at a minimum get advice “on what buttons to push and cages to rattle.”

As part of the effort to influence EPA’s review, another tactic was to identify long-term needs for published materials and which third parties “should be approached/retained.”

Unsealed e-mails  reveal (PDF) that earlier that same week WHWG had reported to Syngenta that a third party the PR team was in communication with was Jon Entine of the American Enterprise Institute. Entine is a former producer with NBC and ABC News, whose books attacked the idea of socially responsible investing and the precautionary principle (Let Them Eat Precaution).

The "Third Party" Technique in Action

While WHWG worked to cultivate new third party voices for Syngenta, some old mainstays of the company continued to defend it in the press.

For example, Elizabeth Whelan had long been on the short-list of people Syngenta's PR team considered when shopping corporate op-eds to publish under someone else's byline.

Whelan is the president of the "American Council for Science and Health" (ACSH). ACSH has been called "a receptacle for payments from pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology, food and other companies who appreciate the convenience of having their grantees and former employees serve on government science panels," by Michael Jacobsen, the Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Jacobsen told the Washington Times that ACSH had "stopped disclosing its donors in the 1990s, presumably out of embarrassment." ACSH's list of leaders, scientists, and co-collaborators include other names of third party advocates that pop up in the e-mails unsealed in the litigation.

ACSH had  already been enlisted (PDF) by the Syngenta PR team to attack the New York Times article by Charles Duhigg, “Debating How Much Weed Killer Is Safe in Your Water Glass,” before the story was even published on August 22, 2009, and she  responded right away.

ACSH's Beth Whelan Defends Atrazine, Without Disclosing Big Bucks

Whelan defended atrazine in a morning appearance on MSNBC the week the story broke. She told viewers across America that the New York Times story was "bogus."

She did not tell viewers that she was the beneficiary of big donations from Syngenta.

In the MSNBC debate with Whelan, the NRDC's Jennifer Sass suggested that scientific studies indicated that atrazine had chemically castrated frogs, by disrupting their endocrine systems with even small amounts of the weed-killer, which Whelan dismissed.

When Duhigg’s New York Times article was reprised on NPR's "Fresh Air" in late October 2009, Whelan and her colleague at ACSH, Gilbert Ross,  reached (PDF) out to  Syngenta's (PDF) PR team again with their spin on atrazine, claiming:

"Mr. Duhigg's articles are replete (PDF) with exaggerated risk, bias, misrepresented science and sensationalism. . . . 'Chemophobia' is in: scaring people about chemicals in our food, water and consumer products gets attention -- but it is counterproductive, distracting us from the real public health hazards we face today."

In an October 20, 2009  email (PDF) from WHWG’s Josh Gilder sent a note to his colleagues on the Syngenta PR team with a framework for countering the Duhigg analysis:

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