Natural Life Magazine

Follow the Money
By Wendy Priesnitz

follow the money trailHow corporations can deceive us into doing things that are bad for us, and how we can unmask them in order to make healthier, greener decisions.

In William Goldman‘s screenplay for the 1976 film All the President’s Men, the source called “Deep Throat” advises the journalists researching the Watergate scandal to “follow the money.” It’s something I’ve learned to do, both in my everyday life and in my writing career, and the wily consumer often needs to do it too.

Money has enormous clout, which is why it bears watching. It is often used to persuade people to believe (or disbelieve) in a certain set of facts so that we’ll behave in a certain way – vote for a certain political candidate, or buy and use a certain product, for instance. You could visualize the world as a pyramid. At the very top are the global financial elite who congregate in groups like the World Economic Forum and make plans that consolidate their wealth and control. Next down is the banking community – international and national central banks – which has a great deal to say about the global financial system, followed by the commercial big banks which make huge profits and finance corporations. Further down are the large, transnational corporations, which influence politicians through campaign financing and lobbying. Below them are governments, followed by people and the planet.

As the CorpWatch investigative journalism organization puts it: “In many cases, corporate power and influence eclipses even the democratic political process itself as they exert disproportional influence on public policy they deem detrimental to their narrow self-interests. In less developed nations, they usurp authority altogether, often purchasing government complicity for unfair practices at the expense of economic, environmental, human, labor, and social rights.”

That’s why I’ve concluded that the chore for those of us who want to salvage some sanity (not to mention health and prosperity) in our lives by making informed choices about the things we can control is to follow the money. Here are some examples of how this works. I hope they will help you exercise your skeptic muscles.

Conflicts of Interest

Sometimes, where there is big money at stake, identifying conflicts of interest is as simple as figuring out whose money is talking, or who has the most to lose.

An example is a recent report of a meta analysis from Stanford University, which, according to a press release, “did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives.” When other researchers (and those in the organics industry) looked into the report, they found everything from faulty methodology and researchers with no experience in the field to seeming misrepresentation of findings and a typo that skewed the evidence. Following the money led critics to note that Stanford receives large donations from conventional agriculture giant Cargill. And one of the researchers notoriously had deep ties to the tobacco lobby’s propaganda machine decades ago.

Sometimes, where there is big money at stake, identifying conflicts of interest is as simple as figuring out whose money is talking, or who has the most to lose.

One of the areas where a lot of money is in competition with personal and environmental health is the genetic engineering of food. In September of 2012, French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini published some research results in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. The paper describes major long-term effects on rats fed Monsanto corn variety NK603 treated with glyphosate, a herbicide sold under the name Roundup. The study was criticized by some scientists whose views were dutifully reported in the popular press, leaving those who are concerned about the safety of GMOs confused about the truth. However, if you follow the money, you will see that some of the critics have more than scientific credibility at stake.

A few weeks after Séralini’s research was released, a group of other scientists from around the world released an open letter expressing their concern about what they call “fundamental challenges faced by science in a world increasingly dominated by corporate influence.” The letter describes a history of “orchestrated campaigns of harassment” on scientists like Séralini whose research results are not palatable to corporations. The group also implicates the science media and government regulators, and details the continuing biases and other problems with identifying the risks involved with GMOs. They conclude: “When those with a vested interest attempt to sow unreasonable doubt around inconvenient results, or when governments exploit political opportunities by picking and choosing from scientific evidence, they jeopardize public confidence in scientific methods and institutions, and also put their own citizenry at risk.”

Presumably, if genetically engineered food was safe, its manufacturers wouldn’t mind if its existence appeared on labels. However, the “Big 6” pesticide makers (BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto, and Syngenta) have spent massive amounts of money fighting the GMO mandatory labeling initiative appearing on the ballot in California in November. Companies that manufacture food and beverages containing GMOs also contributed to the fight against labeling.

Corporations like tobacco companies, the pharmaceutical industry, fossil fuel producers, and GMO manufacturers often lobby governments and sway public opinion by hiring public relations consultants who will protect their financial interests. Fueled by seemingly unlimited amounts of cash, their tools include sponsorship of biased research, the “orchestrated campaigns of harassment” mentioned in the public letter above, paying people to write comments on social networking websites and media comment boards, and the creation of fake grassroots groups to convince voters to vote against labeling. These groups have innocuous sounding names like the National Wetlands Coalition and the Global Climate Coalition and their corporate roots are cleverly hidden. This is called “astroturfing” and it’s estimated to be a half-billion dollar a year industry on its own.

For instance, to help defeat anti-global warming initiatives, a coalition of American energy industry organizations formed a group called the Information Council for the Environment (ICE) in 1991 to – as its literature put it – “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” The half-a-million dollar campaign was coordinated by a Washington-based public relations company called Bracy Williams & Co.

NPR – the Canadian arm of the world’s largest public relations firm Burson-Marsteller – was behind a campaign to ally First Nation peoples with their clients, the logging companies, against environmentalists fighting clearcutting of British Columbia’s old growth forests. Burson-Marsteller also created the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of the Philip Morris tobacco company.

The focus of much of the conflict of financial interest in the pharmaceutical industry is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. It is used by clinicians, researchers, psychiatric drug regulation agencies, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and policy makers.

Every time the DSM is revised, new psychiatric illnesses are identified (or created, as some believe) and added. Critics disagree with the process as well as some of the diagnostic criteria and disorders, suggesting that it has become a tool of the pharmaceutical industry; the sale of psychiatric drugs is one of the most profitable businesses in the world. Drug companies invest heavily in research and marketing of their products, and many claim that they exert an economic influence upon the practice of psychiatry. (The huge increase in diagnoses of ADHD and the related prescribing of stimulant drugs like Ritalin is one example that critics blame on its inclusion in the DSM in the 1980s.)

Researchers have actually studied this conflict of interest. An article entitled “Conflicts of Interest in Research on Pediatric Mental Disorders: The Unholy Alliance Between Big Pharma and Psychiatry” on the Society for Humanistic Psychology’s blog, described conflicts of interest in the study of atypical antipsychotic drugs. Researchers at Point Park University (Robbins, Higgins, Fisher, and Over, 2011) actually cautioned about the safety of these medications based on their research, especially for children and the elderly. They also concluded that there should be moratorium on adding new pediatric or geriatric disorders to the next version of the DSM as a result of the conflicts of interest they have identified.

Where’s the Media?

You would think that the mainstream media would report more often on these conflicts, or at least factor them into their decisions about what to report. However, as advertising declines and consumers move to free sources of information online, under-funded media outlets are forced to do more with less and are increasingly prone to their own conflicts.

Companies regularly supply ready-made content to news outlets and much of it gets used as-is, without the audience knowing about its bias.

Traditionally, most media outlets have carefully separated their editorial and advertising departments. The news was reported, regardless of its impact on advertisers. However, this separation is being eroded in an effort to prop up revenue.

Some large advertisers have, for some years now, been asking mainstream magazine editors to submit articles to them before publication (and some publications oblige). Corporations would rather pull their advertising than risk having their corporate image tarnished or being attacked by special interest groups as a result of their ad running alongside a controversial article. One would hope that self-censorship wouldn’t occur, but you have to follow the money when jobs could be at stake.

In fact, an increasing number of magazines intentionally blur the lines between editorial content and advertising in order to bring in revenue. Most specialty magazines willingly publish advertorials – articles submitted by and promoting companies that advertise alongside the articles. In some cases, it is made clear to the reader that the article was written by the advertiser; in others, the editorial is presented as fact in spite of its bias. Product placement is another increasing practice. This is where, for instance, an advertiser pays for a package of their brand of coffee to appear, seemingly innocently, in a photo accompanying an editorial feature about a kitchen makeover.

Another problem arises when declining editorial budgets meet an insatiable demand for online content. Here is a simple example of the type of “news” that results. A televised news item discussed the difficulties experienced by the owners of a domed stadium when they tried to wash the outside of the dome. Well, that wasn’t really a news item at all; it was an advertisement dressed in news clothing, supplied to the television station by the makers of Sunlight detergent, which was, viewers couldn’t help noticing, the brand used in that large-scale cleaning operation. It is common practice for companies to send such ready-made content to television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and bloggers. Often, this free content is used unchanged, without the audience knowing about its bias.


Corporations often manipulate consumers through greenwashing. This is the act of misleading people about the environmental practices or benefits of a product or service and to seem environmentally responsible while masking environmental wrongdoings. (When it’s used during Breast Cancer Awareness Month by companies cozying up to a sure-fire tearjerker cause even when they actually produce cancer-causing products, it’s called “pinkwashing.” Different color, same deceit.)

Some examples of this sort of questionable marketing include golf courses that bill themselves as “natural” and “green” in spite of heavy pesticide use and office equipment that is promoted as energy-efficient in spite of high  hazardous material content, indoor air quality issues, or incompatibility with recycled paper or remanufactured toner cartridges. A self-described “green” magazine recently touted, in an advertorial feature, paper towels made from recycled paper and chlorine-free bleach. But this is an inherently non- green and unnecessary product, easily replaced by reusable cloth towels or, better yet, a piece of cloth that has outlived its original purpose as clothing or bedding.

It is important that we refute our growing culture of expertism and, instead, become our own experts, refusing to unquestioningly accept information that is fed to us without first checking into its origin and who it is designed to benefit. In other words, follow the money.

A classic example of greenwashing is described in an article on the website by Melissa Whellams, a corporate social responsibility advisor with Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR) and Chris MacDonald, a business ethics professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. They cite an advertisement that appeared in National Geographic magazine in 2004, in which Ford Motor Company tried to convince readers of its commitment to the environment by announcing the launch of the Escape Hybrid SUV and the remodeling of a factory. The ad read, “Green vehicles. Cleaner factories. It’s the right road for our company, and we’re well underway.” Whellams and MacDonald note that Ford failed to tell readers that it only planned to produce 20,000 of its Hybrid SUVs per year, while continuing to produce almost 80,000 F-series trucks per month. “Moreover,” they write, “just prior to the campaign’s release, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Ford had the worst fleet-wide fuel economy of all major automakers. Ford’s failure to live up to its environmentally friendly image earned the company first prize among America’s top ten worst greenwashers of the year.”

In their book Trust Us, We’re Experts, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton trace these PR practices to the American circus founder (and scam artist) P.T. Barnum, who in 1836 wrote anonymous pro and con letters to newspaper editors about himself, generating heated interest in his enterprises. However, the modern PR industry practices have much more significant stakes, intended to undermine our environment, health, climate, and communities in the name of the corporate bottom line.

In his 2006 book American Vulgar, philosopher Robert Grudin describes how the contemporary fixation on the individual – what others have described as the “culture of narcissism” – allows many people to be easily misled by these professional manipulators. He calls the process vulgarization and says that only a rebirth of individual awareness can repair this damage. In other words, we must unearth our inner skeptics and be on high alert for ways in which we are being manipulated.

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Rebuilding a culture of community, where we look out for our collective interests as well as our personal ones will also help. It is important that we refute our growing culture of expertism and, instead, become our own experts, refusing to unquestioningly accept information that is fed to us without first checking into its origin and who it is designed to benefit. In other words, follow the money.

Learn More

Media Madness in Natural Life Magazine, March/April 1998

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine’s editor. She has been a journalist for over 40 years and is the author of 13 books.


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