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New York Times Misleads Readers to Bash Tuna Industry

Times claimed ‘no factual errors’ in factually inaccurate Mark Bittman blog.

Accuracy must not matter anymore, at least at The New York Times. The paper scoffed at accusations that one of its articles was misleading and contained blatant errors. The June 11 opinion blog by Mark Bittman promoted the work of “journalist (and mother)” Dominique Browning, implying that she was a grassroots activist and failing to note that she was employed by an environmental organization that raked in more than $16 million in 2011 alone.

The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) wrote a letter to the Times pointing this out, as well as challenging Bittman’s data on the dangers of eating tuna. The Times responded by arguing that neither factual point was important.

Bittman, a New York Times opinion columnist, wrote a June 11 piece entitled “Giving up Tuna? Breathing Is Next.”  In it, Bittman praised the work of Browning and her “Moms Clean Air Force” campaign, portraying her as a mother who saw something wrong and spoke out about it. “I was neither an environmentalist nor an activist, but I could no longer ignore important issues,” Bittman quoted Browning as saying.

But Browning is no grassroots activist. She’s an employee with the hard-left Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The EDF is dedicated to combating manmade climate change. It had a revenue of $11,915,138 and an additional $3,493,777 for its 501(c)(4) in 2011 alone, according to the organization’s 990 tax forms available through Guidestar. Its total net assets were listed at $156,584,507. The EDF promoted Browning’s work in its 2012 annual report, noting that “a big part of our push came from Clean Air Force” which it claimed has a membership “100,000 strong.”

Bittman’s piece is now being used for marketing purposes on the Moms Clean Air Force site.

In response to the Fisheries Institute, the Times argued that while “the relationship between Moms Clean Air Force and the EDF was not mentioned in the column, the connection is on the group’s Web site, to which Mr. Bittman’s column linked.” Apparently, the Times can be vague about facts, as long as readers who feel like doing background research can find the information on their own.

Bittman’s blog was a rant against not just the tuna industry, but against the coal industry in general. The Fisheries Institute contested the number that the Times claimed for children affected by mercury levels in fish. According to the group, even the Environmental Protection Agency, which put out the number that Bittman cited, has since disavowed that statistic. In fact, the FDA suggested that pregnant women eat 12 ounces of tuna a week, particularly because of tuna’s low mercury levels. Furthermore, two rulings in the California courts found that the vast majority of mercury in seafood was “naturally occurring.”

The Times admitted that the numbers were questionable, but stood by them anyway. The Times argued that “while there is some dispute over the number of infants who are at risk of cognitive or other impairments due to mercury exposure, the 200,000 figure seems a reasonable estimate.”

Gavin Gibbons, the Director of Media Relations for NFI, told BMI that “it is borderline absurd that the Times would suggest readers should essentially uncover these ties for themselves by searching through source websites. Especially when the Society of Professional Journalists’ own Code of Ethics says writers should, ‘Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.’ Case in point, perhaps?”

 

Below is the full text of the New York Time’s reply to Gibbons:

Dear Mr. Gibbons,

Thank you very much for your letter. We appreciate your concerns and take them seriously.

We have looked into your arguments and concluded that there were no factual errors in Mr. Bittman's column. 

While the relationship between Moms Clean Air Force and the EDF was not mentioned in the column, the connection is on the group's Web site, to which Mr. Bittman's column linked. We identified Ms. Browning as a journalist and, while she has written for The Times, we are hardly her primary platform. As for the phrase "warned off," it is a plausible interpretation of the government's advice to pregnant women. Finally, while there is some dispute over the number of infants who are at risk of cognitive or other impairments due to mercury exposure, the 200,000 figure seems a reasonable estimate — if anything, a conservative one — based on data from 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and other sources. 

If you wish to write a letter to the editor to make your points about the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids, and about the potential health benefits of fish more generally, even for pregnant women, you are welcome to do so. You can send it to letters@nytimes.com and, if you cc me, I will be sure to flag our letters editor's attention. 

Again, thank you for sharing your concerns.

Sincerely,

George Kalogerakis

Deputy Editor, Op-Ed