Don’t like the message? Shoot the messenger

As a writer who’s been exposing food industry deception and other underhanded tactics for many years, I’ve had my fair share of hate mail and other personal attacks. But on Monday, when I published my article, Dairy Industry Making a Killing, by Killing Cows? at Food Safety News, the comments threw me for a loop.

The article was about a massive antitrust lawsuit filed against the dairy industry for engaging in price fixing by killing cows, aka “herd retirement.” By the end of the seven-year program, a staggering 500,000 cows were sent to an early death. I thought this seemed newsworthy. I had never even heard of it, but when I dug deeper, turns out even the federal government has bought  “excess” cows from the industry only to kill them, also to drive up milk prices. I thought: “Wow, I doubt many people know about this. I’ve never seen other food writers cover it; I have a story here that needs to be told.”

Fortunately, my editor at Food Safety News agreed. Since I started writing for FSN, most of my stories have been focused on topics such as E. coli and Salmonella but once in a while I write about related topics such as the “ag gag” bills or junk food marketing to kids. And this article falls into my Big Picture approach to food policy: to shine a light on industry practices that have potentially far-ranging consequences.

So it came as a surprise when a number of readers posted comments questioning why the article was even published, claiming it had nothing to do with food safety. Others were more harsh, calling it a “classic manipulative hit piece,” “blatant propaganda,” and my personal favorite: “hateful, bitchy spin” (along with another misogynistic comment I’d rather not repeat). Later on, the comments became more balanced, but oddly, very few were about the lawsuit. Instead, the discussion focused on whether the topic was even relevant.

What’s going on? While of course I can’t prove the comments came from the dairy industry, given what I know about corporate tactics, it seems like a classic case of shooting the messenger, combined with a healthy dose of distraction. When industry gets attacked, the easiest response is to marginalize, name-call, and change the subject. Here, I was marginalized by being associated with “animal welfare” (and HSUS, who had nothing to do with this case, but no matter). Next, I was called nasty names, and for good measure, Food Safety News was also called on the carpet. (“A new journalistic low for FSN,” and “I really want to question the editor’s decision to include this article.”) This tactic is designed to discredit Food Safety News as a legitimate news source, in hopes they will fire me. These two comments make this strategy painfully clear:

A new journalistic low for FSN. This goes far beyond any editorial reach for balanced reporting. Blatant propaganda, this. Now we must suspect the intention and accuracy of every other article appearing on this blog.

I would respectfully request the editors justify their decision to publish this article and, given the themes of her recent pieces, justify their decision to keep Simon as a contributor to the site.

I just got chills reading that one again. Get it? This reader is asking my editor to justify keeping me as a contributor. When was the last time you read something you didn’t agree with and decided you were so angry you demanded the editor fire the writer? I don’t think I have ever done that, and I am highly opinionated! Instead, you’d probably argue why you think the writer is wrong; you’d stick to the substance of the matter. But industry doesn’t play that way because it doesn’t have any good arguments to make.

The distraction theme is even more blatant. That so many commented on how the piece was not relevant to food safety raises many red flags. As I mentioned, I have written other articles not directly on food safety for FSN before and never seen such a strong reaction. This certainly suggests (but does not prove) a coordinated attack by the dairy industry. Or at the very least, it means I just might have hit a nerve.

Anyway, the argument is quite ridiculous. Of course the massive consolidation of the dairy industry and the competitive drive to overproduce relates to food safety. Mega dairy farms have been linked to all sorts of problems, from contaminating the environment, to cruel animal treatment, to the use of growth hormones and antibiotics (just to name a few), all of which are directly related to human health.

I also don’t understand the attempt to marginalize me with connections to animal welfare groups. While it’s true that Compassion Over Killing (a group that promotes, gasp! an animal-free diet) researched the case, the lawyers who filed it are not connected to that organization. Nor (as far as I am aware) is Hagens Berman (with offices in 10 cities) a “vegan law firm,” rather, they just recognized a massive antitrust case. But oddly, no readers accused them of harboring an animal rights agenda.

Better to just shoot the messenger and hope to distract attention away from the issue at hand: 500,000 cows needlessly killed in the name of Big Dairy profits. I guess we will have to wait and see what the dairy industry has to say about that in court, where name calling won’t cut it.

Postscript. Before I wrote this, I asked Bruce Bradley, former food industry marketing executive (e.g., General Mills, Pillsbury, Nabisco) for his take and here is that Q&A.

What was your reaction when you read the comments?

This sounds like a bunch of folks from Big Dairy companies or their lobbyists just piling it on. I personally find several of the comments unprofessional and offensive.

What makes you think they are from the dairy industry?

Rather than talk substantively and debate the issue with facts, they’d rather sling arrows and “shoot the messenger.” Even in high school debate class you learn to argue the issues vs. derogatory name calling.

Is this shoot-the-messenger tactic common within the industry?

Yes, it’s the classic move. It enables Big Food companies to aggressively defend themselves without providing any real answers. It’s a good old-fashioned smoke screen.

Anything else to add about how industry deals with those who criticize?

The food industry obviously won’t hesitate to go for the jugular. The truth is, your story struck a nerve. My guess is that Big Dairy doesn’t want people to know what’s really going on, especially during these days of potential federal budget cuts.

5 Responses to “Don’t like the message? Shoot the messenger”

  1. Artemisia says:

    Coordinated response was my first thought. Did you check your blog stats?

    Keep on keepin’ on!

  2. scottopolis says:

    Coordinated response is a classic industry tactic. The big companies are hiring PR companies to manage their on-line brand and will go to great extents to defend against any credible assault. These tactics were exposed in the movie “The world according to Monsanto.” I don’t think big milk/cow is any different. When the nameless, faceless investor-class demand their never-ending quarterly returns and profits, what’s killing a few hundred thousand dried-up milk cows? They served their purpose didn’t they….quarterly returns.

  3. CJShimek says:

    Coordinated responses are used by any organization of any stripe. Unfortunately, being able to react in the moment online has definitely reduced the civility of conversation a notch or two.

  4. Use it for fuel. Use these attacks to motivate you to keep working.

    If you are doing your job and doing your reporting fairly and honestly, these attacks won’t hurt you, they’ll actually enhance your credibility. And more people will read you.

    Dan @ Casual Kitchen

  5. ckc says:

    Hi Michelle,

    Great work on the article. Your tenacity has been an inspiration to me. Please know that you are reaching people!

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