Did The New York Times Cover Up Whole Foods's Fraud?
by Wayne Hsiung
When deciding where to pitch our investigation, we faced a question: do we go with Big Media publications that have a history of defending Whole Foods, and extensive ties with the company? Or do we shoot for a smaller outlet that might be more sympathetic to our message? Our press advisors resoundingly recommended the former route, as the reach and prestige of a flagship outlet such as The New York Times would be a huge victory for our network -- and for the message that we are trying to get out.
But there were a number of problems with the Times’s coverage by Sabrina Tavernise and Stephanie Strom, which prominent food writer James McWilliams described as "deeply skewed," that deserve a response. Indeed, there was a basic failure of the journalistic process, including refusal to consider incriminating documents, blatant misquotes, and massive over-representation of industry perspectives, that should remind us that, while Big Media gives us an opening, it’s up to us to deliver a truthful message.
The Times made, or amplified, flatly false factual statements, and used fabricated quotes to do so.
The industry’s main contention is that the video is not representative of the general conditions in the farm -- and, by extension, other humane suppliers. Steve Mahrt, for example, claims in the article that only “three chickens” were found in distress. The Times quotes Marht on this approvingly, linking within the quote (something I have never seen before in over 20 years reading the Times) to a propaganda video (link now dead) from the farm showing fraudulently idyllic conditions.
Mr. Mahrt said the video produced by Direct Action Everywhere “isn’t anywhere indicative of our operation — they had to go through 15 barns off and on over a year to find three chickens they could use to make their point in this video.”
The Times then moves on to me for a response.
For his part, Mr. Hsiung said Direct Action Everywhere had found dozens of chickens in poor condition but had highlighted only a few in the video.
The reader is left to puzzle. If we found dozens of hens in poor condition, why did we highlight “only a few” in the video? Our work -- and the challenge to Whole Foods -- is immediately discredited.
Of course, if you’ve seen our video, you’re probably laughing. Indeed, this was the incredulous reaction of a (conservative, non-animal-loving) professor of law at the University of Chicago I shared the coverage with: The New York Times’s focus on the issue was ridiculous given that far more than three animals are shown in the video’s first 30 seconds. Moreover, we provided the Times with dozens of photos of sick and distressed animals, and documents from the farm itself proving that far more animals were dying every single day. (I suppose in the Times’s world, a brutal death is not a “poor condition?”)
But here’s the problem: the article didn’t initially link to the video (or even provide a photo). Brian Burns and I badgered the Times all day, but it wasn’t until almost a full day after the article was posted -- and all the viewers had already passed through the site -- that the link was finally included in the article.
That’s right. In coverage of an investigatory video exposing animal cruelty, the Times refused to post the video of the investigation, but did post (embedded within a direct quote) the response video by a known industry shill.
What in heaven’s name is going on?
It gets worse, though. Suppose the Times just felt the need to quote “both sides” and made an inadvertent error in failing to include the video initially. At least they gave us a chance to respond, right? And I got the chance to explain our video?
Wrong. Because the quote attributed to me -- that we highlighted only a few hens in the video -- was fabricated. Indeed, the Times sent me that exact statement, asking if it was accurate, and I rejected it. I wrote in response:
We personally witnessed hundreds of animals in extreme distress over the course of the investigation. (By implication, thousands more were similarly afflicted.) And all of the animals were suffering from the crowding and poor conditions inside the facility, even if they were not suffering from an immediate medical emergency.
The reporter wrote back “thanks wayne” as if to confirm the correction… but somehow the original misquote -- saying that we highlighted “only a few” -- ended up in the final article. Unbelievable.
Another line of reasoning used by industry to argue that our footage was not representative was that the footage was not from the “organic” barns. But as anyone who has a passing understanding of industry certification would know -- and as we explained to the Times -- organic has nothing to do with certified humane status, and no welfare requirements beyond giving animals “access” to the outdoors. Michael Pollan (who unlike the Times called our investigation a “black eye” for industry) has pointed out that “access” can be something as simple as a tiny window through which the animals never even pass. And in this case, the farm had a permanent exemption to even this trivial requirement because of the alleged threat of avian flu. In short, the organic designation has no relevance to any of the abusive conditions we found. We further pointed out to the Times that there was absolutely no external distinction drawn between organic and non-organic barns, and that we visited most of the barns on the facility -- and drew footage from virtually all of our visits for the video. The Times failed to include any of this in their story.
Finally, industry claimed that the barn at issue was not the one that was “certified humane.” Here, the Times’s failure was most astonishing. Because the industry rep herself -- Adele Douglass -- conceded that the certification had lapsed and no audit had actually been performed (due to staffing issues). But the Times not only accepted Douglass’s line of reasoning without question, despite its transparent absurdity (For heaven’s sake, how can they complain that it was “a different barn” when they hadn’t even done an audit?), but failed to point out that the products continued to be sold as “certified humane.” All it would have taken to verify this was a 5 minute trip to Whole Foods. But it was 5 minutes that the Times simply could not afford (perhaps literally, as I’ll discuss below) when it comes to questioning their -- and their readers’ -- favorite grocery giant.
The Times failed to scrutinize any claims made by Whole Foods. Indeed, it barely mentioned the company at all.
Whole Foods, by all measures, is the biggest player in this drama. In revenue, it is probably thousands of times larger than even the massive Petaluma Farms entity, and its brand and reputation -- and not some unknown farmer or standard -- are what drive people to consume “humane” animal products. Fortune Magazine has said that Whole Foods, not Petaluma Farms or Certified Humane, is taking over America.
Yet the article completely ignores Whole Foods -- making the company seem like an incidental buyer of the farm’s eggs (along with Organic Valley) -- and utterly fails to scrutinize any of the marketing claims (“Raised with Care,” “Cage Free,” and “Certified Humane”) that fill Whole Foods’s stores. Instead, the only treatment given the company in the article is this:
"Other than doing some personal research and going online to see what different certification labels require, it gets tricky for consumers — and for us, too,” said A. C. Gallo, president and chief operating officer of Whole Foods.
Whole Foods, which also sells Petaluma’s Rock Island, Uncle Eddie’s and Judy’s brands, has just begun giving suppliers its own set of required humane standards for laying hens. As part of that process, a Whole Foods executive toured Petaluma Farms in February, but did not see anything resembling what was shown in the video, Mr. Gallo said.
When I saw this, I could hardly believe what I was reading. The Times, which bashed our investigation’s accuracy (ignoring supporting documentation -- and their own eyes -- in the process), simply accepted Whole Foods’ statement that it was “tricky” to determine what various certifications mean and quickly moved on to explain that the company was beginning to move to “its own” standard for laying hens. Problem resolved!
As someone who worked as reporter myself for almost 10 years, including at CNN’s DC bureau, I can say this was a basic failure of journalistic integrity. Additional questions should have been asked. When did the Whole Foods executive visit the farm? What expertise do they have in assessing hen welfare? Was the visit announced or not announced? Heck, did the “executive” even go into a barn? (In my experience representing executives at Fortune 500 companies as a corporate lawyer, not too many would be comfortable sifting through the filth of a farm.)
The Times understandably hit us with a barrage of skeptical questions -- all of which were adequately answered (even if our answers and evidence were ignored) -- but did not even bother asking Whole Foods a single one.
Worse yet, even if Whole Foods simply was suffering from confusion over the “tricky” situation, as its own president admitted to the Times, what basis does the company then have for saying so confidently that its animals are raised with compassion and care? The Times’s story frames the “tricky” certification standards as a problem for Whole Foods but fails to point out that Whole Foods is the 800 pound gorilla driving the entire “humane certification” enterprise, making farmers like Mahrt fearfully quiver in the process. Whole Foods’s failure in this single instance should have been an opening for the Times to question the grocer -- and the entire industry’s -- reputation for rigorous standards, transparency, and ethical behavior. Instead, the piece was a clever defense of the industry -- deflecting concerns to a single player (Mahrt) and ignoring the systemic concern.
We made this point to the Times reporters over and over and over again. And yet not even a word of it was mentioned in the article, which brings us to the final problem.
The Times ignored our voice, and literally gave over 10 times more play to the industry voices despite the fact that our investigation triggered this coverage.
You would think that, in coverage of an investigation of cruelty, the Times would want to include something from, well, the actual investigators. But not only did the Times refuse to post our video, they also, despite many hours of interviews and communication over a month-long period, failed to quote us at all, beyond a four word slogan (“five steps of cruelty”). In contrast, they included over a hundred words from industry (and, once again, links embedded into the direct quotes to purportedly justify industry claims!). Indeed, the disproportionate coverage of industry perspectives makes the piece read less like investigative reporting and more like a press release from industry. What the heck is going on?
My best guess is that the Times did not like what we had to say. We emphasized throughout our investigation that our findings problematized the entire notion that animals could be “ethically used.” (“You’re not going to succeed at that,” the reporter said to me. I wondered what basis she had for interjecting that opinion into what should have been an objective interview.) We made absolutely clear that our investigation targeted the “best of the best” -- a farm that was certified by a standard supported by The Humane Society of the United States -- to show that this was not a problem of a single farm, or even a single grocer, but an entire system. But the Times flatly failed to make that connection, perhaps to protect is liberal, urban, meat-eating readers from the harsh truth of even so-called humane agriculture: It’s not food. It’s violence.
But there is a more cynical interpretation of these events. Subscription revenues have dropped in the past decade, with the onset of the internet revolution, and even flagship papers such as the Times are forced to rely on advertising to survive. The Times, which reported a $9 million loss last quarter, needs Whole Foods’s advertising dollars. We know Whole Foods is spending an unknown amount of its $20 million Values Matter advertising campaign with the Times. (The Times’s upper-middle-class readers are exactly the folks Whole Foods is targeting with their ads.) We know that even half of that advertising budget -- small by Whole Foods’s standards -- would transform the Times’ third quarter loss to a gain. We know the Times, like other traditional media outlets, is in a fight to the death for financial survival. Is it surprising, then, that the Times ultimately takes the grocery giant’s side?
Never mind that we documented to the Times, using federal tax records, that 93% of the Whole Foods supposedly “independent” standards are funded by the company itself. Never mind that Whole Foods, unlike us, has a clear incentive to lie to the public -- and no regulatory apparatus to stop them in their lies. Never mind that Direct Action Everywhere is filled with people who have devoted their lives to public service -- not profit -- and have studied, worked at, and published at some of the most credible research institutions on the planet, including Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and MIT.
All of that doesn’t matter in the desperate struggle to defend Whole Foods.
But the real victim here is not just the Times’s advertising revenues. It’s journalistic integrity, public consciousness, and above all, the animals’ lives.