Ignacio Chapela on Pollan and the Gates Foundation
To: Jim Thomas et al.
From: Ignacio Chapela
Re: Gates' Grant to Berkeley's Journalism School
In coincidence with Jim's friends at Berkeley (but independently of any of them), I composed an email to Michael Pollan, which I sent earlier today with copies to people I thought would be directly interested. Since this seems in fact to be taking a deservedly higher magnitude of interest, I am enclosing the text of that email for your information below.
I cannot pretend not to be concerned about these developments, even with Michael's reassurances as reported by Jim. As the corporate capture of all aspects of public life noose-knots tighter and faster, I think this is a very unfortunate step. Berkeley is, as we have shown multiple times over the decades, the weathervane for developments in the corporatization of public spaces and this, modest and independent as it seems, looks to me as a very important one. It was Berkeley, not least thanks to Michael's deft leadership and brilliant writing, which catalyzed the very successful and inspiring inroads of the organic and slow food movements in the last few years, developments which have had resonance around the world. And it is because of this influence that Berkeley continues to be a target of all kinds of discredited parties who want to gain credibility, not least BP, Novartis, the hordes of biotech boosters and now Gates.
Gates' move on Berkeley is interesting because it comes from a "charity", an organization which could be naïvely believed to be free of vested interests and because it targets an institutional player who is not clearly identified with direct interventionist goals as a technical research lab would be. So it is not the usual "BP Pays Energy Researchers to do its Work" kind of headline (as it is, no regular news outlet seems to have picked up the story, but that is another story), and Gates is as free to claim independence from vested interests as the J School is free to claim freedom to research. Naively, then, we should pack this conversation and move on to another (for example, watch the nice video at one my ex student's comment on youth bloggers against clean coal here: http://solveclimate.com/blog/20090331/media-savvy-youth-are-blogging-coal-death ). But the reality is not so simple, not these days of Government by Monsanto, BP, Lockheed and Goldman Sachs.
As Jim probably pointed out to Michael, Gates is bereft of ideas on what to do with their billions as they seek to save the poor (from whom?), and they have -naively or not, I don't know- loaded their ship with well-known agents of the capsizing nave of agricultural biotech. If there is anything in which the Gates people seem to believe, it is the unavoidability nay the morality of technical solutions to all problems, and the one tired thing left in the magician's hat of technology for environmental interventions is transgenesis, or at least they seem to believe so. Most importantly, Gates' dominant voice and policy enforcer continues to be one of the most notorious activists for the transgenization of Africa, Robert Horsch (a UC R alumnus and Monsanto's main strategist on the very matter). Given the dismal record of transgenic agriculture in general, and in particular in Africa, can we possibly believe that Gates would want to attract real, probing journalism to their (basically, Monsanto's) agricultural works in the troubled continent? Horsch must know very well what Burston-Marsteller was telling Monsanto already in 1998, namely that the battle over GMOs was not technical, but one of PR dominance. I use the word "Monsanto" here because of Dr Horsch, but also to refer to this particularly interesting beast of the 21st Century corporate state as much as to a metonymy for the rest of the known list of commercial, environmental transgenecists such as Syngenta, Amyris or LS9.
Ever since, and despite all signs of financial, ecological and public rejection of their plans, Monsanto and allies have continued a campaign to enforce the use of GMOs wherever possible. "Africa" has been in their designs at least since their catastrophic collapse of 2000 (largely unreported as such), mostly as a strategic -and mostly rhetorical- location. It appears that Gates may have naively run into its role as the new, new lease on life to Monsanto's designs after the evaporation first of real industrial money (1999), then of venture capital (2002) and now of governmental subsidies. Along this long trek of failures, it has been interesting to note also the move on Monsanto's part from trying to support their own scientists (early 1990s) to getting hired, subsidized ones (in academia and government mid- to late 1990s), to altogether giving up on them and dedicating themselves to two main things: PR and litigation.
I am sure I would offend many at the J School by even suggesting that they could possibly be participating in anyone's PR campaign, but I cannot avoid the conclusion that this grant is intended to weigh the academic balance in that direction. Nevertheless, we the Academic Senate of the Berkeley campus re-wrote the meaning of Academic Freedom in 2007, on the occasion of the BP half-billion cannonade, to mean the freedom to receive money from any source we wish without being questioned about it, so it may be close to impossible (and for me even a breach of basic academic rules) to even ask questions about it. Gates must be well advised about this nice, business-friendly novelty at the Berkeley campus, since the chair of the Senate at the time and a fierce promoter of the idea was the Journalism School's locally influential William Drummond.
Whether Michael (Pollan) takes money from them or not is in fact a consideration, but one that in the dumb light of PR campaigns represents a minor one in comparison with the brightness of the well-honed power of our campus' PR machine and of course those of Gates and their subjacent interested parties. Already in the press release about the grant, Michael is the subject of about 1/6 of the text, certainly the only one with anything to say about how this makes any sense, and there is definitely the impression that he is a central player in the grant. This image is irretrievable. Did he mean to play this role? Apparently not, but this subtlety will remain hidden from the outsider.
By staying on as a faculty member on the Berkeley campus of BP, I am myself confronted with the very same quandary, knowing that the very work I may do on my side of the biotech debates is always prone to be used as a demonstration of the "balance" and even "radicalism" of the campus, no matter how marginal my position may be. It is a sad National situation when I have to be proud that there are no quotes of me on the campus' news website (the ugly mugs with one of my quotes in the Free Speech Movement Café are also gone), or that my Chair would have called me in to tell me that I was tarnishing the image of the Department by my statements. I do not wish this status on Michael, who had managed to keep -together with some of his colleagues- a notably sane environment in the J School, and wish him well on managing what I believe to be unmanageable.
After all, what are the options? In my case, and now it appears in Michael's, too, the alternative doors are closing for the moment. For me the prospect of receiving funds from BP or Monsanto is untenable, but even looking elsewhere the panorama is not much broader for the critical thinker: I do not seem able to find a federally-funded program that has even two degrees of separation from BP's Department of Energy, Monsanto's Department of Agriculture, Lilly's NIH and so on. It is not a coincidence that Gates itself would have hit a brilliant, $48 million strategic alliance with the last uninfected (perhaps) agency, the NSF: not two days ago, the announcement was made that Gates was pouring $24 million into the perversely named BREAD initiative, whereby NSF will administer Gates' money to entice scientists to perform promotional work in ag biotech. In a world where journalism has passed from the kneeling to the supine position, the Seattle Times appears to be the only independent source of this news and far from implying any interest in influencing scientist's attention, the homie reporter highlights Gates' generosity in "sharing" the decision: "Staff from NSF and the Gates Foundation will jointly make the final cut." I would have called that jaw-dropping arrogance, glaring censorship and meddling in the work of science. And of course I can easily imagine the fate of one of my proposals to this generous program.
No doubt, we must keep the feet of the J School and the Gates Foundation on the fire of critical thinking and analysis, and I am thankful that there are so many out there who are paying attention. Please keep pushing, please keep questioning.
With all best from a Berkeley buffeted by a long tide of corporate cooptation that does not relent,
I just read news about the big Gates grant to the Journalism School to draw your attention and efforts to Africa's agriculture: What a great idea, what a scary reality! I just want to wish you luck in dealing with this, loaded as it is with the intervention of Gates, Henry and Zilberman (those few I could figure out from the PR on the press release at http://journalism.berkeley.edu/press/africa_reporting/, among the many chefs that I imagine will be wanting to help with the menu); I can see there will be involvement of the Beahrs Poverty Center, too.
I hear from good sources that Gates may be honest about trying to find out the consequences of their extremely clumsy moves on Africa, and they will have to conclude sooner or later that they have been acting like an ignorant goat in a concert hall. But will they be so open as to allow serious journalism being done about themselves? No doubt AGRA will have to be part of any English-language reporting on Africa's agricultures, perhaps the most important part, and it is hard not to conclude from all they do in their "Fourth Generation" AGRA program that Gates are clear in a propagandistic intent.
How to avoid the conclusion that the J School is now burdened with as heavy a conflict of interest as there can be in the field? Not even Monsanto has such a desperate need for inspired and credible propagandizing (check out their Monsanto blog, which they present as if it was their maiden trip into internet-driven opinion-shaping, as if nobody knew about their millions invested over the many years in every possible PR strategy, including the questionable "viral marketing" from its earliest days) - and Gates has in fact much more financial muscle to push their weight around than Monsanto. Gates (and AGRA) cannot claim independence from Monsanto, with whom they have strategic alliances, at least through Monsanto's Danforth Center. Perhaps it will be useful to hear what Paul Rabinow has to say about such deals since he has gained experience trying to infuse the BP deal with a streak of Bioethics, a similar quandary as the one you are presented today.
I do look forward to the internationalization of the food-related work and the J School, and keep my fingers crossed.
With all best,