Reporters For Hire: Mike Bloomberg Edition
'Investigative journalists' attack food industry for undisclosed funding, fail to disclose their own funding.
Imagine if the reporters covering the Watergate break-in for the Washington Post were themselves kleptomaniacs. Or if the Post sportswriter on the Washington Nationals beat was also a starting pitcher for the team. Or if a newspaper printed on single-use newsprint ran editorials attacking the forest products industry (wait, scratch that one, they already do that).
Those ludicrous situations give a sense of the staggering hypocrisy on display in a recent Post article accusing the food industry of ulterior collusion with social media diet influencers. That’s because the reporting itself, from the conception to the research to the composition to, yes, the social media amplification, was entirely funded by the world’s most powerful diet influencer, Michael Bloomberg.
WaPo does Bloomberg's Bidding
Collaborating with a Bloomberg-funded “investigative journalism” upstart called The Examination, the Post complained in a recent series of stories that several Instagram nutrition influencers hadn’t sufficiently disclosed their financial ties to the food industry. That lack of clear disclosure is “bad for consumers,” one lawyer opined in the story.
Since WaPo and The Examination are so concerned about undisclosed funding, it was quite surprising (and even more hypocritical) that neither outlet mentioned their ties to billionaire and infamous food scold Mike Bloomberg. The Columbia Journalism Review reported in September that Bloomberg is one of two founding donors to The Examination—though, ironically enough, the extent of his support is undisclosed.
Nevertheless, what we do know about Bloomberg’s philanthropy is telling. While The Examination complained about a few thousands dollars spent on sponsored Instagram content, which was indeed disclosed, Bloomberg bought an entire college for $3.8 billion and named it after himself: Johns Hopkins University has been home to the Bloomberg School of Public Health since 2001.
The former New York City mayor has also contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to various universities, public health nonprofits, newspapers, the CDC and even the World Health Organization (WHO), where Bloomberg is a “Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases.”
During his tenure as Mayor, Bloomberg tried to dictate which ingredients New York City restaurants could cook with and ban the sale of sodas over 16 ounces. When a state court blocked his “arbitrary and capricious” soda restrictions, he vowed to challenge the ruling.
Bloomberg, then, is not an unbiased philanthropist funding balanced journalism. He’s a wealthy ideologue willing to buy scientific and media support for his political agenda. The Post has an obligation to inform readers of this massive conflict of interest, especially before it starts lecturing anybody else about financial disclosures.
Botching the science
The Examination bills itself as a source of “fearless health journalism,” but “truthful” apparently isn’t part of that definition, because its joint investigation with the Post contains embarrassing scientific errors and omissions.
For instance, one story in the series reported that WHO found the sweetener aspartame to be “possibly carcinogenic.” But WHO also noted that its finding does “not reflect the risk of developing cancer at a given exposure level,” and concluded that a 154-pound person would have to drink more than 14 cans of diet soda every day to exceed the acceptable intake of aspartame.
Possibly causing cancer in some undefined circumstance is very different than actually causing cancer in doses humans are regularly exposed to. To really appreciate the point, consider that WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also classifies aloe vera and dry cleaning as possible carcinogens. In fact, night shift work and very hot beverages are “probable carcinogens,” according to IARC, and therefore more likely to cause cancer than aspartame. We eagerly await The Examination’s deep dive into the hidden dangers of extra-hot lattes.
The same can be said of sugar consumption. While the Post story assumed that so-called “ultra-processed foods” are inherently unhealthy, scientific evidence for this claim is severely lacking. Low-grade epidemiological research has drawn questionable associations between eating processed food and experiencing negative health outcomes. Meanwhile, well-designed studies have shown that diets made up almost entirely of processed foods can supply the nutrients our bodies need, as measured by the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
Recent research also found that criteria used to classify a food as highly processed “are ambiguous, inconsistent and often give less weight to existing scientific evidence on nutrition and food processing effects.”
None of these facts were included in the Post stories. But you know who correctly summarized the science surrounding aspartame, sugar and processed food? The very dietitians The Post and The Examination maligned in their reporting.
In every case The Firebreak examined, we found that these popular science communicators, all credentialed experts, accurately communicated the facts to their followers—meaning their funding didn’t influence their conclusions. That’s something we can’t say about the Post or the Examination.
It’s not about public health
There is plenty of misleading and harmful marketing material on social media, but it’s not coming from dietitians who tell the public to eat a balanced diet. It’s coming from niche tobacco companies that advertise their FDA-approved cigarettes via free giveaways on Instagram, and with the endorsement of the New York Times.
There’s also abundant nonsense coming from nutrition gurus like actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who sell unproven vitamins and supplements via social media. Oddly, these alternative health hustlers were excluded from the Examination investigation.
So why, exactly, was this subset of dietitians targeted? They weren’t doing anything but teaching Americans about food safety, nutrition and weight loss on social media, as leading scientific institutions have encouraged them to do. They earned the disapproval of Bloomberg and his reporters-for-hire because they are bona fide experts who acknowledge that cookies and diet soda can be part of a healthy lifestyle. For petty tyrants like Bloomberg, there’s no room for such sensible nutrition advice.
The Washington Post makes all the right declarations about ethical journalism. “This news organization is pledged to avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest wherever and whenever possible,” the paper boasts. The Examination likewise declares that it “operates independently and is solely responsible for its content.”
These outlets probably believe they adhere to these noble principles, but their journalism reflects a commitment to a radically different set of values. Not only do they hide serious conflicts of interest, they omit critical facts from their coverage of vitally important public health issues—all in service to an anti-corporate political agenda.