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Read the Emails in the Hilarious Monsanto/Mo Rocca/Condé Nast Meltdown (UPDATED)

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 8:55 PM EDT

Last week, Gawker uncovered a hapless tie-up between genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto and Condé Nast Media—publisher of The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, GQ, Self, Details, and other magazines—to produce "an exciting video series" on the "topics of food, food chains and sustainability."

Marion Nestle was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon.

Since then, I've learned that Condé Nast's Strategic Partnerships division dangled cash before several high-profile food politics writers, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince them to participate.  

Marion Nestle, author of the classic book Food Politics and a professor at New York University, told me she was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon. Nestle almost accepted, because at first she didn't know Monsanto was involved—the initial email she received only referred to the company in attachments that she didn't open, she said.

"It wasn't until we were at the end of the discussion about how much time I would allow (they wanted a full day) that they mentioned the honorarium," she wrote in an email. "I was so shocked at the amount that I had sense enough to ask who was paying for it. Monsanto. End of discussion."

James McWillams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a pundit on food issues whose work appears in The Atlantic and other publications, got offered even more, in a conversation with a Conde Nast rep on Aug. 6. "They were not evasive or misleading" about Monsanto's involvement, he told me, "just not immediately forthcoming…within a question or two it was clear that this was a PR project."

He wouldn't tell me on the record how much they dangled, but described it as "more money than I've ever been paid to talk" and "considerably north" of Nestle's offer. He declined.

Apparently, the infamous gender gap in pay lives on, even in the market for corporate flackery. I would have thought that snagging Nestle, a longtime industry critic, would be worth much more than bagging McWilliams, who has written favorably about GMOs. Nestle, who is quoted frequently in major media articles on food topics, also arguably has a considerably higher public profile than does McWilliams.

Then there's Anna Lappé, author of the book Diet for a Hot Planet and prominent critic of the agrichemical industry. She forwarded me an August 4 email a representative of her Small Planet Foundation received from someone identified as "Senior Director, Strategic Alliances, the Condé Nast Media Group." The email, printed below, invited Lappé to participate in an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites (i.e: Self, Epicurious, Bon Appetit, GQ & Details) and living on a custom YouTube channel," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability." It didn't mention Monsanto, but added that "[c]ompensation will be provided, along with travel two/from the shoot location." It contained no mention of Monsanto, or specifics on the compensation offer.

Coincidentally, Lappé was already wise to the Monsanto/Condé Nast tie-up. Back in June, she had been forwarded an email about a forthcoming web-based TV show sponsored by Monsanto and produced by Condé Nast, in search of experts to appear as talking heads. Lappé wrote critically about the project in an Al Jazeera America column published August 1, just days before the Condé Nast rep approached her. "I guess they didn't read the column," Lappé says.

She replied to the Condé Nast proposition on August 7, complaining that "it was misleading to approach me about participating without divulging the series is being funded by Monsanto." She never heard back.

That same day, Gawker came out with its post, which contained a leaked email from another Condé Nast employee to unnamed charity group, which contains similar language to the one Lappé received. "We are contacting you to see if there might be a person at [charity group] who could speak to one or two of the episode subject," the email states. (The email also names documentary film maker Lori Silverbush as someone Condé Nast hoped would be part of the panel. Silverbush's husband, the famed New York City chef Tom Colicchio, later tweeted, "Lori declined the Monsanto 'opportunity' when it was first offered, for reasons you can imagine.")

The series' host, the email continued, would be Mo Rocca, a famed comedian and correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning. Lappé, McWilliams, and Nestle were also informed that Rocca would appear as the show's host. "When I looked up Mo Rocca, he sounded like fun," Nestle told me.

Soon after the Gawker item appeared, Rocca wrote a note to the publication denying his involvement. "Yes, I was pitched that project but before I gave my answer a letter went out suggesting I was signed on," he wrote. "That's not the case. I'm not involved with it."

I've reached out to Condé Nast for comment, and will update this post if the company gets back.

UPDATE: Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and the most high-profile US food-politics writer, was also invited to participate in the project, he informed me Friday. In a July 22 email to Pollan's lecture agent, a Condé Nast rep talked up an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability," but didn't mention Mo Rocca or compensation. Nor did the email mention Monsanto—as with the case of Nestle, the company's name only appeared in an attachment. Pollan's agent "declined before money was mentioned," he said.

Here's the email Lappé's associate got from Condé Nast:

And here's Lappé's response:

 

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Quote of the Day: Wall Street Judge Left With "Nothing But Sour Grapes"

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 5:37 PM EDT

A few years ago, federal district judge Jed Rakoff refused to approve an SEC settlement with Citigroup over charges that they had deliberately offloaded toxic mortgage securities into a special fund so that they could make money by betting against their own customers. Rakoff objected partly because he thought the SEC's proposed fine was too small—"pocket change," he called it—but mostly because there was no public reckoning of what Citigroup had done. Not only weren't they required to admit wrongdoing, they weren't required even to admit the bare facts of what they had done.

Sadly for Rakoff—and for the public—an appeals court overruled him, basically saying that the SEC had full discretion to reach any settlement it desired, and the judge's only real role was to make sure it wasn't tainted by collusion or corruption. Earlier this week, Rakoff backed off:

They who must be obeyed have spoken, and this Court's duty is to faithfully fulfill their mandate.

....Nonetheless, this Court fears that, as a result of the Court of Appeal's decision, the settlements reached by governmental regulatory bodies and enforced by the judiciary's contempt powers will in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight whatsoever. But it would be a dereliction of duty for this Court to seek to evade the dictates of the Court of Appeals. That Court has now fixed the menu, leaving this Court with nothing but sour grapes.

Quite so, and the SEC's long tradition of issuing wrist slaps to big Wall Street firms—and withholding all the details of their corruption from the public—is now safe once again. Apparently that kind of thing is only for the little people.

Of course, Congress could intervene, giving the SEC more manpower and demanding more accountability, but that's not going to happen either. After all, sometimes people say mean things about Wall Street firms. Surely that's punishment enough?

Via Michael Hiltzik, who has more at the link.

Montana Democrat Ends Senate Campaign Over Plagiarism

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 5:13 PM EDT

Republicans' path to taking over the Senate just got a little bit easier. Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) announced on Thursday he would end his Senate campaign after the New York Times reported last month that he had plagiarized portions of his 2007 Army War College thesis. Walsh, a former lieutenant governor and adjutant general of the state national guard, was appointed to the seat vacated by Ambassador to China Max Baucus but struggled to generate much enthusiasm among voters. Montana Democrats have until August 20 to find a new nominee. But whoever wins the Democratic nod will have a tough row to hoe against GOP Rep. (and creationism advocate) Steve Daines, who held a 16-point lead in a CBS/New York Times poll taken lost month.

Don't plagiarize, kids.

Wildfires Cause Nearly a Fifth of Manmade Carbon Emissions

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 4:27 PM EDT
A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in Oregon

Wildfires are raging around the western United States: As of yesterday, more than 10,000 firefighters were battling 20 fires in Oregon and California. Another fire in Washington state recently grew to cover more than 8,000 acres. While the immediate consequences of the blazes are obvious—scorched earth, destroyed homes, millions of dollars in damages—the longer-term consequences for the climate have, until now, been poorly understood.

In a study published at the end of July in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineer, says the burning of biomass like trees, plants, and grass—either by accident or deliberately (often to create room for agriculture)—creates 18 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions. Worse yet, that pollution kills people: Around the world, Jacobson writes, biomass burning may account for 5-10 percent of all air pollution deaths worldwide, or about 250,000 people annually.

Lightning strikes and lava flows can burn down forests just as effectively as campfires, cigarettes, and slash and burn agriculture. But worldwide, Jacobson notes, the proportion of wildfires that are caused by nature could be as low as 3.6 percent. The rest are started by humans.

Possibly the worst news of all: Wildfires are part of a vicious circle. Emissions from fires cause climate change, which leads to drier conditions—which make it easier for humans and nature to start fires and for those fires to spread.

Republicans Hate Obama, Therefore Obama Should Avoid Making Them Even Madder

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 2:40 PM EDT

Ron Fournier ponders the wisdom of President Obama issuing executive orders on immigration and tax inversions:

For argument's sake, let's say Obama is right on the issue and has legal authority to act. The big question is …

Would it be wrong to end-run Congress? Another way to put it might be, "Would more polarization in Washington and throughout the country be wrong?" How about exponentially more polarization, gridlock, and incivility? If the president goes too far, he owns that disaster.

Wait a second. If you think Obama is wrong on the merits, then naturally you'll oppose any new executive action. If you think he's right, but unfortunately lacks the constitutional authority to do anything about it, you'll also oppose any new executive action.

But what if he's both right and has the proper authority? That certainly sounds like the right formula for supporting executive action. But no. Obama still shouldn't do anything because....wait for it....it would cause more polarization, gridlock, and incivility.

I frankly doubt it, but leave that to one side for the moment. What Fournier is saying is that President Obama shouldn't do anything that might make Republicans mad. But this means the president is literally helpless: No proposal of his has any chance of securing serious Republican engagement in Congress, but he's not allowed to take executive action for fear of making them even more intransigent. Obama's only legitimate option, apparently, is to persuade Republicans to support his proposals, even though it's no secret that Republicans decided years ago to obstruct everything, sight unseen, that was on Obama's agenda. So that leaves Obama with no options at all.

And that means the next column will be all about Obama's lack of leadership. Count on it.

Notes Toward a Heuristic of Express Lane Ethics

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 12:34 PM EDT

Over at Vox, Andrew Prokop summarizes a new poll about Americans' ethical views. Here's one result:

The US public is staunchly opposed to the apparently widespread problem of supermarket express lane abuse, with a clear majority saying they think multiple pieces of the same fruit should count as multiple items. Strangely, though, 20 percent of respondents apparently think there should be different rules for different shoppers.

OK, that is strange. Why should there be different rules for different shoppers? Is the idea here that we should bend the rules for the elderly or the infirm? Or for pregnant women? Or what?

As for fruit, it depends, doesn't it? Surely a bunch of bananas still counts as one item? Or tomatoes on the vine? (Which I love because I adore the aroma of the vine.) How about two bunches of bananas? Does it make a difference if stuff is in a bag? Five apples in a plastic bag gets weighed as one item, whereas five apples rolling around in your basket have to be placed on the scale individually before the whole bunch of them gets weighed. Does that matter? Help me out here, hive mind.

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National Guard Finally Dumps NASCAR

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having a great year on the NASCAR circuit this year, but the National Guard is dumping him as a sponsor anyway. They say the reason is "significantly constrained resources." What does that mean?

The “significantly constrained resources” may be due to Senate hearings on the Guard’s profligate spending convened earlier this year. USA Today reported the Guard spent $26.5 million to sponsor NASCAR in 2012, “but failed to sign up a single new soldier to its ranks,” according to Senate documents. Between 2011 and 2013, the Guard spent $88 million, but “it is unclear how many new recruits, if any, signed up because of it.”

Wait. What? Not a single recruit? Let's go to the tape. Here's the original USA Today piece:

The Guard received 24,800 recruiting prospects from the program in 2012, documents show. In those cases, potential recruits indicated the NASCAR affiliation prompted them to seek more information about joining. Of that group, only 20 met the Guard's qualifications for entry into the service, and not one of them joined.

In 2013, the number of prospects associated with NASCAR dropped to 7,500, according to briefing materials for the Senate subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight led by McCaskill. The National Guard needs 1 million leads to meet its annual recruiting goal of 50,000 soldiers.

Wow. Out of 24,800 prospects, only 20 even met the Guard's qualifications. There are obviously some ripe pickings here for jokes about NASCAR fans, but if I make any of them I'll undoubtedly be accused of latte-sipping elitism. But surely someone will step up to the plate?

In any case, the core problem, apparently, is that the NASCAR audience is just too damn old. Sort of like Fox News. That's why the Army ditched them for drag racing:

Army analysis found better value in producing "leads," prospective recruits, by sponsoring National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) events, including drag racing. "Currently, only 5% of the NASCAR audience is made up of 18-24 year old males," Davis' memo says. "NASCAR is the highest cost per qualified lead and cost per engagement property in our portfolio; cost-per-lead is three times as expensive as the NHRA."

Kids these days.

How Many People Really, Truly Believe That Abortion Is Murder?

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 11:03 AM EDT

Do anti-abortion activists really think abortion is murder? Or is their opposition merely an expression of their broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores? Ed Kilgore concedes that the belief in abortion as murder is often sincere, but if that's the case, how do you explain Rep. Steve DesJarlais (R-TN)?

DesJarlais is a big antichoice, "pro-family" pol first elected (like so many other mistakes) in 2010. During his 2012 re-election campaign, evidence began leaking out through various outlets that he had a history of alleged spousal abuse, serial adultery, sexual relationships with patients and at least three occasions of encouraging a woman to have an abortion (twice his soon-to-be-former wife, once a patient). Much of these toxic allegations seem to have been confirmed when DesJarlais' divorce papers from his first wife were opened just after his 2012 re-election.

In dealing with this evidence, DesJarlais has allowed as how he made some mistakes in a "difficult period of his life," blah blah blah, and has denied pushing a lover to have an abortion (though not pushing his then-wife to have two of them). So without even the drama of a public confession and act of contrition, he's back to trying to pass laws telling other people how to live their sex lives.

I do not understand how anyone who actually thinks of abortion as a homicidal act can vote for someone—a medical professional no less—who admits to having encouraged it with no apparent great remorse. That it seems to have occurred as part of a pattern of systemic disregard for personal and professional ethical standards doesn't help.

I guess I don't share Kilgore's befuddlement, since I've never really believed that much of anyone really, truly thinks that abortion is murder. If you look at actions, rather than words, it just doesn't add up. Lots of people oppose abortion, but with very few exceptions, they very plainly don't react to it the same way they react to a genuine murder. Their emotional response gives the game away, even if they've convinced themselves otherwise intellectually.

DesJarlais is a good example. If he had encouraged the murder of two children—real murder, of kids who were a year or two old—he wouldn't merely be having a tough primary. Regardless of whether he had managed to avoid conviction for his acts, he wouldn't even be able to run for office, let alone be even odds to win. He'd be a pariah. That's how people react to actual killing. But it's not how they react to encouraging abortion. As long as DesJarlais is otherwise on the right side of the culture wars, it'll be shrugged off as unfortunate but not disqualifying.

So don't tell me that all the conservative Christians in DesJarlais' district believe that abortion is murder. They may say they believe it. They may even sincerely think they believe it. But they don't.

A Picture of Your Leg Hair Can Give Away Your Identity

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 10:39 AM EDT

It's hard to forget Tom Cruise replacing his eyeballs in Minority Report. But in the future, that might not be enough to keep him hidden from the law.

A few days ago, scientists at MIT announced they can listen in on conversations by videotaping a potato chip bag sitting next to the speakers. They could even identify who was talking.

From your veins to your walk, sophisticated computer algorithms keep getting better at identifying you based on things there’s no way to password protect. This research, called “soft biometrics,” is making it into ATMs, courtrooms, and even passports. Here are five creepy ways scientists can figure out who you are.

 

Your Potato Chips

You might not see the objects around you vibrate when you talk, but cameras do. And those vibrations carry enough information to identify your voice, or even eavesdrop on your conversation.

With a regular digital camera pointed at a chip bag, a potted plant, or a glass of water, MIT researchers could tell how many people were in a room, as well as the gender of each speaker. If they knew enough about a speaker's voice, they could even pick them out of the crowd. Give the scientists a high speed camera, and they can turn the vibrations into a high-tech wiretap.

 

Your Body Hair

Roblan/Shutterstock

Your beach photos may give more away than you think. Chinese computer scientists have written a program that can take a low-resolution picture of a leg and identify it based on patterns in androgenic hair, which is hair you grow after puberty. It always grows in the same pattern, like a furry fingerprint. Other androgenic hair includes chest and pubic hair, beards, and even the coarse hair on your arms.

The scientists tested extremely grainy photos, between 25 to 6.25 dots of "ink" per inch—for reference, inkjet printers generally print between 300 and 700 d.p.i. So it might be possible to ID someone in a Facebook photo that doesn't show a face, or even a video screencap.

 

Your Veins

The pattern of blood vessels near the surface of your skin stays largely the same throughout your life. In Japan, many ATMs have you scan your palm before taking out cash, and several Swedish stores let you pay with your veins.

The technology isn't only good for commercial purposes, though. Someday soon, you might be identified in a courtroom by a color photo that shows only a patch of skin.

 

Your Ears

A few years ago, the internet lit up with news that airports might start snapping candids of all our ears as we walk through security. While ears still haven't taken the TSA by storm, there's certainly the technology to do it.

From birth on, our ears stay about the same shape, even as they get proportionally bigger. That gives ear shots a leg up over facial recognition, which will probably never be able to identify adults from childhood pictures.


The Way You Walk

Gait analysis is already in common use for forensics. Even in low-res security footage, everything from the way your head bobs to the length of your stride makes you unique. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the first courtroom use of this kind of biomechanics as 2000, when a jury convicted a burglar based on a grainy security video that showed the criminal's distinct walk.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 7, 2014

Thu Aug. 7, 2014 9:15 AM EDT

A US Marines special operations officer graduating from Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command's Individual Training Course. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Thomas Provost)