The Open Notebook | 12 January 2016
By Christie Aschwanden
JOURNALIST BROOKE Borel had written numerous stories about the science of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) when she stumbled upon a strange discovery about a well-known plant scientist, Kevin Folta, who’d been promoting GMO science on a podcast he produced under the pseudonym Vern Blazek. Folta, chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, defended the Vern Blazek Science Power Hour as a work of satire. He insisted that guests and listeners understood his intent, though he’d never disclosed that the Blazek character was fictitious, even after he used both his real and his fake identities to interview himself on the show.
In “Seed Money,” published at BuzzFeed on October 19, 2015, Borel broke the news that Folta and Blazek were one and the same and examined what she called “the increasingly blurred lines between universities and big business.” Borel’s story appeared in the midst of a controversy concerning Folta. The results of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the anti-GMO group U.S. Right to Know had revealed that the agriculture company Monsanto had financially supported Folta (through his university) to do public outreach about GMOs. Folta had long portrayed himself as free from industry funding, so the revelations caused a stir.
Here, Borel tells Christie Aschwanden the story behind her story of Folta, his pseudonymous podcast, and his industry ties. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
In your story, you relate how you discovered that Vern Blazek, host of the Vern Blazek Science Power Hour podcast, is actually Folta’s alter ego and that the fictitious Blazek had interviewed Folta—that is, himself—on the show. You write that Folta had not publicly disclosed Blazek’s true identity, which you’d discovered in July, after he emailed you an invitation to appear on the podcast. It’s such a bizarre twist. How did you confront Folta with this information?
I wrote back and said, “Wait, I’m confused. I remember Vern Blazek asking me to do a podcast interview via Twitter a while back, and in double-checking the website, I see that he has interviewed you. How are you him?” He wrote back saying, “Yeah, I am Vern, and it’s top secret,” and he compared it to [Stephen] Colbert [of The Colbert Report], which I don’t think is an accurate comparison.
Did you tell him that?
I was like, “The difference is that you can see [Colbert’s] face and you know that he’s doing a character. I don’t feel comfortable going on the show, but I do want to know why you’re using a pseudonym and why you had yourself on as a guest.” At this point, I was in full reporter mode.
Your story calls Folta’s judgment into question and argues that, by virtue of his relationship with Monsanto, his GMO advocacy posed a conflict of interest. Did you alert him to the focus of your piece?
I was very transparent. When I spoke to him on the phone about doing the piece, he said something to the effect of, “Thanks for helping me get the story out there.” And I said, “Just to be clear, I am not here to be your scribe. I’m skeptical of these relationships with industry.”
I do feel like it’s important to be honest with the people you’re writing about. In some cases you have to keep your cards pretty close or else you lose access. But even when I’m writing about someone in a way that they probably won’t like, I want to be as human and honest as possible.
Did you do anything to try to preserve or document the things that Folta had posted on the Internet?
Yes. The very first evening [of our correspondence], when the podcast email conversation went south, I realized that he was changing the wording on the Vern Blazek website and he was also trying to pull all of the podcasts off of iTunes. I downloaded some (including his self-interview) and started taking screenshots of the website and the social-media stuff. I failed to get some of the Vern Blazek Twitter–account material that he totally deleted. I also started looking for past conversations about the podcast or other related stuff and screenshotting those, too, because I didn’t know if they’d also disappear.
I wish I had a screenshot of the blog post he wrote after the story came out, because it was interesting, the way he described my piece and me. He said I was “outraged” over his podcast (not true) and that I didn’t get the joke (which is also not true). But he changed sections of it and left no record of what was changed. Other people took some screenshots and posted them on Twitter, so those preserved some of the original language.
How did you decide who you’d interview for this story, besides Folta?
Before I even knew I was going to write anything—when I first found out about the podcast [in July]—I contacted around half of the show’s guests to get a sense of whether they knew about the pseudonym. Some knew and some didn’t. I would have contacted others, too, but I decided at that time not to write about it so I stopped digging around.
Once I decided to write the story, [in August] when the FOIA documents gave it a new dimension, I made a list of categories of people I wanted to speak with. My editor helped brainstorm some of that. I knew I wanted to talk to folks who know about ethics and conflicts of interest, so I included a range of people with expertise in philosophy, law, COI rules at funding agencies and journals, people who run research-ethics programs, that sort of thing. I also wanted to get a better sense of how researchers at land-grant universities interact with industry. These universities have an obligation to conduct public outreach, and industry sometimes provides funding, which can raise conflict-of-interest issues. So I spoke with some relevant researchers about that. Also, when I went to see Folta speak at the University of Maryland, I identified people in the audience who I definitely wanted to talk to, based on their comments. I spoke a little bit with Monsanto employees, too, although the company kept those conversations pretty contained.
I also wanted this to be a profile, so I asked Folta if he felt okay connecting me to former students, family members, and the like. He put me in touch with three former students and some family. Ultimately I don’t really think this succeeded as a true profile though, because I don’t feel like I really understood Folta as a person or got at some of the deeper reasons why he found himself in this situation. I’m not sure if it would have been possible to get that in, because I think he was trying really hard to show a specific side of himself to me. Our interactions weren’t exactly hostile, but they also took place at a time when he expressed that he was feeling generally attacked. Between all that and a time crunch to report and write, I wasn’t able to pull off a true profile.
Were there any details in the story that you agonized over or went back and forth with your editor on? Did BuzzFeed’s lawyers look over the story beforehand?
Yes, BuzzFeed’s lawyers looked at the story before it published. There was definitely material I was worried about using. I flagged those sections for the lawyer to make sure I was okay to use it (and I was).
What kind of response did the story get?
The first wave of responses came mostly from other science journalists and editors, and they were broadly supportive. Most of the scientists that were getting in touch with me also seemed supportive. I had one person who has worked with Folta say off the record that they appreciated the piece, they’re glad that I wrote it, and they thought that he was wrong in doing this, but they couldn’t say this publicly because they were afraid it would affect their job.
Then another category of responses came from [pro-GMO advocates] who tend to jump in and comment on probably every GMO piece ever written. This is their passion, and they felt as though I was ruining their cause and giving ammunition to what they see as the enemy—like the people at [the anti-GMO group] U.S. Right to Know.
Some people implied that I’m dumb because I don’t understand satire and obviously I didn’t get the joke. A few questioned whether it was worthwhile writing so many words about a stupid podcast. I think that those people kind of missed the point.
How did you decide how to engage—or not—with critics on social media? Were there certain people that you avoided responding to?
l decided that I wanted at least one record of my responses to critics, and I used Twitter for that because that is where they were directly engaging me the most. I also felt like I had more control there on what I responded to and how I did it. For example, I responded to a lot of people by quoting their tweet instead of replying directly, so it would stay on the main page of my Twitter account—easier to find later, and easier for people to read if the conversation led them there.
There were also conversations in the comments [about] the actual piece, as well as on Facebook and other spots. I read some of those but didn’t jump in because I can’t be everywhere and it seemed like a fool’s errand. Most of these comments were pretty hostile.
There weren’t very many messages that I ignored entirely, at least at first, but after a while some of the comments were repetitive so I started ignoring them. I also tried to avoid any that were getting into the science of GMOs because I didn’t have the energy for that and it wasn’t the point of the story. It wasn’t about the science itself.
I also tried not to block people, because I’m not sure that always helps, unless someone is really being nasty and not engaging with the actual topic, or is sending threats. I did block one account because it appeared to have been set up just to harass me—new account, no followers, tweeting weird memes at me. Borel.weird way to teachBut other than that, no blocking. I think this also speaks to the quality of the responses people were sending, even those who were critical. For the most part, they weren’t name calling or threatening me or anything like that. They were just mad. Which is fine.
About a day after your story was published, you posted a series of tweets explaining some of your thoughts on the story and the tweets people had posted. Can you walk me through how you decided to address the tweetstorm that way?
Very occasionally I write little stories on Twitter that way, replying to myself—they usually aren’t work related. I guess I was following that same format subconsciously. I [first] wrote out the entire series separately in a Word doc, making sure I was in the 140-character limit for each section and that I was being clear. When it was ready, I tweeted the whole thing out so it unfolded on the newsfeed. Looking back, I guess this is a way to really make it clear that you have something to say and that you want it heard. I don’t recommend doing long reply chains like this often because maybe it annoys other people to fill up the newsfeed this way. But I wanted some of these conversations to remain on my main Twitter page so that people coming back later could see them more immediately.
Looking back now, is there anything you’d do differently if you were writing this story again?
I’m not sure I would have done much differently, considering the parameters I was working in. Maybe I would have talked more about the headline with my editor, because we had a lot of pushback on it. [The first headline was “Confessions of a Monsanto Apologist.” BuzzFeed regularly tries out multiple headlines.] I don’t think the first headline was wrong. An apologist is literally someone who defends something that is controversial.
Monsanto is controversial—whether people agree on that being a fair assessment of the company is irrelevant, because it simply is controversial to a wide swath of the public. And taking all of Folta’s conversations about Monsanto as a whole, from his emails to his tweets to other comments he’s made publicly, he has defended the company. Still, all that said, there was a sharp reaction to the headline that prevented some people from engaging with the actual story. I guess that happens no matter what—a persistent critic will find the thing they don’t like and harp on that while conveniently discarding the rest. But a different headline may have avoided that particular flavor of criticism.
You’ve written stories that some GMO advocates have considered helpful to their cause. There’s this thing that can happen sometimes when you’re reporting, where sources start to feel like you’re on their team. Did you have a sense that this was happening here—that Folta and his supporters were going to feel betrayed because they saw you as this journalist who was promoting the science of GMOs, and now you were writing something critical?
Yeah, I think some of them did think that I was promoting their cause, and it bothers me. I started becoming more aware of that sort of perception when I went to this biotech conference that I mentioned in the piece. I was invited to go speak on a couple of panels, and the first panel was supposed to be about science communication. The way that we were introduced was, here are some great science writers who are here to teach you about how to communicate your science. That really upset me because I wasn’t there to do that, and I don’t think that’s an appropriate thing for me to be doing with people who I cover.
During the Q&A, one person, who I believe was a graduate student, got up and asked, how can scientists and journalists be better friends? And I took the mic and said, you know, we can’t. I’m not saying we can’t be friendly, and I’m not saying we’re enemies because that’s not quite right, either. But we can’t really be friends because that makes it very difficult for me to do my job.
How did you learn to draw the line?
Early in my career, my first internship was at Cosmos magazine in Australia. I was there for three weeks, and at the end the magazine’s [then] editor-in-chief, Wilson da Silva, sat me down for a little exit interview and he gave me a crash course in the different flavors of science writing. He said if you are a journalist you are beholden to the reader—that’s who your audience is. You’re not there to be the mouthpiece for the people you’re covering. You’re there to cover them honestly for the public. Then, he said, there’s PIO work and science writing that happens for museums and institutions, but in that case, your boss is that institution and you’re writing in order to serve who you’re writing about, because that’s who’s paying your bill and that’s who you’re beholden to. It helped me a lot, the distinction, which I didn’t know beforehand because I didn’t go to journalism school and no one had actually explained that to me before.
Folta’s troubles are his own doing, but it can feel uncomfortable to write something that may be perceived as a takedown. Did you feel that?
Despite what he has done, I felt quite a bit of compassion toward this guy, and I felt really bad that he’s in this situation. I think that’s important to keep in mind when you’re writing about people. I mean this is affecting his life in a bad way. We do have to think about that really hard when we write about people that way, and [we should] write about them fairly, even if they’ve done something that is very questionable.
Christie Aschwanden is the lead writer for science at FiveThirtyEight. She’s currently writing a book about sport science for W. W. Norton, and when she has time to spare she blogs about science at The Last Word On Nothing.