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Read With Caution/Kickback With a Good Book 

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By Michael Miner

Read With Caution

Little by little the Sun-Times business section is telling its readers about reporter Steven Milloy. Eventually they'll find out what an interesting guy he is.

Milloy made his debut on September 17. His "special to the Sun-Times" (which identifies him as a freelancer to readers who know the code) announced that fresh research (industry funded) had cleared the name of 2,4-D, a popular weed killer linked to cancer by a federal study. He was back October 6 with a piece on the burgeoning market for genetically modified grain seeds. The byline to this story said simply "by Steven Milloy." As far as anyone could tell he was now on staff as a business writer.

But the byline was a mistake, and financial editor Dan Miller corrected it. When Milloy returned to the Sun-Times last week, an editor's note at the end of the article told us that he's "a Washington-based business writer specializing in science. He holds advanced degrees in health sciences from Johns Hopkins University and a law degree from Georgetown University."

In the article, Milloy covered a Rosemont seminar devoted to new research into the danger genetically modified corn might pose to monarch butterflies. Milloy reported that the threat is overblown.

Here's what the Sun-Times is still keeping under its hat. Trumpeting evidence that threats to the environment are overblown is a way of life for Milloy, who maintains a highly entertaining and frequently edifying Web site called junkscience.com. The site, which he presides over as "the junkman," is a clearinghouse of information on environmental and health issues where, in Milloy's view, serious research is pitted against posturing and hysteria. To him, genetically modified grain seeds are one example. Global warming is the supreme example.

The junkman doesn't preside passively. This week junkscience.com found him inviting experts in risk assessment to sign an amicus brief "I'm putting together." He refused to tell me what this brief was about, E-mailing me back, "I'm looking for qualified signatories, not media." But it's unusual to see a journalist intervening in litigation he comes across on his beat.

Something else Sun-Times readers might like to know about Milloy is that he's an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute. As it happens, the other day he deeply embarrassed the institute.

Some readers might care that as recently as 1997 Milloy was a Washington lobbyist. His clients--according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks such things--included the American Petroleum Institute, the FMC Corporation, the Fort Howard Corporation, the International Food Additives Council, and Monsanto.

He also was executive director of the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), now defunct. Milloy's critics in the environmental lobby dismiss TASSC as a front organization. Sierra magazine reported in 1997 that it was run out of the offices of a Washington PR firm that specialized in bogus "grassroots" campaigns--campaigns fabricated to give corporate agendas a populist cover.

In 1990 the Society of Environmental Journalists was formed to raise the "quality, accuracy and visibility of environmental reporting." Some 1,100 American journalists now belong, and Milloy isn't one of them. But then he's no simple journalist. He's a player. So far, he's brought Sun-Times readers good news about a weed killer and genetically modified agricultural products--stories he proposed to Dan Miller. If the news hadn't been good, would Milloy--unlike the hypothetically disinterested beat reporter--have brought those same readers any news at all?

Miller thinks Milloy's terrific. "He's a complete journalist using all ways to communicate," Miller says. "I wanted to get somebody with particular expertise in science and law. And if there's anybody who's got a greater breadth of sources I don't know who that is."

To object to Milloy as probusiness is ludicrous, Miller maintains. He sees Milloy as an antidote to most environmental reporting, which, with due respect to the Society of Environmental Journalists, is riddled with ignorance, gullibility, and bias. "Look what Carol Browner came out with last week!" he says. Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced that the EPA was suing seven large utilities in the south and midwest. She stated, "The air we breathe in Washington is affected by these pollutants hundreds of miles away."

Miller doesn't buy that, and he's glad Milloy doesn't either. "'These utilities are sending acid rain over the northeast,'" says Miller, aping the EPA line. "It's picked up and reported as the most objective kind of truth, and you'll find it in 99 of 100 newspapers. To say that that is objective in some sense is an absolutely and utterly hypocritical statement. People who print that are reporting it because they're biased toward the point of view that EPA can do no wrong. EPA's own research shows there's no way of knowing if what's happening on the east coast has its origins in the midwest."

Milloy brashly invited visitors to junkscience.com to compare his Sun-Times coverage of the Rosemont seminar with the New York Times coverage of the same event. The two stories are very different. Milloy wouldn't answer my questions, but I presume he considers the New York Times story irresolute. The Times reported that the butterfly debate goes on; Milloy announced that it's over.

Here's Milloy's lead: "After six months of studying monarch butterflies and their exposure to genetically modified corn, scientists say the colorful insect and other butterfly species are not at grave risk from genetically modified corn pollen, as some had feared after a much publicized report earlier this year."

Here's the New York Times lead: "An unusual scientific symposium organized and financed by a biotech trade group ended today with conflicting assertions about the risks that genetically engineered corn might pose to the monarch butterfly."

The Times dutifully noted at the get-go that a trade group sponsored the seminar. Miller didn't see why that detail was so important. Halfway through his account he got around to mentioning that the conference had been organized "by the Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Working Group, whose members include various university researchers and biotechnology companies."

Either the New York Times is a fussbudget about trivial details, or Milloy has a shaky grip on the principle of full disclosure. Reporting on 2,4-D, for example, he quoted Michael Gough, whom he identified as "a former government researcher." Gough also happens to be Milloy's colleague at the Cato Institute and his frequent writing partner. They've collaborated on articles, papers, and the recent book Silencing Science.

But if there's one thing Sun-Times readers ought to complain about, it's that Milloy's occasional newspapering has denied them the full flavor of his rhetorical gifts. Milloy doesn't mix it up in the Sun-Times the way he does on his Web site. One hot spot there is the junkman's occasional "Obituary of the day."

When John Chafee, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, died a few days ago, Milloy recalled that the Rhode Island Republican "too often acted like a Democrat" and announced the "good news" that the next chairman should be better. And when David Rall of the National Institutes of Health was killed in a car crash last month, the junkman responded: "Scratch one junk scientist who promoted the bankrupt idea that poisoning rats with a chemical can predicts cancer in humans exposed to much lower levels of the chemical--a notion that, at the very least, has wasted billions and billions of public and private dollars."

The Environmental Working Group, a research organization that issues the kinds of warnings Milloy sneers at, wrote the Cato Institute protesting the "depraved insult" to Rall. The institute's president wrote back: "You are quite right to be incensed over Steve Milloy's inexcusable lapse in judgment and civility. Certainly the Cato Institute disassociates itself from his appallingly offensive comments."

"If they're looking for me to apologize," Milloy said in the Washington Post, "I'm not going to."

"This guy's no journalist," says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "He's a paid professional debunker."

Many a gallant journalist would settle for "paid professional debunker" on his tombstone. But Milloy's a journalist of a very particular type, and his new audience deserves an appropriate introduction.

Kickback With a Good Book

Here's the deal. You read about a great new novel in the Sunday Sun-Times Book Week. You spot the notice crawling across the bottom of the page: "To buy these books, visit www.suntimes.com/shop in association with amazon.com." The site turns out to be a beehive of activity. Under the heading "Books, Music and Video" is a list of 27 books, 13 CDs, and 13 videos (as of this week)--each with a link to its own page at amazon.com.

You place an order. Amazon.com ships the book to you, then kicks back a percentage of the purchase price to the Sun-Times as a finder's fee. This setup is called the Amazon.com Associates Program, and it's structured to make everybody happy.

Everybody but readers and journalists who expect rectitude and the appearance of rectitude from their morning paper. The friend who alerted me to the Sun-Times's new ties with amazon.com was ap-palled. He likes to think newspapers play it straight--at least when reviewing a book. But now the reviews are tainted by the Sun-Times's commercial interest in praise. A good review's more likely than a negative review to add a few bucks to the kitty.

Larry Green, the former executive editor who now runs the advertising department, helped set up the tie-in with amazon.com, and he defends it. "It's a service to readers," he argues. "If they read about a book in a review and want it, regardless of what the review says, they can get it." As for the paper's writers and editors, the associates program is something they should never even think about. "There has not been, and will not be, any discussion with people in editorial about this."

They weren't even part of the planning? I asked Green.

"No," he said.

I E-mailed books editor Henry Kisor, a journalist of absolute scruple, and asked him what he makes of this new service to readers. Kisor didn't respond. I can't imagine he's happy to see his page looking a little like an infomercial.

News Bite

From the body of the AP story: "NTSB officials told relatives at today's briefing that identifying victims could be extremely difficult because of the small size of the human remains being retrieved. Only one body has been recovered, and even that one was not intact."

The lead of the AP story: "Crash investigators informed stunned relatives today that intact bodies were not expected to be retrieved from the shattered wreckage of EgyptAir Flight 990."

And the headline to the AP story when it appeared on the Tribune Web site: "Intact bodies to be left in EgyptAir wreckage."

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