One of the most heavily quoted sources in John Stossel's "The Food You Eat"–in which Stossel claimed that "buying organic could kill you"–was an outspoken critic of organic farming named Dennis Avery. Stossel introduced Avery as "a former researcher for the Agriculture Department," but it was Avery's more recent position with the Center for Global Food Issues, a project of the conservative Hudson Institute, that informed his ardent support of chemical agriculture. The Hudson Institute and Avery's project are both supported by generous contributions from Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, ConAgra, DowElanco, The Olin Foundation and the Ag-Chem Equipment Company, all of whom profit from the sale of products prohibited in organic production.
Avery maintained that organically grown food is no more nutritious than conventional food (an unproven claim), that organic food had been found contaminated with E. coli (a true but misleading allegation, as most E. coli is harmless) and that pesticide residues had not been found on organic or conventional produce, a finding, Stossel said, of studies that had been contracted by ABC News to an independent laboratory.
After "The Food You Eat" aired, the network was inundated with angry mail. Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, who was interviewed for the show, called the story "distorted and inaccurate." Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group in Washington offered hard evidence that the studies Stossel said had been done on pesticide residues had never been performed. And Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a New York media watchdog group, questioned Dennis Avery's claims and credentials.
ABC vice president Kerry Marash, whose job includes watching for infractions of editorial practice, invited critics in to present their case. Marash declined to be interviewed, on the instructions of the network's media relations director, but people who know her say she was deeply disturbed by Stossel's handling of the organic food and farming story, as well as other Stossel programs and that she wanted to talk about it.
Subsequently, ABC announced that Stossel would offer a public apology, live, on 20/20, involving aspects of the program. Stossel did apologize–to his audience, but not to an industry he had badly damaged. "I said our tests found no pesticide residues on either conventional or organic produce," he said. "That was just wrong…. I apologize for the error [and] am deeply sorry I misled you…. All we have in this business is our credibility–your trust that we get it right–I will make every effort to see that it never happens again." In a personal letter to Katherine DiMatteo, Marash did apologize "to organic farmers."
David Fitzpatrick, the producer of the show, was eventually let go by ABC in one of those severances shrouded in mutual secrecy. Fitzpatrick did tell me that he received "a cash settlement," but not before signing "a detailed nondisclosure agreement about the incident." Was Fitzpatrick sacrificed? Many who knew him at ABC and remember the incident think so. Stossel, they believe, was carefully positioned by network executives as an unwitting victim of sloppy reporting by a subordinate. It was easier and less expensive for ABC to buy off and silence a low-six-figure producer than to cancel the contract of a million-dollar superstar.