Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The New York Times' Coverage of Mike Thompson: Do They Have an Ag Reporter?

As you may have noticed, Wine Country's Congressional Rep. Mike Thompson, a St. Helena resident and a Lake County organic wine grape grower (the organic part was not even mentioned in the Times article) made Page One of the country's most highly regarded newspapers, The New York Times.

It was the lead article of the day with a big photo of Thompson front and center. The strangest thing is, though, that the article shushes him for making $18,000 in profit from his Lake County Sauvignon Blanc vineyard and championing frost protection water use.

The Times' coverage seems like trumped up hype, and not what we expect from our national paper of record. There is a huge amount of corruption in the state's water use but isn't it mostly focused on Central Valley water supplies? And there is a huge amount of corruption in the political powers that be in converting a desert (most concentrated in the Central Valley) into a winegrape growing region, filled with pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are hugely impacting both the land and water ecosystems both within the state boundaries and the Pacific Ocean.

Where is the coverage of the real agriculture ethical sins? Where is the mention - or let us hope, series of articles - of the huge ag subsidies for the farm bill beneficiaries? And why is the Times painting a picture of a small time organic wine grape grower as a man of questionable ethical practices?

Comments to the article are closed, but are worth reading (link here) if you want to see the misperceptions that abound in reaction to the article.

W. Blake Gray, a wine blogger, encapsulates the real story behind the story - the reporter (and editor) who appear to have been duped.

To understand the New York Times story on Congressman Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) that ran Monday, you don't need to look further than the first quote.
“Clearly, he has a personal interest in what he is advocating for,” said Craig Wolf, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, which has been in a dispute with wine producers over the past year. “And the ethics rules in Congress say you are not supposed to do these kinds of things.” 
About 80% of every bottle of wine you buy is spent on sales and marketing. And who benefits the most from that "value chain"? The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. And they have a bill they're backing, which should have been the main focus - or at least half of it - in this story.

It's just another sad day for journalism when we have no coverage of the Real Corruption in the wine/natural resources/political vortex and this sorry excuse of coverage from a paper like the Times. Who is Eric Lipton and what is he doing covering agriculture? Environmental and ag reporting is no topic for amateurs and it's no topic to send your Washington reporter to cover - unless he has deep knowledge of the field.

We need real wine journalism - and real ag reporting - from our national paper of record.

The best part of the article is in fact the comments section which does a lot to try to set the reporter and the record straight. Herewith, a couple of fine examples:

It is laughable that the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers president would question Mike Thompson's ethics for opposing their Care Act, HR 1161, which is purely designed to benefit the wholesalers at the expense of consumers, retailers and suppliers. What the author should have pointed out is that both the NY Times (Wholesale Robbery Apr 4) and the Wall Street Journal (Congress' Sour Grapes Apr 27) have opined that the bill in question is nothing more than a wholesaler protection act that would harm consumers and the free market. It is an intra-industry squabble that Thompson is correct in opposing on principle.

And another:

Eric Lipton featured in Esquire magazine, 2009
The true scale of corruption in Washington dwarfs any possible problem with Thompson's minor links with the Napa wine industry.

And to conclude, I think this sums it up well:

Wow, what a transparent hatchet job. The alcohol wholesalers go after their opponent in Congress because he supports consumers having access to buy their wine directly from wineries and plant a story with a reporter willing to supply enough innuendo to fill a barn. Shame on the wholesalers and shame on this reporter who from the looks of this article should be working for Nancy Grace rather than the New York Times.

An even greater irony is that Esquire magazine named reporter Lipton one of the "66 Guys to Emulate" back in 2009. Here is Esquire's gushing description of Lipton's journalistic integrity and virtues:

There's a guy at The New York Times, Eric Lipton. It seems as if his byline is on every important story — can't be, but it seems like it. He's a reporter, the old-fashioned, hungry, fourth-branch breed. He won a Pulitzer back in 1992 and he still looks — and chases stories — like the new kid on the city desk. He does his job. He tries to tell the truth.

Earth to Eric

Yo, Eric - Whaddup! Get your head on and don't let us down with any more planted stories from the Wine Spirits industry folks. 

Get back to the laptop, do some real reporting, and send us some in-depth, grounded and groundbreaking stories now. Look to David White's piece in the Times to get you started in the right direction. And then help us understand why we can't buy wine online as easily as everything else on Amazon? And why are we beholden to giant corporate distributors who control shelf space and prevent us from buying from family-run wineries, which is where most of the organically grown wines come from? And why do we pay an estimated 18-25% of every wine purchase to monopolistic middlemen? 

There's plenty of ground to cover.

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