More and more of the other ScienceBloggers have weighed in on the Pepsi-written nutrition blog being hosted here at SB. A few more have announced blogging sabbaticals or simply shuttered their SB blog and opened up shop elsewhere.
In addition to a mea culpa sent to the bloggers, the overlords have made some adjustments to the Pepsi blog to better reflect its advertising content. The blog’s banner includes the PepsiCo logo, and the Profile now explains: “This blog is sponsored by PepsiCo. All editorial content is written by PepsiCo’s scientists or scientists invited by PepsiCo and/or ScienceBlogs. All posts carry a byline above the fold indicating the scientist’s affiliation and conflicts of interest.”
This is an improvement but is surely too little, too late.
Partly, the problem comes from looking at what seems to be an earlier iteration of this blog hosted at the Pepsi corporate website (same authors, same corporate master, same blog name). It all reads like press releases extolling the joys of Pepsi and other PepsiCo products.
And on the same day Pepsi started their sponsored blog at SB, the New York Times ran a powerful story explaining how Pepsi and the rest of Big Fizzy-Fructose Water managed to kill a cent/ounce tax on soda, a tax that doesn’t fully reflect the societal costs of soda in term of obesity and diabetes.
As Michael A. Nutter, Philadelphia’s mayor, who has proposed a 2-cents-an-ounce tax, told the Times: “They’re successful the old-fashioned way. They pay for it.”
And that’s what they’re trying to do at Scienceblogs: Buy credibility for their unhealthy products by mixing corporate spin among the legitimate and independent scientific reports on the harm done by sodas.
And let us not forget that, according to Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, Pepsi has funded studies – through the beverage industry trade group – by a group dedicated to whitewashing public health risks. The group – Exponent, Inc. – wrote for the beverage association about how soda machines in schools “does not seem to be excessive,” a claim that the industry seemed to abandon when they agreed to remove those machines. Exponent has written similar whitewashes on behalf of everything from the gasoline/MTBE industry to atrazine manufacturers and the asbestos companies being sued for causing cancer. As author David Michaels explains “I have yet to see an Exponent study that does not support the conclusion needed by the corporation or trade association that is paying the bill.”
Given Pepsi’s history of using its corporate heft to kill public health measures that would hurt its bottom line, its willingness to buy bogus research for use in that same defense, and its history of using this same blog title to spread corporate whitewash, there are all sorts of good reasons not to trust this new blog. ScienceBlogs management clearly recognizes that there’s a problem, but this is not enough.
Every post on this blog should be labeled “Advertisement” at the top. That label should appear on every post in the RSS feed for the blog, and in instances where the blog’s content is used in the feeds for all SB posts, the SB Select feed, and for other feeds aggregating content across the SB network. It should be excluded entirely from the feed sent by SB to Google News; if I were Google, I’d want advertising content kept separate from the feed I used as news, though GNews certainly runs stuff from press release aggregators. There’s a good argument to be made for excluding this blog from all feeds that aggregate across all SB blogs, but maybe their content will live up to the site’s standards.
Why am I more pissed about this than about the Shell-sponsored energy blog run at SB a while back? Partly because the bloggers for that project were not Shell employees. The blog itself was created at Shell’s behest, but the bloggers were established people who know about energy policy and energy research. Shell had no editorial control over the content.
There’s also a somewhat squidgier distinction. Shell has an awful human rights record, and its environmental record is awful. Shell facilities in Africa dump oil on a BP scale year after year. But their blog wasn’t about human rights, it wasn’t about geopolitics, and it wasn’t about the environment. They do energy, and the blog was about energy.
If Pepsi wanted to sponsor a blog about food science or flavor science, I think the outrage would be much more muted. I’d guess there is some interesting science going on in PepsiCo labs, but their record on nutrition is horrific. They have credibility to talk about new work in flavor science and how industry science differs from academic science, but they have not got any credibility on nutrition.
Their goal may well be to buy that credibility by buying a blog at ScienceBlogs, but that doesn’t mean SB management should give it to them.
A final note. I don’t think I’ve ever referred to the folks who run ScienceBlogs as “the management” before. We’d jokingly call them “the overlords” and whathaveyou, but they didn’t manage us. The folks at Seed and ScienceBlogs that we interacted with were professional, but existed as a barrier between the corporate management and the bloggers. They made sure we got review copies of books, made sure the servers ran smoothly, helped us sell articles to Seed as appropriate, but most of their work was about being our buddies and making sure that the community among the bloggers and the wider community of bloggers and readers was happy.
With this move, I see the relationship changing. We’re on the outside, with even SB cash-cow PZ Myers hearing about it after the fact. And without divulging details, I’ll say that the private communications that the bloggers have gotten about this deal have been different in feeling than those that came before. I feel like I’m being managed, and clearly a lot of other Sciencebloggers do, too. At this point, I think they should either declare this a failed experiment, or spike the blog until they fully grasp and internalize why their bloggers and blog readers are so pissed.