Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire is so massive and intertwined that it would take a few thousand words just to lay out the known facts about it. Trust me that tabloid journalism, with all the good and bad that entails, is one of the consistent themes of Murdoch’s world.
You’ve probably heard about some of the excesses of old Rupert’s tabloids, mostly in the United Kingdom, involving the illegal phone tapping of celebrities, royalty and private citizens.
Tabloid journalism has long been about the ability to manufacture news and generate scandal and controversy from nothing more than thin air. If you are old enough, you will remember when “The Star” first arrived in American grocery stores from Murdoch.
And just one year ago, Murdoch put his tabloid culture online in a big way with The Daily, the iPad-friendly news site that quickly became Apple’s most popular application.
The Daily built a big readership out of the box on the sale of iPads, and it is counting on those tabloid traits to keep those readers hooked. So, with that explanation, a big bonus is due David Knowles, who on March 5 and 9, wrote The Daily’s “pink slime” stories about ammonia-treated ground beef. Although, it should be noted that Michael Moss of the New York Times wrote about in in 2009.
Just 10 days after his first story, the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed its policy for supplying the nation’s 13,506 school districts with ground beef under the National School Lunch program. USDA will now be like the waiter at Applebee’s asking “pink or no pink” when a school district places a ground beef order.
The power of tabloid journalism is such that other media often have no choice but to join in. “Pink slime” in most respects was an old story brought back to life by The Daily by the fact that USDA was using the product in school lunches.
The 10 days between The Daily’s first story and USDA’s announcement left the meat industry’s head spinning. Other media had a lot to do with this story, from ABC World News Tonight, which ran with the “pink slime” sensationalism with no credit to The Daily, and it then continued in the rest of media, including Food Safety News.
We tried to put Lean Finely-Textured Beef (LFTB) in larger perspective, explaining that it is a low-cost source of protein for a world that has more people to feed every day. And we reported it’s just a fact that Beef Products Inc. has a good food safety track record.
There was information, that only USDA has, that would have helped knock down the “pink slime” story. For whatever reason, USDA opted to just put out short statements pledging that the ammonia-treated beef product is safe.
Subsequent statements by some critics pretty much acknowledged that “pink slime” is safe, but went on with arguments like it makes them queasy and its inclusion in ground beef is sneaky and under-handed.
No less authority that Jim Marsden, the respected professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University, has said the meat industry has lost this PR battle. Blame, some say, should fall upon USDA for not doing a better job of defending LFTB, aka, “pink slime.”
There is only one person to blame for losing the battle and it’s Eldon Roth, BPI’s founder and chief executive officer. Gerald Zirnstein, the former USDA microbiologist, coined the “pink slime” term 10 years ago. Roth thought BPI could ignore it and it would go away.
It does not work that way.
It reminds me of the only time a certain software company up in Seattle sought out my public relations advice. They were building their huge campus in Redmond, WA and at the time I was doing public relations for developers and home builders. Microsoft’s plans used names of famous golf courses, like Pebble Beach and Augusta, for the various areas of the campus.
When I asked what was up, the software PR guy said: “The city’s plan reviewer’s are calling those areas Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do you think we have a problem?”
For Roth, whom I’ve never met, the “pink slime” label was a ticking public relations time bomb. Just putting his head down and going about business was the worst choice he could have made.
BPI was probably going with professional advice from Old Food PR, according to a friend in the business from Kansas City. Old Food PR says “pink slime” is scary, so it goes in the closet.
New Food PR would be to take on the misinformation aggressively, going after people who appreciate sustainability and would deplore wasting the equivalent of one million head of cattle a year. A re-naming campaign with something quicker than “Lean Finely Textured Beef” probably would have been good, too. Also, add humor, as the other side remains humorless.
But, that horse is long out of the barn.
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