'Fish Story': NBC's 'Today' Disregards Motives in Seafood Industry Attack

November 17th, 2010 8:41 PM

As a reporter, when you turn to a whistleblower agriculture commissioner that’s a failed Democratic gubernatorial candidate for a state that has specific economic interests as over an issue you’re reporting on – isn’t that something that should be disclosed?

Not for NBC’s Jeff Rossen.

In a segment that aired on NBC’s “Today” on Nov. 17, Rossen offered a scathing critique of imported seafood and the health dangers it could pose. Armed with video footage from a so-called “advocacy group,” Rossen didn’t let little things like potential conflicts-of-interest get in the way of a good scare story.

“Not to break your heart – I know you love seafood, but most of it – even though we eat a lot of it in this country – most of it doesn't even come from here,” Rossen said. “In fact 80 percent of fish and 90 percent of the shrimp actually come from overseas. This morning our ‘Today’ investigation has found some of your seafood may have toxic chemicals causing serious health issues. Sautéed, fried or fresh, we love seafood – appetizing for sure, until you see where some of it comes from. This video shot by a U.S. advocacy group shows dirty sewage water used to raise seafood in Vietnam. The fish pumped with toxic antibiotics and drugs just to keep them alive, boosting production and driving down costs.”

It seems kind of important to know which “advocacy group” Rossen was citing in his report. He didn’t say. Instead he offered up Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks as a source backing up the claim that imported seafood poses a serious health threat.

“Ron Sparks is the commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Agriculture – one of the only state’s testing imported seafood for these dangerous drugs,” Rossen said.

Sparks may seem like an good choice to cite, but if you take a closer look, shrimping is an Alabama Gulf Coast industry, which has aggressively marketed itself against Asian imports over the past decade. And if you take into account that Sparks was the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor of Alabama, and appeared in a report that the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) indicates was weeks in the making (perhaps pre-Election Day 2010) – one might ask if there were not only economic interests, but political interests motivating Rossen’s “sensational” presentation.

“In some cases, between 40 and 50 percent of our tests will come out positive,” Sparks said.

A claim like that should have led Rossen to make sure he covered all the bases in his report, questioning the agenda of Sparks and his scientists and presenting their histories and affiliations. It should also have suggested to Rosen that he cite information provided to “Today” by NFI from governmental agencies – including the CDC and the USDA that countered these alarmist claims:

The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) provided Rossen and Powell the following resources, weeks before the story aired, in order to help ensure the Today Show had accuracy, balance, objectivity and proper sourcing;

• An analysis of Centers for Disease Control statistics that illustrates fish—be it domestic or imported—is (a) among the safest foods Americans eat and (b) not included in any of the major food recalls of the last decade;

Independent writings from a former USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety in which he clearly states that arguments about the healthfulness of imported seafood stem from “trade issues…not [from] a public health issue”;

• A thorough and accurate description of the Food and Drug Administration’s Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulatory system;

• Contact information for a leading independent authority on HACCP from Cornell University, who was willing to be interviewed for the story to explain the screening and safety protocols;

One of the basics taught in journalism schools is to question the motivations of sources in your reporting. Rossen may or may not have done that, but he didn’t identify that to his “Today” viewers. However, it was one raised by NFI, after making certain pertinent materials available to Rossen.

“Despite being in possession of all of these documents and having access to an independent expert, it is our contention that the reporter and producer willfully neglected the facts in favor of a more sensational and less accurate story, pushed by domestic catfish producers,” a NFI release said.