Imagine St. Louis: The Post selling its soul for a jolly good fellowship

Last month, the new-age editors of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch set off an old-fashioned newsroom firestorm by announcing "a new position we're calling an editorial fellowship."

That fellow would be John L. Mason, recently retired head of the Monsanto Fund, who would "be sitting in on our morning discussions and attending editorial board meetings with visitors." This "new idea" meant that a 30-year veteran and recent top executive of Monsanto would be participating in deliberations -- about editorial positions and news coverage -- that had heretofore been limited to the paper's own staff (as it is throughout the rest of the Western Hemisphere).

"We've asked him here because he knows so much about the community and because he isn't a journalist," the paper told its readers on March 15. "That puts him in a good position to challenge our thinking.... We expect him to provoke our thinking and enrich our deliberations."

It was enough to provoke columnist Bill McClellan's thinking. He wrote, just a tad sardonically, about the hope raised by a newspaper's hiring someone "precisely because he didn't know anything about newspapers."

Noted self-described newsroom dinosaur McClellan: "If this could become a trend, there was hope for us. There are so many businesses we know nothing about. Perhaps we'd soon be in demand."

Another Post staffer, who wrote me anonymously out of fear of reprisal, had a different take on the subject (one echoed by numerous colleagues I spoke with):

"Who, now, can trust what the editorial department of the P-D says on any subject? How do readers know what private, monied, influential individual or company is sitting in on and shaping the opinions of the editorial board? Why don't they just go work for Monsanto, or whatever other company, as PR flacks?"

Well, that's all well and good, but it's my job not to trust the Post no matter who sits in its meetings. And I have a conflict: Without its long-standing allegiance to "private, monied, influential individuals and companies," the Post would be no fun to write about.

So I was going to ignore this fellowship thing, just as I've chosen to ignore most of editor Cole Campbell's journo-babble since he arrived on the scene a couple of years ago like a mad journalism professor making a commando raid on the newsroom, taking the grizzled old reporters hostage and breaking their spirit like prisoners of war, blaring "How We Can Best Serve Our Communities" books-on-tape over the loudspeakers.

But the Post crossed a line last Sunday, with its sweeter-than-cre`me-brulee new section called "Imagine St. Louis" -- about "conversations" and how "we share a sense of what's most important" and other sweet nothings, all tossed about in a fluffy flutter of one-way tickets for a ride on the porcelain bus -- so I actually thought about weighing in just to make a stand for cynicism.

And then came Monday. In an editorial headlined "Biotechnology: Snail's Pace in Europe," the paper gave Monsanto about as nice a sendoff as it's ever going to get outside its own stationery.

There was no mention of "Frankenstein foods" or "the Terminator" or the horror stories cited by many in Europe in what Fortune magazine two weeks ago called "a virulent controversy over the safety of genetically altered crops." There was no indication that "Monsanto has been living a monumental PR nightmare," as that magazine reported.

The hometown view, instead, is that "Monsanto is nearly alone (among biotech companies) in coming to terms with the strong resistance in Europe." While acknowledging the safety, consumer-choice and environmental concerns of the Europeans, the Post editorial saw Monsanto's silver lining much more clearly than others in the press. To wit:

* "Trade protectionism undoubtedly has quite a bit to do with the latest delay (in approving genetically modified crops in Europe)."

* "Navigating these regulatory shoals is a nightmare for any company."
* "Monsanto and other biotechnology companies insist that the new crop strains are both healthy and environmentally safe. They also say the advent of genetically altered crops means more consumer choice, not less."

* "More independent science could help calm (the Europeans') fears. The biotechnology industry hopes a newly appointed study from the National Academy of Sciences, expected out next fall, will go a long way to do that."

* "To its credit, say industry insiders, Monsanto is facing up to the industry's tactical miscalculation of public alarm in Europe and has taken steps to address the concerns."

The Post did scold the biotech industry (but not Monsanto) "for having not adequately educated a skeptical public about this powerful new technology." Boy, I bet that admonishment had biotech CEOs cussing and throwing things.

How much does this kid-glove treatment have to do with the arrival of Mason as editorial fellow? Our P-D sources say he's already had some sharp verbal battles with skeptical staffers and that editorial-page editor Christine Bertelson, who brought him in, was squarely on his side.

But Bertelson told me Tuesday that Mason's presence has nothing at all to do with Post editorial policy. She said the "experiment" with the fellowship is "going great" and that she is working on implementing another one like it, but she insists the paper is maintaining its role as "a skeptical inquirer."

"I set our editorial policy, sometimes in conjunction with the editor," Bertelson says. "We're not afraid of new ideas, and we're not afraid to listen to new viewpoints, from anyone. But Monsanto doesn't set our policy, and John Mason doesn't set it. I set it."

That's good enough for me, especially because I like the outcome of all this, which is a Post editorial apologizing for the biotech industry that gives skeptics like me a reason to exist. Besides, I keep thinking of a certain classic horror movie, one in which a blind man comes off quite nicely because he welcomes the hero into his home, without fear, because of what he can't see.

Someone has to be nice to Frankenstein.

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