The Greenwash Brigade

Monsanto pulls public radio into its greenwash

Heidi Siegelbaum Jun 26, 2009

American Public Media has been getting flogged recently by some of its listeners, the environmental website Grist, and others online for accepting underwriting from Monsanto, and for publicizing the agribusiness giant’s Produce More, Conserve More campaign in underwriting announcements. Count me among the critics who believe that those announcements, broadcast on stations that carry Marketplace, lend public radio’s credibility to a marketing campaign that is misleading, inaccurate and a prime form of greenwashing.

Here’s the language:

“Marketplace is supported by Monsanto, committed to sustainable agriculture, creating hybrid and biotech seeds designed to increase crop yield and conserve natural resources. Learn more at”

On the details of Monsanto’s message, I’ll let the food-policy experts parse the nuances of genetically modified (GM) crop issues, starvation, billion-dollar profits, handcuffing and spying on Canadian farmers, and so on.

What I want to address is public radio underwriting itself. There happen to be these niggling FCC rules that govern how underwriters are represented in sponsorship ads and acknowledgments.

The rules prohibit commercial advertising, but they do allow an “underwriter announcement.” Such an announcement is not supposed to promote the company, products or services of a donor. Noncommercial broadcasters are allowed and expected to use “good faith judgment” in discerning whether their underwriters are providing funding solely for the purpose of promoting a product or company. There is no guidance on whether misleading or deceptive underwriting announcements that qualify as greenwash are prohibited.

So pile up your lawyers on either side to argue the finer points of commercial advertisement versus “underwriter announcement.”

Minnesota Public Radio (American Public Media’s regional subsidiary) describes its listeners, in its sponsorship link, as a “highly educated, affluent, well-traveled and culturally discriminating audience.” This could be seen as a come-hither for commercial advertising.

I would posit it’s difficult to find an underwriter announcement that hasn’t been touched by the typing fingers of corporate marketers. They are champing at the bit to promote their products or companies while still complying with the FCC rules.

Did Monsanto succeed? Judge for yourself. But I look forward to the day when innovative, sustainable companies make enough money that they, too, can underwrite APM and its affiliates using FCC-permissible underwriting announcements.

To be clear: I don’t think APM is greenwashing. In a cash-strapped world, organizations are forced to accept money from companies with questionable ethics. And if the underwriting guidelines don’t have an ethics or sustainability focus incorporated into them, then the only constraining factor is the commercial-promotion angle.

People feel very affectionate toward public radio because it’s one of the last places where you sense there is any balance, integrity or intelligence in investigative reporting. It’s possible that Monsanto is foolish enough to think that its underwriting status vis-a-vis APM/MPR can actually buff up its image. But it seems ludicrous to me.

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