Academic Freedom: The Great Butter v. Margarine Controversy at Iowa State

This post summarizes the historic academic freedom controversy at Iowa State College compiled largely from two reports The great butter-margarine controversy and T.W. Schultz and Pamphlet No.5: The Oleo Margarine War and Academic Freedom.

As new food products come on the market, such as soy-based Impossible Burgers, researchers and media might revisit similar case studies of the past, including the great butter v. margarine debate at Iowa State College.

One of the main figures in the case was South Dakota economist T.W. Schultz, a radio journalist in his youth. He came to Iowa State College as an assistant professor in 1930. About a decade later, during World War II, he obtained a small grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct research on farm and food policy. That led to the publication of infamous “Pamphlet No. 5.”

The publication recommended vegetable fat, or margarine, for butter because making the latter was too labor intensive. There was also a shortage of butter overseas with the troops. Moreover, margarine was seen as an acceptable food substitute and just as nutritious. (Harmful trans fat of margarine had yet to be fully researched.)

An argument associated with climate change rather than labor intensiveness is being used to promote plant-based food products, replacing beef and eventually pork and chicken. Advocates say those new products are better for the environment. Social mores, what society holds important at any given time, often dictate conflicts of interest.

Journalists have to be careful and fair to all sides when writing about such debates. Health and economic interests often conflict. And, as we will see in this butter v. margarine case, sometimes those who lobby against replacement food products might have a viewpoint worth considering.

A few weeks after publication of Pamphlet No. 5, the National Dairymen’s Association purchased the entire back page of the Des Moines Register, attacking Schultz and a graduate student, O.H. Brownlee, who authored the publication. The advertisement denounced margarine, touting the nutrients of butter.

Then the dairy industry took aim at Iowa State’s president, Charles Friley, pressuring him to retract the publication and fire Brownlee. When that wasn’t done in a timely manner, industry representatives contacted the Dairy Record in St. Paul, Minn., which labeled Schultz as “sadistic” and “unstable.”

Now a major medium had taken sides, putting Iowa State and academic freedom in the spotlight.

At the time, President Friley was still defending academic freedom. But the dairy lobby argued that Iowa State received taxpayer funds and had no business recommending margarine or any major policy change in how the nation does business, during war or, apparently, anytime else.

President Friley did as many leaders do in crisis situations: He formed a committee. What he hadn’t foreseen, however, was how the panel’s deliberations would be covered closely by the news media. Committee reports incensed the dairy lobby, which again took out a full-page advertisement in the Register denouncing the university.

Friley blinked. He decided to forbid another Iowa State report on wartime food matters and said social scientists should not make policy recommendations.

Soon after, the committee that he assembled condemned Brownlee’s margarine report. That emboldened Friley who reportedly wanted that original article retracted and then planned to reorganize the Iowa State College Press’s editorial board so as to dispel members who disliked how he handled the situation.

Friley also planned to reorganize the Department of Economics and Sociology

Department head Theodore Schultz had enough. He resigned. Here is an excerpt from his resignation letter:

Mr. President, I have given much thought to ways and means of discussing these issues with you in an atmosphere conducive to clear thinking and constructive solutions. I want to be sure that our primary concern will be the welfare of Iowa State College. I do not want to protect my position or enhance my role at the College. So that our discussion may be as free as possible from any concern about my personal or professional interest as a member of the staff, I shall submit my resignation from the Iowa State College when we meet to discuss these matters on September 17.

When Schultz left for the University of Chicago, 15 social scientists also eventually resigned from Iowa State. Many followed Schultz to Chicago.

There are two ending ironies associated with the great butter v. margarine controversy.

In 1979, when Schultz was visiting Iowa State to deliver a lecture, Economics Department Chair Raymond R. Beneke received a call from NBC news wanting to congratulate Schultz on winning the Nobel Prize. Those on campus believed it was serendipitous that Schultz should receive word about this highest distinction while on campus. When asked by a reporter what he thought about the coincidence, he replied that Ames “is a very unusual and very precious place.”

But the final irony may have been that the dairy industry was essentially correct about butter being more nutritious than margarine. According to the Harvard Medical School, “The truth is, there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of butter cut the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. Making the switch was a well-intentioned guess, given that margarine had less saturated fat than butter, but it overlooked the dangers of trans fats.”

The moral of this case study concerns academic freedom and the news media’s right to cover controversies, especially ones impacting health and economy. Fairness is essential during those moments. But don’t discount the role of advertising, either. Because the dairy industry couldn’t get sufficient coverage of its viewpoint, it took out entire page ads that pressured Iowa State to make concessions. The dairy industry’s public relations practitioners delivered an effective campaign to articulate its side.

As the butter v. margarine case illustrates, food science takes time to cover all aspects of debates. Journalists and practitioners take heed: Media history often repeats itself.

Impossible Burgers, pig-napping and the situational ethics of ‘ag-gag’ laws

Impossible Burger (Photo: Impossible Foods)Impossible Burger

Michael Bugeja, Iowa View, Des Moines Register

Last week in Mankato, I ate my first plant-based “Impossible Burger.” I could barely tell the difference between it and beef as far as taste was concerned; the texture, though, was more like grilled meat loaf.

I still prefer a sirloin burger on my backyard barbecue.

Like many carnivores, I don’t think about the life of the steer when I check the fridge for condiments.

Animal activists (not to mention vegans) say that I should.

This brings us to a case in North Carolina, reported by the New York Times, in which activists concerned about antibiotics in hogs actually kidnapped one to showcase its maltreatment. The animal was stolen from an operation under contract with Smithfield Foods, the country’s largest pork producer.

Iowa’s newly enacted ag-gag law, also known as Senate File 519, was created for such infractions. An earlier version, under appeal, was deemed unconstitutional because of First Amendment concerns. The revised law criminalizes intrusions as aggravated and serious misdemeanors whenever a person or group uses deception to infiltrate livestock facilities with the intent to cause physical or economic harm.

For the rest of the commentary, click here. 

Does Secret Facebook Group Reflect Culture at Border Control?

ProPublica investigated a secret Border Control Facebook group that posted graphic, demeaning, doctored images of Latina congresswomen. How was it possible that Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan did not know about this? That’s an important ethical question.

At the 3:40 mark of the above video, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions DHS Secretary McAleenan about the employment status of Border Patrol agents who posted racist and demeaning messages and memes in a secret Facebook group.

The group, which boasted more than 9,500 members, viewed lurid posts directed at Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar related to a planned visit to a Texas detention facility.

According to ProPublica, the online publication received images of Facebook discussions “and was able to link the participants …  to apparently legitimate Facebook profiles belonging to Border Patrol agents,” including a supervisor. (WARNING: ProPublica link contains doctored images of graphic sexual violence.)

McAleenan condemned the posts, subject of an ongoing investigation, when appearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee of which Ocasio-Cortez is a member.

“Did you see the posts planning physical harm to myself and Congresswoman Escobar?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.

McAleenan responded that he did and immediately launched an investigation “within minutes of reading the article.”

“Did you see the images of officers circulating PhotoShopped images of my violent rape?” Ocasio-Cortez asked. McAleenan said that he did.

She asked if those officers are on the job still. McAleenan didn’t immediately know.

Ocasio-Cortez pressed him about whether racist rape memes indicated “a dehumanized culture” at U.S. Border and Customs Protection.

“We do not have a dehumanizing culture at CBP. This is an entity that rescues 4,000 people a year,”  he replied, “committed to the well-being of everyone that they interact with.” He added that it is unfair to apply these posts “to the entire organization or that even the members of that group believed or supported those posts.”

Ocasio-Cortez continued to press him. How did 10,000 members belong to a secret group without the leadership knowing, she asked?

Again, McAleenan referenced the ongoing investigation.

No matter how you feel about Ocasio-Cortez or the situation at the Mexican-US border, the secret group does reflect poorly on McAleenan and his agency because no one reported it to the leadership. While failure to report the group may not indicate a dehumanized culture, it does indicate a lapse of ethics. In sum, employees of any workplace are beholden to report unacceptable behavior, especially in a “secret” online group.

In this case, ProPublica did. That’s the role of investigative journalism.

Living Media Ethics makes this point repeatedly throughout the text in sections on racism, sexism and conflicts of interest. A person may not be racist or sexist. That is not the ethical challenge at the workplace. The real question is what an employee should do if he or she witnesses such infractions?

The answer is obvious: report it.

Typical workplace policy mandate reporting of unacceptable behavior. In many venues, those who do not report such behavior may themselves be fired or held legally responsible.

Epstein and Bias: When Newsrooms Sanitize Truth

Why are news outlets using the phrase “underage women” when the 14-page indictment against Jeffrey Epstein does not include the words “woman” or “women”? Why is “sex with minors” being used instead of “assault” or “rape”? Why are major networks using file photos that depict Epstein as “financier” rather than as accused sex trafficker? Could newsrooms be sanitizing truth, revealing bias or social privilege?

As the video shows, reporters and television anchors have been using the term “underage women” to such extent that their outlets are being called out for bias. The origin of the term is mystifying in as much as the indictment against Jeffrey Epstein uses “underage” three times (“underage victims” once and “victims were underage” twice). It does not use the term “woman” or “women”; it uses “girl” or “girls” (often in the phrase “minor girls”) 21 times.

Viewing these reports, one has to wonder whether reporters have read the indictment that details charges against Epstein in stark terms. Consider the opening salvo by the Southern District of New York:

(Sex Trafficking Conspiracy) The Grand Jury charges: OVERVIEW
1. . As set forth herein, over the course of many years, JEFFREY EPSTEIN, the defendant, sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes in Manhattan, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida, among other locations.

Another example of media bias involves headshots (not mugshots) of Epstein downloaded from Internet that portray him as a professional of high social standing. When you search his name on Google, you get this headshot (as of July 14):

Here is a July 12 example juxtaposed to a mugshot in an ABC News report to show the difference in portrayals. The photo on the left was used in a segment about President Trump’s then Labor Secretary Alex Acosta who negotiated a lenient deal for Epstein in 2008 when Acosta was the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida. (Acosta resigned because of that involvement.)

Lapses such as “underage women” tarnish journalism, fueling charges of elitism and media bias. This is especially unfortunate in light of stellar investigative reporting by Julie K. Brown of The Miami Herald, which exposed “the deal of a lifetime.” Some 11 years ago, Epstein could have spent the rest of his life in prison for sex crimes against children; instead, he would serve 13 months in a county jail with special privileges, such as going to his office six days a week.

Living Media Ethics has a chapter on latent triggers that influence perception, such as  upbringing, social standing, personal and generational experiences and education. The chapter also explicates words and phrases like “underage women,” indicating personal bias and tainting the news.

Such phrases often involve social mores, or what a society believes to be true in a certain point in time in a given culture. Applied to the Epstein case, some segments may find it difficult to believe that a successful financier–as depicted in file photos–can commit lurid crimes involving the enticement and recruitment of girls to engage in illicit sex acts.

In the days following reports about Acosta and Epstein, sexual assault survivors have used social media to inform journalists about bias. In a report by USA Today, titled “Has the media ‘sanitized’ the accusations against Jeffrey Epstein?,” the newspaper notes: “The media has been blasted for using terms such as “underage women” instead of “children,” for saying “sex with minors” instead of “rape,” for using the phrase “paid for sex,” which they say erases coercion.”

It is incumbent upon journalists to read indictments carefully, download or access photos that suit the occasion or crime, be sensitive to how reports affect survivors, and correct language that slants the story or indicates personal or social bias.

High Court Strikes Blow to Freedom of Information

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of allowing government agencies to withhold data that a private entity has deemed confidential … as long as that entity and agency promise to keep those records from disclosure.

In 2011, the Argus Leader newspaper (Sioux Falls, S.D.) submitted a Freedom of Information request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,  soliciting data about how taxpayer-funded dollars were being used at businesses selling food products under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp program.

According to the newspaper, the records “would identify potential instances of food stamp fraud, as well as give more insight into food deserts and food insecurity in rural South Dakota. The payments would also identify which corporations make the most money in the program.”

The 6-3 Supreme Court decision overturns 8th Circuit and district court rulings stating that these records should have been provided. Under existing case law, exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act would be allowed in such instances only if the government could not obtain the data or its dissemination would harm the private entity’s competitive position.

Now that entity need not show any harm.

You can read the entire decision as reported by Here is an excerpt:

Henceforth, a private-sector submitter of information to an agency will only need to show their efforts to keep the information private and the assurances they received from the agency that it would keep the information from the public.

Scotusblog also noted how Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion,  referred to dictionary interpretations of the term “confidential.” He overlooked FOIA’s legislative history as well as Congress’ intent in enacting it. “Nor was he persuaded by the newspaper’s effort to argue for the relevance of common law definitions of ‘confidential.'”

You can read the Supreme Court decision by clicking here.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented, believing the ruling disregards key provisions of FOIA, hindering the media’s and public’s ability to hold government accountable.

Cory Myers,  Argus Leader news director, said, “This is a massive blow to the public’s right to know how its tax dollars are being spent, and who is benefiting. Regardless, we will continue to fight for government openness and transparency, as always.”

Living Media Ethics (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) discusses in several chapters how journalists use FOIA in investigations. The Act was signed into law in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson.  You can review provisions and learn how to use FOIA at this URL.

In an excerpt from Living Media EthicsMiles Moffeit, investigative reporter for The Dallas Morning News, notes that businesses and government agencies often withhold information from the public. “We have to double down on our mission to hold public servants accountable,” Moffeit says. “Reporters have a huge responsibility to stretch ourselves as watchdogs, and to champion the vulnerable, as well as ourselves as guardians of democracy.”

Given the ruling in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader, reporters now will have to work harder to serve the public in their watchdog role.


Media Ethics Resources Available via YouTube Channel

Living Media Ethics shares video resources that help students write, create and showcase their values in digital products, procuring top internships and media positions.

Visit this site to access instructional videos about:

Writing Concisely, Accurately and Visually. You will learn how modern languages (German, English, Mandarin) inform the composition process. You’ll also become acquainted with rhetorical terms from creative nonfiction that will make your writing stand out in print or on the web.

Displaying Your Own Ethical Heraldry. If you do not have familial heraldry or, perhaps, would revise the one associated with your surname, you can create your own moral motto and display your personal iconic imagery to help you remember the importance of ethical values at home, school and work.

Creating a Digital Portfolio with Ethics Tab. Any student vying for an internship or first media job should have a digital portfolio. If you add a personal code of ethics, aligned with your profession or dream job, you convey your work ethic as well as your skill sets. This video helps you assemble that WordPress portfolio, step-by-step.

View Sample Digital Portfolios. This video showcases various web pages of student portfolios at Iowa State University media ethics classes. You will find outstanding samples in advertising, journalism (all platforms) and public relations. Students include links to their portfolios on resumes and in social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.).

More resources will be added to this channel in the Fall.

Living Media Ethics is published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis. If you teach media ethics and would like to view a sample copy, visit this link for more information.

Clipped Tweets Foster Stereotypes in Viral Political Age

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) remarks to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)–“Some people did something”–reminds us yet again how clipped remarks out of context can foster stereotypes, even when a speech attempts to dispel them in the Muslim community.  What can media and practitioners do to recognize and minimize fallout?

The Washington Post video above and its coverage of Omar’s March 23rd speech at a CAIR banquet illustrates how a tweet–in and of itself, a “clipped” platform allowing only 280 characters– can ignite viral and inflammatory reactions across platforms, ultimately risking safety of an elected U.S. representative.

The Post article and fact-check discusses the danger of clipped remarks that eventually led to tens of thousands of retweets and likes, prompting Brian Kilmeade of “Fox and Friends” to state: “You have to wonder if she’s an American first.”

Here is the paragraph upon which tweets were based, with an error on Omar’s part about the founding of CAIR (1994, not after 9/11):

“Here’s the truth. For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange and that I am trying to make myself look pleasant. You have to say that this person is looking at me strange, I am not comfortable with it, and I am going to talk to them and ask them why. Because that is the right you have.”

Omar spokesperson Jeremy Slevin later acknowledged that the Congresswoman erred and meant to state that CAIR doubled in size after the 9/11 attacks. That error illustrates that facts are important in political communication just as they are in journalism.

The media and social media attention to the clipped remarks intensified when President Donald Trump tweeted “WE WILL NEVER FORGET!”

That prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to consult with the Sergeant at Arms to ensure that Omar’s safety is assessed because of threats to her and her family, according to CNN and other news reports.

The escalating situation is a reminder that Twitter, in particular, is rife with stereotypes and that journalists and public relations practitioners have an ethical obligation to depict situations accurately and be proactively as soon as stereotypes go viral.

A recent “reverse stereotype” study showed that the gender, age and political orientation can be discerned by a big data sample of a person’s text-language use on Twitter (no photos, videos, etc.):

  • Gender: 76% of the guesses were correct.
  • Age: 69% predicted ‘younger than 24 vs. older than 24’ correctly
  • Political orientation: 82% judged liberal vs. conservative correctly.

The study also showed that big data was of no help ascertaining the educational level of users, with only “45.5% judged correctly out of three choices—no bachelor’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and advanced degree.”

To be sure, people of all educational levels are capable of using stereotypical speech.

Living Media Ethics has a chapter on stereotypes with advice for advertisers, journalists and PR practitioners. Here’s an excerpt that includes content about resisting stereotypes adapted from guidelines by the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism:

  • Apply consistent guidelines when identifying people by race, sex, social class or other such category. Are the terms considered offensive? Ask individual sources how they wish to be identified and also consult with a supervisor, if appropriate.
  • Strive to present an accurate and full report to your readers, viewers, listeners, clients and customers.
  • Don’t overemphasize issues. For example, overemphasizing crime can perpetuate stereotypes, especially if minorities are depicted as the perpetrators.
  • Do cover a variety of stories about minorities, not just those related to race, and depict or quote minorities in non-race related photographs, advertisements, illustrations and campaigns.
  • Find out how issues affect different segments of society.
  • Expand your contact lists. Include minorities who can provide authoritative opinions for a variety of subjects.