Amidst the daily headlines and media self-flagellation surrounding the methods employed by certain members of the New York Times staff in reporting "all the news that's fit to print," along with the resignations of two of its top editors, the highly questionable "reporting" of the paper's Kurt Eichenwald concerning the 1990s Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) price-fixing scandal continues to remain largely ignored.
While it may come as a surprise to many, before the Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen scandals became page-one news a far more egregious "crime in the suites," affecting a much larger clientele than its sexy successors, was unfolding. From its inception "The Calamity Howler" has been tracking the story of how ADM, the nation's largest grain processing company, has become a veritable symbol of corporate crime, corruption and political influence peddling.
Only a few publications at the time, however, bothered to report the many and varied aspects of this case -- a classical study in white-collar crime. One paper which did publish some stories on what would become a scandal involving a variety of multinational corporations and high government officials was the New York Times. How fairly the Times and its correspondent covered the scandal that was ADM would soon come under sharp attack.
In light of the questions now being raised about how the Times reports its stories, it is both illuminating and instructive to revisit those charges leveled against the paper and Eichenwald.
Challenging not only the veracity of his reporting and his willingness to serve the interests of ADM and its Washington, D.C. influence peddling law firm of Williams and Connolly, but the unwillingness of his employer to deal with such conduct, author Kurt Eichenwald and the New York Times became the subject of scathing allegations after the publication of his book, The Informant.
In a series of over some 30 documented letters -- all unanswered -- to the Times' managing editor at the time, William Keller, ADM Shareholders Watch Committee co-founder David Hoech accused Eichenwald of "unethical conduct" and the Times' "actions and inactions" as just "another example of a 'Corporate Predator' that will do whatever it takes to make a buck."
For copies of the ADM Shareholders Watch Committee "Pay Per View" letters, contact email@example.com
Eichenwald's book, which advertised itself as "a true story," purported to describe how "the FBI was ready to take down America's most politically powerful corporation. But there was one thing they didn't count on: 'The Informant.'" Curiously, nowhere on the book's cover, its dust jacket or in the full-page advertisements for the book that later appeared in the Times is "America's most politically powerful corporation" mentioned by name.
Rather, the book's main focus centered around the story of Mark Whitacre, the former ADM executive who acted as an FBI mole for three years uncovering a vast international corporate conspiracy led by ADM to fix the price of lysine, a feed additive for livestock and poultry and his often unaccountable conduct throughout the legal battles that followed the exposure of the company's illegal activities.
Unlike the authoritative and well-documented Rats in the Grain: The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland The Supermarket to the World by James B. Lieber [Four Walls, Eight Windows Press, New York: 2000], Eichenwald's book, in Hoech's words, simply sought to depict Whitacre as a "freak" while giving "protection to ADM, Williams & Connolly and the Justice Department who were all involved in covering up the criminal activity of the Andreas crime family who still run ADM."
"After Whitacre exposed ADM," Lieber writes, "the media mobbed the story, touting it as a David and Goliath parable. After the exposer was exposed, the press drifted away. Good versus evil inside a multinational corporation was front-page news. Greed versus greed was buried in the business section, if it made the paper at all.
"In a tabloid culture," he noted, "trials of gruesome crimes generate the most news. Searing tragedies for those involved, they become gladiatorial spectacles for the rest of us. But bloodless while collar trials say more about the way the world works, and it is my personal bias that it makes sense to pay more attention to them."
Throughout Hoech's "33 Pay Per View" letters he calls to the attention of the Times managing editor repeated instances of what he considered Eichenwald's "unethical conduct." For example: "... ADM lost a US Supreme Court attempt to keep almost 200 secretly recorded tapes out of the hands of companies suing the grain processor for rigging prices in high fructose corn sweetener. James R. Randall, at the time the president of ADM, is recorded on over 100 tapes telling Mark Whitacre, the government's cooperating witness, about ADM's power and describing a lot of illegal activities that took place before Whitacre became employed at ADM ...
"It seems quite strange that the Times did not report about the 200 tapes being turned over to the plaintiffs' attorneys suing the producers of high-fructose corn syrup. The tapes certainly would make one wonder how James R. Randall and Dwayne Andreas got blanket immunity for a host of crimes both were involved in."
Not only has Eichenwald's integrity as a Times reporter come under fire, but the style of The Informant also received its share of criticism from a number of reviewers.
Rats in the Grain author Lieber, in an unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times, wrote:
"Bryan Burrough could not have more than paged around in Rats in the Grain before offering his dismissive three-paragraph review in your September 16, 2000 issue. Burrough, however, lavished substantial space and praise on The Informant by New York Times' reporter Kurt Eichenwald.
"Burrough and Eichenwald are peers in the New York financial press. They also write similarly, specializing in reconstructing conversations and scenes at which they were not present. Already, some of The Informant's characters have begun to quibble about quotes attributed to them. But that wouldn't interest Burrough.
"Rats in the Grain weaves history, politics, law, analysis, and personal profiles into an argument that ADM, a notorious special interest, received special justice," Leiber writes. "My aim was to write a muckraking educational document that could be relied on by the common reader as well as in the classroom and voting booth."
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web site www.ea1.com/CARP/