Journalism is supposed to act as a check on powerful institutions—to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the old saying goes. But if you're questioning Big Ag corporate interests, the rules can be different.
Rick Friday learned this lesson the hard way. For over two decades, his cartoons have been appearing in Farm News, a weekly newspaper in Iowa. His April 29 cartoon hit the powerful and named names. In the single panel, a farmer tells a friend that he wished there were more profit in farming. His friend replied by noting that the CEOs of Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere "made more money than 2,129 Iowa farmers."
It was Friday's last cartoon. As he explained on Facebook, "a large company affiliated with one of the corporations mentioned in the cartoon was insulted and cancelled their advertisement with the paper."
Millions of dollars in advertising influences public debate on everything from energy to GMO foods, but it can also discourage critical commentary and investigation. This isn't the first time Big Ag interests have exerted their influence to quiet a critical voice. Back in 2008, Missouri radio host Derry Brownfield got into trouble over his scorching comments about Monsanto. "Multinational corporations are doing everything possible to change agriculture," he told listeners. "And not for the better." The company that aired his show and gave him studio space felt the heat from Monsanto. They knew that cutting Brownfield loose would make Monsanto happy, and life for their sales team a lot easier. That's exactly what happened.
Media consolidation has given corporations bigger sway on how issues are covered. Thanks to decades of deregulation of the telecommunications industry, a handful of companies control most of the media in America. In this case, Farm News is a weekly outlet published by the Fort Dodge Messenger, which in turn is owned by Ogden Newspapers, which owns dozens of papers in 14 states, and also publishes Utne Reader and Mother Earth News.
Subscribers to those magazines might be surprised—and chagrined—to know that their publisher is not immune to the sway of corporate advertising dollars. (You can contact the Fort Dodge Messenger here, if you'd like to weigh in.)
Meanwhile, Rick Friday not only stands by his cartoon; he continues to publish his cartoons on his Facebook page. As he wrote on Facebook, he hopes his kids and grandchildren see this controversy as a lesson in the tenuous nature of our free press and free speech rights, especially in an era when a few corporations have enormous power over so much of our public life.
It's a lesson we should all take to heart.