Ads on WCCO Don’t Pass the ‘Reality’ Test

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If you’ve spent any time watching WCCO-TV in recent months, you’ve probably seen the series of ads sponsored by the Minnesota Farm and Food Coalition. These ads, which feature colorful rural photos and music that pulls at the heartstrings, make the argument that the state’s economy will collapse unless we allow significant expansion of large-scale livestock operations—otherwise known as factory farms or CAFOs. The ads then go on to blame “anti-livestock activist groups” for the livestock industry’s financial troubles.

Well, serious questions about the accuracy, legality and even ethical basis of these ads have been raised in recent weeks.

First the accuracy problem: Pat Kessler, a verteran political reporter for WCCO-TV, analyzed the ads in the Aug. 16 edition of his “Reality Check” program. Kessler concluded in his report that the ads “include misstatements and exaggerations about animal feedlot operations and the controversy in small towns around them.” In a recent column, nationally syndicated agricultural journalist Alan Guebert made it clear he was also less than impressed with the ads’ accuracy. For one thing, Guebert writes, the blanket claim made by the ads that livestock numbers in Minnesota are decreasing is false (it’s the livestock farmers we’re losing at an alarming rate).

Now the legal issue: Documents obtained by the Land Stewardship Project though a Freedom of Information Act request confirm that these ads were financed by checkoff funds paid by soybean farmers. Checkoff dollars are supposed to go for soybean research and promotion, and they cannot be used for “influencing legislation or governmental action or policy,” according to federal law. However, the ads bear the soybean checkoff logo and are clearly part of a campaign to advance policies favorable to large-scale livestock operations. The Food and Farm Coalition is a collection of the state’s most powerful agribusiness interests, including the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council and the Minnesot Pork Producers Association. Such groups have been extremely active at the state capitol in recent years as they work to weaken environmental review and the power of townships to control where factory farms—with their multi-million gallon liquid manure storage systems—are built.

Finally the ethics: The on-camera narrator for these ads is Roger Strom, who was a well-known ag journalist for WCCO-Radio back when it was the “Flagship Station of Minnesota Agriculture.” In the ads, Strom is identified as an “Agricultural Broadcaster.” The implication is that he is a journalist providing factual information, not a spokesperson paid to read ad copy written by some of the biggest agribusiness interests in the state. For the scores of Minnesotans that relied on Strom for farm news over the years, this is very misleading.

Farmers’ Legal Action Group has sent a letter to the USDA calling for the ads to be pulled off the air and for the soybean checkoff money used in their development to be refunded. The USDA is expected to respond sometime this fall. Stay tuned…

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