Today Show reporter Jeff Rossen and producer Robert Powell ignore facts in story on safety of imported seafood (Part II)

Let’s start with a question. How do you produce a story about seafood from overseas, yet never leave the U.S.?  I ask that because that is just what NBC reporter Jeff Rossen and producer Robert Powell did on the November 17 edition of the Today Show. The duo was full of accusations and innuendo but never bothered to actually investigate the story.

Rossen based his reporting on a video produced by a special interest lobbying group with a history of using government regulation to avoid competing with imported products.  Rossen admitted he’s never been to places like Vietnam, Thailand or Malaysia to investigate the practices he alleges.

I’m not the VP of standards for NBC but it would seem such allegations should be thoroughly investigated before being repeated. At the very least this reporter/producer team should have followed the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics that warns to “Always question sources’ motives.”  Nowhere in the piece does Rossen point to the motives of those producing the video.

No place in the story, which has seven separate clips of Alabama Agriculture Commission Ron Sparks or his staff complaining about imported seafood, does Rossen provide his viewers the context that Mr. Sparks was running for Governor in a state with heavy catfish interests.

Messrs. Rossen and Powell surely know how video can be misused: In the 2002 documentary, “Bowling for Columbine,” Rossen was seen snapping at a producer while obsessing about his hair in between takes, before returning to somber-TV-reporter-mode once the television cameras started to roll at a murdered 6-year-old’s funeral (see the Quicktime version of “NEWSBREAKERS Presents: COLLARED” halfway down the page.)

Rossen and Powell have been working on the story for weeks.  And like other stories that Mr. Rossen and Mr. Powell have produced, this one has been recycled too. When the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) learned that they were working on this retread we reached out to them in hopes of ensuring their viewers understood the full story, including FDA’s seafood inspection process.

Nine days before NFI president John Connelly sat for an interview with Rossen we sent Powell a six-page letter with 23 attachments that explained the fact that this story is being pushed by domestic catfish farmers who want to keep imported seafood out of the U.S. We also included a description of how the FDA’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulatory system works and why concerns over only 2% of imported seafood being inspected are misplaced.

FDA’s HACCP system solves problems at their source, whether in Alabama or an exporting country 5,000 miles from the US border.  The 2% inspection rate that Rossen seemed to not understand was an additional inspection, targeted at companies that may have had problems in the past.  Put another way, wouldn’t you focus your search for misbehaving teenagers in the high school detention hall and not at Glee Club practice?

Included in the research was a detailed chart based on independent Centers for Disease Control data illustrating that fish (both domestic and imported) is among the safest foods American enjoy. None of the major food recalls in the past 10 years have involved imported seafood. Think about it …. all the recalls and food safety scares of the past 10 years – there has not been one significant seafood recall during that time.

We shared with them independent writings from a former USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety in which he clearly states that the issue Rossen and Powell were reporting on was “not a public health issue, [but] a trade issue.”

We carefully explained FDA’s HACCP regulatory system and even presented Powell with the opportunity to interview a leading independent authority on HACCP from Cornell University with 24 years experience as a Seafood Technology Specialist.

Two independent domestic seafood organizations wrote to Powell before we sat for the interview and noted that they recognized “NFI’s commitment to food safety based on ground truth science is unmatched in the seafood industry” and that “NFI’s commitment to seafood safety includes domestic products and imported products.”

In addition, NFI has pointed out our leadership of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, a coalition pushing for increased funding for FDA.  And NFI has been singled out by Senator Durbin for our support of enhanced food safety legislation that would strengthen FDA.  In this story, Rossen and Powell took the use of “creative” editing to new levels in efforts to fit imported seafood into their preconceived notions of good guys and bad guys.

When Powell falsely claimed, following the interview, that FDA’s HACCP regulatory system had nothing to do with unapproved antibiotics, but only food borne illnesses, we suggested that he seek the council of an independent expert who would provide him the correct information.  Chapter 11 Sec. 123.6 of the HACCP’s Fish and Fisheries Products Hazards and Control Guide clearly addresses unapproved antibiotics.

Further on October 27th Mr. Powell claimed to have already talked with FDA about this issue prior to our interview.  An inquiry with the FDA found no record of such a conversation prior to October 27th.

When Mr. Connelly sat for a 40-minute interview with Rossen, things started badly and then went downhill from there.  Before the interview even began, our request for a simple glass of water was rejected.  With the reporter noting that they “didn’t have any water for you.” During the course of the interview, Rossen repeated one question 14 separate times. Click here for a transcript of the full interview.  Such badgering leads us to believe Rossen either didn’t get the answer he was looking for,  had what we can only politely conclude was a poor grasp of the subject matter, or was pushing the special interest agenda highlighted in the video we mentioned at the outset.

It would appear that Rossen’s professional decorum has left a lot to be desired over the course of his career, and not only during our interaction:

In 2005, Rossen was seen manhandling an individual who had wandered into camera range while the reporter was doing a live shot. It was a scene one blog called a “J-school anger management training film.”

How seriously should viewers take a reporter that spends most of his time covering gossip stories and who then pretends to investigate important stories like food safety? Rossen has been busted by the New York Daily News for recycling other stories as his own. Yesterday he left his usual beat covering "Snooki," Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan’s latest stint in rehab to report on the regulation of imported seafood.

Aside from the reporter’s poor etiquette we contend that Rossen and Powell ignored facts and important resources presented to them throughout the production of this story.  Their zeal to produce a report about a danger to consumers appears to have clouded their journalistic integrity. Even in the face of an overwhelming amount of research that showed there was another very legitimate perspective on the tale they were trying to tell, they failed their viewers, opting for sensationalism over reliable reporting.

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