The Atlantic Water Summit …After These Messages

[Editor’s Note: DCBureau.org sent a pair of reporters to Atlantic magazine's October 29th Water Summit. Our reporters were prevented from videotaping the conference by The Atlantic who arranged to exclusively tape the event, but did not offer it live. We present our Atlantic — approved video report by Allison Sickle and a companion piece by correspondent Byron Moore that was not shared in advance with Atlantic’s team of editors and advertisers.]

The main Ballroom at the National Press Club was packed with individuals from nonprofits, government and business (lobbyists, media relations and a few executives) who traded business cards, overused acronyms and buzzwords, asked long questions, and got short answers. As a large camera in the back panned the room, The Atlantic Water Summit was officially live.

Stories That Matter #2: The Atlantic Water Summit …After These Messages

The Atlantic deputy managing editor, James Gibney, moderated the first panel, “A New Era for Water?” When Assistant Secretary of Interior Department for Water and Science Anne Castle spoke, she gave a serious breakdown of the water programs her department is trying to implement — like conducting a new water census and using $135 million for 27 projects to develop water recycling, reclamation and reuse projects. The panel focused on the need to improve water infrastructure. This issue that has been debated for decades. While the Bush administration prepared spending U.S. discretionary taxes on a war in Iraq in 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the Clean Water and Drinking Water Gap Analysis Report. This report estimated that over the next 20 years, the country needed to spend an additional $122 billion for infrastructure to provide clean, safe drinking water to local communities. More than nine years later, that figure has only grown. Castle’s $135 million seems, pardon my pun, like a drop in the bucket. Experts put the realistic figure between $400 and $600 billion, and this estimate climbs for water and sewer infrastructure replacement.

Panel member Dr. Robert Wilkinson said “…There’s a very strong link between improving water sufficiency and in doing so saving energy, which usually also saves greenhouse gas emissions…”

Also on the panel was the chief executive officer of France based Veolia Water, “North America’s leading provider of comprehensive water and wastewater partnership services to municipal entities, businesses and manufacturers,” Laurent Auguste.

When James Gibney, deputy managing editor of The Atlantic, asked what the impact the stimulus bill could have on water infrastructure, Auguste remarked that the stimulus provides “…a lot of room for the municipalities in the U.S. to create their own stimulus by driving more efficiency [and] by coming with more advanced program[s]…” Veolia Water was recently accused of giving out its own stimulus package, spending $25,000 to back incumbents running for re-election in California’s Novato Sanitary District Board. The Novato Sanitary District board recently selected Veolia to operate a $90 million wastewater treatment plant. C’est la vie.

The second panel was all business from the sponsor’s and The Atlantic’s point of view. It featured the presidents of Monsanto and Black & Veatch — both sponsors of the event. They addressed issues of supply and demand with regard to water on a global level. “How will Supply Meet Demand?” was moderated by The Atlantic senior editor, Clive Crook, who introduced Atlantic advertiser Hugh Grant, the chairman, president and CEO of Monsanto. Grant immediately launched into the links among agriculture, the impending water crisis and climate change. Grant warmed up the crowd in typical Billy Mays style, with a touch of Sean Connery in his accent, by asking, “How do you double a yield on the same footprint and use a third less [water]? Double the amount of production on the same acres and use a third less stuff.”

Crook tried to coax something more specific out of his magazine’s financial benefactor. Grant — ever witty and down to earth — nonchalantly announced “by 2012, 2013, we will launch our first drought tolerant crops in the U.S…” No big deal, unless you understood Grant’s company was the biggest supplier of genetically modified seeds in the world and Grant had a new product to introduce.

Grant picked the perfect moment to let this room packed full of government officials, lobbyists, business people and nonprofit professionals know that Monsanto was preparing a seed to fight the impending water crisis.

Grant then proceeded to shed a single tear and the people, they clapped. It was glorious. Men took out ceremonial daggers, each vying to sacrifice themselves for the opportunity to deliver these seeds to the people. “No. No. Stay your weapons,” cried Grant. He retrieved the seeds from his pocket and said, “My children, these seeds, they are yours…for a nominal fee…and you have to buy them every year.” The crowd erupted in jubilation and bacchanalia. And, you loved it.

Ok, that didn’t happen, but it shows you the effect a charismatic corporate CEO can have and begs some important questions.

The summit will return after these commercial messages

If Monsanto’s presence at a water summit seems a little like a defense contractor at a peace rally, then, you can imagine how many questions reporters had for Mr. Grant. Keep imagining because none were asked. If you didn’t get your question in during a panel nay intrepid reporting, trying to get a question in to Grant was difficult. After the panel our attempts to question the CEO were intercepted by his loyal cadre of PR flunkies. When we tried to grab a quick interview with Grant, a very polite assistant quickly intervened, handed us a business card, and told us he was in a hurry to leave. He had an urgent meeting.

Hugh Grant, center, with his fellow panelist. Photo: Byron Moore
Hugh Grant, center, with his fellow panelist. Photo: Byron Moore

Did anyone at The Atlantic snag an interview with Grant? Did anyone even try? Perhaps Corby Kummer, a contributor of The Atlantic, the author of The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors and Recipes, and the moderator of the third panel, might have a few questions for Monsanto. Kummer, who reviewed the documentary Food Inc. for The Atlantic, wrote in particular about one scene involving Monsanto’s notorious patent protection practices. Kummer said about a farmer in the scene, “[Parr] must miserably confirm that their crops were ‘beans only’–the seeds Monsanto says it owns. Frame by frame we watch a life being broken.” And referencing a scene he said sums up the story and the system in which Monsanto plays a big role, he wrote, “It’s a story we must work to change.” Maybe he had a question or two or maybe he didn’t, but for the president of Monsanto to leave the National Press Club without a single serious question makes one wonder about the premise of the event.

A cursory look through Monsanto’s history reveals an environmental and ethical record at odds with both their green message and place at this summit. Whether Monsanto is polluting Anniston, Alabama, with PCBs, obfuscating the science in its advertising of its Roundup brand’s safety, using mining techniques that send heavy metals into Idaho waterways, creating super weeds, or intentionally creating sterile seeds, one can really start to question why they would be asked to sponsor such an event.

Zachary Hooper of The Atlantic’s team of flacks from the Rosen Group gave a breakdown of how these summits work. According to Hooper, these events bring academics, nonprofits, businesses, lobbyists and government officials together to discuss emerging topics. Hooper actually claims that a editorial board — separate from the magazine — picks the topic, structures the panels and looks for sponsors. Mr. Hooper stated that the sponsors are “…often people they have existing relationships with in one way or another or that they’re talking to about various things and obviously looking at people who have a certain expertise and interest in whatever the subject matter may be.” He also said that their sponsors are typically advertisers and groups that work with these issues.

When asked if this is a conflict of interest, Mr. Hooper said they maintain editorial independence. He was also quick to dismiss these “summits” as being in the same vein as the “salons” The Washington Post was criticized for attempting to hold, saying that their events were “…useful and interesting dialogues.” Emma Heald of Editorsweblog.org reported that The Atlantic media chairman, David Bradley, sent an email to staff stating that “… the size of our dinners, the presence of outside reporters, and the representation of all manner of opposing views have worked well to keep conversation at the level of debate — not advancing any one party’s interests.”

Numerous publications have started questioning these types of events, and when put alongside the Post’s “salons” and Newsweek’s “forum” with the American Petroleum Institute, it is hard not to spot a trend that seems to be increasing. The economic pressures on the mainstream media are forcing it to look for new sources of revenue by erasing the lines between editorial content and advertisers under the guise of open forums that allow the participants to exchange information. In reality, it gives powerful corporations unchallenged platforms, stature and credibility for which they are happy to pay. Is it the death knell of the mainstream media? As print outlets lose money, circulation and influence, few beyond the journalism community seem to care. These events — once shocking — are now accepted as a desperate attempt to survive, like the record business going to live venues to make back the money they have lost to the internet.

But what’s important is the swag I received at this event. Beyond the catered refreshments, which were quite good — and not genetically engineered, I received a gift bag. Inside the bag were three items: a free copy of the latest The Atlantic magazine, a large, green Bisphenol A free Monsanto water bottle and a flash drive with Black and Veatch promotional material. All those government officials, nonprofits, lobbyist, business representatives and other journalists got the same bag – and got thoroughly green washed by The Atlantic and Monsanto.

Black and Veatch bear mentioning. I watched their promotional material and was left to ask, “Who is their target audience?” It certainly was not me. It was probably the lobbyist, business people and government officials who might inquire about their services. As taxpayers you should know that Veatch received hundreds of millions in US AID money to construct water facilities in Iraq. That might explain why there is not enough money left to fix infrastructure here. Oh The Atlantic, you’re quite the matchmaker.

According to Climate Progress, The Atlantic Water Summit is the 54th event of this type held by The Atlantic this year.

Back to the show

When I returned from my delectable lunch I noticed something odd. Strewn across every table were glorious, water-filled bottles. They dotted every visible surface in sight, many left mostly full by the end of the conference. It was a moment that certainly seemed contradictory to the message of efficiently using water and served to heighten the impact of the final panel, which mainly focused on the lack of clean water in the developing world. It was, by far, the most ironic thing I have ever witnessed (including the entire internet).

The third panel, moderated by Atlantic Senior Editor Corby Kummer was the most interesting because the people on his panel had actually spent time with in the developing world. The life and death issues this panel discussed seemed far more compelling than the corporate morning session, which triggered PTSD dreams of Monsanto spreading terminator seeds throughout the developing world. These panelists questioned the idea of progress based on the Millennium Development Goals and whether efforts to bring water and sanitation to the developing world were working. The panelists were quick to note that their work was having short term effects, but they questioned whether the measures they were taking were having a lasting impact.

As the witty Louis Boorstin, who runs water hygiene for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, talked about the scarcity of water and how women and girls are typically the ones to spend hours getting what water is available, the contrast of the abundance and waste of bottled water in the room became all the more strange as the panelists worked through the task of finding decent water in the developing world.

The last panel was very colorful and unusually direct in discussing the difficulties of delivering water to people who don’t even have basic water and sanitation, even going so far as to ask how to make toilets sexy enough to increase their abundance in places they’re needed the most. One panelist described how the fictional characters of the television show Mad Men might sell sanitation in a place where it can be far too taboo to bring up such subjects

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) also spoke at length about the need to bring clean water to the developing world and the passion his mentor, the late Democratic Sen. Paul M. Simon (D-Ill.), had brought to that endeavor.

Photo: Byron Moore
Photo: Byron Moore
As I read my free The Atlantic and marveled at the beautiful, full-page Monsanto ad on page 13, I was left dumbfounded by what I had just seen. Was the water conference beneficial? Yes, there was easily some tangible gain from going to this conference. The depth of knowledge there and the manner in which they took on the issue was informative and did well to shed the light on the conference, but the ickyness of advertising and journalism being mashed together lingers. Are these types of conferences appropriate and can journalistic institutions truly maintain a high level of journalist integrity by holding them?

These are question that will be answered in the pages of these illustrious publications, in the depth of coverage they give, and by the scrutiny they apply to even their best advertisers. It is the readers that will decide how they feel about these conferences, and if initial reaction to these types of events serves as appropriate evidence, then, the reaction isn’t good. These conferences aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and only time will tell if the information they give is worth the pound of flesh the sponsors extract and the mountain of salt we must take to believe companies like Monsanto really truly care.

Either way, I’m going to need a place to store all the free stuff I’ll be getting at these things.

Byron Moore

Byron Moore is a former webmaster for DCBureau.org and a former correspondent.

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