Shades of Gray: Why A Journalist’s Reporting on MN Raw Milk Won’t Get a Lot of Accolades from Either Side
There have been many newspaper articles about raw milk over the last few years, and they nearly all use the same presentation formula. They begin with an example of a farmer producing raw milk for many happy customers. Then the narrative switches to all the warnings about raw milk’s dangers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control. They conclude with favorable quotes from raw milk drinkers and unfavorable quotes from public health officials.
With that in mind, the article in the Minneapolis StarTribune on Sunday is curious. It contrasts the case of a young child allegedly sickened by raw milk from dairy farmer Michael Hartmann two years ago with the claims by a customer that not only is raw milk highly nutritious, but she has the right to privately obtain milk from Hartmann's dairy
In the process, the article reports on a separate suit brought against Hartmann by the Caldwells, the parents of the child who became sick, and the issue of responsibility. The article reports that the judge in the trial agreed that the child’s parents “potentially bore some responsibility because they should have known of raw milk's risks.” A jury may be called on to make the final determination as to a division of responsibility between Hartmann and the parents, presumably if no settlement is reached beforehand.
The notion of the parents bearing at least some responsibility for serving their children raw milk is a new idea, at least in my experience reporting on raw milk and food rights. Unfortunately, we’ll likely hear little from the parties that most often discuss and debate raw milk.
We'll almost certainly not read anything about the intriguing legalities from lawyers who make the most noise about raw milk, like Bill Marler and Fred Pritzker (who are quoted in the Minneapolis paper’s article); there's not been a peep from them since the case launched the middle of last year. That’s because they are focused primarily on marketing their legal services. The family in the lawsuit is being represented by a diversified Minneapolis firm that doesn’t specialize in product liability the way Marler and Pritzker do, so there's no marketing opportunity, since the case has already been taken off the market. At least I think that’s the reason, unless there is some kind of professional courtesy among lawyers that prohibits them from commenting about another lawyer’s case in public.
In the same vein, I doubt we’ll be hearing much about this article from food rights advocates. I’ve sent it to a number I know, without a peep in response. My guess is that the article's depiction of a young child’s illness and the suggestion that Hartmann’s milk was likely responsible is too uncomfortable to deal with.
Hartmann, for his part, declined to be interviewed for the article, sticking to his vow of silence and privacy in the face of what he has long felt to be uninformed and unfair reporting about him.
I’ve criticized in the past the failure of the Food Rights movement to speak up about illnesses, or to speak appropriately and accurately. I expressed my concerns last summer about Hartmann supporters making a show of support at the trial involving the Caldwell family. On the matter of inaccurate and inconsistent statements, witness Mary Martin’s devastating list of quotations from Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. concerning the outbreak of illnesses linked to OPDC back in 2006 (following my previous post). Yes, the Internet keeps very much alive the quotations of public figures like McAfee—and the inconsistencies are much more damaging over time, in my estimation, than a frank acknowledgment as to the real situation.
This article in the Minneapolis StarTribune thus helps us appreciate both the business considerations at work (for the lawyers and OPDC), as well as the ideological ones that divide.
So, in the face of the silence, I’ll just congratulate the Minneapolis Star reporter, Michael Hughlette, for making a valiant effort at fairness on a story where fairness is little appreciated. It’s nearly impossible to probe the many nuances of the arguments on both sides of the issue in the course of 1,200 to 1,500 words or so. What I liked was that he took seriously the food rights side of the argument as espoused by Melinda Olson and Alvin Schlangen, rather than immediately trashing it and accepting the usual efforts at ridicule by the opponents of raw milk. And by appropriately reporting on the Caldwell child's illness, and filling us in with some new developments on the legal side, he filled in the picture in an informative way.
All involved tend to see the raw milk issue as completely black-and-white , but until each side can accept the shades of gray inherent in the dispute, any sort of mutual acceptance will remain just a distant vision.