Thursday, May 08, 2008

Hillary, Monsanto, and "Itchy and Scratchy"...

Americans often like their drama predictable. One of the best news story lines now is about the monster corporation versus the puny individual victims. In our world, few entities can be cast as the monster as easily as Monsanto. So we get stories that any of you could write by formula.

A case in point: Monsanto and the Heroic Broadcaster
For weeks, Brownfield had been ripping Monsanto on air for its policies of enforcing its seed patents against farmers.

On the April 16 show, Brownfield’s topic was seed industry concentration in America.

His guests were Fred Stokes, president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, and Michael Stumo, general counsel of the group.

Stokes and Stumo were promoting a new project to study corporate concentration in the seed industry.

Monsanto is the dominant player in the global seed industry and has a reputation for playing rough.
Any guesses as to the rest of the story? Let me reassure you - you've got it right.
“And I’ve been saying to Stan, settle down, it will all be alright,” Lear said. “But I imagine Stan is getting a lot of pressure from his sales executives. We have three that call on Monsanto for different products. And I would assume that he is getting pressure from those sales executives. When those sales executives call on Monsanto, Monsanto is complaining to the sales executives. That is where the connection happens. But you would have to talk to them about the kind of leverage Monsanto is putting on them. They have never to my knowledge threatened to pull any advertising.” [More]
Long story short: the radio personality loses his show. But this melodrama is curious to me for several different reasons:
  • Are guys still trying to save soybeans? Good grief, relatively low seed cost is one issue many of us are looking to plant more beans if we could only &%^#@ forward contract 2009 production. People, this is 2008, not 1996! If you want to save seed don't sign the contract and buy the RR seed.
  • The article references the Vanity Fair screed against Monsanto which similarly is about a decade late in its targeting because they work from the agrarian viewpoint.
  • A more interesting story, IMHO, is how the rBST issue developed and how it may point to a flaw in the Monsanto strategy on intellectual property (more below).
  • Left unsaid in the broadcaster story is the overriding problem of all broadcast media - declining and fragmented viewers/listeners. Many cutback are occurring under duress of lower advertising because dollars are flowing to media like..well, this one. Monsanto, for example, helps fund individual bloggers (I wish), seemingly unrelated interest groups, and other non-traditional media. I know because I always check the "About Us" disclosures, and simply ask bloggers. It's good to know where opinions are coming from when you link to them.
You have to be careful about stories like these. If advertisers only spent money to control media content, we really aren't delivering any intrinsic value to begin with. If the articles in FJ or the stories on USFR are of no interest to farmers, what the heck do we think we are doing? The inference that advertisers fork out bucks to control content rests on the content being valueless to begin with. I want advertisers to want their ads to be seen by readers who like to read my stuff, and that is the core of the business.

Besides, there is an inherent problem with greenmail - pulling ads to influence editorial content. As many married couples discover, you can only withhold so much of a desired good. Once you have stopped your ads, your influence drops to zilch.

Whenever a corporation has an issue with an individual, you can be assured who the victim will be in the story. It's reached a point of lameness for me. I'm looking for "man-bites-dog" instead. So this story and its slant will hardly generate the outrage/concern/disgruntlement it might have even a few short years ago.

But there is a much bigger question for me. The policy of constant confrontation, never giving an inch, scorched-earth, whatever it takes, unrelenting attack, (add your euphemism here) is losing its meager attraction for many of us.

I am convinced one big reason for the appeal of Barack Obama is his relatively non-confrontational approach, especially compared to the now increasingly belligerent voice of Hillary Clinton. Count the number of times she uses the word "fight" in her stump speeches. Fight, fight, fight.

As we are discovering in Iraq, all-war-all-the-time is good for [survivors'] military careers and defense contractors, but few else. And oddly enough, it is slowly dawning on America perhaps, that there may be situations where fighting will not produce a solution. But by being wedded to a philosophy of absolute victory by one means only, we slog on, and in the process we more than satiate our appetite for conflict.

The point I'm laboring to get to is I now have doubts about the efficacy of "hardline" tactics in the public relations of intellectual property rights. I'm sure PR firms have done oodles of research on this, but since any suggestion of restraint or simply shrugging something off some event conflicts with their bottom lines, I'm not sure how seriously they would embrace or recommend such. You don't need writers and spokesmodels and ad placements to remain silent, for example.

Frankly, I now try to avoid commerce with in-your-face business partners. They wear me out. I am looking for leadership with brains to innovate new choices, an ability to articulate a vision and a history of choosing conflict last. We've tried cramming our beliefs down the throats of competitors, customers, and casual bystanders - and it has produced checkered results, increasing pushback, and a remarkably irritable population even in the midst of our wealth.

I have issues with Monsanto as a farmer, but these are the same issues I have with other seed companies. The market will sort this out as soon as tighter producer margins begin the market share battle in earnest. I don't need to tell them how to run their side of the business.

But I would suggest lightening up a bit. All of us, for that matter. We're losing much of what agriculture is supposed to hold safe for America - a rural comity that is crucial in all who touch the land. You don't have to win every bout by knockout, you don't have to pick every fight, and the costs of constant conflict are becoming more obvious every minute on our farms.

Domination may sound like a winning strategy, but only if you do it in a way that others don't feel dominated. Focused winners seldom are surrounded by friends, just sycophants and hangers-on.

I've put up with tough. I'm looking for amiable.

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