World

Importers Call NYT Piece 'Defamatory', Mueller 'Dismayed'

Jan. 28, 2014
By Curtis Cord

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See more: NY Times Olive Oil Fraud Infographic Timeline
A trade group of American olive oil importers blasted the New York Times for what it called a “defam­a­tory and inac­cu­rate” piece on olive oil adul­ter­ation in Italy. And Extra Virginity author Tom Mueller said he was “dis­mayed” that he was cited as the source of the arti­cle.

I had no input on con­tent, fact-check­ing, etc. Wish I had.- Tom Mueller

In a letter to the New York Times Public Editor, Eryn Balch, exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the North American Olive Oil Association, wrote: “I’m shocked by this defam­a­tory piece about Italian olive oil adul­ter­ation. This piece is rid­dled with false state­ments pre­sented as though they are fact.”

“With the lines between fact-based jour­nal­ism and anec­do­tal story-telling being blurred through online media more and more, read­ers need to be able to rely on cred­i­ble insti­tu­tions like The New York Times to sep­a­rate the two,” Balch wrote. “By fail­ing to review the fac­tual state­ments made in this piece, your trusted brand has become an outlet for self-serv­ing mar­ke­teers.”

Tom Mueller

The New York Times offered a slideshow titled “Extra Virgin Suicide,” that pre­sented 15 cards on the process of large-scale adul­ter­ation in the olive oil indus­try in Italy. The fea­ture, which was pub­lished Saturday, is by New York Times illus­tra­tor Nicholas Blechman and cites Mueller as its only source.

Bechman is the art direc­tor of The New York Times Book Review. He is not a Times reporter.

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In an email, Mueller said he “knew noth­ing” about the Times piece and was “dis­mayed” that his name was attached to it. “The author and I spoke briefly by phone, and we exchanged an email, in both of which I gave him gen­eral info on the olive oil indus­try, and pointed him in the direc­tion of more info.”

However, Mueller con­grat­u­lated Blechman in a tweet shortly after the arti­cle’s pub­li­ca­tion:

By now, the piece has been shared around the world, and picked up by count­less online pub­li­ca­tions. On Sunday the New York Times web­site listed it third among its most emailed arti­cles.

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Nicholas Blechman

The graphic, that the New York Times called “inter­ac­tive” despite having no way for read­ers to com­ment, con­tained a number of state­ments that have alarmed indus­try experts with their inac­cu­ra­cies and fueled yet another debate about an indus­try at least as rife with mis­in­for­ma­tion as it is with fraud.

One of the cards in the series said “approx­i­mately 69 per­cent of the olive oil for sale in the U.S. is doc­tored.” It was pre­sum­ably refer­ring to the 2010 U.C. Davis study that found sam­ples of ten imported brands labeled extra virgin in three California super­mar­kets (not exactly a national sam­pling) to be sub­stan­dard — not that they were inten­tion­ally “doc­tored.”

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Another illus­tra­tion implied that the Italian police rely solely on sen­sory test­ing, dis­miss­ing chem­i­cal analy­ses as “easy to fake.” And “many” pro­duc­ers in Italy, with their refiner­ies “raided reg­u­larly,” are nev­er­the­less able to avoid pros­e­cu­tion, accord­ing to the Times, thanks to their “con­nec­tions with pow­er­ful politi­cians” — a stereo­type experts are call­ing overblown and out of touch.

Bechman seems to have come under some fire for the piece, tweet­ing that he was receiv­ing let­ters from Italian chemists while remind­ing read­ers “I’m just an illus­tra­tor.”

In an ear­lier tweet, Blechman thanked Mueller and three other illus­tra­tors for their help with the project.

The New York Times has not responded to a request for com­ment.