Imagine a newspaper that invites writers to print columns by scientists and sciencewriters on whatever subject they choose. Now the paper does run advertising, but has traditionally given the writers complete freedom on the subject material in their columns. Then one day the paper starts to run a column that is not simply surrounded by advertising, or even sponsored by a corporation, but instead is actually written by the corporation's staff. This is the situation that has developed over at Scienceblogs. Pepsico has been invited to start a new blog called Food Frontiers, written by their R and D staff and edited by the Scienceblog editors. Note that this is not simple a blog on food sponsored by Pepsico, which could be considered philanthropic, but one that many would assume had content basically approved by Pepsico. The company does state it is an extension of their already existing Food Frontiers blog. This setup is analogous to the NY Times starting an energy column, and having it written not by independent journalists, but by Exxon-Mobil's R and D staff. Now such a column may have very good content about how petroleum forms, how it is found, recovered and processed etc. But would we expect the company to allow an honest assessment of petroleum resources to be published? Maybe, maybe not.
Some Sciencebloggers have already left. Others, such has Respectful Insolence have rationally pointed out the conflict of interest this raises and how the whole matter affects the ability of blogging scientists to call out quacks, denialists and assorted wed whack-a-loons. While others have taken a wait and see approach, the blogger over at ERV has accused those who have a problem with Food Frontiers of being food elitists. Someone there maybe smoking ground-up copies of Ayn Rand or something, but you don't need to be some marxist or miltant hippie vegan to have a problem with FF. I myself have contributed to Pepsico's profits through the years (although I tend towards Coke nowadays) and have setup a corporate entity of my own for a for profit business, yet I can clearly see the problem here. Pepsico already has their own blog and a hugely successful marketing program and does not need an advertising platform mimicking an independently written blog. I love the Red Sox, but I wouldn't like it if they took the content of their own website and started to post it along with all the other sports blogs on ESPN.
I am also getting heartily sick and tired of people acting like big-business is under unprecedented attack, that any regulation is identical to fascism, that corporate entities are "persons" in the same sense as living human beings, that any penny of tax on the wealthy is the same as slavery and so on. I wonder about people who feel the need to overact react in such a way and blindly defend powerful companies who don't need their help to begin with. The various levels and branches of government, business interests, activists, churches, universities, unions and individual all are integral parts of society, but too much unchecked and unquestioned power concentrated in any one of them unbalances democracy and erodes it. Large corporations don't need anymore help, and realizing that is not an attack on our individual freedoms and democracy.