Cola Controversy Riles Up Princeton

Just as a student campaign to urge Harvard to cut its contract with Coke is fizzing up, a magazine whose primary sponsor is the Coca-Cola Company was door-dropped across campus on Friday with a spread on campus campaigns against Coke, as well as a full page rebuttal from the company to allegations of human rights abuses.

Writing in the Princeton University-based “Business Today”—which says it reaches 150,000 readers nationwide—Coke’s Director of Global Labor Relations and Workplace Accountability Edward E. Potter said that the soft drink maker “respects the rights of workers.”

The magazine bills itself as “for students, by students,” despite the fact that it received $25,000 from Coke within the past year.

While recognizing that there could have been a conflict of interest as a result of the corporate sponsorship, Editor-in-Chief Michael J.K. Kratsios defended his magazine’s Coke coverage. The staff “worked very hard to make sure we present a balanced approach to the issue,” said Kratsios, a junior at Princeton. “We worked very hard to make sure that the article was a factual article.” He added that news outlets like National Public Radio, though they have corporate sponsors, are still considered objective.

Bob Giles, director of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, said it was possible for a publication to report on its sponsors, but that news and business operations should be separated. “The news side of Business Today must be free to provide its readers a full report on the issue without any interference from the business side of the magazine or any inclination to restrain its coverage because Coke is a sponsor,” he wrote.

But while Coke gets a full page in the magazine to rebut allegations, the company’s opponents don’t get a similar space to make their case.

The magazine includes a poll of 100 New York University students in which 47 percent express opposition to their university’s December decision to remove Coke from campus, while just 33 percent support the decision.

Kratsios said he contacted and offered a University of Michigan professor, as well as Killer Coke Campaign leader Ray Rogers, the same opportunity the magazine offered Coke’s Potter. But Kratsios said that the magazine chose not to print those responses. “What came back to us was an article which the information presented in it could not be substantiated whatsoever,” Kratsios said. “There were no sources, there were endless claims, which could have been seen as slander.”

But Giles wrote that protesters ought to have been given the same space as Coke, regardless of editorial concerns of credibility. “In an issue of this kind, the magazine is not in a position to verify the accuracy of a statement from Coke or a statement from the protestors,” he wrote. “It is appropriate for the magazine to be a forum that presents the points of view of both parties to the dispute.”



A FIZZING DEBATE?

At Harvard, the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) is waging its own campaign against Coke, and the effort is gathering increased attention.

Last week, SLAM leader Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky ’07 sent an e-mail to House open lists a list of alleged human rights abuses. Among them, Gould-Wartofsky alleged that Coke was complicit in the murder of Colombian union organizers and the depletion of water sources in India.

The e-mail, which was the first mass-distributed iteration of SLAM’s allegations against Coke and included links to outside sources, led to an immediate response by Joshua M. Reilly ’08 and Mark A. Shepard ’08 on Red Ivy, the blog for the Harvard Republican Club. The post noted that official inquiries in Colombia have cleared Coke on human rights charges, and that the company has cooperated with outside investigations into its labor practices.

Reilly has also created Students for a Fair Hearing on Coke, a group that will help correct what he perceives to be factual errors in SLAM’s arguments.

According to Reilly, Students for a Fair Hearing on Coke neither supports nor opposes Coke.

“We want to make sure students have two viable options,” Reilly said. “We just want students to make a choice.”

The group will mainly seek to show that past outside investigations have exonerated Coke, and that the company is complying with current inquiries. Shepard added that Coke has agreed to an investigation conducted by the United Nation (UN) International Labor Organization (ILO), and said, “If the UN’s ILO is not independent enough, then no one is independent enough.”

Gould-Wartofsky welcomed the opposition, viewing it as an opportunity for debate.

“I think before, the lack of discussion indicated that people weren’t even thinking of the issue. Now people are thinking,” said Gould-Wartofsky, who is a former Crimson opinion columnist.

-Staff writer Benjamin L. Weintraub can be reached at bweintr@fas.harvard.edu.