The Once Promising Journalist Who Became a Sadistic Troll

Science journalists, like their colleagues who cover politics, sports, and national security, navigate a landscape where public discourse is often fierce and at times unhinged. If a journalist covers one of these contentious areas, criticism–and responding to it–comes with the territory.

But as science journalist Kevin Begos noted in a 2014 article for the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), “these days journalists, PIOs [Public Information Officers], and scientists find themselves facing personal attacks and even death threats. Just writing about global warming, GMOs, or vaccines can trigger personal attacks or lawsuits.”

It is ugliest for women who are on the receiving end of these attacks, as the magazine writer Amy Wallace has discussed, and the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has shown.

There is another type of antagonism scientists and journalists sometimes face, in which the point isn’t to bludgeon someone with verbal assaults, but rather to smear a person’s reputation with false intimations of wrongdoing.

Those who engage in the latter form of character assassination tend to behave in ways that make the intent obvious. Telltale signs are name-calling, sarcastic condescension, ad hominem and guilt-by-association wordplay.

Someone who does all this publicly online reveals himself as a troll. Someone who does this publicly and also privately, behind the scenes, is malevolent.

Why would someone go to such lengths to discredit another person’s reputation? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for months. Why, I’ve wondered, would a former reporter-turned-NGO consultant make it his mission to tarnish my name in the eyes of my colleagues? Why would he cavalierly malign other journalists in the same fashion? I don’t know if I have the answer, but it’s a bizarre story that needs to be on the record.

Last month, the Berkley biologist Michael Eisen got fed up with someone who had been badmouthing him for a while on Twitter. Eisen had periodically tried to reason with Paul Thacker, a former journalist, who for months had falsely painted Eisen as an opponent of transparency and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The insults and false statements infuriated Eisen. He often was baited into snarling back. Then he thought to channel the negative energy into something playful:

 After suggestions started pouring in, Eisen floated another one:

Amy Harmon, the New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, chimed in.

I don’t know Harmon. I’ve only met her once, when she spoke with my journalism students last year during a class. We’ve also exchanged a few emails and talked once over the phone. For someone so accomplished, Harmon strikes me as awfully modest and nice. She’s not the snarking type–at least from what I’ve seen on Twitter. What might have prompted her to make a crack about Paul Thacker’s trolling? I’ll get to that in a minute.

Before I go any farther, let me acknowledge that anyone who spends a lot of time online probably pops off every so often. No doubt many of us (myself included) have lobbed insults, flamed someone, rushed to hasty conclusions, or said things on Twitter we wish we hadn’t.  But there is a class of people that go well beyond this. “Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response,” as one Psychology Today blogger says.

At first, it was weird when Thacker started trolling me nearly two years ago. I remember being perplexed, since it came out of nowhere. He began misrepresenting my climate change related posts at Discover magazine, prompting me to ask him outright in March of 2014 why he was behaving this way. No response. By that summer he began focusing mostly on my GMO-related writing.

I thought it was strange that he would include the conspiracist loon Mike “Health Ranger” Adams on the tweet. This was also the same week that Adams had been called out for comparing biotech scientists to Nazis. Adams doesn’t strike me as someone fit to engage in rational dialogue, but Thacker evidently thought Adams worthy enough to flag his attention, so that was odd. Thacker’s gratuitous drive-by Twitter snarking continued through the summer of 2014. I challenged him to make constructive critiques and even offered him an unedited platform.

He never took me up on the offer. Of course the trolling continued, largely related to my GMO-related blog posts at Discover. In February, 2015, I reported for Science that an anti-GMO group was looking to obtain emails from public university researchers via state Freedom of Information requests. Other outlets picked up on the story, which seemed to perturb Thacker. So even if I didn’t author a particular article, he’d use it to slime me. 

On it went. He characterized me as a GMO activist. Sometimes he’d harangue me cryptically about a story unrelated to GMOs that I’d written several years back.

I had no idea what he was referring to. I told him that if I committed some error he should take it up with the health & science editor at Slate (Laura Helmuth), who has edited nearly all my pieces there (including the one he was complaining about).

Shortly after this, Thacker ratcheted up his attacks on me in ways that would take my breath away. That’s when I realized something else was going on. Those who paid close attention to what was happening were dumbfounded. For my own comic relief, I’d tell some of these observers about an interesting angle to the story.


In 2000, shortly after being hired as an editor at Audubon magazine, one of my duties was to edit short pieces written by interns. The first intern I worked with that year was a man in his late 20s, an Army veteran who served in Desert Storm, the 1991 war against Iraq. He was new to journalism and didn’t say much, though he exuded a quiet intensity.

My few interactions with this intern were unremarkable. We had no disagreements. I edited a few of his small stories and he then moved on, starting a career as a freelancer writing about environmental science. In the next few years, I’d hear his name pop up occasionally, when he’d contact the managing editor, who sat in the cube next to me. “I just got a call from Paul Thacker,” my colleague would say say to me, over the wall. Thacker had asked for some advice on a feature story he was working on for another nature magazine. That struck me as a healthy sign. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help when you’re trying to prove yourself.

As the 2000s wore on, I lost track of Thacker, my former intern, though I saw that he got involved with the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), an organization I had also belonged to at the time. Then one night in 2006 I happened to be watching a PBS show on investigative journalism. Thacker’s recent pieces for a Washington D.C.-based environmental journal had revealed “connections among big businesses, big money, and industry-funded front group,” according to the show. Thacker’s budding career had a theme: Uncovering corporate influence in science. Several years later, Thacker left journalism to become a congressional investigator, where he furthered his watchdog reputation while working for Republican Senator Charles Grassley. Nature did a lengthy profile on Thacker in 2009 after he ferreted out undisclosed ties between biomedical researchers and the pharmaceutical industry. The Nature piece portrayed Thacker as an earnest but zealous crusader. Here’s a telling passage:

Some journalists say that they look at Thacker with both respect and wariness. “When he started working for Grassley, my feeling was: ‘My God, I hope I’m never on the other end of his gun,” says a science journalist who did not want to be identified for commenting on a fellow reporter.

Thacker left Grassley’s Senate office a few years later to work at the Project on Government Oversight, an NGO. He didn’t stay long. Thacker next became a 2012-2013 “lab Fellow” at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. He remained affiliated with the Center through much of  2014. From his bio there:

With a grant from the Rockefeller Family Fund, he consults for several nonprofits on investigations, congressional relations, and media strategy.

That was a curious thing I only recently discovered, after Thacker took a strong interest in a GMO-related news story I wrote this summer.  *** On August 6th, I published an exclusive for Nature. The anti-GMO group that had filed freedom of Information requests with numerous universities had started to get some results. As I reported: “These include roughly 4,600 pages of e-mails and other records from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a well-known advocate of GM organisms.”  In the story, I go on to lay out the newsworthy bits from the emails–the travel reimbursements from industry to attend public outreach functions, the unrestricted $25,000 grant from Monsanto, and so on. (I talk about the story in detail in this post.) The story was important: it revealed a closer-than-known level of coordination between the biotech industry and a scientist who had become a prominent GMO advocate, in part because he had been seen as  an “independent” scientist. The story also revealed that the number of public researchers whose emails were being sought by the anti-GMO group had grown to over forty. As soon as the story was published, Thacker went to work disparaging it–and me.

In the ensuing days and weeks, Thacker would wrongly suggest that I left out key parts of the story, and that I was in cahoots with Folta. (If you want the backstory of how I got the emails, read this post.)

What Thacker has never divulged is that he was shopping the emails around to various media outlets, including Nature, just as I was writing my piece. Was he doing so on behalf of the anti-GMO group that obtained the emails?  Did Thacker strive to discredit my reporting simply because I beat him to the story? Or more because he didn’t like the story I wrote?

Regardless, in Mid-August, Thacker teamed up with the science journalist Charles Seife to write a piece for PLOS that was part defense of FOIA, part criticism of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and part criticism of my related stories for Science and Nature. Both UCS and I were aggrieved at the numerous mischaracterizations in the piece– UCS at the way their position on FOIA had been distorted and me, at how my reporting had been misrepresented.

Other errors came to light involving Thacker and Seife’s description of the emails related to Folta and the piece was soon retracted by PLOS

When the PLOS piece first appeared, I mentioned my issues with it to Seife and I also alerted him to Thacker’s Twitter obsession with me over the last two years. It was around this time that Thacker went after Michael Eisen on Twitter, who is the co-founder of PLOS. Thacker has since repeatedly suggested that it was Eisen who had the piece retracted, which Eisen has angrily rejected many times.

As August wound down, Thacker kept making new false charges of impropriety against me on Twitter.

There was no campaign against FOIA by the Cornell organization that had co-hosted a talk I gave at the university earlier in the year. And they didn’t invite me; it was the Government department. But this was typical of how Thacker operated. Over Labor Day weekend, Eric Lipton of the New York Times published a front page story on the GMO emails, which greatly expanded on what I reported for Nature weeks earlier. Thacker took the opportunity to pivot off interest in the story with a dark insinuation.

The next day, a curious thing happened.

An anonymous email was sent to more than a dozen editors who work at Science, Nature, Scientific American and elsewhere. It was from a Russian email server. The headline of the email read: “Weird Journalism Professor in New York (Judith Miller all over again).” Here it is in its entirety:

Hi, I am interning in science journalism and so I want to stay anonymous. I have been reading the emails put out by the University of Florida and I am very disturbed to see some emails with journalism professor Keith Kloor. Apparently, he is friends with all these scientists who take money from Monsanto, and this other person named Jon Entine who operates this weird website called the genetic literacy project. This looks like a site paid for by Monsanto or some trade organization. We have only read a small portion of the thousands of pages of emails, but what we are seeing thus far is sickening. To add to this, if you read Mr. Kloor¹s writing on genetically modified organisms, he never misses a chance to slam other reporters and calling them biased such as Tom Philpott at Mother Jones or Carey Gilliam at Reuters. Meanwhile, it appears that Mr. Kloor is super buddies with all these scientists who are secretly taking money, and he then interviews them for stories in Discover, Science, Slate, or Nature such as Kevin Folta and Bruce Chassey. There is nothing in these stories to explain that these scientists are friends with Mr. Kloor or that they are taking money from the companies. Why is this allowed and okay for a journalism professor to do this and why do these publications print this type of propaganda? This is really not normal. Not okay.

The anonymous email included two attachments containing two emails where I am peripherally mentioned. You can see those emails at the anti-GMO’s group’s website, where they were posted weeks later, along with the emails of several other journalists. (More about this in a minute.)

I had my suspicions about who was behind this stunt, and so did a number of the editors who received the anonymous email.


By the time the NYT story was published, some journalists noticed Thacker’s pattern on Twitter. His own recent work as a non-profit consultant was also noticed.

Others had asked him the same question, including an editor at one science magazine. I also asked him in an email, CC’ing Charles Seife, who is my colleague at NYU, where I have been an adjunct journalism professor since 2005. Thacker wouldn’t give a straight answer to any of us. It was duly noted.

As all this was playing out over the summer, several science journalists and science communicators started forwarding to me emails they had been receiving from Thacker. They were on his media distribution list. One of the recipients called these emails “Thacker-grams.”

Thacker liked to keep them up to date on various developments of importance to him. So for example, after the Times story came out, he alerted his email list to the piece and said that “critics of using FOIA to expose [industry] ties include: Union of Concerned Scientists, scientist Kevin Folta, climate scientist Michael Mann, climate denialist Lord Monckton, and bloggers/GMO activists Keith Kloor and Jon Entine.”

Meanwhile, his public trolling of me continued and got even more blatantly slanderous, if that was possible.

The link goes to a tweet by a Bloomberg reporter, who was linking to an article by a biotech scientist. My name is not part of any of this–not the tweet, not the story, nothing. By now, some science journalists are incredulous at what Thacker is doing. They start telling me that he is willfully defaming me. And defaming me not once, not twice, but multiple times. He’s also enjoying it, it seems. At the end of September, the anti-GMO group puts out a press release with the emails of journalists that were mentioned in the FOIA file they received. Thacker was true to form. 

I knew the two emails he was referencing were absurd, and so did colleagues who took the time to look at them. But the anti-GMO group found a few other journalists who had been mentioned, such as Amy Harmon, and put its own spin on meaningless third party chit chat. The same day the anti-GMO group put out a press release about these emails, Thacker made sure to forward it to his his media list.

In early October, Thacker kept up with his slanderous trolling.

At what point does Paul Thacker become accountable for his defamation? At what point does he reveal what NGOs and foundations he is working with, and whether they are involved in any GMO-related work? I can’t answer those questions. But I do know that on a study published last year, Slate hit the mark with this headline: “Internet Trolls Really are Horrible People.”

UPDATE 2/16: Since I wrote this post three months ago, Thacker’s slanderous attacks continue to come in bursts. For example, in the first half of February, 2016, he’s trolled me more than a dozen times on Twitter. It’s hard to overstate his bizarre obsession with me. I’m on the receiving end of his rants, and he makes sure to include my twitter handle. So clearly he wants me to pay attention to him. Yet, after I wrote this post in November he blocked me on Twitter. One day I hope to better understand his pathology. 

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