The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan excoriated the newspaper in her column last week for its scant investigative reporting on the drinking water emergency in Flint, Michigan. Ms. Sullivan wrote:
This is but the latest example of the newspaper failing to follow up on an important story.
On December 25, 2015 the Times published an exposé about former rabbi, alleged sex offender Marc Gafni, and his alliance with Whole Foods Market co-founder and CEO John Mackey:
“He [Gafni] added, “She was 14 going on 35…”
“Whole Foods Market co-founder and CEO John Mackey…is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center.”
Many follow-ups have been published about Gafni and his alleged wrongdoings, largely by Jewish media outlets. Most notable among these is a first-person account by Sara Kabakov in The Forward. Her first time coming forward publicly in 30 years, she was the 14-year-old described by Gafni as “going on 35.”
More than 100 rabbis authored a petition demanding that Whole Foods cut ties with Gafni. The petition has garnered upwards of 3300 online signatures as of this writing. Comments include a statement by author Joan Borysenko, resigning from from Gafni’s Wisdom Council, citing the “weight of the wrongdoing and its continuation,” and agreeing “that we must stop further hurt and exploitation.”
A Nonprofit Quarterly story observed:
Just like the hypocrisy of Bill Cosby’s moralizing about black respectability and Jared Fogle’s trying to help childhood obesity, Marc Gafni’s views and new age spirituality look very much like an attempt to overshadow the pain he has caused by letting the world know what a ‘profoundly good person he is.’ John Mackey is compounding this hypocrisy and bringing Whole Foods with him.
The Times, however, has elected not to follow up on the Whole Foods connection. Why should they? What more is there to report? I won’t replicate all the details from my previous posts. If you’re inclined, you can read more on CorpGov.net and About Money. Here are highlights, along with new information:
Mackey and a Whole Foods public relations representative issued a statement, defining the CEO’s relationship to Gafni as strictly “personal.” However, experts have questioned the accuracy of the statement. As board chair of Gafni’s Center for Integral Wisdom, Mackey has a fiduciary duty to the nonprofit corporation. Attorney Gene Takagi from the NEO Law Group emailed: “All directors of a nonprofit corporation have fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to the corporation.”
Complaints were submitted on January 11 to the IRS and California Office of the Attorney General questioning business activities and religious organization status of the Center for Integral Wisdom. Success 3.0, “an independent LLC generated by the Center for Integral Wisdom,” has the earmarks of a for-profit business. Mackey has been named in both complaints as board chair of CIW.
CIW websites have been scrubbed of pages showing Mackey’s position as board chair and Success 3.0 Summit Leadership. Here are screenshots from the removed pages, as they appeared on January 3:
As the founder of, primary spokesman for, and emotional leader of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey has a responsibility to immediately and directly address this issue. Reputation Institute’s research has shown that the two dimensions of corporate leadership and corporate governance make up almost one-third of Whole Foods Market’s overall reputation, and directly influence the willingness of consumers to buy and support Whole Foods vs. other alternatives. Whether he is willing to admit it or not, Mackey’s personal actions and associations will have a direct impact on the reputation of Whole Foods Market, and therefore the willingness of customers to support the company he leads.
Reputation Institute’s statement is a stain on Whole Foods’ previously pristine report card. WFM had issued a press release on September 30, 2015, announcing, “Whole Foods Market named one of America’s most reputable companies for corporate social responsibility by Reputation Institute.”
On January 20, Vice President Joe Biden addressed business leaders at Davos, as reported by The Huffington Post:
“Joe Biden On Violence Against Women: ‘We have to change the culture.’”
“Biden implored men to speak up if they see instances of harassment and abuse of women, saying that ‘the most cowardly men I know are the ones who know it’s happening, but do nothing because it’s not good for them.'”
Biden’s speech was co-hosted by Goldman Sachs, the third-largest institutional investor in Whole Foods Market. You can read more about Goldman’s corporate social responsibility in my previous post on Epic Times.
So why isn’t The Times following up on its Whole Foods-Gafni story? Biden’s speech at Davos made it clear that addressing violence against women needs to be a priority for business leaders. Yet the CEO of Whole Foods Market, a $9 billion global company (market cap), has doubled down on his alliance with an alleged serial predator. And the company backed him up. Mackey’s enabling of Gafni is emblematic of a larger cultural problem. Who is holding Mackey and Whole Foods accountable? Where is the watchdog journalism?
An interesting sidebar: Gabrielle Sulzberger has served on the Whole Foods Market board of directors since 2003. Mrs. Sulzberger is married to Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company and publisher of The New York Times. According to Whole Foods Market proxy statement to shareholders, reported as of July 20, 2015, Mrs. Sulzberger’s 2014 total compensation for her role as director on the Whole Foods Market board was $422,049. As of June 18, 2015 SEC reporting, Mrs. Sulzberger held 64,666 shares of WFM stock. At yesterday’s closing price, market value of her WFM stock is about $1.8 million.
I’m not suggesting The Times’ one-and-done coverage of the Whole Foods-Gafni situation is related to Mrs. Sulzberger’s financial interests in WFM; only noticing that the connection exists. As of this writing, no one from The Times has responded to email inquiries.
I reached Mrs. Sulzberger by telephone on December 29 and asked if I could email her The Times story about Whole Foods CEO Mackey and Gafni. She gave me her email address, to which I sent this:
“Thank you for inviting me to email you about this story from Saturday’s New York Times…. I trust that the Whole Foods Market board of directors would agree that its CEO publicly supporting a[n alleged] sexual predator is not aligned with nor representative of Whole Foods Market’s core values and integrity.”
Mrs. Sulzberger responded, thanking me for bringing the story her attention, and correcting my use of the word “invite.” Rather, she said, she had agreed to my request to email her the story.
I thanked Mrs. Sulzberger for responding and stood corrected: I apologized for my incorrect use of the word “invite.”
I invite The New York Times to take this opportunity to improve its record on responsible investigative journalism. While The Times can be commended for publishing the Gafni exposé in the first place, Margaret Sullivan’s column is a mandate to follow up. For the sake of all women and girls who have been have been seriously hurt by abuse, and to precipitate change in our cultural narrative, “She was 14 going on 35” mustn’t mark the end of The Times’ reporting, but rather, its beginning.