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Think Again: Mice, Playing: The Decline of Skeptical Journalism

SOURCE: AP/Danny Johnston

A shopper walks toward the pharmacy at a Little Rock, AK, Wal-Mart store on February 20, 2008. An increased availability of jazzy scientific-sounding press releases erodes the chance that journalists will develop original health care investigative stories.

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“Frank Sinatra has a cold,” Gay Talese wrote in 1965. Esquire had instructed him to profile the celebrity. But Sinatra was feeling grumpy and uncooperative. So Talese spoke with everyone but the crooner himself—his groupies, his family, and his staff. He produced a portrait of a middle-aged moody man who was a little jealous of the Beatles and lived in a bubble.

Talese’s piece remains today a totem of magazine journalism. Together with Lillian Ross’s 1950 New Yorker profile of Ernest Hemingway, it is perhaps the most famous and revered example of its genre. And it was done entirely without access to its subject. After all, Frank Sinatra had a cold.

Dick Fuld felt just fine when he apparently lied to Jim Cramer about the health of Lehman Brothers just prior to the company’s implosion. Cramer told Ed Murrow, er Jon Stewart:

Cramer: I always wish that people would come in and swear themselves in before they come on the show. I had a lot of CEOs lie to me on the show. It’s very painful. I don’t have subpoena power…. But Dick Fuld, who ran Lehman Brothers, called me in—he called me in when the stock was at 40—because I was saying: "Look, I thought the stock was wrong, thought it was in the wrong place"—he brings me in and lies to me, lies to me, lies to me.

Stewart [feigning shock]: The CEO of a company lied to you?

Cramer: Shocking.

At a discussion at the National Press Club last Friday, Fred Smith, founder of the business-friendly think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute, described the business world as fundamentally immoral. “It’s very dangerous to anesthetize the cynical instincts of people about whether someone is defrauding you or not. Humans aren’t angels. We’re not devils, but we’re fallen angels. And I think we’ve got to be prepared to live in a world where every institution may be doing something bad,” Smith said.

Let’s try to forget for a moment that this was part of a mindboggling argument in favor of further bank deregulation. The statement was not directed at journalists, per se, but perhaps it should have been. Why trust sources who have no incentive to tell the truth? Why would Cramer implicitly trust Fuld, the top mouthpiece of the Lehman brand? What could a reporter get from Fuld—or any CEO of a melting corporation for that matter—other than the official company line?

Part of this failure in business reporting can be attributed to an obsession with (and access to) celebrities—and yes, bank CEOs are celebrities now. The Columbia Journalism Review described this obsession in a piece about the media’s trust in John Thain, which flourished against all odds.

But perhaps financial reporters are shouldering more blame than they deserve. After all, this alarmingly unskeptical behavior isn’t unique to members of the business media. Let’s not forget the media’s blind trust of the Bush administration in Iraq. And, several health and medical reporters discuss the dangerous tendency of health and science journalists to re-report drug company press releases unquestioningly in an eye-opening collection of essays in the new Spring 2009 Nieman Reports.

In “What Happens When No One Is Watching?” Morton Mintz, the Washington Post reporter who broke the story of the Food and Drug Administration doctor who kept the birth defect-causing drug thalidomide off the U.S. market in the 1960s, actually likened the “stenographic pattern of reporting about the drug industry” to “what happened during the run up to the Iraq War.” He cited a 1963 speech by Arthur J. Snider, science editor of the Chicago Daily News: “My concern is that the record would show that 90 percent of the stories we have written about new drugs have gone down the drain as failures. We have either been deliberately led down the primrose path or have allowed ourselves through lack of sufficient information to be led down the primrose path.”

In “Changing the Drumbeat of Typical Health Reporting,” Gary Schwitzer, who runs http://healthnewsreview.org, grades health news stories from 60 leading news outlets, based on ten criteria: Does the story…

… adequately discuss costs?

… avoid disease mongering?

…evaluate the quality of the evidence?

…quantify the potential benefits?

…quantify the potential harms?

…establish the true novelty of the idea?

…establish the availability of the approach?

…use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

…compare the new idea with existing options?

…appear to rely on a news release?

More often than not, he writes, “The majority of stories we’ve reviewed reflect a kid-in-the-candy-store portrayal of the U.S. health care system. By this we mean that everything about the news is made to look promising and risk-free, and whatever the new drug or treatment or device is, it comes without any hint of a societal price tag.” He quotes journalist Trudy Lieberman: “What the heck, you may be asking, do journalists have to do with the soaring costs of pharmaceuticals or a $100 million device called the ‘particle accelerator’ that uses protons to bombard cancerous tumors?”

Schwitzer continues, “Journalists, after all, don’t create those products or determine their price tag. We do, though, indirectly help market them by the kinds of stories we write, which can stimulate demand. Stories touting the benefits of the latest gee-whiz drug, coupled with ads by the drug maker, are powerful stuff.”

Last May, Melody Petersen, author of Our Daily Meds, spoke with Bill Moyers about the obfuscation often built into medical press releases, distributed by the drug industry, via publicity firms and Astroturf—or false grassroots—groups. These campaigns are reminiscent of big tobacco’s PR battles.

A few years back, I kept getting information from a group called the PTSD Alliance. PTSD is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And one of the main messages of this group was that 5 percent of the American public suffered from PTSD. And this estimate was millions and millions more than the government actually said suffered from this illness.

And later, I learned that this group wasn’t actually what I thought it was. It was the creation of a public relations firm working for Pfizer to sell more Zoloft. In fact, it was staffed by the public relations firm. Its offices were the same address of the public relations firm.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently reported that this PR problem has only gotten worse in the digital age: “Increasingly… institutional news offices from universities, government research agencies, and corporations are putting out large press packages that provide well-written press releases, graphics, and even video in a form that can be used directly by news outlets that are hungry for stories but lack the resources, time, and/or experience to do more thorough reporting.”

Charles Petit, a reporter who runs the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told CJR that the increased availability of jazzy scientific-sounding press releases would erode the chance that journalists would develop original investigative stories. And although there would always be exceptional health reporting—“glamorous” investigative work—the “meat and potatoes” daily stories would continue to suffer from press release reporting.

What’s even more troubling, though, is CJR’s explanation for this growing trend. As publicity operations improve, newsrooms are hacking at the ranks of full-time specialty science staff. And, indeed, unemployment and lack of editorial support are common themes throughout nearly all of the health and science-related essays in this issue of Nieman Reports.

Veteran reporter Loretta Tofani wrote a series of award-winning articles for The Salt Lake Tribune describing Chinese factory workers who are “paying the real price of cheap American imports, with their health and their lives.” After getting rejected from her former newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she had accepted a buyout in 2001, Tofani went to The Tribune. She writes:

In the end, The Salt Lake Tribune paid me $5,000 for my 14 months of work. I did not press the Tribune editors for more money. I knew, from all the unfilled seats in the newsroom, that they did not have it. I was relieved and grateful that the editors agreed to publish the stories. Next time, though, I want to be paid fairly.

In “Investigating the Pharmaceutical Industry on a Blog,” Ed Silverman charted the frustration of taking a buyout from The Star-Ledger in New Jersey: “It was a difficult decision, in part, because the blog had grown so popular—more than 11,000 daily visitors and 330,000 monthly page views.” And in “Revealing How Dentists Profit by Abusing Children,” Roberta Baskin earned one of the highest honors in broadcast journalism for her reporting on real-life little-shop-of-horrors dentistry at a chain of Medicaid clinics called Small Smiles. That same winter, she found out that her investigative unit had been axed by WJLA-TV because it was “’a luxury’ they could no longer afford.” She asks:

Is it a luxury when our reports convince companies to reform bad business practices? Is it a luxury when regulatory agencies suddenly are motivated to enforce laws already on their books? And is it a luxury when the most vulnerable among us, those without access to power—like the children at these dental clinics who are victims of corporate greed—are given an opportunity to be heard?

As newspapers shrivel and downsize their investigative staffs, more and more of these self-interested lies will go unchallenged, poisoning our discourse and selling out the interests of average folk. "Oh, to be a state or local official in America over the next 10 to 15 years” mused “The Wire” impresario David Simon to The Guardian not long ago, “To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city, as a local politician! It’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption."

The genuises who make millions selling snake oil on cable news act as if none of this is taking place and we should all go back to bed with our trust in their oracular abilities unchanged.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, a Nation columnist, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking. He blogs, occasionally, at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, DC.

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