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CyberAlert. Tracking Media Bias Since 1996
| 4:40 pm ET, Thursday September 28, 2000 (Vol. Five; No. 182) |

ABC & NBC Morning Shows Hype Pro-Gore Tale of Can-Collecting Widow; "A Simple, Sweet Story" of "Indomitable Spirit" -- Back to today's CyberAlert

1) Picking up on last night's stories celebrating 79-year-old Winifred Skinner, NBC's Jim Avila brought to Today "a simple, sweet story, driving home what for seniors is shaping up as a cornerstone issue." And she was "embraced by her country's Vice President."

2) ABC's Good Morning America interviewed Skinner live about her plight. Charles Gibson opened the program: "Outrage over the cost of prescription drugs in America has a new face today. How will the drug companies defend their prices now?"

3) Last night, MSNBC's Brian Williams pronounced the "Gore campaign could not have scripted a better moment," but the Des Moines Register reported this morning that "union representatives" prodded Mrs. Skinner to tell her story.

4) After a caller to CNN's NewsStand last night complained about the biased handling of the Skinner story, Time's Karen Tumulty defended the media's coverage as "good, solid journalism."

5) MediaNomics Flashback: Using Unrepresentative Oldsters to Push for Universal Drug Coverage.


Al Gore spent yesterday trying to convince the country that it needs to pay for a universal program to pay for senior citizens' prescription medications, and he got a lot of help from the TV networks last night and this morning. Go to his morning's CyberAlert for details about Wednesday night:

    Although NBC apparently couldn't squeeze the story into Wednesday's Olympic-packed Nightly News broadcast, Thursday's Today show portrayed 79-year-old Winifred Scott as "a remarkable woman," who picks up cans and bottles and redeems them for nickels. She says she needs the money to pay for her food because her prescriptions are too expensive, a story that fits perfectly into Gore's campaign spin that the nation's senior citizens are being victimized by profiteering drug companies.

    Here's how the Today show presented the story during the 8am news update Thursday morning, September 28, as transcribed by MRC analyst Geoffrey Dickens. News reader Sara James introduced the story by correspondent Jim Avila:
    "For his part Al Gore met with seniors in Iowa to talk about Medicare. And he was introduced to a remarkable woman in the process."

    Avila delivered the heart-wrenching tale: "Every morning, that's seven days a week, this woman, one year shy of 80 leaves her small Des Moines home to pick up aluminum cans." Mrs. Skinner was then shown in her garage, with her cans. "I get a nickel for each one, so each flat is a $1.20," she explained.
    Avila picked up: "She hates litter, but that's not her mission. She needs the five cents each can brings her to buy food."
    Skinner: "It's better than going hungry. There's times when I don't have any, much, much in the house to eat but I generally got oatmeal."
    Avila continued his sympathetic portrait: "Winifred 'they call me Winnie' Skinner took her story to the top on Wednesday in Iowa. Standing up at an Al Gore campaign event on the high price of prescription medicine."
    He then showed the clip that's been re-run several times in the past 24 hours of Mrs. Skinner telling Gore, "Today I just called in for my prescriptions for this month and they're gonna be between $230 and $250." Avila added that that is "a lot of money for a woman who brings home $800 a month in pension and Social Security."
    Skinner: "What I do to put food on the table is I pick up cans. I walk an hour-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, sometimes three hours, seven days a week. And I pick up cans and that's what puts the food on my table."
    Avila piled it on: "A simple, sweet story, driving home what for seniors is shaping up as a cornerstone issue. A woman of dignity, walking her Midwest town to survive."

    NBC played back more of Skinner at yesterday's event, "I go down the city streets and I pick up all the flat cans too," followed by Gore asking, "How much do you earn a week?" and Skinner's retort, "You're not gonna tell the government are you?"

    Avila concluded his emotion-packed story, over video of Gore hugging and kissing her on the forehead, with a thinly-veiled plea for more government action: "Winnie Skinner, too proud for handouts. Embraced by her country's Vice President and now a symbol of what many seniors say is wrong with America's health system."


ABC's Good Morning America began pushing the Skinner story right at 7am Thursday.

The program began with a 30-second package that could easily have been a Gore campaign commercial. Mrs. Skinner was shown first proclaiming: "I just called in for my prescriptions for this month and they're going to be between $230 and $250 and what I do to put food on the table is I pick up cans. I walk an hour-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, sometimes three hours, seven days a week." Then co-host Charles Gibson blasted the drug companies that make the medicine that keeps Mrs. Skinner healthy enough to walk for three hours a day: "Outrage over the cost of prescription drugs in America has a new face today. How will the drug companies defend their prices now?"

    The entire segment on GMA was intermittently emblazoned with the headline, in all capital letters, "PRESCRIPTION DRUG OUTRAGE," which is what passes for neutral and unbiased captioning these days at Good Morning America.

    Gibson's co-host, Diane Sawyer, explained the introduction after the opening credits of the show rolled: "The name of the woman you saw just a few seconds ago is Winifred Skinner. She's a 79-year-old retired auto worker. She took her case to Al Gore yesterday and captured the attention of everybody in the country when she talked about being forced to pick up cans to pay for food and medicine, even though she has insurance, she's on Medicare. This morning, we're going to hear from her, and we're going to turn to a representative of the pharmaceutical industry to talk to him about why at a time when the industry is making triple profits of other industries, what he's going to do about the fact that Americans feel so gouged."

    Actually, in spite of the excessive TV coverage, not "everybody" in the country has yet been forced to pay attention to this story, although in a couple of days, who knows? But Sawyer was true to her promise, as she later grilled a representative of the pharmaceutical industry and asked of drug prices, "Is that the definition of gouging?"

    Here's how the segment unfolded, starting right after news reader Antonio Mora finished reading the headlines. Sawyer began:
    "All right, we turn now to the woman who, as we said, has become the new face of outrage against the high cost of prescription drugs. With indomitable spirit she told how she makes a little secret extra income by picking up cans to pay for food and medicine."

    Sawyer welcomed Skinner via satellite from Des Moines and expressed empathy in her first question: "I have to ask you right away, for a retired auto worker, worked your whole life, to be picking up cans every morning as to be really tough. Do your friends know about it, do you let them know what you do?"

    Picking up cans isn't exactly regal, but it's not necessarily a shameful thing either. Mrs. Skinner seemed slightly baffled by the question, responding that her friends and her son know that she picks up cans, and that her son "admires" her for it.

    Sawyer then furrowed her brow, and with tremendous concern asked, "Is this extra income really critical to your being able to eat?" She answered that it is essential, because after paying for her prescription drugs, her insurance and her taxes, she doesn't have a lot left over for food. Sawyer did not pursue whether or not Mrs. Skinner's tax bill was outrageously high.

    Next, Sawyer told Mrs. Skinner: "I know you said yesterday that somebody came up to you on the street and said 'get a life' to you, and tell everybody what you said went through your mind." She responded that she was hurt, then angry, and then talked to her son who said he was proud of her. Mrs. Skinner added that she didn't want charity or food stamps, that she wanted "to do everything on my own because I'm a proud person."

    At that point Sawyer dumped Skinner and segued into her own report on why she thinks drug prices are too high, thanking the elderly woman for providing the inspiration for her report: "Well, Ms. Skinner, I know you represent a lot of people in this country, and I know one of the questions that you have had is why the prices are so high on drugs. And we're going to turn now because yesterday, with our thanks to you, we decided to set out and ask some questions ourself about why drugs are costing so much right now, and here's what we learned:
    "Winifred Skinner is just one of millions of Americans who say they are breaking under the cost of prescription drugs. Some say part of the problem began in 1997, when rules changed and companies were allowed to market drugs directly to consumers. So good, new innovative drugs Claritin, Paxil, Lipitor, have all been marketed to the hilt. (Clip from Paxil ad). Last year, drug companies spent a total of $14 billion on marketing and promotion, $12 billion of it aimed at your doctors, $2 billion targeted at you. And, according to the University of Minnesota, here's how each dollar you spend for a drug is used by the drug companies: 30 cents goes to marketing, advertising and administration; 23 cents goes to producing the pill; 21 cents to research and development; and eight cents, taxes; 18 cents to profits. But at 18 cents profit, pharmaceuticals are the most profitable industry, triple the average for other American businesses.
    "For their part, manufacturers point out it can take an average of 15 years and $500 million to develop each new drug on the market.
    "But what frustrates many consumers more and more is that so many Americans find cheaper drugs across the borders: Prilosec in Mexico, 68% less. Zoloft in Canada, 44% less. Which brings us back to that growing discontent among consumers in America, the only developed country without some kind of price control - consumers who are saying it's time to give them a break."

    Sawyer could not have more perfectly echoed the Gore line.

    She then interviewed Alan Holmer, the President and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers' Association of America, and Ron Pollack, Executive Director of Families USA, which she termed "a health care consumer advocacy group" but which she failed to tell viewers is really a left-wing group pushing for Canadian-style socialized medicine.

    Quoting herself, Sawyer asked Holmer: "We just heard, profits three times the national industry average, while a lot of consumers say they're simply at the break point on these costs. Is that the definition of gouging?"

    After he answered, she looked like she was going to ask him a second question. "Well, I want to ask about something because a lot of people have been told over the years, we've all bought into the fact, that this money is going to research and development. And we learned that 30 cents of the dollar is in fact going to marketing." But instead of letting Holmer defend his industry, she turned to the Families USA chief: "Mr. Pollack, tell us about that."

    Pollack argued that the drug companies were basically monopolies that could charge whatever they wanted. Sawyer demanded: "Mr. Holmer, could you take some of the profits and put them into research and development, more of them than have been done?" Holmer explained that the companies had to be profitable to attract investors who would pay for further research. Sawyer gave the last word to Pollack, who predictably argued that drug company research is less important than government-backed research.


"Spontaneous" or set up at an "invitation-only event"? As reported in this morning's CyberAlert, Wednesday night on MSNBC Brian Williams conceded that "the Gore campaign could not have scripted a better moment as their man continues his cross-country pummeling of Texas Governor George W. Bush on the topic of Medicare." Reporter Chip Reid recalled how past anecdotes at Gore events were "all scripted by the Gore campaign," but he insisted, "This one was spontaneous and, wow, is it resonating!"

    Really? The local newspaper covering the Gore event, the Des Moines Register, this morning reported that "Des Moines union representatives" asked Mrs. Skinner to tell her story at the campaign rally, and that local citizens who heard about the event were calling the newsroom urging skepticism.

    Here's an excerpt of the September 28 Des Moines Register story by Jennifer Dukes Lee and Jonathan Roos:

A 79-year-old Iowa woman who scours roadsides for aluminum cans helped Al Gore drive home a campaign message Wednesday that Medicare is short-changing millions of senior citizens.

Winifred Skinner of Des Moines grabbed the national media spotlight when she told Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, how she had to pick up soda cans to help pay her prescription costs of $250 or more per month....

"I've met too many seniors who've had to choose between filling their prescriptions and filling up their shopping carts," [Gore] told the Iowans who attended the invitation-only event at the Greater Altoona Community Service Campus.

Skinner told Gore that she searches ditches for soda cans, each worth a 5-cent deposit, to help pay her bills for prescription drugs. Des Moines union representatives asked her to tell her story.

The room erupted in laughter when Skinner refused to tell Gore how much money she made that way. "You're not going to tell the government, are you?" she asked.

Her story was retold by the Washington Post, the CBS Evening News and other national news organizations. Hours after Skinner appeared on television, in an embrace with Gore, skeptics were accusing the campaign of planting the woman at the event to generate media attention. Callers to the Register newsroom questioned how the woman collected enough cans to make much of a dent in her bills....

    END Excerpt

    Sounds like the citizens of the greater Des Moines area are more discerning of political gimmicks than supposedly hard-bitten reporters in the national media corps.

    To read the whole story, go to:


In a Thursday night CNN NewsStand segment on media bias, a caller cited the networks' coverage of the Skinner story as another example of how the media have been going out of their way to portray Gore in a favorable light.

    The caller told CNN's Greta Van Susteren, radio host Ken Hamblin, and Time reporter Karen Tumulty that "I definitely feel that the media is biased toward Gore. Today is a good example. You know, a guy that, you know, is a fairly cold and rigid sort of person, they, suddenly today he's warm and fuzzy, and we have this lady talking about the cans she's picking up. And this was a report that was, you know, quite extensive. You rarely see anything like that with Bush, and you know that he's a very compassionate person just by looking at him."

    Tumulty disagreed with the caller: "I happened to be in Iowa when this happened, when a 79-year-old woman got up and told a riveting story about how she collects cans along the roadsides to pay for her prescription drugs, and I think every reporter in the room saw this as a moment to really demonstrate why this problem has leapt to the top of the political agenda, and why both candidates -- George W. Bush and Al Gore -- have found it necessary to address it. I mean, to me that was just good, solid journalism."

    More like good, solid bias.


Throughout the presidential campaign, the networks have salted their coverage of the drug issue with the sympathetic stories of senior citizens with high bills and low incomes. Earlier this month, the Free Market Project's Web-based newsletter MediaNomics went through one such story from the CBS Evening News, and pointed out that such stories aren't representative of the whole Medicare population and shouldn't be used to justify a "universal" drug program.

    The following excerpt from that article, which appeared on the MRC web site on September 12, examined a story by Bill Whitaker from the CBS Evening News on September 5:

Showing up on one couple's doorstep, CBS's Bill Whitaker explained that "In this house, [the debate over prescription drugs] is not a campaign issue, it's a matter of survival."

Whitaker's piece included pleas from David Welsh ("We need help from somebody") and his wife Esther ("Somebody better help us") and recounted their pharmacy bills. "Esther and David Welsh spend more than $300, almost 20% of their income, each month on prescription drugs for his high blood pressure, for her cancer treatment." Mr. Welsh told CBS, "If it continues at this rate, nobody will be able to afford medication."

But how typical are the Welshes? The Evening News didn't say, and neither did ABC's World News Tonight when they profiled Sue Kling on the same evening. Reporter Jackie Judd explained that "Kling takes seven different prescription drugs that keep her lungs and heart working. They cost $500 a month, $6,000 a year." Judd also reported that the Klings currently live on $22,000 a year. Not knowing which private insurer the couple would select under the Bush plan, Judd couldn't calculate their projected benefit, but figured that Mrs. Kling would save $2,200 under the Gore plan, still spending $3,800 of her own money.

Although neither network explained whether their profiled subjects were actually representative of the typical Medicare recipient, Investor's Business Daily did the research and found that "two-thirds of seniors have some sort of prescription drug insurance" already. They also pointed out that 20 states also offer drug benefits to seniors, and that drug companies provide free medicine to an additional 2.4 million senior citizens who don't have drug insurance.

"Gore's plan would cover all the drug costs of a senior living in poverty," the newspaper wrote in an August 30 editorial, a week before the details of Bush's plan were released. "But given that most poor seniors already get drugs, his $253 billion, 10-year plan seems like overkill." But "overkill" was not a word heard on the networks the following week, nor was the notion that Gore's rhetoric has been contradictory -- while his insistence on universal coverage would mean taxing working families to pay for drugs for millionaires, the Democratic nominee rails against tax cuts that include benefits for those same millionaires.

In covering the release of Bush's plan, no network reporter questioned whether it actually spends too much taxpayer money. NBC's Claire Shipman dutifully reported that "Gore aides insist today that his prescription drug plan is much more comprehensive" than Bush's, while CBS's Rather solemnly passed along word that "the Gore camp branded it too little, too late and, quote, inadequate."

    END Excerpt from MediaNomics

    To read the entire analysis, go to:
http://archive.mrc.org/fmp/medianomics/2000/mn20000912A.html -- Brent Baker


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