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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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July 1996


Issue Analysis: Addicted to Tobacco Stories

The following is adapted from a Media Research Center special report, to be released later this summer, about news media coverage of risky products and the companies which make and sell them:

It is estimated that about 400,000 Americans die each year from smoking-related illnesses.

It is also estimated that about 300,000 Americans die each year from obesity-related illnesses. And studies show that fully one-third of Americans (75 million) are overweight.

Given these statistics, it's reasonable to assume that there are three news stories about dietary fat and the industries that sell products with dietary fat for every four news stories about tobacco and the tobacco industry, right?

Wrong. Media Research Center analysts counted every evening news story during the first six months of 1996 that had to do with tobacco and every evening news story during the same period that had to do with obesity and dietary fat. (Shows analyzed were ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's The World Today, and NBC Nightly News.) There were 138 stories about tobacco and the tobacco industry, all of which portrayed tobacco as a risky product. There were only 38 stories about dietary fat and obesity which portrayed fat as risky to consumers, a difference of almost four to one.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that tobacco has been singled out. Unlike fat, no angle of tobacco or of the tobacco industry went uncovered during the study period. There were reports, for example, about increases in teen smoking. NBC's Brian Williams, introducing a January 25 Nightly News story, told of "a disturbing report out today on teenage smoking from the Centers for Disease Control. Despite all the pressures to stop, all the attempts to restrict cigarette sales, kids in much of this country are picking up the habit faster than ever." According to NBC's Bob Kur, in the same story, "Teenagers are part of 47 million smokers nationwide whose habit costs the country $50 billion in medical care." Bill Clinton's anti-tobacco photo-ops were also popular news stories. ABC's Peter Jennings, on the May 7 World News Tonight, reported that "President Clinton was in a New Jersey classroom warning that 3,000 teenagers start to smoke every day."

Another big tobacco story: The political donations of the industry and how those donations allegedly affected politicians' attitudes and actions toward tobacco. This was especially the case when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole claimed that, for some people, smoking isn't addictive. Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum, writing in the July 29 National Review, asserted that in such reports, the assumption usually is "that tobacco companies had given Dole and the Republican Party a lot of money, so he was clearly in league with the devil." According to Sullum, such reports assume the industry buys votes and never consider "the possibility that politicians...might get tobacco money because they support certain policies, rather than the other way around."

Sullum is right. Linda Douglass, for example, on the June 27 CBS Evening News told viewers that "Dole now is in the uncomfortable position of often siding with the tobacco industry just as cigarette makers are pumping unprecedented sums of money into the Republican Party." On that same night, NBC's Kur, after quoting the Clinton campaign's charge that Dole was toeing the tobacco industry line, pointed out, with a large on-screen graphic, that the industry "gave nearly $3 million in political contributions last year, 85 percent of the money to Republicans."

There were also a great many stories about former tobacco industry executives and scientists admitting that they had known all along that nicotine is addictive, and numerous lawsuits against the tobacco industry were deemed of enough national importance to make the evening news.

In contrast, there were far fewer stories about fat and obesity and the industries which help produce them. Should tobacco really warrant so many more stories than fat? How dangerous is obesity? According to reporters themselves, it is quite dangerous. NBC's Tom Brokaw said, on the April 29 Nightly News, that "obesity, of course, is a major health problem in this country. It is estimated that it's responsible for 300,000 deaths a year from heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and the like." CBS's Jacqueline Adams, on the April 9 CBS Evening News, reported that "for years doctors have known that during pregnancy, obesity can cause serious problems like diabetes and bleeding for the mother. But according to two new studies in tomorrow's Journal of the American Medical Association, obesity in the mother can also cause serious problems for the fetus," including birth defects.

Even one high-fat meal can be dangerous, according to ABC's John McKenzie. On the May 9 World News Tonight, McKenzie told viewers about a study conducted at the University of Maryland in which researchers "found that after a high-fat meal, arteries, when required to handle an increased flow of blood, could expand on average only 50 percent of normal. It means that under conditions of stress and exertion, people who already have constricted arteries may not get enough blood to the heart."

So why so much more attention to the tobacco industry than to industries that produce fat? There were never any heated stories on the evening news about fast-food advertising enticing kids and others to consume products that may one day kill them. There were no reporters monitoring the political donations of fast-food restaurant chains and their trade associations. There were no stories in which reporters asked food-industry executives if they believed their products to be harmful. And there were no stories pointing out the medical-care costs of obesity.

Either the network evening news shows spend too much time covering tobacco or not enough covering the dangers of obesity and dietary fat. Either way, one politically incorrect product and industry is being singled out for intensive news coverage while other risky products and the industries which produce them are not.


Rich Noyes


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