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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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September 1996


Issue Analysis: Addicted to Tobacco Stories, Part II
The Media Versus Tobacco

Which is worse, a legal product that if used over many decades can be lifethreatening, or an illegal product that can be of more immediate danger?

For America's news media, the answer is overwhelmingly the former. Over a recent twelvemonth period, television news has devoted significantly more air time to reporting on tobacco than to reporting on cocaine, heroin, LSD, and marijuana combined.

This is one finding of a special yearlong Media Research Center study of news coverage of risky products and the industries which make and sell them. Tobacco and the tobacco industry received more negative coverage by far than any other risky legal product, such as dietary fat and the food industry, automobiles and the auto industry, alcohol and the alcohol industry, and pesticides and the chemical industry. Tobacco even received more coverage than illegal drugs. This media obsession with tobacco affected coverage of other issues as well, even coverage of the 1996 presidential campaign.

Media Research Center analysts reviewed all of the stories about several risky products on network morning and evening news shows between August 1, 1995 and August 1, 1996. There were 413 stories during that twelvemonth period about tobacco; there were 340 stories about illegal drugs. This disparity was present despite welldocumented rapid increases in the use of illegal drugs over the past few years, notably among teenagers.

Among the print media, the disparity has been even greater. A Nexis search of headlines in American newspapers finds that the terms "tobacco or smoking or cigarette" were employed 26,546 times between January 1, 1993 and September 9, 1996. Over the same time period, the terms "cocaine or heroin or LSD or illegal drugs" were used only 8,501 times. In other words, there were more than three times as many stories focusing on tobacco than there were stories focusing on illegal drugs.

President Clinton has helped put the tobacco story on the map. Eightyfive of the television news tobacco stories were about the Clinton Administration's attacks on the tobacco industry. Almost all of the stories were upbeat about Clinton's attempts to regulate tobacco, portraying him as courageously taking on a powerful industry. NBC's Bryant Gumbel, for instance, announced on the August 11, 1995 Today that "in a historic move the Clinton Administration has declared nicotine to be a drug and has proposed regulations aimed at curbing smoking by teenagers." According to CBS' John Roberts, on the August 10, 1995 This Morning, "President Clinton is stepping up federal efforts to harness smoking among teenagers. He'll detail some tough new measures today that are sure to put him at odds with the powerful tobacco lobby."

But when the issue was the increases in illegal drug use, Clinton was mentioned only in 45 stories, and most of those mentions were positive. Again, the disparity is revealing. The same reporters who are willing to accept Clinton's premise that government policies can discourage smoking behavior among the young demand little accountability from him for increased illegal drug use. And there was rarely even the suggestion in the media that the president was playing up the tobacco issue to hide how much illegal drug use had increased during his watch.

Among the print media, the same disparity was present. A Nexis search reveals that there were 4,057 stories between January 1, 1993 and September 9, 1996 that had "tobacco or smoking or cigarette" in the headline and a reference to Bill Clinton in the body of the story. Stories with the terms "cocaine or heroin or LSD or illegal drugs" in the headline and a reference to Clinton in the body of the story numbered 381.

This singling out of tobacco had effects on 1996 campaign coverage. Normally, when a politician radically changes positions on an issue, it's big news. For instance, there were several evening news stories during the 1996 Republican National Convention about Jack Kemp altering his positions on illegal immigration and affirmative action once he became the Republican vicepresidential candidate. "

The quarterback became the acrobat today," reported ABC's Jackie Judd on the August 14, 1996 World News Tonight. "Kemp was flipflopping on long held positions." She noted that these changes "left at least one delegate here feeling abandoned" and that "Kemp's change in position on these core issues fights the very image that he's built for himself as an independent thinker." According to Dan Rather, on that same night's CBS Evening News, "Bob Dole has reversed himself on deficit reduction versus tax cuts. Jack Kemp has reversed himself on how he feels about immigration." Rather wondered: "Isn't that, or is it, going to make it more difficult to attack Bill Clinton on the character issue?"

But these bloodhounds sniffing out hypocrisy turned quiet when Vice President Al Gore radically changed his position on tobacco. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Gore said that his sister's death from lung cancer in 1984 prompted his antitobacco crusade. None of the network evening newscasts pointed out that in 1988, he boasted to tobacco growers that "throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I've hoed it. I've dug it in. I've sprayed it, I've chopped it, I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it." Apparently, politicians changing their positions cannot go unpunished by the media unless they result in the politician becoming an antitobacco zealot.

The disparity between tobacco and other legal products was even greater. On television during the same time period in which there were 413 stories about tobacco there were 136 stories about dietary fat and obesity; there were 94 stories about auto safety; there were only 58 stories related to alcohol and health.As MediaNomics reported two months ago, the disparity between reporting on tobacco and reporting on dietary fat and obesity is especially curious. The same health advocates who tell us that tobacco contributes to 400,000 deaths in the U.S. each year also report that obesity contributes to 300,000 deaths in the U.S. per year. Reporters acknowledged this risk. "Obesity, of course, is a major health problem in this country," Tom Brokaw reported on the April 29, 1996 Nightly News. "It is estimated that it's responsible for 300,000 deaths a year from heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and the like." Other reporters pointed out that obesity during pregnancy can cause birth defects and other serious problems in babies. One reporter, ABC's John McKenzie, insisted that even one highfat meal, if eaten at an inopportune moment, can be dangerous. But there were still only onefourth the number of stories on obesity and dietary fat as there were stories about tobacco.

There was also a different standard of judgment for the industries that make and sell other risky products. They were never subjected to nearly the same hostility that the tobacco industry endured. There were no stories, for example, about fastfood advertising enticing kids and others to consume products that may one day kill them. Nor were there any stories pointing out the medical costs of obesity. And no network reporter sought to outline the campaign contributions of companies which produce and sell alcohol. But all the networks were critical of tobacco advertising and campaign contributions, as well as the medical costs to society of smokingrelated illnesses.

Journalists seem to have lost some perspective when reporting on tobacco. They not only air far more stories on tobacco than on other legal, risky products, but they have allowed Clinton to use smoking to deflect attention from rising illegal drug use. Reporters should not ignore tobacco, but they should not apply to it a harsher standard than they apply to even illegal drugs.Editor's note: This issue analysis is adapted from a longer Media Research Center special report about media coverage of both legal and illegal risky products and the industries which produce them.


Rich Noyes


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