"One of the most powerful and controversial men in Washington is
leaving his job," reported NBC's Tom Brokaw on November 25, "and
tonight you can almost hear the cheers from the tobacco companies."
And you could definitely hear the bias that night from the three
networks and CNN in their stories about the departure of FDA
Commissioner David Kessler. They continued the free ride the media
have given him since he came on board in 1990.
Two of the networks, for instance, didn't give viewers a clue as
to why Kessler might be leaving. CBS anchor Paula Zahn announced a
"surprise resignation from the top ranks of President Clinton's
team," and health reporter Dr. Bob Arnot stated
that "there was no real explanation of why Dr. Kessler resigned."
ABC's Peter Jennings asked Kessler, "Dr. Kessler,
the White House want-ed you to stay, why are you leaving?"
NBC and CNN were the only networks to give viewers a possible
answer to Jennings' question of why Kessler was leaving. Members of
Congress were planning to investigate financial irregularities on
Kessler's expense forms. He had already reimbursed the government
for $850 of his expenses.
The networks reported that Kessler's tenure was "controversial"
and that he had his share of critics, but the only critics they
presented were Republicans, big tobacco companies angry at Kessler's
efforts to regulate tobacco as a drug, and big pharmaceutical firms.
"Kessler ... loved going after the big guys," stated NBC's Robert
Hager. ABC's George Strait reported that "his enemies in industry
and in Congress were almost overjoyed to see him go." CBS's Zahn
said that Kessler's resignation "could come as a big relief to the
But big business and congressional Republicans certainly weren't
the only critics or victims of Kessler. The networks could have
talked to prominent doctors such as Henry Miller, the former
director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology, and patient advocacy
groups who believed that Kessler's policies were putting lives in
jeopardy. In polls of physicians commissioned by the Competitive
Enterprise Institute (CEI), about two-thirds of cardiologists and
three fourths of cancer specialists believed that the FDA was too
slow in approving new drugs and medical devices, and about half of
both sets of doctors believed that this lag in approval time costs
patients' lives. And in Congress, criticism of Kessler was
bipartisan, with even a liberal Democrat like Senator Barbara
Mikulski complaining about the FDA's heavy-handedness.
Many of Kessler's supporters in the stories were from non-profit
research and advocacy groups, such as Action on Smoking and Health.
However, none of the major network stories balanced this by talking
to Kessler's critics from non-profit policy groups such as Consumer
Alert and CEI, again reinforcing the notion that Kessler's only
critics were from industry. (A critical comment from CEI's Sam
Kazman was featured on some CNN stories, but not on a major one that
appeared on The World Today.)
The networks also accepted at face value Kessler's claim that he
sped up approval times for drugs. "Kessler streamlined the agency's
drug approval process for patients suffering from fatal illnesses,"
stated CBS' Arnot. ABC's Strait reported that Kessler "cut the
approval time for new drugs in half." The networks ignored the
arguments of critics such as CEI's Julie DeFalco who say that the
FDA has fudged the data and that most of the drugs given
"fast-track" approval were for politically popular illnesses such as
The networks didn't note examples that show that the FDA still
takes inordinate amounts of time approving many important products.
Irradiation for red meat, a process that has been approved by other
countries and the World Health Organization and could save countless
lives by nearly eradicating foodborne bacteria such as E. coli 0157,
still has not been approved after more than two years.
The most ironic aspect of the Kessler stories is that they did
not report on what journalists are usually apt to notice most: a
government agency's assault on free speech. In many cases, companies
cannot sponsor symposiums, send doctors medical journal articles and
textbooks, or even issue press releases about new, lifesaving uses
of their approved drugs. Kessler's off-label use policy is currently
being challenged on First Amendment grounds, and media organizations
have signed on to an amicus brief that states that "[t]he FDA's
censorship of textbooks, and other educational activities, is a
systematic and continuing violation of the Constitution." One of the
groups that signed this brief was the Radio-Television News
Directors Association, which evidently has not gotten the word out
to its members at the networks!
John Berlau is a policy analyst at Consumer Alert, a
Washington, D.C.-based free market consumer group.