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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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December 1996


Little Criticism for Kessler
Guest Editorial, by John Berlau

"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 tobacco industry."

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 AIDS.

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.


Rich Noyes


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