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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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August 1998


Passive Smoke and Mirrors
After Hyping Dangers of Second-Hand Smoke, Networks Downplay Contrary Evidence

Five years ago, the networks treated the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declaration that second-hand cigarette smoke was a Group A carcinogen as huge news. But this year, they downplayed a federal judge’s ruling that the EPA had manipulated statistics in assessing the risks of passive smoke.

Back in 1993, the networks could hardly have been more aggressive. "Smokers be warned," announced NBC’s Tom Brokaw opening the January 5, 1993 Nightly News, "you’re being charged with killing others." Correspondent Robert Hager continued: "For three years the Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to get the findings out, but was delayed by lobbying from the tobacco industry and pro-tobacco members of Congress."

Dan Rather, in the top story for that night’s CBS Evening News, also presented the story as a case of noble science versus greedy industry: "The tobacco lobby has been fighting it for two years, but now the United States government is coming out with a study officially concluding that second-hand tobacco smoke causes thousands of cancer deaths a year in non-smokers. This could trigger tougher no-smoking laws around the country."

Correspondent Edie Magnus concluded that "this report could prod the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates conditions in the workplace, to consider calling on employers to ban smoking on the job."

The story also led the January 5, 1993 World News on CNN. Correspondent Deborah Potter told viewers that "smoking is harmful, not just to smokers, but to anyone around them, especially children. That's the conclusion of an EPA report due out later this week," and that "one anti-smoking group goes so far as to predict that as a result of this report, virtually every place outside the home could be required to be smoke-free."

Over at ABC, on that evening’s World News Tonight, anchor Forrest Sawyer said: "For years doctors have been warning about the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke. And now, the Environmental Protection Agency is about to classify passive smoke as a Group A human carcinogen, and that makes it one of the most dangerous cancer-causing agents." ABC’s George Strait then reported that "breathing in someone else’s cigarette smoke is a direct and imminent health hazard" and that "it’s clear, the future for smoking in confined public places is limited."

But when a federal judge ruled against the EPA last month, second-hand smoke was suddenly deemed non-newsworthy. CNN ignored the story completely. NBC Nightly News gave the story just 21 seconds on July 19, with anchor Dawn Fratangelo announcing that "the tobacco industry got some good news this weekend."

The CBS Evening News and ABC’s World News Tonight were also content with short July 19 anchor reads. They both saw the EPA’s reaction to the ruling as more important than the ruling itself. CBS anchor Russ Mitchell began his 14-second report by saying, "The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to appeal a ruling by a federal judge who dismisses the link between second-hand smoke and cancer." ABC’s Carole Simpson led off her 17-second story by noting that "the Environmental Protection Agency is standing by a report linking second-hand smoke to cancer."

None of the networks has looked into specific criticisms of the EPA report. Michael Fumento, science advisor to the Atlantic Legal Foundation, argued in a July 22 Washington Times op-ed that the EPA report didn't "use the gold standard in epidemiology, the 95 percent confidence interval." According to Fumento, "Essentially, [the EPA] moved the goal post to the three-yard line because the football had fallen two yards short of a touchdown. There’s a technical scientific term for this kind of action - dishonesty." This, apparently, is not news at the networks.

Rich Noyes


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