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January 20, 2005

Thank Goodness the Media is Looking Out for Us!

When we edited and posted Jeff Shaw's recent story on the dangerous chemical perchlorate, I didn't actually have a good idea of how poorly other media outlets had covered the recent findings of the National Academies of Science, allegedly providing more lenient findings after a heavy lobbying campaign by the Defense Department on behalf of its beloved contractors. But now that I have taken a look on Google News, I am all the more proud of the story Jeff put together for us. The way others handled the subject is simply astounding. Here's a brief review...

WARNING: Severe sarcasm ahead!

A Business Week article adorably asks, "Perchlorate: Out of the Hot Water?":

The NAS committee recommended a safe dosage level 23 times higher than what the EPA had come up with in its initial risk assessment in 2002 -- even though the NAS committee's broader findings matched many of the conclusions of the EPA and health departments in California and seven other states that have completed their own assessments on perchlorate.

The BW article was at least responsible enough to note there was a controversy over the science, but it buried this important part:

The EPA still has to translate the reference dose to an appropriate level in drinking water -- the so-called water level.

We found that important enough to elaborate in the entire last portion of our article.

But what is most egregious is that the BW story, like most others, ignored the fact that the NAS was pressured by the Pentagon, which held secret meetings with corporations. I know this is a big shocker, since Business Week responsibly includes links to corporations' stock quotes every time it mentions a publicly traded company by name.

A lot of papers did address the controversy raised by the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, but they treated the NRDC's amazing, publicly available research as a matter of opinion. Here's a typical example from the Baltimore Sun:

Officials at the NRDC said that public records recently obtained through a lawsuit showed that the Department of Defense and White House discussed how the scope of the study should be limited and which scientists should sit on the panel.

Some of the studies used by the NAS to reach its conclusions were funded by the defense industry or Pentagon, said the NRDC. And in the end, the 15-member panel had two scientists who had at one time performed work for the defense or perchlorate industries. A third scientist stepped down after being accused of a conflict.

Must be too costly to pay a reporter and his or her editor to actually look at those documents. If only they had a budget like TNS's, they could do a better job!

The Sun thought it perfectly appropriate to counter-balance that "opinion" with one from the NAS:

William Colglazier, executive officer of the National Academies of Science, denied that the private, nonprofit organization, whose members are selected by independent academics around the world, was biased or influenced by lobbying.

"We were completely independent," Colglazier said. "The academy has total control over who was appointed, and there were no conflicts of interest."

Totally independent? From the National Academies' own Frequently Asked Questions document:

About 85 percent of funding comes from the federal government through contracts and grants from agencies and 15 percent from state governments, private foundations, industrial organizations, and funds provided by the Academies member organizations.

It appears perhaps the National Academies has a different of the term "independent" than we do here at TNS.

But anyway, back to the perchlorate dispute... It appears both sides are right, if we are to believe the Sun. Isn't it great to live in a democracy?

Speaking of FAQs, the Sun was kind enough to include a little perchlorate Q & A at the end of its online article. It cited the EPA as the source, but lo and behold, it included information not actually provided by the EPA in its own FAQ (from which the rest of the questions and answers appear to be drawn):

What does the report mean? If the EPA accepts the scientific panel's recommendations, higher amounts of perchlorate, up to 20 times greater than the current levels, will be allowed in drinking water.

Actually, they meant up to 23 times as high, but who's counting? And who cares if that statement is neither true nor actually made by the EPA? They're in the NEWS business, not the TRUTH business.

At least the Associated Press can always be counted on to address all sides of an issue, right? In a story that first went over the wire as "More perchlorate can be safely consumed, panel says," the AP waited until paragraph ten to mention:

The Natural Resources Defense Council contended that documents obtained under Freedom of Information Act requests showed the Pentagon and the White House had sought to influence the scope of the academy's study in order to get a weaker standard.

Again, it must have been the AP's limited budget that prevented them from actually looking at the documents. Or maybe it is their high standards for objectivity, relegating them to a cable news-esque he said/she said approach to journalism, only slightly weighted in favor of the administration's view:

Bob Hopkins, spokesman for the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, said accusations of improper influence by administration officials "couldn't be further from the truth."

The academy defended its work. "The government had no influence over the conduct or outcome of this study," said E. William Colglazier, the academy's executive officer. "The committee members were highly competent, there were no conflicts of interest, and we have full confidence in the report."

Well, okay then!

Good ol' Reuters managed to take the controversy head-on in one of its two articles on the subject. Well, tail-on, actually. Even in its first piece, headlined "U.S. Tried to Suppress Pollutant Study, Group Says," Reuters led with:

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences raises by 20 times the amount of rocket fuel pollution in drinking water considered "safe," but environmentalists on Monday accused the government of influencing the report's findings.

Hook, line and sinker!

That piece was one of the most thorough in addressing the NRDC's "claims," but even they don't appear to have actually read the documents, and prefer the he said/she said method of getting to the truth.

Reuters helped clear matters up that very same day, however, with a better explanation, in a piece they responsibly called "Some Levels of Rocket Fuel Pollution Safe -Report":

At least two environmental groups accused the government of trying to influence the report's findings, but disagreed on whether the attempts had succeeded.

The first group is the NRDC, and the second group is of course the Environmental Working Group. The very same sources Jeff used in our story. Reuters concluded that EWG determined that the NAS panel was not influenced by government or corporate pressures.

That's funny, because they told us there was pretty good evidence that the NAS had indeed been influenced, and that they suspected it had. They even said the NAS spun relatively unremarkable findings, as Reuters ineptly proved by parroting the 20 times safer claim. In fact, they probably even told Reuters, which glossed over the matter, so we'll never know what they actually heard:

Another organization, the Environmental Working Group, said it was "no secret" that government agencies tried to manipulate the report but that it would accept the panel's findings.

No matter. It isn't what Reuters learns that is important to us lowly readers -- it is what they think we need to know that is the real story... Down the hatch!

Some of my favorites include the way local and regional papers handled the new findings. Take this headline from the Pasadena Star News, for example: "Area water is safe to drink, study says." Case closed! Get a load of their lead:

A report that the National Academies released this past week on perchlorate in drinking water offered some soothing words for many Pasadenans and Altadenans whose water for decades came at least partially contaminated by a chemical plume beneath the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

So drink up, Pasadena!

At least they offer this dire warning at the end of the third paragraph:

...some epidemiologists and toxicologists say crucial studies that would improve any recommendation have not been completed.

Deciding that could have been clearer, but not less painful to read, a few paragraphs later the Star News noted:

Jerome Hershman, an epidemiologist from UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine said, "I think (the Academies' recommendation) is a reasonable compromise between safety, with a great emphasis on safety, and any potential effect on industry."

Ah yes, the "effect on industry" factor of scientific inquiry. Thank goodness we consulted a scientist who has an "emphasis on safety"! Our friend the economist -- er, epidemiologist -- had more to say:

But he added, "the effect of greatest concern is reducing the iodine availability for pregnant women and thus for the unborn fetus. There is not really good data on that."

Wow, them's fightin' words! Nothing like consulting a scientist who modifies the word "fetus" with the word "unborn." He must really care about kids and women's health!

But what of the influence controversy?

With the Natural Resources Defense Council accusing the Bush administration of being too involved in the committee's study, other environmental groups see the Academies' recommendation as a victory for their cause.

Care to elaborate? No? Okay... In its rigorous search for the truth, the Star News decided not to explain or describe or even mention again the NRDC's concerns or accusations. Truth can be confusing, you know...

Glad that messy business is taken care of. I guess we can drink from the tap again, plume or no plume.

Sleep well, America: the news media is looking out for us!

Comments...

deadline107: Thank Goodness the Media is Looking Out for Us!

For Environmental Working Group's own analysis of the news media's coverage, go to www.ewg.org. Included are an e-mail in which the NAS chair acknowledges that a drinking water standard will be based on other factors, and other material.

Bill Walker, EWG


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.