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May 10, 2005

NPR: Testing the Limits of Corporate Advocacy Journalism

If you listen to National Public Radio all day like I sometimes do, you hear a lot of terrible journalism. I always wonder why anyone would donate money to an organization that takes money from Wal-Mart (and limits coverage of the retailer's crimes to a few token stories), co-produces radio programming with Microsoft, and embeds reporters with the US military.

Today on All Things Considered I caught one of he worst reports I have ever heard or read in the mainstream media. Sure, by "one of" I mean one of thousands just as bad, but this one just screamed "case study" -- so I'll oblige.

ATC host Melissa Block introduced the piece:

It's been a tough year for the pharmaceutical industry.

What the hell is she talking about? If this was a "tough year," easy years must be phenomenal! True, a number of pharma co's saw their profits shrink in the first quarter of 2005. For instance, Pfizer reported a meager $301 million in profits. And just yesterday, Bristol-Meyers moved $110 million of profits into a reserve fund, leaving it a pathetic $533 million in net "earnings." Meanwhile, others are just plain blowing minds. And let's not forget this gargantuan new tax break for drug companies. So if you have a violin handy, bust it out and play a sad song for this pathetic industry...

In any case, Block couldn't resist encouraging us to sympathize with the drug companies, so she continued to set the mood...

There have been complaints about the high cost of medicine, as well as safety questions about popular drugs to treat depression and pain. Both have eroded the industry's reputation. In response, the industry's high-powered Washington trade group, known as PhRMA, has hired a high-profile new leader. NPR's Julie Rovner reports...

Wait a second. What is so "tough" about this year? Criticism of prices? Questions about safety? Block actually sounds like she expects us to sympathize. If you jack your prices up solely to make your profits soar, can it really be called "tough" on you if people "criticize" but by and large have no choice but to continue paying your ridiculous prices? And are "questions about safety" really so bad? Wasn't the FDA supposed to be asking those all along?

So what does Rovner have to say?

Billy Tauzin says his top mission as president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America is to recapture the trust of the American public.

So the lead is a public relations line. It's not "news," it's a newsmaker profile.

[Tauzin] said he agreed to take the job at PhRMA because of his recent bout with intestinal cancer.

Sympathize, damn you, sympathize!

But while Tauzin says regaining public trust is at the top of his agenda, he also made it clear that the industry isn't backing down on its opposition to some highly popular issues now before Congress. The biggest is whether or not to allow lower cost drugs to be imported from Canada and other countries. Tauzin says its simply too dangerous.

He does? Huh. One would not expect a representative of the US drug industry to say such a thing. And he makes the perfect expert on this. After all, his experience with the industry includes 20 years in Congress himself -- and don't forget: he licked intestinal cancer.

How does Tauzin -- who sounds remarkably like Robert Duvall -- characterize the prospect of importing drugs from Canada? Surely he'll be reasonable and level-headed...

Anybody who makes it the law of the land that counterfeiters and cheats and people working in dirty labs in Indonesia can ship drugs into this country that might not even be the drugs you need -- anybody who votes for that, and people start dying as a result, or terrorists get ahold of that situation and start importing products into this country to harm us on purpose -- is gonna live with that on their conscience.

Oh. But here comes the "counter-point," right? Sure, they just let someone lie and fear-monger on the air, without correcting it in narrative -- but surely now they'll at least do what Fox News would and let slip a hint that in at least the opinion of "some critics," it's conceivable that those terrible things would not come to pass if we imported drugs from Canada. Because this is NPR, after all. They're "liberal," or at least "balanced."


Rovner's narrative continues:

The group also remains unalterably opposed to efforts to negotiate prices for the new drug benefit that starts next year -- part of the law Tauzin helped write.

The term "negotiate prices" is a bit of a misnomer. It just means to get a bulk discount -- the same way Wal-Mart and Rite Aid and Walgreens do. Why can't Medicare do that? Because, of course, the pro-corporate government can outlaw it. But NPR will clear that up for us, right?

No, instead, we hear from Tauzin again. He makes Zel Miller seem like a softspoken liberal. You can almost hear the spittle hitting the microphone on this one:

It's price control. That's how it starts, that's how it ends. If you accept it in little chunks and bigger and bigger chunks, like wholesale blocks, you're walking right into the direction that Europe and some of the other places have gone. And if you really want rationing of medicine... good place to start.

Governments getting bulk discounts and passing the savings onto the public! It's just like those damn communists with their authoritarian price caps, and the dangerous removal of doctors' incentive to overprescribe and overmedicate unsuspecting patients!


Tauzin says what the industry wants to do most is help those who can't afford their medicines [to] get them, both by improving insurance coverage for drugs and more immediately by spending what he described as tens of millions of dollars on an effort to link uninsured Americans with drug company-sponsored assistance programs.

Is anyone else starting to wonder if NPR didn't pick up one of those pre-packaged, industry-crafted "radio news releases"?

Now here come the counter-arguments, in NPR's patented "but..." segment.

But others aren't so sure Tauzin is the right man for the task.

Wha??? That's the counter-point? Not that Tauzin is lying through his teeth and selling snake oil on behalf of the giant drug firms, so let's clear up all the bullshit we just broadcast over the public airwaives -- but rather that he isn't the man to do it?

Ron Pollack is executive director of Families USA, a consumer group that has long criticized drug industry practices.

Okay, finally, I'm sure Rovner will let Pollack explain what a boldfaced liar Tauzin is.

Pollack says Tauzin's very appointment makes the industry's public relations problem worse.

No, Ms. Rovner, what "makes the industry's public relations problem worse" is the pillaging and killing it carries out from coast to coast day after day. What makes it better is journalists failing to even remotely fulfill their duties.

Pollack bit, and for at least part of the interview went after Tauzin personally. We'll never know what else he said, but his utility for this story is to point out that Tauzin shilled for the industry in Congress and then took a cush job shilling for it in the private sector. So even the criticism in this piece essentially consisted of PR advice for the industry.

Rovner rejoinds with her conclusion:

Tauzin, however, says the industry has and will continue to operate within the rules for lobbying Congress. It does have a lot of lobbyists, he says, because Congress is considering what he calls "a lot of bad policy."

If you're donating to NPR -- which received an endowment of more than $200 million in 2003 -- I'd love to hear why pro-corporate media is getting your support and using it against your interests while independent media outlets everywhere are struggling to stay afloat.


moyergeo: NPR: Testing the Limits of Corporate Advocacy Journalism

I was listening to this story while driving to the food co-op yesterday. Didn't have the will power to keep the radio on...

pranjal tiwari: NPR: Testing the Limits of Corporate Advocacy Journalism

This station should be renamed the 'Mouth of Tauzin', like the Mouth of Sauron character in Lord of the Rings. You know I once actually confronted a reporter about a similar take on corporate stories, and they claimed they were objective because their story had lines like "Mr. Doom says that..." before the corporate propaganda. This apparently got the reporter and the outlet off the hook, since it was "not their own opinion". Ay ay ay.

Menkara: NPR: Testing the Limits of Corporate Advocacy Journalism

I want to thank you for pointing out such an obvious example of corporate advocacy on NPR's part. I listen to them often because it's the only other non-right wing informative talk programming in Chicago radio. It's a lesser evil sort of thing. I'm not surprised that--in addition to reporting in those dreadful monotones--NPR is also guilty of softballing the issues. I have heard similar criticisms of them before. I must admit that I have donated to NPR, mostly because I really enjoy their African-American themed Tavis Smiley Show (which is now the Ed Gordon show). NPR has some decent programs. However, it's important to point out how pro-corporate this so-called "liberal" station really is, and to show how the acceptance of corporate funds winds up altering any committments to real journalism. I love reading independent newspapers (like this one) online, but I wish there were more indy radio and tv outlets so that the masses could better access real journalism. Corporate funding equals corporate control, and it's definitely the problem with mainstream media. Most media is pro-government and/or pro-corp, which is really saying the same thing, as gov't is in corporate pockets anyway. The corps own this f *cking country. (Sorry for going off on a tangent, but you get my point).

VivekApte: NPR: Testing the Limits of Corporate Advocacy Journalism

I used to listen to NPR a lot on my daily commute, and have long thought it suspect, the more so for being widely regarded as "liberal" when it most certainly is not. It was one of only two news outlets that i know of (the other one being the DrudgeReport) that reported that 30 chemical warheads had been found in post-invasion Iraq, while all the other major outlets questioned it until eventually it was shown to be false. Another example that stands out is a Terri Gross interview with Lynne Cheney - it went something like this: Fawn fawn fawn, fawn, and oh, by the way, Fawn. With just the right sprinkle of credibility-enhancing "tough" questions for her ladyship.

The same goes for the News Hour on PBS - the operating principle there seems to be: talk talk talk talk talk and talk, and then talk some more, to give the impression of "in-depth coverage," but don't ever ask the real questions - leave those for half the audience to be screaming at their television screens.

(Which reminds me - there's a technological development called "interactive television," and i don't know what all it means, except it's in its infancy and it sounds promising - just imagine, we might be able to talk back to our televisions! But . . . nah, i can't see our democracy permitting that.)

Thanks for this detailed dissection of NPR's MO. You could probably make a full-time job out of this. Oh wait, you have. Thanks!!

hrstruggle: NPR: Testing the Limits of Corporate Advocacy Journalism

Brian: You should do more commentaries like this of NPR coverage; it's very useful to have examples of their stories disected like this - I'm going to try to read a bunch of this today on my radio show.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.