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.