Bitter Pill

The PR machines of drug companies purr like the Jaguars of so
many physicians. Such precision tuning has given pill pushers the
ability to manipulate media coverage so that their new medicines
hit the market with a spoonful of positive publicity. Many
reporters are getting caught in their traps, while others are
avoiding them,
Lieberman writes in the Columbia Journalism

Journalists with integrity who cover the drug industry have it
tough. Finding a source in the drug-development field untainted by
industry sponsorship is ‘like finding a needle in a haystack,’ says
Peter Rost, a Pfizer vice president of marketing. Company PR reps
routinely try to force-feed the press sources with conflicts of
interest and serve up stories-on-a-platter. (Lieberman cites
several instances of esteemed news outlets wolfing them down.)
Plus, it’s not an uncommon practice for the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA), which often acts as an adjunct to the
industry, to blacklist muckraking reporters: ‘The FDA is as
obstructionist as the drug companies, if not more so,’ says CBS
correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

Despite the drug beat’s challenges, Lieberman is critical of
recent soft-hitting reporting: ‘[T]he press too often is caught up
in the same drug-industry marketing web that also ensnares doctors,
academic researchers, even the FDA, leaving the public without a
reliable watchdog.’ She points to the Cox 2 fiasco as an example of
where coverage with real teeth might have prevented deaths and

The press’ current stint as a PR tool for drug-makers coincides
with an upsurge in ads hawking pills during TV news programs and in
print. Whether or not the media has acquiesced for the sake of
revenue is unclear. Lieberman raises an eyebrow, but, she explains,
‘This doesn’t mean that news executives consider such income when
they make story assignments, but in places where the wall between
the news side and the business side has weakened, the temptations
are stronger than ever.’
Archie Ingersoll

Go there >>

Related Links:

Related Links from the Utne

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.