By: Alicia Mundy
While LA Times Reports On FDA Controversy, NY Times Says Little
from this week’s Editor & Publisher magazine:
Most of the time when people in Washington complain about the ‘pack mentality,’ they
mean the penchant the press has for following a story broken by one of the national
newspapers, jumping on it like seagulls on a french fry and pecking it to death.
But the flip-side of pack coverage is the refusal of the national papers to touch a
story that has been broken by one of the lesser stars in the galaxy. It’s an elitist
attitude that cheats readers. And in Washington, that sin of omission has policy
Several months ago, the Los Angeles Times’ David Willman began uncovering problems
with a diabetes drug called Rezulin. Some 400 patients had developed liver failure
after taking the drug, and dozens had died. Willman soon learned that Rezulin was
only one example of a major crisis within the Food and Drug Administration – the rapid
approval of new drugs, pushed by a Congress beholden to the coffers of the
pharmaceutical industry. By February of this year, Willman was churning out two stories
per week, sometimes on the L.A. Times’ front page, citing frightening internal
documents and worried FDA scientists.
It seemed inevitable that The New York Times and its high-profile science reporting
staff would pick up the story. Except that it didn’t.
Instead, The CBS Evening News jumped into the fray. It’s unusual for network news to
do investigative reporting these days. But new CBS Evening News executive producer Jim
Murphy was troubled by the rise in reports about dangerous drugs like Rezulin, and
decided to go deeper – despite the huge amount of pharmaceutical advertising that runs
on the Dan Rather-led newscast. Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson dove in, and from late
February to early April, she did eight stories that ran high up on the Evening News
telecasts (one even trumped the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem). By then, 63 people had
died, and a couple of Congressmen had begun to murmur. The silence from The New York
Times was deafening.
In late March, under the barrage of stories from the L.A. Times and CBS, the drug was
finally withdrawn. By this time, several FDA scientists had ‘broken the code’ and gone
public, risking their careers to write directly to Congress that the top FDA leaders had
ignored the problem and were taking the drug-maker’s side. One FDA scientist even appeared
on CBS declaiming ‘FDAgate.’ Then FDA investigators threatened a 72-year-old doctor with
prison for leaking info about the deadly drug to the press, bringing even election
year-weary politicians to the fore to denounce the FDA’s ham-handedness.
The New York Times finally published two stories on the affair, and they read like FDA
press releases – ‘We found a problem, we fixed it.’ No discussion of the open rebellion
inside the agency. No mention of the outrageous threats – the type of government acts that
once sent Seymour Hersh into battle. It was like the East German newspapers of the Cold War,
where inconvenient events and people were simply written out of the story.
What happened to The New York Times here? One possible explanation is its’ well-known
tendency to refuse to follow the L.A. Times. In his book, former White House counsel Lanny
Davis wrote about how the Clinton media-meisters would sometimes confirm bad news first for
the L.A. Times. The thinking was that if a negative scoop broke there first, the N.Y. Times
would probably not push the story hard.
‘We may have to follow the [Washington] Post but we don’t like to play catch-up with the L.A.
Times,’ said one N.Y. Times reporter who requested anonymity. That attitude may have been
reinforced this year, after the L.A. Times trashed the N.Y. Times’ Gina Kolata over a
potential conflict of interest in one of her medical stories. And perhaps the N.Y. Times
reported the FDA’s sanitized version of events in order to protect the paper’s relationship
with FDA officials.
It’s all a puzzle to L.A. Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus. ‘If you’re asking me
why The New York Times is avoiding covering a major crisis that is life and death to some
people, a national story, well, you’ll have to ask them,’ McManus said.
Good idea, except N.Y. Times editors passed the questions on to their PR department, and the
Times’ reporter on the story, Denise Grady, hung up the phone on me. Later, a Times
spokeswoman called back and said: ‘We believe we covered this in a responsible way.’
The lack of attention by the Times to the dangerous-drugs story has fallout in the capital,
noted a staffer for House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.). ‘The hierarchy is
like this,’ the Bliley staffer said. ‘We know the story’s been running in the L.A. Times but
if it’s not in The New York Times or The Washington Post, we don’t have to act on it. In fact,
if [a story] runs in those two papers, it gives us cover for doing something. It helped this
time that CBS News is doing some stories – otherwise you might not have any reaction from
Congress at all.’
(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher