Courage of Convictions: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the New York Times, and Reform of the Pure Food and Drug Act, 1933-1937

By Witherspoon, Elizabeth M. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Courage of Convictions: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the New York Times, and Reform of the Pure Food and Drug Act, 1933-1937


Witherspoon, Elizabeth M., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and the Wheeler-Lea Amendment to the Federal Trade Commission Act became law together after five years of intense lobbying as a relatively weak compromise over the original proposal to overhaul the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Conscious of threats by the drug industry to cancel all advertising if the legislation passed, many newspapers participated in the effort to defeat it by editorializing against it or omitting coverage altogether. This study shows that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was an exception and actually crusaded for reform of the Food and Drug Act.

Introduction

The current debate over whether and to what degree the Food and Drug Administration has the power to declare nicotine a drug and regulate cigarette advertising is reminiscent of the original debate in the 1930s over the extent to which the FDA should regulate drugs and drug advertising. Both controversies feature a complex combination of public, industry, citizens' group, and political pressure. Both also feature crucial questions about the balance between the government's responsibility to protect consumers and its role in allowing free enterprise. Equally significant is the paradoxical role played by the news media in these debates. On the one hand, the media serve as agents of reform and consumer protection by informing the public about the outrageous practices of business. Yet at the same time, the media are businesses themselves with a profound financial stake in limiting the powers of government to regulate advertising.

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and the Wheeler-Lea Amendment to the Federal Trade Commission Act became law together on 30 June 1938 after almost five years of intense lobbying as a relatively weak compromise over the original proposal for a complete overhaul of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.1 Extremely dependent upon the revenues of drug advertising during the Great Depression-John E. Nichols estimated that the industries affected by the new legislation represented 43 percent of all national advertising in 1933-and conscious of threats by the drug industry to pull all advertising if the legislation passed, many newspapers actually participated in the effort to defeat it by their omission of coverage.2 Yet as this struggle intensified, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was operating what some regard as the strictest form of self-censorship of drug advertising at that time.3

Scholars have chronicled the struggle to reform the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and, to some degree, the role of the media in that five-year effort.4 However, noticeably absent from this discussion has been an analysis of how the St. Lot

This study seeks answers to the following questions: How did the St. Louis Post-Dispatch cover the introduction in 1933 of legislation to reform the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906? Did the editorial coverage reflect Joseph Pulitzer II's strong position in favor of refusing misleading or objectionable drug advertising? Or, did the Post-Dispatch virtually ignore coverage of the legislation, as scholars have suggested the New York Times did?7 If not, to what extent did the Post-Dispatch cover the issue and how far did it go in terms of a crusade to get the legislation passed? …

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