Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The 'National' Media Pecking Order

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The 'National' Media Pecking Order

Article excerpt

Most of the time when people complain about the pack mentality, they mean the penchant the press has for following one story broken by one of the "national" papers, 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 national papers to touch a story that's been broken by one of the lesser stars in the galaxy. It's an elitist attititude that cheats readers. And in Washington, that sin of omission has policy consequences.

Months ago, the Los Angeles Times' David Willman began uncovering problems with a diabetes drug called Rezulin.

Some 400 patients had developed liver failure, and dozens had died. Willman soon learned that Rezulin was only one example of a major crisis within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - the rapid approval of new drugs, pushed by a Congress beholden to the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry. By this February, Willman was churning out two stories a week, sometimes on the L.A. Times' front page, citing frightening internal documents and worried FDA scientists.

It was inevitable that The New York Times with its highly publicized science reporters to would pick up the story. Except that it didn't.

Instead, the "CBS Evening News" jumped into the fray. It's fairly unusual for a network news program to get involved in investigative reporting these days, but its new executive producer, Jim Murphy, was troubled by the rise in reports about dangerous drugs such as Rezulin, and decided he wanted to go "deeper." Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson dove in, and from late February to early April, she did eight stories that ran high up on the "Evening News" (one even trumped the Pope's visit to Jerusalem). By then, some 63 people had died and a couple of congressmen had begun to murmur. But the silence at The New York Times was deafening.

In late March, under a barrage of stories from both the L.A. Times and the "CBS Evening News," the drug was finally withdrawn. By this time, several FDA scientists had "broken the code," 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 even appeared on CBS declaiming "FDA-GATE." Then FDA investigators threatened a 72-year-old doctor with prison for leaking info about the deadly drug to the press, bringing even election-weary politicians to the fore to denounce FDA ham-handedness. …

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