Too Much Smoke Too Little Coverage
Though the industry was stunned to learn of Peter Jennings' lung cancer, in recent years network news has turned down the heat on the health dangers of tobacco
By Andrew Tyndall -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/10/2005 8:00:00 PM
When Peter Jennings announced last week that he was suffering from lung cancer and confessed his past cigarette habit, the irony was unavoidable. Just last fall, the ABC News anchorman had hosted Untold Stories of Betrayal and Neglect, an hour-long prime time special on “the power of Big Tobacco and the failure of the Congress to do anything about it.”
Jennings introduced the special by asserting that the health dangers of cigarette smoking were an ongoing concern at ABC: “We have kept a Tobacco File at ABC News for more than 20 years.” In fact, the special was mostly a retrospective of the tobacco wars of the mid 1990s—the regulatory disputes and the anti-industry lawsuits. Jennings conceded that the urgency had gone out of the story: “By the late '90s, many people thought the government and the tobacco industry and the public-health community had finally made real progress in the campaign against smoking.”
Sadly, he reflected that relaxed vigilance in his personal life last week, during the raspy message he recorded to end World News Tonight with substitute anchor Elizabeth Vargas, when he acknowledged, “Yes, I was a smoker until about 20 years ago. And I was weak and I smoked over 9/11.”
This ebbing sense of crisis about the scourge of cigarettes has also been evident in the agenda of the networks' nightly newscasts—not just Jennings' World News Tonight but at CBS and NBC as well. Over the past six years, cigarette coverage has plummeted to less than one-fifth of the volume it received during the heat of the tobacco wars in the mid '90s.
Back then, the clash between Big Tobacco and Big Media was epic. Most vivid was the case of 60 Minutes' pulling its story on nicotine manipulation by Brown & Williamson. It's so memorable because CBS' suppressed source, Jeffrey Wigand, went on to be the central figure of the movie The Insider.
Less well remembered is ABC's short-lived prime time magazine Day One. Reporter John Martin alleged that cigarettes are “high-technology nicotine-delivery devices” spiked with extra nicotine to keep smokers addicted. He explained that “the companies say the nicotine is a natural part of the extract used for flavoring, not intended to addict smokers.” Philip Morris sued ABC News for libel as a result of the report. (The lawsuit was settled, with a retraction by ABC of some details, a limited apology, a payment of legal costs and no damages.)
During the six-year period 1993-1998, the three networks' nightly newscasts averaged an annual total of almost four hours on tobacco-related reporting: the famous congressional hearings where executive after Big Tobacco executive swore that nicotine was not addictive; the debate over whether the FDA could regulate cigarettes; the state-level lawsuits to set up anti–youth-smoking advertising campaigns.
Of the two networks whose journalists came under legal fire, CBS (524 minutes over the six years vs. ABC's 459 and NBC's 412) followed the story most closely.
At the time, the increased interest in tobacco was astonishing since it marked the substitution of legal drugs for illegal ones in the headlines. The previous five years had seen saturation coverage of President George H. W. Bush's War on Drugs, with the Medellin cocaine cartel, not the Marlboro Man, occupying the position of Public Enemy No. 1.
Since 1999, however, all three networks' news operations have lost interest in the beat, each averaging just 15 minutes each year on tobacco—scarcely more newsworthy than alcohol. And just as tobacco supplanted cocaine in the news hierarchy of threats to the nation's health, so now the focus is on Big Food. Stories on obesity, nutrition, fast food, bioengineered crops and so on receive four times the attention that cigarettes attract.
The news agenda has followed the same fads as Hollywood—from drugs to cigs to gluttony, from Scarface to The Insider to Supersize Me. Unfortunately, the cancer-causing properties of tobacco failed to mimic the shifting emphases of network news coverage.
Even though Jennings swore off cigarettes at the time ABC News began compiling its Tobacco File two decades ago, he now finds himself grappling with an illness that will strike tens of thousands of smokers this year and many more in the years to come. We are sorry that, under duress, he slipped a few years ago, and we wish him the best for a full recovery.
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