Friday, April 15, 2005

Separation of Church and State

Chairman Bob Ehrlich over at DTC Prespectives is a well-known conservative commentator in pharmaceutical marketing circles. He likes coloring criticism of the pharmaceutical industry with a "liberal" bashing brush.

For example, this week he states in his commentary ("Punishing Critical Media"): "Coverage of the drug industry is bordering on creating a war of 'liberal idealism' versus 'profit hungry big business'."

Chairman Bob specifically takes a shot at the sensationalist tactics of evening news programs: "Unfortunately, many media stories about the drug industry go beyond the bounds of objective reporting and cross over to unfair bashing. For example, news outlets like to get ratings. To do so sometimes they will run a drug story with a headline, 'Millions of people at risk of dangerous side effects.' Or 'Common pill can cause liver failure- news at 11.'

This is hardly a tactic of the "liberal" media and I often see it used by the Fox network, for example.

If you were to talk with my wife, she would tell you how much I hate the way news programs prey on people's fears by focusing on violent crime and other negative news. This was a point made by arguably the most liberal person in America -- Michael Moore. In his documentary "Bowling for Columbine," Moore suggested that Americans are afraid in part due to programs like the local news and Cops, which exclusively focus on crimes with the greatest fear factor.

So let's not pin this on us liberals! First, not just the liberal news media use this tactic and second, liberals are not prone to support or use such tactics. In fact, I would say that this is a typical conservative ploy.

Every industry has to deal with negative PR, but I don't think that "critical" media should be punished by withdrawing ad money as Chairman Bob recommends. He hopes this tactic will only be used sparingly by drug companies -- i.e., only for continued "biased" coverage.

However, "biased" is in the eyes of the beholder. A marketer is likely to consider biased any report that falls short of a ringing endorsement!

There is a bigger issue here than whether or not liberals are to blame for negative pharma PR. The issue is really the integrity of the separation of church and state in the media -- protecting editorial content from being influenced by advertising.

The pharmaceutical industry should not be caught undermining the "Chinese wall" between editorial content and advertising that reputable media take pains to maintain. Especially considering that the pharma industry itself has been accused of a less than stellar record of maintaining separation between education and promotion to physicians and consumers.

When CME is attached to pharmaceutical-sponsored physician education, for example, a firewall between support (the ad) and the program (the content) is absolutely imperative. The ACCME (Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education) 2004 Updated Standards for Commercial Support reminds CME providers and commercial supporters that the goal of CME is to enhance physicians'’ ability to care for patients. Accredited providers have the responsibility for certifying that CME is independent of commercial interests.

Just as pharma companies should not undermine CME by trying to influence the content of physician education it sponsors, they should not undermine our independent news organizations by using their ad dollars to influence the news content.

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