News Pollution

Readers of the Sunday New York Times Magazine were treated on April 1
to an extensive advertising supplement on allergies and asthma. The supplement
ran from page 30 to page 42, with regular Times Magazine page
numbering. The ostensible news copy was prepared by an outside agency; the
section carried the disclaimer, in small type, that it was not based on reporting
or editing by the Times.

Advertising supplements are not new. But there should be decent limits,
especially at quality papers like the Times. This supplement was designed
for drug company advertising of allergy and asthma products. It included an ad
for Aventis Pharmaceuticals' Allegra, one for GlaxoWellcome's Flonaze, and a
four-page spread by Pfizer. Dozens of other products were plugged repeatedly in
the advertorial's pseudo-news copy.

Despite the section's title, "From Cause to Cure," there was nothing about cause.
The several "news" articles did not address why asthma and allergies have reached
epidemic proportions. Air pollution was mentioned once in passing; household
chemicals, not at all. But according to the American Lung Association, pollution
of various kinds is much of the story. Nor did the supplement address the class
and race gradient of asthma, which has become a growing affliction for black and
other inner-city children. One short article gingerly plugged a pilot program of
asthma and allergy consultants who serve "society's less fortunate."

Had the Times editors--rather than the advertising department--controlled
this space, the story would have been entirely different. Public health and
prevention, not just expensive pharmaceuticals and treatment after the fact,
would have been a major part of the reporting. Drug companies saturate the media
with their ads. It's hard to believe that the Times really needs
pseudo-news sections like this one to attract such advertising.

Yes, the sophisticated reader will know that all this material is really just
one big ad. But it's no accident that the advertisers try to disguise their sales
pitches as something as close to news copy as the Times will allow. And in
this case, instead of drawing a bright line between news and paid propaganda, the
Times works with them to abet that impulse. It kind of takes your breath
away.

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