MediaWatch August 1993

Vol. Seven No. 8

Networks Legitimize NRDC's Press Release Science

"Passive Conduits" On Pesticides

New York Times Science Editor Nicholas Wade conceded that the media often serve as a "passive conduit" for environmentalists. The quote came in a July 27 Washington Post story on a Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) poll of scientists which found "the media overplay minor environmental threats to health." Wade confirmed to the Post's Howard Kurtz: "Often we're just doing our duty in following the activism of environmentalists, who make an issue of radon in houses or abandoned Superfund sites."

On June 21, the "passive conduits" struck again. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report supposedly summarizing a National Academy of Sciences analysis. CNN and ABC simply passed on the NRDC summary. ABC's Bettina Gregory warned: "The National Academy of Sciences is coming out with a report expected to document that children are more vulnerable than adults to pesticide residues."

But a week later, the actual NAS report contained no conclusion resembling the NRDC summary. The report said nothing about the danger pesticides pose to children. The report only suggested EPA regulations might be altered to account for the tolerance levels of children. Still, the media ignored what the actual NAS report said, and continued to parrot the NRDC summary.

The New York Times ran four stories in a little over a week using the NRDC spin. NBC Nightly News anchor Garrick Utley warned June 27: "A major new report ordered by Congress shows that pesticides are a greater danger to children than previously thought."

Peter Jennings introduced a June 28 ABC story: "The National Academy of Sciences reports today that children may be ingesting unsafe amounts of pesticide residue." He conceded that NAS called for more testing, but reporter Ned Potter picked up the baton: "Two billion pounds a year. That's how much pesticide we use on our fruits and vegetables...Is it dangerous? The National Academy report is only the latest indication it may be."

In the July 16 Investor's Business Daily, Michael Fumento reported, "The NRDC statement indicated there was no reason to wait for the NAS report, since the NAS was just going to say what the NRDC already had. The confusion over who was saying what may not be coincidental."

Fumento quoted NRDC skeptics who charged "by pre-empting the NAS report, the environmental groups were able to get an extremist message tied to a respected scientific body." No wonder the CMPA survey discovered just six percent of cancer researchers consider network news to be a "very reliable" source for news about cancer risks.