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A Respected Face, but Is It News or an Ad?


Aaron Brown of CNN, Walter Cronkite and other broadcast journalists have been hired to appear in videos resembling newscasts that are actually paid for by drug makers and other health care companies, blurring the line between journalism and advertising.

Mr. Brown and Mr. Cronkite, the former CBS News anchor, are the new hosts of video "news breaks" produced by a Boca Raton, Fla., company called WJMK Inc. that are shown on local public television stations between regular programs. They are replacing Morley Safer of CBS, who has appeared in hundreds of the videos but has concluded, according to a "60 Minutes" spokesman, that the work does not meet the standards of CBS News.

Based on information that it received yesterday, CNN said it was reviewing its decision to allow the participation of Mr. Brown, who has not yet appeared in a video.

The hosts of the videos, standing on an elaborate news-style set, provide a general introduction to segments that profile health care companies or their products. According to WJMK documents, the companies pay WJMK about $15,000 in connection with the segments and other services and are allowed to edit and approve the videos, which are two to five minutes long.

Similarly, a drug marketing company called Healthology hires journalists from local television and radio stations to appear in video Webcasts. The Healthology programs are available through the Web sites of many large newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald. Drug makers pay for the Webcasts, which feature the journalists interviewing doctors and patients about their products.

For years, local news stations, as part of their newscasts, have broadcast videos created by drug companies' public relations agencies - a practice that critics equate to publishing unedited press releases. Now, production companies are expanding that marketing tactic to public television and the Web and using celebrity journalists to add to the videos' credibility.

Government officials said that the new programming might run afoul of federal drug regulations, which prohibit drug makers from advertising experimental medicines or promoting drugs for ailments that they have not been approved to treat. Communications lawyers said that the WJMK programs might fail to meet public broadcasting rules, which require the disclosure of corporate sponsorship.

Critics of the news media say that the videos mislead viewers by packaging promotional material to look like news. Dr. Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said that he had seen similar videos in the past that tried to imitate news but never ones featuring working journalists, let alone such prominent ones as Mr. Safer and Mr. Brown.

"They are buying credibility," he said of the health care companies that pay for the appearances.

One executive working for a company that was solicited by WJMK said that WJMK's employees had told him that Mr. Safer was paid "six figures" for one day in the studio.

Kevin Tedesco, a spokesman for "60 Minutes" on CBS, said that Mr. Safer had agreed to work for WJMK four years ago, thinking that the work complied with the network's standards. "After doing it, he realized it did not square with CBS News standards," Mr. Tedesco said. "Some of that work that he did back then continues to appear now. I don't think there is anything we can do about that."

Ronald Konecky, Mr. Cronkite's lawyer, said his client had agreed to work for WJMK after being told that the videos would be educational and would not promote products. He said that Mr. Cronkite would resign if he found that was not the case.

In one WJMK video where Mr. Safer appeared as host, executives at Innapharma, a small pharmaceutical company, promoted the company's experimental antidepressant nemifitide. "Patients rapidly get well and they stay well for months or years," Dr. John P. Feighner, the company's president, says in the video. "I've never seen anything that compares."

Last month, Innapharma filed for bankruptcy protection after the Food and Drug Administration ordered it to stop human trials of the drug because a study showed it was toxic to beagles. Dr. Feighner said this week that the company still hoped to sell nemifitide and was planning studies to try to show that the toxicity is limited to dogs.

Dr. Feighner said that he thought that regulators would consider the video to be appropriate because the medicine was still years from approval when the video was produced three years ago.

The Innapharma video was part of a series called the American Medical Review, which is produced by WJMK. WJMK hired John Stossel of "20/20" on ABC in 1998 to serve as the host of the series. Mr. Stossel asked WJMK to release him from his contract in August 1999.

"Neither John nor ABC News were comfortable with the ultimate arrangement," said Jeffrey W. Schneider, vice president of ABC News. The network has asked WJMK to remove Mr. Stossel's photo from its Web site.

Mark Kielar, the president of WJMK, said the videos were educational, not promotional. He said that the companies did not pay for the videos that are shown by local public television stations and that the companies had no control over content.

But a review of several written contracts between WJMK and the companies shows that they have paid $14,900 to have their products or services featured in American Medical Review videos and have them provided for use on public television stations. According to WJMK documents, the production company's staff writes a script based on information from the health care companies, including a questionnaire where the companies are asked what is superior about their products. They are then allowed to edit the script and give their final approval, according to WJMK documents.

Mr. Kielar said the $14,900 was charged solely for a related "corporate demo tape" that WJMK also created for the companies and that they could use on their Web sites and for other promotional purposes. He said he had created a second company so that one company produces the segments for public television and another company creates the promotional tape.

But groups and companies that WJMK asked to pay for the videos disagree with Mr. Kielar's description. "They were selling PBS and they were selling Morley Safer," said Jeff Cronin, spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group declined to participate, Mr. Cronin said, after a WJMK salesman called late last year.

WJMK's clients, according to its Web site, include the big pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca, Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis and others. They also include small companies like Sleep Angel, which sells a device to keep the mouth closed during sleep to stop snoring. The company has a link to the WJMK video on its Web site, saying that the device was "featured and seen around the world" on "Morley Safer's American Medical Review."

The American Medical Review videos are distributed to local public television stations, which can show them free. Mr. Kielar claims that 30 million households see each one.

But several stations said they had declined to air them because of their promotional nature. Steven Weisberg, program director at WLRN in Miami, said the station did not run the videos because the content was paid for by the companies that were profiled.

But Suzi Stone at KSMQ in Austin, Minn., said she broadcast most of the dozens of videos that WJMK produced every month. Ms. Stone said she did not know that companies paid fees to WJMK. "They offer them to us for free," she said, "so I don't go digging around for any other information."

The videos do not mention that the companies paid WJMK to produce them - which may violate federal communications law.

John Crigler, a lawyer in Washington, said that under federal law, both the video producer and the public television stations that broadcast the segments must make sure that any corporate sponsor is disclosed.

Healthology, which is based in Manhattan, uses the Web to distribute the videos that it creates for drug companies. To help make the videos look like news, it hires local television reporters, including some who cover health-related stories for their stations, like Dr. David Marks of WNBC in New York.

In a recent Healthology Webcast, Dr. Marks interviews a doctor about a medicine for multiple sclerosis called Avonex. When asked what drug a patient should take, the doctor tells viewers that Avonex has fewer side effects than competing medicines and may be more effective.

The physician, Dr. James Miller, says that about a quarter of patients given a competing medicine develop antibodies that work against it. While Dr. Miller is careful to say that these antibodies "may" make these other medicines ineffective, a full-screen graphic appears while he speaks, stating that the antibodies "block" the other medicines' effectiveness.

The F.D.A. has warned Avonex's maker, Biogen, not to make such statements because they are not supported by scientific evidence.

Viewers are also told that the Avonex video was paid for by MS Active Source. They are not told that MS Active Source is a Web site created by Biogen to help market Avonex. They are also not told that Dr. Miller has been paid by Biogen in the past for other work or that he was paid by Healthology for the Avonex video.

Mary A. Malarkey, director of the case management division at the F.D.A.'s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said that if drug companies pay for the videos, they could be considered to be advertising. "We would be interested in taking a look," she said.

Timothy D. Hunt, a spokesman for Biogen, said that Healthology had independent control of the video's content.

Dr. Marks, who appears frequently on WNBC, said that he did not know that Biogen had paid for the video. He said he had done his own research on the medicines and asked his own questions.

"I was never told what to say or what questions to ask," he said.

Liz Fischer, a spokeswoman for WNBC, said the station questioned the way Healthology packaged its Webcasts but did not question their content.

Dr. Miller said that Healthology executives had asked him to talk about antibodies but had not told him specifically what to say.

Dr. Steven Haimowitz, the president of Healthology, said that drug companies did not write or edit the videos' script. The drug makers pay for the videos and suggest the topics, he said, but Healthology's medical experts take over from there.

"All the Webcasts are fair and balanced," he said. "They are editorial in nature."

Dr. Haimowitz, who worked as an executive at a Madison Avenue ad agency before creating Healthology, said that the drug makers also do not suggest which doctors should be hired to appear in the videos. He said that in some medical specialties, like multiple sclerosis, almost all doctors do some kind of consulting work for the pharmaceutical companies.

Healthology promotes itself as an effective marketer of prescription drugs directly to the consumer. As consumers watch the videos, they have several opportunities to press buttons and be transferred to Web sites maintained by the sponsoring drug company, where they may be asked to provide detailed personal information and whether they want to be sent further information about the drug company's product.

Some of the Healthology videos are about how a medicine can be used for a condition that has not yet been approved by the F.D.A. For example, Pharmacia paid for a video about how pain relievers known as cox-2 inhibitors, including its product, Celebrex, could be used to treat lung cancer.

Susan J. Yarin, a spokeswoman for Pfizer, which bought Pharmacia, said the company had no control over that video's content.

Posted on aef.com: May 14, 2003

 

Melody Petersen, The New York Times. May 7, 2003

Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

 

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