June 16, 1999, Carthage, Tennessee. Vice President Al Gore has just held his presidential campaign launch rally, and CNN goes live to on-scene reporter Jeanne Meserve, who begins:
It was a group called AIDS Drugs for Africa. They were moderately loud. Gore supporters tried to counter them with chants for Al Gore. Eventually, they were escorted out of the area.
We heard here a laundry list of issues that the vice president has talked about before....
It is standard procedure for corporate-owned media to feign impatience with the lack of substance of presidential campaigns, the "laundry list of issues" we've heard before. It's also routine to characterize it all as merely a show, with an implied hint of disdain for such "choreography." But as the story of AIDS activists and Gore shows, when these same media are directly confronted with a real issue that interrupts and challenges business as usual, they do their best to ignore it—-noting primarily the degree to which it interferes with that soulless spectacle they pretend to deplore.
Averting the camera's eye
CNN's cameras focused briefly on the chanting activists, who held signs that said "Gore's Greed Kills" and "AIDS Drugs for Africa." But then they cut away from the action back to a shot of Gore. The candidate's face was almost totally obscured by signs, but the most controversial now read "I Adore Gore."
The print media equivalent of CNN's looking away was the summary dismissal of the protesters' concerns. Reporters claimed activists were "concerned that Mr. Gore was not doing enough to get AIDS drugs to Africa" (New York Times, 6/18/99), or "urging more U.S. dollars be funneled toward the AIDS crisis in Africa" (Boston Herald, 6/18/99).
In fact, activists' call was not for "more" from the U.S. government, but for Gore and the administration to stop interfering with South Africa's and other nations' attempts to deal with their massive AIDS crises. With nearly 3.2 million HIV-positive people (or almost 16 percent of the population), South Africa passed the Medicines and Related Substances Act in 1997, invoking their right to obtain essential drugs, including those used in treating AIDS, at accessible cost.
Under epidemic conditions, which certainly exist in South Africa, international trade agreements permit "compulsory licensing," in which countries produce lower-cost, generic versions of expensive patented drugs (paying a nominal royalty to the patent holder), as well as "parallel importing," which lets countries shop for the cheapest drugs in international markets.
The big pharmaceutical companies that hold the patents on exorbitantly priced drugs like AZT unsurprisingly bridle at such practices; an international consortium has managed to block South Africa's law, with support from the U.S. government. When a New Jersey congressmember held up aid to South Africa, demanding proof of the administration's efforts on drug firms' behalf, the resulting State Department report assured that Washington was "engaged in an assiduous, concerted campaign" to fight the Medicines Act, "making use of the full panoply of leverage in our arsenal." Including Al Gore, chair of the U.S.-South Africa Bi-National Commission, who made changing the law a "central focus" of his August 1998 meeting with South African deputy president (now president) Thabo Mbeki.
Having his say
Pressed to say something as health care activists followed Gore from stump speech to photo op, establishment media overwhelmingly elected not to focus on the underlying issue, but on the charisma quotient of the candidate's responses to the "hecklers."
The Hartford Courant (6/18/99) stated that Gore's "strengths showed" when he "fended off hecklers who wanted more help for AIDS sufferers in Africa." On PBS's NewsHour (6/17/99), the Washington Post's Ceci Connelly shared her assessment:
For which analysis Jim Lehrer thanked her very much.
A number of outlets (L.A. Times, 6/18/99; Hartford Courant, 6/18/99, AP, 8/8/99) approvingly noted Gore's promise to "meet afterward" with protesters; they just neglected to report whether he actually did so. And several were impressed by Gore's tactic of shouting, "I believe in the First Amendment, let's give them a hand!" until audience applause drowned out the protesters and they were removed from the scene, at which point Gore declared, "Now I'd like to have my say." For a press corps seemingly unaware of the real distribution of power, such sophistry showed the candidate manfully "turn[ing] the tables" (CNN, 6/17/99) on his detractors.
When a few stories were eventually devoted to the question of compulsory licensing for AIDS drugs in Africa, a preeminent theme was that it was an "emotion-laden dispute" (AP, 6/30/99), in which activists were "manipulating what is actually a much more complicated and interesting debate" (Washington Post, 6/24/99).
But what mainstream media accounts added to the story wasn't "nuance," but simply the pharmaceutical industry's point of view. For example, Article 31 of the World Trade Organization's Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, only recently negotiated, clearly provides for compulsory licensing and parallel importing. Yet virtually every media account implied that the measures, while possibly well-intentioned, were extra-legal.
"Expensive AIDS drugs tempt poor countries to bend the rules," ran one Time magazine headline (6/12/99). The attached article called compulsory licensing an attempt to "suspend patent and trade laws," and defined Article 31 as a "loophole." An only slightly subtler tactic is to describe the laws as something "South Africa maintains...may be permitted under international law" (Washington Post, 6/24/99), or "consumer and AIDS groups say...are legal under WTO rules" (Reuters, 6/18/99)-—as if such claims were suspect, or unverifiable.
The fact that the United States has itself repeatedly made use of compulsory licensing didn't make it into most accounts; Newsweek (7/12/99) put it far down in their report, in a parenthesis.
Mainstream media transmitted without challenge the drug companies line that extremely high profit rates are necessary to fuel important research, and "the cost of developing new drugs often accounts for a good part of their high price," (New York Times, 7/2/99). Or, as the Washington Post put it (6/24/99), though poor countries may "chafe" at being denied life-saving medicines, denying drug companies' profits means they "won't look for new drugs and everyone will suffer, Americans and foreigners alike."
It was left to letters to the editor, like one from FAIR associate Dean Baker, to challenge the system that makes that so. As Baker pointed out (Washington Post letters, 7/2/99), patent prices are often "20 times higher or more, than the actual cost of producing the drug"—making for a patented drug market that not only prices life-saving drugs out of the reach of millions, but is also enormously inefficient economically. What's more (as another letter writer also noted), patent protection for private companies has not been the driving force behind major medical breakthroughs; many AIDS medications, for example, were researched and developed with taxpayer dollars.
Pharmaceutical industry spin hasn't dissuaded activists from what seems a stark choice between human lives and private profit. But for elite media it's all much more murky. For them, Gore is unfortunately "caught in a clash between AIDS activists seeking cheap generic drugs" and "U.S. laws intended to protect drug companies from having their patents violated abroad" (AP, "Gore Caught Between AIDS Activists and Drug Industry," 6/30/99). A June 24 CNN segment claimed "the quest to flood Africa with cheap AIDS drugs has run headlong into conflict with American trade policy." And Newsweek (7/12/99) suggested that the battle for critical health care (in which Gore was "caught in the cross-fire") was really just partisan interest finger-pointing, concluding, "the blame game could go on for quite a while."
The Washington Post did allow that "you could make a case" that the U.S. government "should push harder to help South Africa get access to drugs it can afford." (Push harder than blocking their legal attempt to do so, one imagines.) But really, this conflict between the "legitimate interests of industry and those of the developing world has no ultimate solution."
ABC: Let Africans die
Back on April 28, the Chicago Tribune's Merrill Goozner (one of a handful of journalists to cover the compulsory licensing controversy before the anti-Gore protests) noted that, "as part of its campaign to forestall widespread compulsory licensing, the drug industry is raising concerns that poorly monitored use of the latest HIV inhibitors might create resistant strains of the virus."
Just a few months later, that industry spin was the foundation for ABC World News Tonight, which aired two stories July 8 on the subject of treating AIDS in African countries. ABC's conclusion: It's better for poor Africans to die than to have access to cheap AIDS drugs.
First Peter Jennings misframed the debate as a matter of noblesse oblige: "Should the wealthier nations provide AIDS drugs to those countries that cannot possibly afford them?"
Then, from South Africa, correspondent Jackie Judd claimed that "many health professionals agree" with the drug industry's claim that "cheaper drugs alone are never the answer," since AIDS "patients need to be closely supervised, which the South African medical system cannot provide."
Of course, Judd didn't find anyone who actually argued that "cheaper drugs alone" are "the answer," an obvious straw man. And the only "health professional" Judd used as an on-air source for the rebuttal was Thomas Bombelles, a spokesman for PhRMA, a consortium of large pharmaceutical companies.
Goozner's April 28 piece pointed out that physicians who treat AIDS in developing countries call the industry's warnings about resistant strains a "false issue" (Chicago Tribune, 4/28/99). According to Mark Biot, who oversees AIDS programs worldwide for Doctors Without Borders, "clinics in most of the larger cities of the developing world would be fully equipped to handle AIDS patients if they had access to affordable drugs."
In fact, before her story aired, Judd had contacted James Love, a health economist who directs the Consumers' Project on Technology in Washington, and a leading U.S. expert on compulsory licensing for AIDS drugs. Love told Judd that the industry's spin was wrong--that compulsory licensing would have a positive effect on public health in Africa. But neither Love nor his concerns made it into Judd's piece.
The second segment (prefaced with Jennings' patronizing warning that "the science here is complicated") was by ABC reporter Richard Gizbert in Zambia. After introducing a Zambian AIDS patient named Veronica, Gizbert says:
Despite the claim that Zambian officials "agree with the drug companies" (pointedly echoing the unnamed "health professionals" in Judd's report), the Zambian health official quoted in the broadcast says only that "supportive services" are needed for AIDS patients--hardly a startling position. No evidence is presented for the idea that the Zambian government is choosing to allow people to die.
Finally, Jennings' close: "One final note about the drug companies--Glaxo Wellcome that makes the AZT drug has cut drug prices to some African countries. And Bristol-Myers Squibb, the makers of three of the AIDS drugs, says it is spending $100 million in Africa on AIDS-related programs."
He didn't mention that AZT normally sells in the U.S. for more than ten times the cost of production--or that it was the U.S. government, not Glaxo, that invented and identified it as a useful treatment for AIDS. Nor did ABC note that much of Bristol-Myers Squibb's money will fund doctors to do research in Africa—for Bristol-Myers Squibb. As Dan Berman, of Doctors Without Borders, told Time (7/12/99), "A lot of the companies are using the cheaper labor costs and the lack of ethical codes in developing countries as a way to get the trials done more cheaply and quickly."
Running from what they see as an "emotional" dispute, involving parts of the world they don't care much about, forced on them by activists they view as gatecrashers in the political process, corporate-owned media can't even see fit to treat the AIDS drugs story as a campaign issue. As far as most reporters could tell, the protesters had nothing to do with Gore except for being the last thing he needed.
Reporting outside the major dailies has filled in some of what they're missing. A piece by John Judis in the American Prospect (7/1/99), for example, outlined Gore's significant ties to the pharmaceutical industry, pointing out that PhRMA contributed heavily to his PAC, and that Gore's close advisors include David Beier, former chief lobbyist for Genetech, and key PhRMA lobbyist Anthony Podesta. Gore's fronting for big drug firms on AIDS drugs in Africa, Judis suggests, "provides a warning signal of the unwarranted influence that these kinds of firms might have over his presidency."
It's a signal mainstream media have so far been content to ignore, disregarding both the crucial issue of accessible health care and the most fundamental advice in campaign coverage: Follow the money.