COMMENTS: Controversial Cancer

What were the arguments that CBS advanced to justify paying so much attention to the War on Cancer? Katie Couric told us that 1.4m patients are diagnosed with cancer each year nationwide; fewer than one quarter of patients are under the age of 55; over the course of a lifetime a third of all women and half of all men will receive such a diagnosis; it costs $206bn annually to treat them all--although that number was contradicted later by Anthony Mason, citing $78bn.

For background features, in-house physician Jon LaPook brought us up to date on the latest pharmaceutical research, "targeted drug therapies instead of blasting the entire body with chemotherapy and radiation…leaving normal cells relatively unharmed." There are 600 such medicines currently in development. Business correspondent Mason told us that all that medicine "can cost a fortune." A prescription for Avastin, the colon cancer drug, for example, costs $4,400 each month. Cancer medicine now accounts for 22% of all pharmaceutical revenues but Mason did not examine whether spending on drugs is balanced by savings on other healthcare expenses.

What makes people get cancer? Kelly Wallace checked off the risks: family history, cigarette smoking, a high-fat diet, lack of exercise. Wallace concluded scarily with that mealy-mouthed word "could." Waiting "even three months" for a mammogram or colonoscopy "could mean the difference between life and death." Seriously, how many people actually die from a three-month delay in a screening appointment?

CBS' Couric also interviewed Dr Steven Rosenberg of the National Cancer Institute. She asked him about the major environmental factors--pollution, toxic waste sites, urbanized society--that cause cancer. Tobacco and asbestos, was his short reply: "We do not have good evidence that there are other major pollutants involved." So Couric's series told us in detail about Cures and Costs but, apart from the role of those two industries, the only cancer Controversies raised by CBS was the controversial decision to find the Big C so newsworthy.

By the way, ABC too, chose to follow up on the Snow story with a War on Cancer feature. John McKenzie profiled patients who suffer a recurrence when cells from an apparently cured tumor metastasize to other organs of the body.

UPDATE: a post at TVNewser (text link) contrasts CBS' Cures, Costs & Controversies series with NBC's The State of our Unions and speculates that this may represent evidence that "NBC is going softer as CBS tries to get harder."

Without defending NBC's lackluster marriage features, especially Carl Quintanilla's fact-free entry on marital finances, caution is required here. CBS may have concentrated on cancer, but they still found time for Lara Logan's tigers feature, Bill Whitaker's story on children's TV ads and junk food and Katie Couric's clips of Karl Rove acting silly.

A couple of days does not a trend make.

FURTHER UPDATE: There is an exchange at CBS' Public Eye about the virtue of saturation feature coverage on a single topic during the nightly newscasts. The site's editor Brian Montopoli (text link) is in favor; contributor John Kreiser (text link) of is opposed. Both tend to address the decision in principle rather than the quality of the actual journalism involved, although Kreiser was disappointed by Jon LaPook on metastasis and intrigued by Anthony Mason on cancer costs.

At the conservative Media Research Center's, Michael Balan (text link) objected to Wyatt Andrews advocacy journalism for implying that the federal government should be the sole source of primary medical research through the National Cancer Institute. Andrews should have portrayed that burden as being shared with not-for-profits like St Jude's Children's Research Hospital and for-profit Big Pharma, Balan insists.


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