Late-breaking news changed the running order at all three networks. The Story of the Day--on the prescription diabetes drug Avandia--was pushed into second place by reports from Maine that Chief Justice John Roberts had fallen while on vacation and had been taken to hospital. The fall may have been caused by a seizure but no network had time to compile a rounded report so each led with a brief live stand-up, not from the scene but from Washington DC.    
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video thumbnailCBSIraq: US-led invasion forces' combat continuesUS troop build-up reduces civilian death tollDavid MartinPentagon
video thumbnailNBCIraq: post-war reconstruction effortsProgress slowed by official corruption, theftLisa MyersWashington DC
video thumbnailNBCBritain-US diplomacy: PM Gordon Brown visitsIraq was major focus of Camp David talksDavid GregoryWhite House
video thumbnailNBCSaudi Arabia-US diplomacy: arms sale initiativeUS proposes weapons as deterrent against IranAndrea MitchellWashington DC
video thumbnailCBSMilitary recruitment and retention effortsArmy relaxes standards for criminal backgroundsKimberly DozierPentagon
video thumbnailCBSUSAF F-35 fighter jet excess spending assailedProject commissions two sets of engine designsSharyl AttkissonCapitol Hill
video thumbnailABC
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Prescription drug Avandia side effect worriesFDA panel recommends no withdrawal from saleLisa StarkWashington DC
video thumbnailABC
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Sudden Infant Death Syndrome prevention effortsDefect in babies' right inner ear may be causeJohn McKenzieNew York
video thumbnailABCMovie director Ingmar Bergman dies, aged 89ObituaryCharles GibsonNew York
video thumbnailNBCTV late night anchor Tom Snyder dies, aged 71ObituaryBrian WilliamsNew York
FALLING SICKNESS Late-breaking news changed the running order at all three networks. The Story of the Day--on the prescription diabetes drug Avandia--was pushed into second place by reports from Maine that Chief Justice John Roberts had fallen while on vacation and had been taken to hospital. The fall may have been caused by a seizure but no network had time to compile a rounded report so each led with a brief live stand-up, not from the scene but from Washington DC.

By the time the newscasts started Roberts was in the Penobscot Bay Medical Center. "We have no information that the Chief Justice suffered a seizure," stated Jan Crawford Greenburg on ABC, although she did report that some of his neighbors in Maine said that they believed they saw him foam at the mouth. At the White House, CBS' Jim Axelrod (no link) did not know "what the cause of the fall may be," while he mentioned that Roberts had once before suffered a seizure, on a golf course in the early '90s. On NBC, Pete Williams (no link) opened the newscast with a report on the fall on a public boat dock; later in the newscast anchor Brian Williams offered an update that the cause was indeed a seizure.

BROOKINGS SURGES TO THE RESCUE All three networks kicked off the week with updates from Iraq, where the misnamed military surge received a public relations boost while politics made no progress whatsoever. "The Iraqi parliament has not passed a single bill that the United States is pushing for," ABC's Terry McCarthy declared from Baghdad, as the legislature left on its month-long summer vacation. In an Investigates expose, NBC's Lisa Myers quoted from a report prepared for Judge Radhi al-Radhi, Iraq's chief of anti-corruption. It found $11bn in official embezzlement, including missing medicine from Baghdad hospitals, gasoline diverted to the black market and ghost employees in the security forces: "An entire battalion of Iraqi police was found to be non-existent." The graft is enabled by the revival of a law dating from Saddam Hussein's regime that allows "the Prime Minister to block prosecution of cabinet ministers" and ministers in turn "to block prosecution of their employees."

The PR fillip came from Washington DC's Brookings Institution think tank: fellows Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack returned from an eight-day inspection of the US military in Iraq and published an encouraging op-ed article--"we were surprised by the gains" and the potential for "sustainable stability"--in The New York Times. "The White House was thrilled," reported ABC's Martha Raddatz (in the middle of the McCarthy videostream), "precisely because it concentrated on military progress and did not say very much about the lack of political progress." From the Pentagon, CBS' David Martin noted that monthly GI casualties "are the lowest since the troop surge began in February" and that "civilian casualties are down a third"--although he did not specify what metric he was using to substantiate that questionable claim.

Anchor Charles Gibson asked ABC's Jake Tapper (at the tail of the McCarthy videostream) on Capitol Hill what impact the Brookings report would have on the troops-out debate. "Zero!" was his reply. "Do you think members of Congress are going to go back to their constituents who ware asking--'When are you going to bring our boys home?'--and say: 'Well, hold on a second. Read this New York Times op-ed?' That is not realistic." Meanwhile at Camp David, President George Bush's talks with Gordon Brown, the new Prime Minister of Britain, "focused heavily on Iraq," according to NBC's David Gregory. Brown said he would decide in the fall whether to withdraw troops from Basra and "tried to tamp down concerns about an accelerated pullout."

UPDATE: the civilian casualty trend referred to by CBS' Martin was contradicted two days later by Reuters (text link). The news agency reported that the death toll was one third higher in July (1,653 v 1,227) than in the previous month.

BOMBS AWAY Elsewhere in the region, NBC was the only network to have a reporter cover the United States' weapons diplomacy. Andrea Mitchell previewed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to offer "top of the line weapons" to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, including laser guided smart bombs, air-to-air missiles and high-speed naval vessels. Mitchell noted that King Abdullah undercuts US foreign policy in the region by brokering deals with Hamas, the Palestinian faction in control of the Gaza Strip, and by arming insurgent forces fighting the US-backed government of Iraq. Yet the US wants to arm the Saudis anyway in order to "frighten and contain their neighbor"--referring not to Israel or Iraq, but to Iran. Israel will also receive US weapons as part of the deal. "That will start an arms race without solving the problem," was how Mitchell paraphrased critics of Rice's policy.

SOLDIERS’ STORIES A pair of Pentagon stories were filed by CBS. Sharyl Attkisson's Eye on Your Money investigation into porkbarrel spending in the USAF F-35 Lightning II fighter jet program would have been even more impressive if NBC had filed it. It was an expose of unnecessary earmark funding being funneled to General Electric--if NBC had called it a Fleecing of America it would have collected double brownie points, first for going after waste-fraud-abuse and second for displaying editorial independence from its corporate parent. But Attkisson got the jump and deserves the kudos. The Congressional argument for granting a contract to GE to develop an alternate engine for the fighter is that competition improves quality; the Pentagon claims it is happy with the original design by Pratt & Whitney and that the $1.6bn to invent an unnecessary rival "would be better spent for force protection."

Attkisson's colleague Kimberly Dozier catalogued the corners that army recruiters are cutting to make quota. The military not only accepts lower standards of fitness and intelligence than in the past, but also "the number of incoming soldiers with prior felony arrests has nearly tripled in the past five years." Dozier explained that the military grants a "moral waiver" and, in order to make sure they get a stigma-free second chance, commanders are not told whether or not a rookie had a record. Sometimes soldiers revert to criminal activity while "some chances work out." She cited Angelo Vaccaro as a success story: he was granted a waiver and earned two Silver Star medals. The only trouble was that the medals were posthumous--so it is not clear that things did "work out" after all.

SWEET HEARTS The story that was slated to be the lead on all three networks before Chief Justice John Roberts fell down in Maine was the "strange decision," as ABC's in-house physician Timothy Johnson (no link) called it, by an advisory panel of the Food & Drug Administration. It agreed with a finding in The New England Journal of Medicine that Avandia, the diabetes medication that lowers blood sugar levels, increases its users' risk of heart disease--yet recommended that it should remain approved for use anyway. Back in May (text link) when the Cleveland Clinic published its NEJoM study we noted the sloppy statistics used to report this story. The reporting on the FDA panel's findings showed some improvement. With Avandia being used by approximately one million diabetes patients each year, CBS' Nancy Cordes attached a number to their estimated 43% increased risk of having a heart attack as a result of taking it: she quoted 80,000 in eight years. By our math, that means that a diabetes patient's average annual chance of having a heart attack worsens from 1-in-43 to 1-in-30 by going on Avandia.

Both Cordes and ABC's Lisa Stark (subscription required) reported that many diabetes patients have stopped using the medication since May of their own accord without FDA pulling it from the market: Cordes quoted a 22% drop, Stark 35%. By not pulling the $3bn-a-year drug of its own accord, Cordes added, manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline faces "the possibility of costly lawsuits." NBC's in-house physician Nancy Snyderman predicted that the quandary will be resolved by "some changes in the labeling." Snyderman told us that there are an estimated 4,100 fresh diagnoses of diabetes every day, which multiplies out to 1.5m new cases a year. She did not tell us how many with the disease die each year--presumably none are cured--so it was hard to tell how quickly diabetes is on the increase and what role Avandia may play in mitigating its impact. Johnson, her counterpart at ABC, was not impressed by the panel's conclusion: "It seems to me like they are punting, to be blunt."

BREATHE WITH YOUR EARS Unlike diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is newsworthy not because it afflicts millions but because it is so heartbreaking for those families it does afflict. CBS anchor Katie Couric really did not have to make SIDS seem more prevalent than it is by stating the technically true but misleading statistic "thousands of babies die in their sleep every year." Sure, the total--2200--is a plural of thousand but common usage prefers a phrase like "a couple of thousand" for such a low four-figure number.

Anyway the study that CBS' in-house physician Jon LaPook and ABC's John McKenzie (subscription required) covered in his A Closer Look was interesting enough even with only a handful of babies' lives at issue. A study of 31 SIDS babies found that they all had defective hearing in their right inner ear, "four points lower across three different frequencies," according to ABC's McKenzie. LaPook theorized that the inner ear may regulate normal breathing and since ear screening tests are already routine for all newborns "we now have the opportunity to follow a large number of children from birth to see if SIDS cannot only be predicted--but ultimately prevented."

PLAY CHESS WITH DEATH An odd welter of obituaries converged, including in-house grief at NBC for Eric Wishnie, a former producer for Nightly News, who died at only 45. ABC honored Marvin Zindler, the longtime consumer correspondent at its Houston affiliate KTRK-TV, by replaying his signature Eyewitness News sign off. All three networks noted the death of Bill Walsh, aged 75, the groundbreaking NFL coach. And two anchors filed obituary packages. ABC's Charles Gibson paid tribute to Swedish moviemaker Ingmar Bergman, aged 89, "who used black-and-white pictures not to paint the world in two colors but to capture the extremes of the human condition." NBC's Brian Williams chose a veteran of his own network: "Most Americans remember seeing Tom Snyder through a haze of cigarette smoke. On the late night show called Tomorrow he interviewed the biggest names of the day."

MENTIONED IN PASSING The network newscasts do not assign correspondents to all of the news of the day. If Tyndall Report readers come across videostreamed reports online of stories that were mentioned only in passing, post the link in comments for us to check out.

Today's examples: the Taliban is holding a group of South Korean evangelical Christian missionaries hostage in Afghanistan…gasoline prices continue to fall…star NFL quarterback Michael Vick's defense against dogfight charges suffered a setback as a co-defendant copped a plea.