Accuracy in Media

After years of telling people to protect themselves against sexual diseases with condoms, the government has acknowledged that the evidence for their effectiveness is weak and inconclusive. After getting the advice and views of 28 experts, who reviewed 138 studies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a report on July 20 saying that condoms can reduce the spread of HIV and gonorrhea in cases of hetero-sexual intercourse, but it could not say that they reduce the spread of genital herpes, syphilis and human papilloma virus (HPV). Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can cause infertility and lead to ectopic pregnancy in women. They can cause many pregnancy problems, including miscarriages, stillbirths, and infections for newborns leading to mental retardation or death. HPV can cause cancer.

For the government to admit that condoms won’t stop STD transmission is comparable to tobacco company executives conceding that smoking causes cancer. It should have been big news but was ignored or spun in a liberal direction by most of the media. In contrast with their support of the campaign to discourage smoking by warning that smoking causes cancer, the media have not reacted to the NIH report with demands for replacement of sex education courses promoting the use of condoms by teenagers with the message that abstinence before marriage is the only sure way to prevent contracting STDs.

The Washington Post ran two stories in succession raising questions about the impact of the report. The first page-one story by Ceci Connolly wondered whether the NIH report would prompt people to quit using condoms because they aren’t completely effective. She did not mention the possibility that they might opt for sexual abstinence outside marriage. Predictably, the Post expressed fear that the Bush administration and its conservative allies might use the report to push sexual abstinence. This was depicted as impractical.

Hardly Fit to Print

The New York Times played down the study, putting a tiny Associated Press story on page 16 under this misleading headline: “Study Finds Condoms Usually Block H.I.V.” It should have read, “Condoms’ Effectiveness Questioned.” The story was also misleading. It failed to point out that the study only evaluated HIV transmission among heterosexuals through vaginal intercourse. In these cases, condoms significantly reduced the risk of HIV transmission, but it did not say that condoms were 100 percent effective or anything close to that. The study did not address the use of condoms by male homosexuals, whose sexual practices increase the chances of the condom rupturing and possible transmission of HIV infection.

Both the Washington Post and ABC’s World News Tonight, the only one of the three major broadcast network evening news programs that reported the NIH study, emphasized that former congressman Tom Coburn, a doctor, had requested the condom study. ABC News reporter Jackie Judd called him a “self-described conservative,” said that he was “the driving force” behind the report. Congressman Coburn had merely asked the NIH to review the evidence.

Coburn told the Post’s Ceci Connolly that the NIH study proved that the government had been lying about the dangers associated with sexual promiscuity. “For decades,” he said, “the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote an unsubstantiated claim that promiscuity can be safe. We all know now for a fact that that is a lie.”

Tobacco company executives were caught lying about the effects of smoking, and now we have learned that the “safe sex” campaign has been based on a flawed assumption. Millions of people have been deceived by the claims that condoms would keep them from getting sexually transmitted diseases as well as avoiding unwanted pregnancies. The immediate reaction of the media to this important finding does not bode well for their help in rectifying this wrong.

From Bad to Worse

Since AIM first reported on the STD epidemic back in January 1997, the problem has gotten worse. Then it was called the “hidden epidemic.” Today, it is not uncommon to see television commercials for drugs to prevent outbreaks of herpes. One in five Americans has an incurable form of this disease. It is estimated that someone catches herpes every 40 seconds from a partner who may not know they have it. Overall, 65 million Americans are infected with one or more STDs. The head of a Pentagon health committee says the spread of STDs in the military has reached such epidemic proportions that it is a real threat to military readiness. Nearly 18 percent of American women and 8 percent of American men carry the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus that causes half of all cases of cervical cancer.

The problem is even worse abroad. HIV, the most deadly STD, has infected 25 percent or more of the population in some African countries and cost the lives of millions. Although the NIH study suggests that condoms are effective in reducing the transmission of the HIV virus among heterosexuals, the Lancet, a highly respected British medical journal, has reported that the promotion and distribution of condoms may actually increase exposure to STDs such as AIDS by encouraging more risky sexual encounters and a greater overall level of sexual activity. On July 13, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi urged his people to abstain from promiscuous sexual relations for two years to “save a generation” from being infected with AIDS. Dan Rather reported this on the CBS Evening News, but he failed to provide the context about the failure of the “safe sex” message, and the Kenyan president came across as off his rocker.

The impact of the “safe sex” deception can be measured in damaged and destroyed lives. Washington Times reporter Elianna Marziani on June 26 reported on the work of the Medical Institute of Austin, Texas, which has been studying teen-age sexual activity. It found that many teens, undoubtedly influenced by the media, view sex casually and don’t appreciate the physical and emotional problems that this can cause. Dr. Joe McIlhaney, president and founder of the institute, says, “Sex is more dangerous than smoking. Sex hurts them while they’re teenagers. Smoking will hurt them later.” The group has produced a video, “Sex Is Not a Game,” which includes interviews with teen-age girls who have come down with STDs that have ruined their lives.

The Attempt To Conceal The Truth

Ceci Connolly’s story in the Washington Post revealed that some unnamed government health officials had considered not releasing the NIH findings about the failure of condoms to protect against the spread of STDs. This is an appalling revela-tion in view of the harm being caused by the misleading claims being disseminated in schools and in the media that the use of condoms will make even promiscuous sex safe. Connolly said these health officials wanted to suppress the study because Coburn had retired from Congress. Since he was no longer in Washington, they thought they could get away with this. Connolly said, “But pressure from some conservative groups – and the threat of a Freedom of Information Act request -triggered final release.” This is another example of how far some federal bureaucrats are willing to go to cover up their mistakes. The fact that they might have gotten away with it had it not been for the threat of a FOIA request should alert the White House to the need to end delays and rejection of legitimate FOIA requests by many government offices.

Connolly noted that the new report conflicts with what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is telling people. The CDC, another arm of the government, claims condoms reduce the risk of spreading several STDs, including herpes, genital ulcers and pelvic inflammatory disease. A condom brochure from the Food and Drug Administration makes the same claims, adding that condoms also help prevent syphilis. But according to the NIH report, there is no hard evidence for any of those claims. Coburn, the author of a law requiring federal agencies to provide medically accurate information about the effectiveness of condoms, has urged Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to enforce the law.

Another Big Lie

“We all have AIDS” was the headline over a Washington Post column whose author made the absurd claim that because some people have AIDS, we all have it. Fear of AIDS was at its height in the last half of the 1980s when some doctors were warning that it could devastate the globe. It is now ravaging much of sub-Saharan Africa, but despite all the attention that it gets and all the money being spent to find a vaccine to prevent it or cures for those who contract it, it was not one of the top 15 causes of death in this country according to an analysis of death certificates in 1999. The 15th highest cause – blood vessel problems – claimed 15,806 lives. AIDS caused fewer deaths in the U.S. than heart disease, cancer, car accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, liver diseases, suicide and murder.

Deaths from heart disease topped 724,000 and deaths from cancer were over half a million. Deaths from AIDS were under 15,000. This information was included in a release from the National Center for Health Statistics on June 26th, as the U.N. was holding its AIDS conference in New York City, where an emerging multi-billion-dollar global fund to combat the disease was discussed. Peter Jennings said on ABC’s World News Tonight, “No country on earth is immune, including this one.” That reflected a desire to emphasize the seriousness of the AIDS crisis. The good news that deaths from AIDS are declining in the U.S. was buried. The story in the Washington Post led with the drop in the number of Americans dying from heart disease and cancer. It noted that the death rates for AIDS, homicide, suicide and stroke were falling too. In the 16th paragraph, it said, “As world leaders meet at the United Nations to confront the global scourge of AIDS, the disease continues to claim fewer lives in the United States. Continuing a trend that began in 1996, mortality from HIV infection fell 4 percent in 1999.”

AIDS is an enormous problem in Africa, where it is being spread mainly by rampant sexual promiscuity. There, as among homosexuals and drug addicts in the U.S., what is needed is a fundamental life-style change, abandonment of promiscuity. But the media ridicule or ignore this message. Their focus on AIDS has diverted attention away from STDs that affect far larger numbers of people in the U.S. and which call for the same change in life-style.

WHISTLEBLOWER PUTS HEAT ON EDUCATION DEPARTMENT

One day before Department of Education whistleblower John Gard spoke to an Accuracy in Media luncheon in Washington, the Washington Post published a rare story about fraud in the department. The story concerned the release of an “Interim Report on Management Improvement” put together by a “management improvement team.” The good news is that Secretary of Education Roderick Paige has assigned John Gard, who has been ostracized by the agency since he blew the whistle on corruption there, to work on this team.

The bad news, according to Gard, is that the main problem at the department is an accounting system known as the Grants Administration and Payment System (GAPS) that has not yet been fixed. This is the process that may have been used to embezzle tens of millions of dollars from the department. Gard says there was no security over the system to prevent embezzlement and no audit trail to find out where the money went. While the Washington Post article mentioned $450 million in missing money, a report of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee says the amount of missing, misspent, or stolen money from the Department of Education could reach $15 billion.

Many people have heard of the $450 million figure, and the recovery of much of that money. But this is hardly a great accomplishment. Gard says the department did not know when it was making duplicate payments to the same grantee. Instead, it was alerted by honest contractors who told the department they had been paid twice for the same work.

Gard emphasizes that the real problem is the identification and recovery of the unrecorded and unidentified payments that the agency made. His appearance at the AIM luncheon was his first public presentation on the matter. He had to get special permission from the department to give the speech, and he was required to make it clear that he was speaking in his personal capacity, not as a representative of the department. The Post reporter who had written about the interim report attended Gard’s speech, but no story about it appeared in the paper.

The Embezzlement Scheme

Gard put the issue in stark terms, saying that he suspected back in 1996 that “senior management officials” in the department “were setting up the agency to rip it off” during the conversion to the GAPS. When he came up with a plan to pre-vent this from happening, he was removed from the group handling the matter. He said the agency proceeded to implement the system even though they knew that it was vulnerable to being ripped off. A “super-user ID” and password were released to about two dozen top employees and contractors, allowing them to conduct, modify and delete financial transactions “without any trace.” Gard explained, “The money could be siphoned off. There is no trace, no audit trail.”

He placed some of the blame for this state of affairs on Secretary of Education Richard Riley. He was a Clinton appointee who claims that he pursued “corrective action” on the problems. Gard said that is absolutely false. “They went to the point that they denied there were problems and removed those employees who pointed out there were problems,” he said. Under Riley, Gard says the Inspector General (IG) of the department got involved. He issued a security alert on May 28, 1998, about the system. But Donald Rappoport, Riley’s Chief Financial Officer, responded that there was no security problem. After another review and test of the system confirmed the security problem, the IG issued another security alert on June 26th in which it informed Donald Rappoport that the system was NOT fixed.

Gard also informed the IG about refund checks that were available to be cashed for personal use by Department of Education employees. Acting on his information, the Inspector General raided the office of the Chief Financial Officer and found $2 million in refund checks lying unsecured on an employee’s desk. The department responded by claiming the problem was insignificant and that it had been fixed. Gard said he’s more concerned about the checks they didn’t find.

Guarding Gard

When he continued to expose the mismanagement and corruption, Gard was escorted from the department’s building by armed federal security guards. Gard said he was treated like a “common criminal” and barred from the building. But the Office of Special Counsel, which was established to handle whistle-blower complaints, upheld Gard’s complaint of “gross mismanagement.” That resulted in Gard’s being brought back to the department in December 1998. But as is the case with most whistleblowers, he was treated as a pariah. He was given a different job with a nice office, but he was told that his duties were to stay inside with the door locked. In the spring of 2000, he was given a little clerical work that took less than 4 hours a week to complete.

At the AIM luncheon, Gard cited some outrageous examples of corruption, noting that education department money had been funneled to accounts called “pseudo recipient.” He obtained documentation indicating there were several hundred of these accounts, including one to a bank in Puerto Rico that received $4 million. Obviously, these were conceived for the purpose of diverting taxpayer money. Gard still doesn’t know what happened to it.

It’s a good sign that John Gard has been brought back to serve on a management improvement team at the department. He is suing for compensation for his legal bills, for the damage to his career and the promotions he has been denied. A denial of just compensation and failure to utilize his talents would be a bad augur for Bush’s plan to deny the states federal money for education if they fail to improve their educational performance. If the Department of Education can’t account for the money it is currently spending – and the agency has failed three straight audits – it is difficult to see how the Bush plan to tie funding to performance can be implemented fairly and honestly.

A big issue in Washington has been patients’ rights and patient protections, with CBS Evening News correspondent Bob Schieffer portraying the battle in Washington as between “reformers” and “Republicans.” The “reformers,” the good guys, are supposed to be Senators Ted Kennedy and his Republican collaborator, John McCain. They want to make it easier to sue HMOs (Health Maintenance Organizations) and get financial damages.

In one of his several statements on the matter, Kennedy has complained about “the millions of Americans who have been shortchanged by their HMOs – those who have been denied access to a specialist to treat cancer, or who had to call their HMO before calling 911.” Calling their HMO before dialing 911? That’s the kind of outrageous statement that Senator Ted Kennedy gets away with. But there is another side to this story – how Ted Kennedy was the author of the first bill to support the development of HMOs. Kennedy, who now postures as an opponent of HMOs, helped create them in the first place. This story hasn’t been reported in the Big Media.

It comes from the newsletter of the Institute for Health Freedom. Its president, Sue Blevins, comments, “Today, there is a strong consensus regarding the serious shortcomings of HMOs and managed care. It would behoove politicians to take a close look at their past policies to make sure their future proposals do not continue to erode Americans’ health-care choices and access to services.”

Sue Blevins went back in history to examine the creation of HMOs and found a series of revealing statements from Ted Kennedy, including one from 1978, when he said, “As the author of the first HMO bill ever to pass the Senate, I find this spreading support for HMOs truly gratifying.”

Politics is the business of Washington, D.C. and its politicians. But the major media have an obligation to set the record straight when politicians drop one position and adopt another just for political reasons. Congress recently failed to pass so-called campaign finance reform, as both sides blamed the other for the breakdown. But a bill could still come up for a vote this year. It is known in the U.S. Senate as McCain-Feingold, for its main sponsors, Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold. Journalists such as Bob Schieffer of CBS News portray supporters of such an approach sympathetically as “reformers.” Those opposed to this approach are depicted as beholden to powerful money interests.

However, Congressman Steve Largent, R.-OK, has an explanation for why the major media are so enthusiastic about the bill. “They’re exempt,” he says of the media. That includes not only CBS News but the New York Times and every other big media company. The hallmark of the bill is a restriction on the ability of citizen organizations and groups to run ads for or against a candidate or his positions on the issues during a certain period of time around an election.

In a letter to his congressional colleagues, Largent points out that the legislation “would give the media an exaggerated voice in the 30 days leading up to a primary election and in the 60 days leading up to a general election – just the times when citizens are most aware of campaigns and elections.” He says that while it would be illegal for citizens and nonprofit organizations to engage in issue advocacy during this period, “media elites would be free to do, say, meet with, and advocate whatever they want with whomever they want.”

Largent wrote, “Corporations that are not (media companies) or that do not own media companies would not be allowed to engage in political discourse, while corporations that are or that own media companies would be allowed. Is this fair? Is this democratic? The First Amendment to the Constitution says that Congress shall not abridge the freedom of the press. It says nothing about giving more freedom to the press than to any other segment of society.”

These media companies claim special status under the First Amendment, but that amendment also guarantees the right of freedom of speech for people who do not own printing presses or TV and radio companies. Yet McCain-Feingold would restrict freedom of speech in the weeks leading up to an election for everyone except political parties, candidates for office and those who control media companies. “In a McCain-Feingold world,” Largent points out, “media elites would be allowed to freely mention a federal candidate by name in the weeks leading up to an election, but other citizens would not be allowed to do so. Media elites would of course be allowed to advocate timely issues in the media in the weeks leading up to an election, but other citizens would not be allowed to do so.” This is why groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union oppose the McCain-Feingold approach. They are not prepared to sacrifice their rights and allow the media to expand their clout and influence in election races.

What You Can Do

Send the enclosed cards or your own cards or letters to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Walter Isaacson, CEO of CNN, and an editor of your choice.




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