If you’ve looked at online, print or broadcast news in the past 48 hours, you’ve probably seen coverage of the President’s Cancer Panel report that hypes potential environmental causes of cancer. To not notice alarming headlines like, “Cancers from Environment ‘Grossly Underestimated,’” “Americans Bombarded with Cancer Causes,” and “‘Grievous Harm’ Posed by Unchecked Chemicals,” it would take a stock market crash, an attempted terrorist attack in Times Square, and a huge oil spill, all in the same week.
The report (which should not be confused with a scientific study), entitled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” calls for tough regulations on things the two authors claim cause cancer. However, some of their underlying assumptions are highly exaggerated and fly in the face of what the scientific community has established as the known causes of cancer. Even the American Cancer Society (ACS), one of the most well-respected cancer organizations in the country, has already stated it believes the report’s views are skewed. According to Dr. Michael Thun, head of Epidemiology and Surveillance Research at ACS, “the report is most provocative when it restates hypotheses as if they were established facts. For example, its conclusion that ‘the true burden of environmentally (pollution) induced cancer has been grossly underestimated’ does not represent scientific consensus.”
The New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof broke the story with a piece titled “New Alarm Bells about Chemicals and Cancer,” which is quickly moving up the paper’s “Most Popular” list. Kristof’s piece, an opinion column—not a news article—played up the scare and didn’t ask the skeptical questions such a report should invite. Kristof’s piece set the tone for the news stories to follow.
But what should set off the alarm bells isn’t just the content of Kristof’s piece, but its release date. Kristof’s column appeared on The New York Times’ website on Wednesday evening, May 5, even though the report was strictly embargoed until May 6.
Reporters are regularly given access to embargoed material; they just aren’t allowed to publish their story until the time the embargo ends, which in this case was 12:01 a.m. May 6, hours after Kristof’s piece.
Breaking an embargo almost always carries stiff penalties. Violators lose their access to pre-publication releases. But apparently not in the case of Mr. Kristof.
The fact that Kristof’s column broke the embargo suggests one of two scenarios: either the embargo was broken accidentally, though unlikely for a paper as well-versed and prestigious as The New York Times, or the government intentionally gave Kristof the report early with the intention of letting him break the story and shape the news.
It turns out that the second scenario is likely what happened. Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health, who runs a separate blog, “Embargo Watch” reports that “all signs are pointing to [this scenario]: letting Nick run with this early, before the embargo to which everyone else was subjected.”
Times spokesperson Diane McNulty, responding to Oransky’s query, writes, “Nick spoke at great length over recent weeks with both the Cancer Panel and the PR agency. They knew he was writing for his Thursday column which is posted Wednesday night.” So it seems pretty clear that it wasn’t Kristof who acted questionably, it was the President’s Panel and its public relations agency.
This raises serious questions about the government’s effort to spin the story by manipulating the media. The president asserts that he wants everyone who reports to him to put the facts out and let the chips fall where they may. But here, it seems, the chips were carefully arranged by tying the hands of every single journalist, blogger, and pundit, while the cheerleading Kristof got a running head start.
In fact, the public relations firm hired to promote the politicized findings brags on their webpage, “Hager Sharp Helps President’s Cancer Panel Garner National Media Coverage of Report on Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk.”
Activist groups and their allies in Congress are now using this report to promote their agenda of creating an illusion of a need for reform of the country’s chemical law, the Toxic Substances Control Act. The report seems to have been written in a way to allow them to do just that. They need all the help they can get: When the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and other mainstream groups look at the science, they conclude over and over again that chemicals such as phthalates and atrazine should not be removed from the market. More restrictive laws and regulations simply aren’t called for.
For advocates of chemical bans, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wants to attach a BPA ban to a food safety bill, the timing of the release of this report and the questionable Kristof column couldn’t have come at a better time. Ironically, BPA is a chemical that has made food safer, because when used in sealing canned foods it prevents botulism.
In our current age of supposed government transparency, decisions that affect our health and which would have major ripple-effects throughout the economy are supposed to be based simply on scientific evidence. Instead, the deliberations are being tainted by distorted reports like the one released by the President’s Cancer Panel and, perhaps, the ensuing media frenzy—not on sound science. While aggrandized, one-sided views have always been common on issues of environment and health, the thought of the government perpetuating them is “alarming” to say the least.
Jeff Stier is the Associate Director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). He is responsible for external affairs, including media and government relations, policy, legal affairs and development. ACSH is a not-for-profit, public health, consumer advocacy organization dedicated to promoting sound science in public health.