Media Matters

A Prescription for Bias

60 Minutes proved again last night it prefers propaganda to reporting.

By 4.2.07

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I know better than to expect anything short of liberal bias on 60 Minutes. And I really know better that to expect anything short of unabashed bias when a segment of the long-running CBS show is being touted by the left-wing advocacy group Families USA. Normally, I would have just ignored it.

Unfortunately, this time I couldn't. On Wednesday I received the following email from the group that thinks all things good in health care come from the government:

On Sunday, April 1, 60 Minutes will run a hard-hitting segment about the prescription drug lobby....Part of the program is based on data from the Families USA report, No Bargain: Medicare Drug Plans Deliver High Prices. This report shows the huge differences between prices secured by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) -- which does bargain for cheaper drug prices -- and the much higher prices charged by all the private drug plans in Medicare Part D.

When that report was first released back in January, it didn't take long to find out how misleading it was. Shortly thereafter, the think-tank I work for, the National Center for Public Policy Research, issued a press release pointing out how Families USA was cooking the data:
As an example of the flawed nature of the Families USA report, [David] Hogberg notes that the Medicare drug price data used in the report to compare Medicare drug costs to the VA's drug costs come from only two counties -- Montgomery County, Maryland and Hamilton County, Ohio. Based on median household income, both counties are above the national average. Montgomery County, for instance, is the fourth-richest county in the nation. Since wealthier areas, on average, tend to pay higher prices, Families USA's use of these counties as the source of their sample data all but guarantees that the Medicare drug prices data in their study will be exaggeratedly high....

"I trust that sensible members of Congress and the media will dismiss this study for the nonsense that it is," Hogberg said.


Apparently, 60 Minutes isn't all that sensible. Not only did the show's researchers apparently miss our press release, but they seemed to have no interest in the warnings that I sent them on Thursday and Friday. I first called them on Thursday, leaving a message on the show's answering machine. A little later I sent an email to 60 Minutes that explained the problems with the Families USA report and concluded, "I want to emphasize that if you use the report in your segment, in the interest of journalistic objectivity you should have someone on the segment disputing its findings." On Friday I followed up with a fax, another phone call, and another email.

It might have been more productive to beat my head against a brick wall. The 60 Minutes report last night referred to Families USA as a "non-partisan health care watchdog group." The liberal media increasingly uses the term "non-partisan" to obscure the fact that a group has a left-wing agenda and mislead viewers into believing that it is an objective organization.

Reporter Steve Kroft then stated, "Families USA reported in a January study that Medicare patients are being charged nearly 60 percent more for the top twenty drugs than veterans pay under a program run by the Veterans Administration." Yet Montgomery County, one of the two counties used in the study, had a median household income more than 80 percent greater than the median income for all of the U.S. Did Kroft note that? Of course not! He simply sucked up to Ron Pollack of Families USA by lobbing him a softball: "And this [the lower VA price] is because the VA negotiates with the drug companies on price?" "That's correct," replied Pollack.

But the VA only negotiates the price of a drug after the drug company has agreed to the VA's price control. If a drug company does not agree to sell its drug to the VA for 24% less than the average commercial price, then the VA does not include the drug on its formulary and, thus, VA patients do not have access to it. Once the drug company has agreed to an initial price control, then the VA tries to negotiate the price down further.

Finally, 60 Minutes misled viewers on the cost of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. Kroft noted, correctly, that in 2003 the Administration withheld from Congress an estimate that over ten years the Drug Benefit would cost upwards of $500 billion. What Kroft failed to inform viewers is that the Drug Benefit has so far cost less than projections, and that part of the savings has come from competition.

There is good reason not to expect quality reporting from CBS. However, if we don't demand higher standards from the mainstream media, then its flacking for left-wing groups like Families USA will continue. In that spirit, I encourage you to send an email to 60 Minutes (60M@cbsnews.com) and request fair and balanced reporting. In the meantime, 60 Minutes ought to send Families USA a bill -- for advertising.

David Hogberg is a senior analyst at the National Center for Public Policy Research. He also hosts his own website, Health Hog.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.