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Thalidomide II and the Silence of the American Media

A couple of years ago, Pulitzer Prize winner Sydney Schanberg, one of America’s most celebrated Vietnam War journalists and a former top editor at the New York Times, explained to me the sad realities of our major newspapers. According to him, there was generally a strong inverse relationship between the geographical distance separating a newspaper’s […]

A couple of years ago, Pulitzer Prize winner Sydney Schanberg, one of America’s most celebrated Vietnam War journalists and a former top editor at the New York Times, explained to me the sad realities of our major newspapers. According to him, there was generally a strong inverse relationship between the geographical distance separating a newspaper’s headquarters and the willingness of its top executives to probe for malfeasance and corruption. So while the New York Times was always very eager to have its zealous investigative journalists plumb the depths of suspected scandals in Chicago, or even better in Kabul, Moscow, or Beijing, a similar scrutiny of improper doings a mile or two away in City Hall or upstate in Albany was normally far less encouraged.

Although Schanberg’s description was quite general and impersonal, I have heard from various other sources that his own reluctance to trim his journalistic sails and focus on the mote in the eyes of foreigners rather than the beam in our own local ones was the leading factor behind his eventual departure from the Gray Lady.

As partial confirmation of this sad, often unrecognized aspect of American journalism, we should recall the unfortunate but intriguing case of Bernard Kerik, a high school dropout eventually revealed to have a considerable history of organized-crime associations and currently serving a  sentence in federal prison on closely-related charges of corruption. Strangely enough, none of these stories ever came out during the time he served as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s hand-picked New York City police chief, a period which included the 9/11 attacks, nor later when he was appointed Interior Minister of Iraq under the American Occupation Government, nor even later, when he was nominated by President Bush to serve as America’s first National Director of Intelligence, a post-9/11 position intended to coordinate and oversee all our numerous domestic intelligence agencies. Presumably, other countries might find the situation a bit odd and wonder how an individual with apparent mafia associations came within a hair’s-breadth—until derailed by a minor nanny and sex-scandal—of supervising all internal security operations with the border of the world’s greatest superpower, but our own media seemed rather uninterested in this curious puzzle, and quickly buried the story.

Given this journalistic landscape, it is hardly surprising that we find The Daily Mirror, a national British tabloid with a print circulation of over 1.1 million, now picking up discussion of the Vioxx Scandal, which cost the lives of tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of Americans, and associating it with the notorious Thalidomide Scandal of the 1950s and 1960s, which once received massive international attention. At the time, there was considerable crowing in American media and elite circles at the success of our own sure-footed FDA which—unlike the feckless government agencies of the Europeans—had protected us from the horrific medical consequences, which included hundreds of severely deformed British births.

But since the Vioxx death toll in America was perhaps three orders of magnitude larger, the American media interest this time round seems at least three orders of magnitude smaller. It is not entirely surprising that only a British-owned magazine The Week carried a column by British-born journalist Alexander Cockburn covering the story under the provocative title “When Half a Million Americans Died and Nobody Noticed.” So while perhaps millions of British readers have now become at least vaguely aware of the potentially massive scale of the American death-toll from Vioxx, the equivalent number in America is probably negligible, about the same as those who can readily identify the name “Bernard Kerik.”


On another matter relating to British journalism, I had recently published a very harsh critique of The Economist newsweekly, whose subscription rolls have carried my own name since 1979, but which over the last decade seems to have increasingly declined into neoconized nonsense. Given my long admiration for that publication, I am therefore extremely happy to report that its long current cover-survey on China and the Chinese economy—the exact same topic which had prompted my previous criticism—seems absolutely excellent, the sort of thoughtful, objective journalism of which the late and legendary Norman Macrae would certainly feel proud.

One of The Economist hallmarks had always been its frank outspokenness, and I was pleased to see this still survived today, with the survey labelling the comparison of Chinese economic growth with that of the Soviet Union, an analogy much favored by some China-skeptics, as being simply “preposterous.” Although the discussion by Simon Cox was necessarily far longer and more detailed than my own discussion, there was not a single significant point I would take major issue with, and I recommend it highly for those interested in China’s likely future trajectory.

Regarding the broader China/America issues raised in my earlier piece, a private commenter recently suggested to me that a central difference between the behavior of China’s ruling elites and those in our own country lies in history. The Chinese Revolution is not yet totally forgotten, least of all by members of today’s Politburo, since many of their own fathers and grandfathers led it.  Presumably, therefore, they fear that if they misbehave too egregiously, their masses might grow restive, and perhaps their heads will end up being carried around on sticks. Meanwhile, America’s own revolution was centuries ago, and anyway lacked the same sort of sanguinary cleansing, so our elites are far less fearful and hence more audacious in their growing malfeasance.

Put in crude terms, China’s leaders are content to steal perhaps 5% of the total national income each year for themselves and their friends and relatives, while leaving 95% for the rest of the country. That way, they become very rich, but also remain reasonably safe, with rapidly growing general prosperity cushioning any huge dissatisfaction. But America’s far bolder ruling villains have begun to regularly steal 50% of everything while increasingly casting a covetous eye on the remaining 50%, all the while trusting to the mesmeric effectiveness of their controlled national media to preclude any popular uprising and ensure their continuing good health. I sadly suspect that there is an excellent chance they are largely correct in this arrogant and insouciant appraisal, but I would very much hate to be caught in their shoes if they prove mistaken.

(cross-posted at www.ronunz.org)



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