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Is PBS Making You Sick?

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The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the taxpayer-subsidized PBS television is suffering from serious ratings problems. It's struggling to compete with the commercial cable channels like the Discovery Network, A&E, and the news channels.Last year, PBS hired Pat Mitchell, a former documentary producer for leftist media mogul Ted Turner. Mitchell's mission was to invigorate PBS with "new" shows such as the public-affairs show Now with Bill Moyers. But Mitchell really hasn't changed a thing, and ratings continue to plummet. Perhaps the problem lies with the fact that PBS leadership wants to preach a creed, rather than serve its viewers. But the public doesn't want a lecture; they want entertainment as well as balanced and intellectually challenging news programming. Consider the Bill Moyers program. It lacks the energy of Hardball or Hannity & Colmes. There are no debates, no panoply of viewpoints. Instead, it's a lesson according to the gospel of Bill Moyers on how free enterprise and big bad industry is supposedly wreaking havoc on civilization. Last year, Moyers ran a show called Trade Secrets, which alleged to expose a massive conspiracy among the chemical industry to poison its unsuspecting customers. Don't use that hairspray! It just might kill you. Moyers interviewed environmental activists, historians hired by trial lawyers to testify in toxic tort cases, and medical experts who are well known for their anti-chemical advocacy. His key "witness" was Physicians for Social Responsibility activist Dr. Phillip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Moyers didn't bother to present any contrary viewpoints. Just last week, Moyers continued this saga with Are We Making Our Children Sick? Not bothering to interview a single individual who might disagree with him, Moyers again trotted out Dr. Landrigan to build his case that Americans are naively using chemical products and living amidst pollution that is quietly making our children sick and even killing some of them. In both shows, we are led to believe that the public increasingly suffers from cancer as we use more and more manmade chemicals. "What we do know is that breast cancer has risen steadily for the last four decades," and "we do know that brain cancer among children is up 26 percent," said the narrator in Trade Secrets. In Are We Making Our Kids Sick? , Moyers highlights several communities where cancer cases are tragically high-so-called "cancer clusters." "I see the cluster of cases of childhood leukemia in Fallon as part of the broad increase in the incidence of various forms of childhood cancer in the United States," says Dr. Landrigan about one of the communities. Yet Moyers never bothered to interview researchers who have found that both cancer incidence and mortality have been declining. According to a recent National Cancer Institute report, "Cancer incidence for all sites combined decreased from 1992 through 1998 among all persons in the United States ... Overall, cancer death rates declined 1.1 percent per year." For women, the number of reported breast cancers is up slightly, but the National Cancer Institute says that's because of improved screening, not an actual rate increase. And that's good news. Early detection and treatment has cut the death rate for breast cancer down by 3.4 percent between 1995 and 1998. Nor does Moyers bother to provide data on overall children's health. Despite his program's ominous warning that we might be killing our kids, between 1980 and 1998, the death rate for children aged one to four declined 50 percent. The death rate for children aged five to 14 declined about 10 percent during that same period. The death rate for adolescents and young adults (ages 15 to 24) declined from 115 per 100,000 in 1980 to 82 per 100,000 by 1998. Our kids have never been healthier. Moyers and Landrigan are also flat wrong about childhood cancer. The National Cancer Institute reports that we are experiencing "dramatic declines" in childhood cancer mortality and childhood cancer incidence is stable. The Institute noted that in the 1980s, increased detection of some childhood cancers — including brain cancer — made it appear as if there was a slight increase, but actual incidence rates have been stable. In 1999, the Institute reported "brain cancer incidence has stabilized over the past decade for all major age groups."Moyers's reporting on cancer clusters also leaves much to be desired. While PBS can speculate all it wants about the causes of such clusters, thousands of clusters occur by mere chance. Raymond R. Neutra of the California Department of Health Services finds that we can expect 4,930 such random cancer clusters to exist in any given decade in the United States. Not surprisingly, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on 22 years of studies that covered clusters in 29 states and five foreign countries, it could not establish a clear cause for any cluster. Why didn't Moyers interview these CDC researchers or Dr. Neutra? PBS's disdain for free enterprise has long been reflected in its programming and its insistence for government support. PBS and its advocates describe such programming with phrases like "quality entertainment" and "the arts." But now we have an unsubsidized, commercial market for quality entertainment and the arts on cable, as well as more balanced and compelling news programs. PBS may stubbornly continue to preach its creed, but fortunately, the public can go elsewhere.