By: Albertus Magnus Re: NBC's Cure-ious Program From _Forbes Media Critic_, Winter 1995 Cu

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

By: Albertus Magnus Re: NBC's Cure-ious Program From _Forbes Media Critic_, Winter 1995 Cure-ious by Greg Gutfield LIGHTNING CRACKLES AGAINST the night sky. A giant, godlike hand reaches through parted clouds to touch the outstretched hand of man. A painting by Michelangelo? A movie by Cecil B. DeMille? No, it's an ad in _TV Guide_ touting an upcoming special: "_CURED!_ Secrets of Alternative Healing. Miracle Cures! Watching this show could save your life!" Whether or not _CURED!_ actually saved the lives of any viewers, it could hardly be described, as an NBC spokesper- son put it, as a "factual" survey of treatments known collec tively as alternative medicine. In fact, Paul Klein, the pro ducer of the show, which NBC aired prime-time on July 5, told _MediaCritic_ that _CURED!_ was biased in favor of the practices it related: herbal treatments, acupuncture, mind-body healing, homeopathy, and other alternative treatments. "Everything has a point of view," Klein says. That NBC would be willing to broadcast such an admittedly slanted show--and more fundamentally, as scrutiny of _CURED!_ demonstrates, such a journalistically reckless one--says much about how far the quest for ratings can shape programming. To produce _CURED!_, Klein hired actors to reenact five episodes in which patients found relief or a "cure" through alternative therapies. One might be willing to abide such reenactments, notwithstanding the infamous re-creation of the explosion of a certain General Motors pick-up truck (also on NBC), but for one problem: The authenticity of these reenactments is doubtful. Klein says he purchased the stories from popular magazines (though he was vague on which magazines those were) as well as from people claiming to have been cured through alternative therapy. Assuming Klein really found these stories somewhere, he admits to fiddling with them. "We changed them around" he says, adding that he mixed details from several anecdotes in order to make one story. "Combinations" is how he describes these manufactured tales. "Everyone does that." But neither the ostensibly "real-life" medical doctors involved in the stories nor their patients were interviewed on _CURED!_ to verify what supposedly happened. _CURED!_ also presented its stories without mentioning that recovery does not by itself demonstrate the efficacy of a treatment, whether alternative or conventional. Pinning down cause and effect is difficult, a point an unbiased producer would have included in the show. "Many things, like the natural recovery of the body or the placebo effect, may actually be responsible," says medical historian James Harvey Young. Take, for example, the story Klein presented in which a middle-aged fly-fisherman is cured of asthma. In a rustic river setting, the fisherman suffers an acute attack as his terror-stricken daughter looks on. They rush to the home of a crusty, backwoods homeopath, who instructs the fisherman to swallow a remedy derived from the tissue of a tubercular cow. The asthma soon disappears and everyone is happy and healthy. What the narrator fails to mention, however, is that the cure could easily have been a spontaneous remission, which often occurs as asthma sufferers get older. Other stories presented on _CURED!_ begged obvious but never-asked questions. Consider the tale of Rocky, a springer collie who suffered from a herniated disc. A "mainstream veterinarian" advises that it is time to destroy the dog. This counsel distresses the little boy who owns Rocky. But homeopathy saves the day. In a fit of desperation, Rocky is taken to a "holistic veterinarian" who gives the dog diluted doses of belladonna, an otherwise lethal herb. After two doses Rocky is playing Frisbee, apparently cured. The little boy is ecstatic. Not once in this drama was there any discussion of how or even whether the therapy worked. X-rays before and after treatment might have documented an improvement, but nothing as scientific as X-rays was presented. The list of problems with _CURED!_ includes its distortion of history. At one point the show offers viewers Hippocrates speaking on the wonders of homeopathy while lounging around a pool eating an apple. J. Worth Estes, a pharmacology professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, says this and similar historical re-creations are ludicrous. "Homeopathy was invented in the 1790s in Germany. Although Hippocrates may have felt a doctor should help the body recover on its own terms, it's a total distortion to call that homeopathy," he says. In another segment the narrator tells viewers that one quarter of all drugs originated from plants. "It's more like 35 out of 7,000," says Estes. "Obviously, somebody at NBC was not minding the store when this nonsense got sneaked by." The show aired the views of both proponents and critics of alternative medicine. But this turned out to be a false balance. Critic Jack Raso, editor of _Nutrition Forum_, says that when he was first contacted for an interview, he was told the program would be a fair examination of various alternative practices. Dr. Saul Green, a noted biochemist critical of unconventional medicine, says he was told the same "But later when I heard the title [_CURED!_]--and I am not joking--I was aghast," says Green. All but a few of his and Raso's critical remarks were edited out. "It ended up being a tedious collection of mini-docudramas canonizing these therapies," says Raso. Green and Raso overestimated the show's interest in balance. It turns out that critics were not interviewed to provide balanced discussion, but to raise viewer bile. "When I saw the program, it was confirmed," says Green. "I was used." Reinforcing its bias toward alternative therapies, _CURED!_ fully identified alternative practitioners while failing to point out that Raso, Green, and other critics are members of the board of directors of the National Council Against Health Fraud. The program even went so far as to show viewers how to get in touch with alternative practitioners. Where in the world did this strange program come from? Not, as it happens, from the news division of NBC. The network bought the program from an outfit called PKO Television. Klein, PKO's president as well as producer of _CURED!_, says that NBC purchased the program from him because "all of the shows in that time slot were failing"-- meaning they weren't delivering the audience the network had guaranteed advertisers. Klein does not try to defend the show as factual. In fact, he thinks that some of the therapies discussed on _CURED!_ are, as he told _MediaCritic_, "sh-t," though one couldn't tell this from viewing the show. "We weren't doing an educational program," he says. "We were doing it as entertainment." The implicit understanding here is that if something is entertainment, then producers need not worry about facts, balance, and other such burdensome journalistic standards and practices. Roz Weinman, vice-president of standards and practices at NBC, shares this understanding. In an interview, she ap peared irritated that the program should be scrutinized in terms of commonly accepted standards. "There didn't need to be any factual accounts because the program wasn't about conventional medicine," she says. When asked whether someone at the network should have examined published research on homeopathic remedies, she replies, "We don't even do that level of checking on a news program." Weinman says the network met all its "responsibilities," noting that it even had a medical doctor review the show, though she couldn't recall the physician's name. Did NBC meet its responsibilities to the viewing public and to the issues presented by alternative medicine? When a network devotes two hours of prime-time to a par ticular subject, a viewer is inclined to think there must be a good reason for that decision. _CURED!_ presented alternative medicine as an attractive complement to conventional medicine, which it characterized as heartless and out of touch. Though NBC included a disclaimer at the top of the show indicating that the network was not endorsing the practices that were highlighted on _CURED!_, this prefatory text was contradicted by the pictures and the unmistakable message conveyed by the program as a whole. Like other newsworthy topics, alternative medicine de serves examination according to the accepted standards of journalism. To "do it as entertainment," as Klein said, is to demean it and to condescend to the viewing audience. Perhaps the best news to report about _CURED!_ comes from Klein himself, who says the ratings stunk. Let that fact be noted by the network wizards the next time they go slumming for viewers. [Greg Gutfield is a senior writer at Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania.]


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank