Good Golly

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

I've got a new Think Again column called "Still the Same," here.

I'm so sad to add my voice to those who mourn the loss of Molly Ivins. I've met a lot of the people whose work I admired for years before actually meeting them, and I promise you, nobody ever lived up to my unreasonable expectations for them more than did Molly. She was warm, generous, funny, fun, self-effacing, and I was slightly surprised to learn this--incredibly scholarly. I treasure the time we spent together and the encouragement she gave me for my work. If you want more evidence that the universe does not play fairly with its inhabitants, you need look no further than the loss we must all now endure without Molly in our lives when she had so much more left to give us. May her example flow like a mighty river though the rest of our lives' work.

(Woulda been nice if the smart boyz at The Note had the grace to note Molly's passing, by the way. After all, it made Drudge; that's good enough when the stuff's made up ...)

The MoveOn petition against the war is here.

Political balance, Time magazine style:

This morning's Time has a column by William Kristol about how evil the Democrats are for opposing the troop escalation and one by Mike Kinsley about what a hero Scooter Libby is. No, really.

From the Benton Foundation:

WHITE HOUSE TO RELEASE DETAILS ON EAVESDROPPING [SOURCE: New York Times, AUTHOR: Mark Mazzetti]

Bowing to bipartisan pressure from lawmakers, the Justice Department announced Wednesday that it was turning over to select members of Congress secret documents detailing the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program. The Bush Administration recently announced it had agreed to put the NSA program under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and that the secret court had on Jan. 10 approved a Justice Department request for a wiretap. The decision to hand over the documents will allow members of the House and Senate intelligence committees -- as well as select congressional leaders -- to review that court order. The package of documents the Bush Administration is giving to lawmakers is also expected to include Justice Department applications for surveillance approvals and the legal briefs submitted to the FISA court. Lawmakers from both parties applauded the decision, and pledged that the new Congress will closely scrutinize the legality of the NSA program.

Natural Causes: The Altercation Book Club

Dietary Supplement Industry Launches Media Attack on...Me

By Dan Hurley

The one industry that liberals and conservatives both love to support, despite years of dire warnings from consumer and public-health advocates, has a new public enemy No. 1: me.

Even before my new book, Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry, (Broadway Books) was published in December, it was attacked for presenting "lies and half truths" by an executive with the industry's leading trade journal, in a blog that warned, "Upcoming book slams 'completely unregulated' dietary supplement industry."

What really set the industry on red alert, however, was a spate of positive press, first in a full-page review by Business Week, "Modern Snake Oil?" then in a two-part series by the CBS Evening News on January 15," Are Herbal Supplements Hurting You?" and January 16, "How Should FDA Regulate Diet Supplements?" Also on January 16 came my essay in the "Science Times" section of The New York Times, "Diet Supplements and Safety: Some Disquieting Data."

I'm a journalist, not an advocate. I've been a medical reporter for over 15 years, with over a dozen articles for the "Science Times" section. Two articles I wrote for the Times in 2004, "As Ephedra Ban Nears, a Race to Sell the Last Supplies" and "Judge Clears the Way For U.S. Ban on Ephedra," drew me into the bigger story of how dietary supplements are regulated -- and into the crosshairs of the industry's ire.

The day the second CBS news segment aired, on January 16, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, an industry trade group, issued a press release condemning it, "Industry Group Pans Book on Dietary Supplements." Despite 33 pages of source notes citing hundreds of studies and my own analysis of 23 years of reports from U.S. poison control centers, the group called the book "not credible ... because of its lack of science, historical inaccuracies and emphasis on anecdotal evidence and opinion."

That same day, the industry blogger who had warned against the book before it was published called for a campaign to fight against it, "CBS News, New York Times cover Hurley book, industry must fight back." "A book with so many inaccurate statements and half-truths should simply fade into obscurity," wrote John Benninger. But since the book was gaining so much attention, he asked, "What is an industry to do? Fight back. CRN and the other associations will do their best to get industry's perspective included in the coverage. ... But, what we really need is something much greater. This industry needs to open its collective wallet and fund a multimillion dollar communications effort."

Also on January 16, another industry website, nutraingredients-usa.com, released an article, "Supplements book draws fierce response from industry," which reported that the book "has incited backlash from trade associations within the dietary supplements industry for its critical portrayal of regulatory controls and safety."

The next day, a group called the Business and Media Institute, which bills itself as "advancing the culture of free enterprise in America," called the CBS segments "skewed" and accused the network of supporting "bigger government" in an article, CBS Prescribes Regulation for Herbal Supplements.

Two days later, on January 19, the Canadian Health Food Association issued its own release, "Canadian industry group supports millions of Americans who take safe, beneficial dietary supplements," saying that it "flatly rejects" the book's conclusions, which it called "misleading."

But even while industry advocates complained that the book and media reports were biased, the CBS News PublicEye blog criticized the network's broadcast for not coming down on either side, in a piece titled "The 'Evening News' Takes On Supplements." "The 'Evening News' gave us two sides of the argument," wrote PublicEye editor Brian Montopoli, "but it didn't tell us which one was right. From watching the pieces, I thought Hurley seemed credible, but I didn't know to what extent he had an agenda of his own - scary stories about burning noses tend to sell books, after all. So while I tended to believe him, I wanted more information.... Why couldn't we have heard from more voices who could provide a firmer sense of the truth?"

The other voices who have long supported tighter regulation of the $22 billion supplement industry include most of the consumer advocacy groups who are better known for their criticism of the drug industry, including the granddaddy of them all, Pubic Citizen's Health Research Group, which speaks out frequently on Dietary and Herbal Supplements, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Even Consumer Reports published a blistering report on the supplement industry, "Dangerous supplements," in 2004.

In truth, most of "my" findings in the book come directly from large studies financed by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. As the Times reported in 2005, a major NCCAM study found that echinacea has no effect on colds. Another large NCCAM-funded study, of glucosamine and chondroitin, found that the supplements fail to stop arthritis pain. Just weeks ago, Medical News Today reported on NCCAM's study of black cohosh for menopause symptoms: "Herbal Supplement Fails To Relieve Hot Flashes In Large NIH Trial."

In fairness, industry hacks aren't the only folks attacking the book. Ordinary believers in supplements are commenting in droves on the Amazon and CBS sites, one of whom wrote me an email to say I should "go rot in a hole and kill yourself." The controversy is no surprise to me, since the book details the extraordinary public support that supplements have enjoyed since the "back to nature" movement of the 1970s.

But while bicoastal liberals have been longtime believers, I also tried to document how conservatives have in fact been the industry's biggest champions, including George Bush, as noted in a Time magazine piece by Michael Weisskopf back in 2000, "Bush's Diet-Drug Problem."

And then there's that obscure blogger named Eric Alterman, who called my book, in a blurb on the back jacket, "a sobering, and frightening, look at a problem most of us don't even know we have. The abuses of consumer ignorance described in this well-researched book badly need to see the light of day."

I first heard from Eric when he offered to put me in touch with his mother, Ruth, who was one of the thousands of people who experienced debilitating reactions to L-tryptophan, marketed as being as safe as milk, in the early 1980s. Although 38 people died and hundreds were left permanently disabled, Ruth is fully recovered. It is because of her, and the dozens of other victims and survivors who spoke with me, that the attacks against my reporting fail to trouble me.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Ben Miller
Hometown: Washington, DC

Mr. Alterman - Why aren't all those responsible for the story about Obama's schooling making it on the air on Fox News forced out, the same way Dan Rather was? Their mistake is easily as egregious, if not more so, as Rather's.

Name: CW Skinner
Hometown: Santa Barbara, CA

Hi Eric,

All due respect, but I think the teacher's union thing is a red herring. In NY City things are one way. In much else of the country, they are another. A tautology perhaps, but one worth remembering in terms of the sensitivity of the teacher's union question.

As far as LTC Bateman is concerned, I am worried that he cites Malkin at all. I think her distortions and her now ever-more-scurrilous attacks on Lara Logan should make her radioactive. I don't even care if she functions as a stopped clock.

The reason I'm greatly concerned is that I think Bateman has begun a political journey, largely based on his sense that Iraq could have been "won." I think he's begun to look for folks to blame.

Name: Brian Geving
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

Eric,

The Teddy Wayne piece posing as military recruits definitely was funny, but as you say, it is also scary what kind of people the military will allow in to meet their quotas.

When I was in the Army, I was fortunate that most of the men and women I worked with were smart people that reflected greatly on the quality and professionalism of today's military. Unfortunately, I've heard plenty of stories about the Army now letting in convicted felons, skinheads and other types that aren't known for working well with others in a team, which is what the military is all about. It used to be that you couldn't get accepted unless you had a HS diploma, but now HS dropouts are accepted.

Hopefully, more people will start shedding light on this because the ultimate result of letting people like this into the military is that the military itself is weakened. None of us want what happened after Vietnam to happen again to the greatest military in the world, but we're on our way to repeat the mistakes of the past all over again.

Name: Pat Driscoll
Hometown: Phoenix

"I rode a tank, held a general's rank while the blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank"

Name: Tim
Hometown: Pasadena, CA

Eric,

I'm sure you're drowning in responses to this...

Anyway, while there are so many songs to choose from, the one line that keeps coming back to me is from Nirvana:

I tried so hard to have
a father, but instead I had a dad.

Heck, I'm sure it isn't the greatest lyric, but it's the one I can't forget.

Name: John
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

Dr. A, Billy Joel was a heck of a lyricist once-upon-a-time. My nomination:

I believe I've passed the age
of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight
I once believed in causes too
Had my pointless point-of-view
Life went on no matter who was wrong or right.

Name: Tom Parmenter
Hometown: West Newton, MA

Flaming Lips, "Free Radical":

You think you're radical but you're not so radical in fact you're fanatical.

Name: Steven Hart
Hometown: The Opinion Mill

Personally, I'll go with "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine."

Name: Wayne
Hometown: Boulder, CO

Here's my pick for best lyric regarding Andrew Sullivan:

"Oh, I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused."

By Elvis Costello, of course.

Name: Jeff Davis
Hometown: Denver CO

How about:

If it wasn't for bad luck,
I wouldn't have no luck at all.

Eric replies: I don't know how this got started, but OK, I'll play. I guess because I associate rock with youth, sex and rebellion, I'd go with either:

"Well she was just seventeen. And you know what I mean ..."

Or

"I called up my congressman and he said, quote: 'I'd like to help you son, but you're too young to vote.' "

I do like Patti's "Jesus" line, though, too.

My favorite line of all time, while a rock lyric, though it doesn't quite fit as a nomination for best rock lyric since it doesn't really need to be a lyric to be great, is:

"Lord have mercy on the man who doubts what he's sure of."

(slight loss of points for ending sentence with a preposition)

This is closely followed by (same artist, same album):

"When you're alone, you're alone
When you're alone, you're alone
When you're alone, you're alone
When you're alone, you ain't nothin' but alone"

(which loses points for having both "ain't" and a double negative in the same line)

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