Saturday, October 29, 2011

Robert Bazell Is A Scumbag

On Thursday's Nightly News, the lead story was about the health benefits of aspirin as a cancer-fighting drug. In truth, this was just a 2:40 product placement for Bayer. The story featured only one national brand of aspirin--Bayer. All the other aspirin brands were generic or store brands like CVS or Sunmark. The story also clearly showed two vintage Bayer newspaper ads and just for good measure, it featured an 8-second clip from a current Bayer TV commercial. This story was a joke. It was nothing more than a shameless way to plug Bayer aspirin. And the fact that they showed it as the lead story is even more shameless. The message was obvious--buy Bayer aspirin and you won't get cancer.

Bayer is by far the most frequent advertiser on Nightly News. They advertise virtually every night--and as often as four times on a single broadcast (in addition to aspirin, Bayer also makes Aleve, Alka-Seltzer and One-A-Day vitamins). And Bayer products sometimes sponsor "Making A Difference" segments. So it was no coincidence that Brian Williams and his producers chose to run this as the lead story, since that was the most effective way to promote Bayer.

It was also no coincidence that this story was reported by Robert Bazell. Whenever the Nightly News producers want to promote a product in the medical or health care field, they give the assignment to Bazell. He's the broadcast's professional shill. He will gladly promote a product by placing it in the best possible light (or conversely, he will protect a product from negative publicity by countering or downplaying the claims against it). So promoting one of Nightly News's best advertisers is nothing new for Bazell. In fact, promoting Bayer aspirin is nothing new for Bazell. Been there, done that. On the 12/6/10 Nightly News, Bazell reported virtually the same story--the health benefits of aspirin. This "news report" began with a five second clip from a Bayer commercial. Then there were three close-ups of Bayer aspirin: A box on a shelf in a Walgreens, a pill in someone's palm and a bottle of Bayer. No other name-brand aspirin was shown in the story, just generic or store brands. Even an animated graphic of a bottle simply labeled "aspirin" was brown and yellow--easily recognizable as Bayer's traditional colors on their aspirin bottles and the main colors on their website. This story was virtually identical to last Thursday's story. Which means that Bazell has shilled for Bayer aspirin twice in less than a year. But wait--there's more. On the 6/8/10 Nightly News, he spent two-and-a-half minutes reporting on an obscure Danish medical study which claimed that Naproxen (sold as Bayer's Aleve brand) may reduce the risk of heart attacks among its users. Needless to say, the story featured plenty of close-up shots of Aleve. Chalk up another Bayer product placement for Bazell. Of course, Bayer is not the only company that Bazell shills for. He has also done "news reports" about Pfizer products, GlaxoSmithKline products and even one for Cheerios (a major Nightly News sponsor).

Bazell's 5/12/09 Cheerios story was so obviously meant to promote the cereal that it was laughable. It was purportedly about how the FDA had reprimanded General Mills for making false claims about Cheerios. But the report intentionally minimized the FDA aspect of the story and instead spent most of its time promoting the positive attributes of Cheerios. This was Bazell's first line: "It is one of America's iconic products--Cheerios." Well, that certainly set the scene. We were then shown 20 seconds of Cheerios commercials while Bazell told us that, "Soluble oat fiber--a key component--can help reduce cholesterol." In other words, Bazell just made the very claim that the FDA had expressly forbidden General Mills from making. He then briefly interrupted his Cheerios love-fest to mention the FDA reprimand: "A letter from the FDA to General Mills, the manufacturer, says that the health claims have gone too far. The big problem is those claims about how much cholesterol can be reduced in how many weeks. They are repeated on the box. The FDA says those are drug-like claims that can only be made after studies have been submitted to the agency and approved." So rather than acknowledging that General Mills made inappropriate claims, he chose to defend the claims as if they were mere technicalities. As Bazell said this, he was sitting at a table with a bowl of Cheerios in front of him, and at least six boxes of Cheerios neatly stacked next to him. He looked like he was in a Cheerios commercial. Actually, he was. Bazell continued, "In a statement, General Mills said, 'The science is not in question and we look forward to discussing this with the FDA and reaching a resolution.'" The science is not in question! Bazell did not take issue with the General Mills statement--he simply accepted it as fact. The General Mills statement also appeared on screen alongside a pleasing graphic of a breakfast table with a bowl of Cheerios, a box of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice. We then saw a close-up of milk being poured into a bowl of Cheerios. There was a brief interview with a doctor who said that three grams of soluble fiber is not really going to help you, but that it's better than eating something that's high in fat. Bazell then twisted this statement into, "Food industry experts say there is no question that Cheerios is a healthy product but the FDA seems to be paying more attention to the claims that companies make." No question! Bazell's commercial--I mean news story--ended with boxes of Cheerios going by on a conveyor belt, a slow pan down a box of Cheerios, and a mother pouring some Cheerios for her toddler. That is unbelievable. The actual point of the story--the FDA's reprimand of General Mills--was completely dwarfed by the positive images and Bazell's unabashed praise of Cheerios. I think it's pretty obvious that Bazell and his producers worked closely with the Cheerios marketing team to devise the best possible on-air strategy for combatting the FDA reprimand while also presenting Cheerios in a commercial-like "news report". (For another Cheerios product placement, see Kristen Welker's 9/24/10 Nightly News report or read about it on an earlier posting of this blog at It's a how-to manual for product placement.)

Robert Bazell will plug a product on Nightly News any time he is told to do so. He is absolutely shameless in that regard. And he doesn't care that by doing so he is committing a serious ethical breach. As a science, health and medical reporter, viewers assume that Bazell's first priority is to provide them with accurate and honest information, not to promote Bayer or other Nightly News sponsors. So by serving the advertisers instead of the viewers, he could conceivably be jeopardizing the viewers' health. I can't think of any other way to say it: Robert Bazell is a scumbag. And by the way, if anyone thinks that word is too harsh, I would remind them that NBC News correspondent Kristen Dahlgren used that very word during her report about the Conrad Murray trial on the Oct. 23 Nightly News. So if that word is good enough for Nightly News, it's good enough for this blog.

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