“Change comes slowly to the venerable [talk] shows that grip the attention of a small but committed segment of TV watchers every Sunday morning,” Michael Calderone wrote for Politico on Jan. 10. “And taking risks almost never happens.” He went on to quote an email to Politico from New York Times columnist Frank Rich, a frequent critic: “With occasional exceptions, the Sunday [talk] shows come across as geriatric and insular, having long been eclipsed and upstaged by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Fox News, MSNBC and much of the Web.”
The criticisms were valid as far as they went. But Calderone and Rich didn’t note the grave flaw in the shows that I remarked on the other day at this Web site: while awash in guest politicians, the shows too seldom feature federal regulators and corporate chieftains whose decisions and non-decisions, actions and inactions, have immense impact on the lives of all of us.
A New York Times editorial and a letter to the editor, both published on the day that Calderone’s article appeared, help make the point.
In “More Perils of Ground Meat,” the Times looked harshly at Beef Products, Inc., which “[a]bout eight years ago, had the novel idea of injecting its ground beef with ammonia to kill deadly E. coli and salmonella. The Agriculture Department pronounced the idea effective and exempted Beef Products Inc. from routine tests. The company’s beef began appearing regularly in grocery stores, fast food restaurants and school lunch programs. It turned out the beef was not safe.
The slaughterhouse trimmings the company used to grind its beef – known as processed beef – have a much higher microbial presence than other cuts, including E. coli and salmonella, and the ability of the ammonia to kill the germs appears to have been greatly oversold.
Investigators working for a division of the Agriculture Department that oversees school lunch programs found higher rates of salmonella in meat from Beef Products than from other vendors. Two 27,000-pound batches of beef were recalled for E. coli contamination.
The Agriculture Department has now belatedly withdrawn its exemption. Top officials admitted that they had been unaware of the problem until The New York Times alerted them to the school lunch test results.
The letter writer, Evelyn Wolfson, asked, “Why not add only ground fat belonging to the meat being ground? Period. No outside fat trimmings! Sounds too easy, doesn’t it?”
So why wasn’t Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack a guest on one of those Sunday talk shows where he could be asked, for example, why he was unaware of the problem until the Times alerted Agriculture officials to the school lunch test results, and whether he will seek a ban on adding to ground meat only the fat belonging to it?
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg would be another attention-getting guest. She could be asked, for example, what’s being done to improve medical-device testing that’s been sharply criticized not only in a Government Accountability Office report, but also by the FDA’s own scientists.
“The conclusions of the report were echoed by a group of nine scientists within the FDA’s device division,” the Public Citizen Health Research Group said in its December Health Letter. “In a letter to then president-elect Barack Obama and to Congress, the scientists described a corrupt review process in which medical devices are given quick approval following perfunctory testing because manufacturers tell the FDA that their products are ‘me too’ devices that operate similarly [to] older devices that have already received agency approval. The scientists subsequently followed up their letter with a memorandum to the FDA pointing out that imaging equipment to detect breast cancer and an orthopedic knee device had been inappropriately approved by the agency. They also charged the FDA with allowing hospitals to wash and reuse surgical devices intended for one-use only.”
Wouldn’t Dr. Hamburg – who has been Commissioner only since May – and Vilsack both have been more interesting guests to tens of millions of hamburger-eating and medical-device-using Americans than, say, Senators Jon Kyl and Jack Reed on Fox News Sunday, Senators John McCain and Joseph I. Lieberman on CNN’s State of the Union, Senator Diane Feinstein and Rep. Peter Hoekstra on Face the Nation, and the chairman of the Democratic and Republican national committees on Meet the Press?
Or is that a dumb question?