Luces in the Sky

Covering big pharma in the age of marketing

When Time magazine went culinary trend-spotting in July 1951, it bypassed usual suspects like new ice-cream flavors and found a truly cutting-edge trend: horsemeat for dinner. With beef prices high, butchers were selling hunks of “old grey mare.” So the magazine joined the fray and kicked in a cooking tip for pot roast of horse. “The meat tends to be sweet,” it observed, so “more onions should be used and fewer carrots.”

If the mid-century idea of munching on Mr. Ed sounds unpalatable today, it also points to the general peril of zeitgeist-chasing journalism—namely, that within a few years, the product you tout may become as dated as a recipe for, well, horsemeat. Such perishable press coverage not only risks becoming tomorrow’s red face, it can also be dangerous. That’s particularly true when it comes to drug coverage, where news breakers risk shouting hosannas to substances that end up bigger health gambles than they initially appeared.

Such was the case with LSD in the 1950s and 1960s, when the hallucinogen was the subject of long, loving stories in Time and Life magazines, many of which portrayed the mind-bending drug in wondrous terms, according to Miami University (of Ohio) journalism professor Stephen Siff. Writing in the latest edition of Journalism History, Siff finds that Time and Life were hooked on LSD, dedicating more coverage to it than other major newsweeklies, and lacing it all with heavy Christian imagery.

Siff found that articles on LSD in Time were both more numerous and longer than those in Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. Between its first mention of the drug in 1954 and 1968 (the year Congress criminalized the sale of LSD), Time devoted 19,000 words to the drug, almost twice as many as Newsweek and ten times as many as U.S. News. In 1966 alone, LSD was the focus of nine Time articles, including one that invoked St. Paul’s vision of the risen Christ and sixteenth-century St. Teresa of Avila’s states of ecstasy.

“Most experiences of mystical consciousness have come only after hard work—spartan prayers, meditation, fasting, mortification of the flesh,” Time wrote. “Now it is possible through the use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, to induce something like mystical consciousness in a controlled laboratory environment.”

Such divine endorsement, Siff goes on to argue, reflected the personal attitudes of the magazines’ publisher Henry Luce and his wife Clare, both of whom used the drug recreationally, believing it had great spiritual and psychological value. That the Luces were tripping through the 1950s and 1960s will surprise many people, although biographers have previously discussed how enjoyable the couple found the drug. And the fact that their psychedelic dabblings apparently infused Time and Life’s coverage is a sobering, if titillating, reminder that media moguls can influence editorial content more than they’re likely to admit.

Time and Life’s LSD fix is also a reminder of ill-fated journalistic attractions to other drugs that ultimately fell out of social, and sometimes medical, favor. Before Vioxx was withdrawn from the market in 2004 after being linked to thousands of heart attacks, the media failed to follow up warning signs and hailed the painkiller a “super aspirin” (though, in fairness, putting the term in quotation marks).

Journalists face plenty of perils and pitfalls on the pharmaceutical beat. It’s not easy to paint a fair portrait of a drug’s pluses and minuses through the screen of $25 billion a year in drug marketing, not to mention various industry “experts” or medical researchers and physicians who may have their own interests to promote and may be on drug companies’ payrolls.

Walter Lippmann warned ninety years ago that sometimes the greatest journalistic bias comes from reporters’ own “hopes and fears,” and no one stands immune to the hope that a new medication can work miracles, whether for Alzheimer’s or AIDS or arthritis. The temptation toward early-onset enthusiasm for new drugs is high. But it can have long-term costs in credibility when later and larger longitudinal studies uncover dangers that initial studies missed. 

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Michael Schudson & Danielle Haas write The Research Report for CJR. Schudson teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and in the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego. Haas is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications at Columbia.