Is Big Pharma Anesthetizing the Associated Press? (Part 2 of 3)
By Adam Garrie, The Kennedy Beacon
Note: This is the second in a series of articles The Kennedy Beacon is publishing on three consecutive days. Together, they examine how, nine days after Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced his intention to run for president as an independent, the once-reputable Associated Press (AP) constructed a hit piece against the candidate that has all the hallmarks of Big Pharma dictating the method and line of attack. Our first article examined the claims of the hit piece; the second, below, investigates Big Pharma’s fingerprints on the original story; and the third reveals the financial/political conflicts of the authors, the AP’s leadership, and the organization as a whole.
By Adam Garrie, The Kennedy Beacon
One of the recent corporate media attacks on Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was published on October 18 in the form of an Associated Press hit piece titled “RFK Jr. spent years stoking fear and mistrust of vaccines. These people were hurt by his work.”
Below the byline of the AP piece on Kennedy is a disclaimer: “The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy.”
According to the AP, the goal of its “sweeping democracy journalism initiative” is to “improve civic literacy and combat misinformation by bolstering its explanatory journalism.” The AP discloses that the Lilly Endowment is the most prominent backer of its democracy journalism initiative, although the amount of funding the AP receives from the Lilly Endowment as part of this initiative is not disclosed.
The piece was written by Michelle R. Smith and Ali Swenson. According to her biography on the AP website, “Swenson reports on election-related misinformation, disinformation and extremism for The Associated Press.” While the term misinformation is notoriously vague, independent journalist Matt Taibbi explained in the Twitter Files that media accusations of “misinformation” are often a prelude to both direct and indirect censorship from the government.
Gilding the Big Pharma Lilly
The Lilly Endowment was founded in 1937 “with gifts of stock in Eli Lilly and Company,” according to the organization’s website. Recent data from Statista reveals that Eli Lilly has the largest market capitalization of any pharmaceutical company, at just under $500 billion.
The ability of the Lilly Endowment to make donations is implicitly linked to the performance of Eli Lilly’s share price, as reported by the Indianapolis Business Journal. The Lilly Endowment is a separate entity from the pharmaceutical giant that bears the Lilly name, but while the Endowment has an independent board, it remains a stakeholder in the pharma company. The Indianapolis Business Journal further reported that as of April 2022, 89.5% of the Endowment’s stock was in Eli Lilly (LLY). In 2019, the AP reported that the Lilly Endowment is the second largest private foundation (by assets under its control) in the US, behind only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Kennedy Beacon reached out to the Lilly Endowment regarding its fiscal relationship with the AP. The Endowment’s communications director, Judith Cebula, told the Beacon that the organization was not aware of the Kennedy piece prior to its publication. She added that the Lilly Endowment does not offer input or editorial suggestions to AP pieces falling under the democracy initiative and that such content is the sole responsibility of the AP. The AP also states that it does not accept grants from organizations that seek to influence or control its editorial decisions.
The AP’s website states that the stories it publishes are not influenced by donations. This statement appears to be undermined by significant recent changes to the AP’s funding model, stemming from broader changes in the mass media landscape.
Unlike the Thomson Reuters Corporation, which is a publicly traded company, the AP is a not-for-profit cooperative association. The AP used to rely on regular business from the local, national, and international media outlets that pay for its newswire services, but the death of many local outlets and the adoption of cost-cutting measures at major newspapers have shaken the foundations of this revenue model.
As a result, the AP, similar to PBS and NPR, increasingly relies on gifts from private foundations in order to remain economically viable. Writing in The Capitolist, Brian Burgess quotes AP vice president Brian Carovillano as stating that the AP’s receipt of an $8 million gift from five private foundations in 2022 will not impact editorial decisions on the climate change reportage the gift funds. However, in the same statement, Carovillano said, “This is a mutually beneficial arrangement.” Burgess points out that objective journalism and a “mutually beneficial agreement” with donors is a contradiction in logic and a betrayal of the journalistic ethics upon which the AP’s past reputation was built.
Burgess lists a number of donors to the AP that have overt and unambiguous sociopolitical agendas and corporate ties, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Koch Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Walton Foundation, an organization linked to the family that maintains a 50% stake in Walmart, according to The Business Model Analyst.
When foundations tied to major corporations are major financial backers of news services, the once clear distinction between journalism and public relations is in danger of becoming blurred. Burgess’s reporting suggests that this distinction has already been lost in a media environment where public relations and reporting have congealed into a unitary entity. Activist and independent commentator Russell Brand shared similar criticisms of the AP’s funding model in a recent video on Big Tech censorship of independent journalism.
The Corporate Motive
The pharmaceutical industry’s influence on the AP appears to be a pattern rather than an anomaly. Less than two months prior to the AP’s publication of the Kennedy hit piece, the nonprofit Children’s Health Defense highlighted a lawsuit against Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk in which the plaintiff alleges that the companies “downplayed the severity of the gastrointestinal events” associated with two weight loss drugs, Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic and Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro.
Children’s Health Defense, which was chaired by Kennedy prior to his entry into the 2024 presidential race, is directly attacked in the AP piece, which is part of a series of content known as the democracy journalism initiative (also referred to as ‘AP’s democracy initiative’) that receives some general funding (not targeted as specific articles per se) from an entity whose stock portfolio is largely comprised of Eli Lilly stock.
As part of its democracy journalism initiative, the AP reports that it also works with a media outlet known as The Conversation, which issued a press release announcing that it received $1.9 million from the Lilly Endowment in 2019. The same year, the Endowment also gave a $4.9 million grant to a joint initiative of the AP, The Conversation, and the Religion News Service. According to an AP piece about this collaboration, “The grant represents one of the biggest investments in religion news coverage in decades.” According to the Lilly Endowment’s 2022 annual report, $4 million was given to The Common Ground Initiative, a joint initiative of the AP and The Conversation. In June of this year, The Conversation published its own hit piece against Kennedy.
Trust or Antitrust?
Adding to this entanglement is the fact that the AP is a founding member of the Trusted News Initiative, a group formed in 2020 by major global news organizations and tech companies including Microsoft, The Washington Post, BBC, Google/YouTube, Twitter, and others. In an interview with Tucker Carlson, Kennedy characterized the group as a “secretive cartel” whose major purpose was to “suppress and censor any information, whether true or not, that departed from official government orthodoxies and government proclamations.” Kennedy also said in the interview that he is in possession of a previously secret BBC memo indicating that the overriding goal of the members of the Trusted News Initiative is to “destroy their rivals in the independent media.”
Members of the Trusted News Initiative admittedly collaborate, according to the BBC, to advance opinions from official bodies like the CDC and NIH while suppressing or debasing statements from members of the medical community outside these regulatory bodies. Members of the Trusted News Initiative have also criticized individuals opposed to vaccine mandates.
The Trusted News Initiative is the defendant in ongoing antitrust litigation brought by Children’s Heath Defense, a fact conceded by the AP in their article on Kennedy.
When it comes to “trust,” the pharmaceutical industry is more widely known for its antitrust actions than for being a trusted arbiter of truth. According to PharmaVoice, “over 45% of the FTC’s non-merger antitrust complaints between 2009 and 2022 were in the healthcare sector, with over half in pharma.” The record is similar regarding FTC actions against pharmaceutical mergers and acquisitions. PharmaVoice further reports, “Out of the 156 merger enforcement actions the FTC took against healthcare companies between 1996 and 2021, most were targeted at pharma, with 73 actions against prescription drug developers.”
The ABCs of Pharma Advertising
The connections between the pharmaceutical industry and mass media go far beyond the Lilly Endowment’s sponsorship of the nonprofit AP’s democracy initiative. For example, ABC News, part of the publicly traded Walt Disney Company, generates revenue through direct advertising by pharmaceutical companies. ABC news was one of the outlets which republished substantial portions of the original AP piece on Kennedy.
According to a study from the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement, ABC News programs received more advertising dollars from their top five advertisers than any other network’s news programs between January 2020 and June 2021.
Among ABC’s top five advertisers during news broadcasts, 60% are big pharmaceutical companies, with the largest being Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Sanofi, makers of the medication dupilumab. In total, ABC’s top five news advertisers spent $61.4 million on advertising during the period examined by the University of Texas, over $40 million of which came from pharmaceutical companies.
Independent writer and educator Jim Borden noted that during a full episode of ABC World News Tonight on June 6, 2023, nine of the 13 commercials shown were for pharmaceutical products. Given that one of the commercials was an advertisement for ABC’s show The Bachelor, 75% of the commercials paid for by companies or organizations external to ABC were from pharmaceutical corporations.
Perhaps ironically, ABC News itself published an article in 2009 which discussed the potential dangers of unrelenting pharmaceutical commercials during broadcasts. According to a study cited in the article, such advertising “is likely to increase the request rates of both the drug category and drug brand choices, as well as the likelihood the drugs would be prescribed by physicians.” In regard to the potential for adverse effects, the author notes that “real-life and longer-term safety studies are often in progress when DTC [direct-to-consumer] advertising begins.”
The ABC article notes that the US is one of the only countries in the world to allow the advertising of prescription drugs on television broadcasts. According to a 2023 study from the University of Southern California, New Zealand is the only other country to allow such ads on television (and on livestreams).
Beyond ABC’s news programs, Fierce Pharma confirmed that Pfizer was the largest ad spender on the network’s flagship entertainment broadcast of the Academy Awards during the 2023 ceremony hosted by comedian Jimmy Kimmel.
Eli Lilly itself is no stranger to scandals involving direct advertising. Weeks after Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, The Washington Post reported that Eli Lilly withdrew its ads from the social media platform. The proximate cause of this withdrawal was a decline in the company’s share price after an Eli Lilly parody account on Twitter satirically claimed that the company would give away insulin for free.
The web of interconnected vested interests stretches across the Atlantic to Britain’s The Independent, a newspaper that also republished substantial portions of the original AP piece.. The largest stakeholder of the newspaper is the dual British-Russian citizen and billionaire Evgeny Lebedev. The Times of London describes Lebedev as a “friend” of former British prime minister Boris Johnson, whose brief period in power was defined by COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates for health workers.
When Johnson was still prime minister, 40 psychologists wrote to Parliament, stating that the Johnson government used “grossly unethical” tactics to frighten the public into complying with COVID restrictions which the group of medical professionals called “totalitarian.” Far from holding the powerful to account, the nominally left-of-center Independent failed to report on this group of 40 psychologists who criticized the totalitarian tactics of the Johnson government.
Navigating the Web
Despite (or because of) its direct sponsorship of news programs, circuitous funding of news services, regulatory capture, and indemnification demands, the pharmaceutical industry is not trusted by the public. According to an August 2023 Gallup poll, only 18% of Americans have a positive view of the industry, while 60% hold a negative opinion. This negative trend has increased in recent years among Republicans and Democrats alike.
Trust in the media has similarly plummeted. According to a separate Gallup poll conducted in September 2023, a record 39% of Americans have “no confidence at all” in the trustworthiness of the media, while only 32% have either a “fair” or “great” amount of trust. This poll found that trust in the media is at historic lows among both Democrats and Republicans. These statistics represent a democratic verdict on the veracity of two large industries that remain powerful in spite of their inability to command the trust and confidence of the public.
When two industries deemed unworthy of trust collaborate to influence public access to information, it is not difficult to understand why skepticism in major public and private institutions has become a natural position for millions of Americans who value honesty and integrity.
Over many decades, the AP garnered a reputation as a newswire service that was above the fray of editorializing passed off as objective news reporting. However, recent changes to the media landscape and the AP’s increased reliance on donations from private foundations appear to have compromised the organization’s commitment to neutral, factual reporting, and certainly has influenced content selection. As legacy media outlets find themselves beholden to the overt and covert requirements of donors and sponsors, we should ask whether the underwriters of the news are now vastly more influential than the writers of the news.