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Fortnightly Magazine - January 1 1996

the media covers presidential campaigns. President Clinton is running unopposed; Sen. Dole holds a huge lead over any potential rivals. So what is the media doing? Egging on Colin Powell and Ross Perot as potential spoilers.

Sensationalism. The success of tabloid television ("Hard Copy," "A Current Affair," "Jenny Jones," "Geraldo" (em to name but a few) has filtered its way into the mainstream press. Given a choice between interviewing the president of Serbia and O.J. Simpson, even the venerable "60 Minutes" is going to pick O.J. That's what viewers want, and viewers are what advertisers want.

Hold on, I can hear you say, EMF plays right into these trends. It's an issue of concern to real people, involves conflict between little guys and big business, and certainly lends itself to sensationalistic abuse.

That's how the EMF issue appeared three years ago, which is why media interest was relatively high at the time. High-profile lawsuits were about to go to trial in California and Georgia. Feychting and Ahlbom reported an increased risk of leukemia in children. The government of Sweden announced that it was considering a new policy reflecting the EMF-childhood leukemia connection.

By 1995, all of that had changed. The plaintiffs lost all of those EMF lawsuits, robbing the issue of its "little guy-big business" angle. The Swedish government abandoned its policy, diminishing the credibility of the Feychting-Ahlbom study. And in this last year:

s Six Nobel laureates filed an amicus brief in September on behalf of the defendants in a California EMF court case. It reads in part: "[A]ny decision which even implicitly can be seen as support for the concerns about EMF would lend credibility to beliefs which are essentially without scientific foundation and based on irrational or speculative fear of injury." The American Medical Association filed a similar brief.

s Plaintiffs in a Texas EMF lawsuit asked a Harris County District Court judge for a "nonsuit," effectively ending the litigation. Joe Jamail, the plaintiffs' high-powered attorney, told Fortune magazine in November that he decided to delay the case because "the state of the scientific evidence is not fully developed."

s The American Physical Society issued a statement in April, concluding that "the conjectures relating cancer to power line fields have not been scientifically substantiated."

Faced with this lack of resolution, the media has no story to tell, nothing to hype. They've already done stories on the uncertainty of the debate, on the tantalizing but inconclusive results of some studies, and on the pros and cons of "prudent avoidance." In today's media environment, no hype means no news.

What Should Utilities Do?

To a certain extent, the issue has faded because researchers have failed to provide any convincing evidence that EMF exposure poses a threat to public health. I have a six-month-old son, and I haven't moved his crib away from the service drop into my home.

However, it would be dangerous to assume that the current lull represents the end of the EMF debate. Just because EMF doesn't fit into the people-hungry, crisis-driven, sensationalistic media right now doesn't mean