I’m referring to her performance against Kevin Trudeau last night on CNN. Trudeau is the author who claims there are natural cures for all illnesses, and that modern medicine is a fraud. Trudeau is a quack who has been banned by the FTC from giving his infomercials. I give Zahn a B minus because although she put up a bit of a fight against Trudeau, she missed the obvious rejoinders and was generally lame.
It wasn’t all bad. From the CNN transcript it started:
ZAHN: I want you to hear a new warning about one of the most familiar faces on late-night TV infomercials. Kevin Trudeau is a convicted felon and has no medical training, yet he has sold millions of copies of his self-help book. Tonight New York's Consumer Protection Board says Trudeau is selling customers' names without their permission to tele-marketers and junk mail companies.
The Consumer Protection Board also say it's received complaints that customers are charged unexpected fees and have trouble getting refunds. Well, before this latest warning, I had an in-depth interview with Mr. Trudeau about his infomercial empire and the scathing criticism he's received from some medical professionals.
TRUDEAU: Of course medical doctors are going to say they don't believe in what I'm doing because the whole book is about exposing the medical business for what it is. Fraud.
ZAHN: Fraud is something Kevin Trudeau knows about first hand. In 1991, he served a two-year prison term for credit card fraud. He's also had several run-ins with the Federal Trade Commission for years over false claims.
In 2003, he was fined $2 million over claims made for his coral calcium supreme. Trudeau was banned from selling products in infomercials and banned from selling health products in any format at all. But his constitutional right to free speech allows him to use infomercials to sell his book and newsletter.
So far OK. But the direct questioning segment that followed showed up the shallow nature of Zahn’s knowledge:
ZAHN (on camera): You're the only person ever to have been banned from selling a product by the FTC. You have absolutely no medical training, you are a convicted felon. Why should anyone listen to what you have to say about health matters? TRUDEAU: Why should anyone listen to a medical doctor about health?
ZAHN: One would assume they have training that would reinforce what they are advising their patients to do.
TRUDEAU: You would assume that. These are the same experts who told us to use Vioxx that killed 150,000 people. These are the same people that kill 900,000 people a year.
Blah blah. So what? Instead of pressing Trudeau on why we should believe his claims, she has allowed him to red-herring the discussion away from Trudeau’s claims and on to the supposed problems with conventional medicine. But even if all modern medicine was a complete fraud it still wouldn’t mean that Trudeau’s quackery suddenly magically works. You’ll note Trudeau has not offered one shred of evidence for his claims.
Here’s where she really goes wrong:
ZAHN: David Johnson, vice president of the American College of Gastroentrology… says some of Trudeau's suggestions could actually be harmful.
TRUDEAU: Such as?
ZAHN: Digestive enzymes. He says, quote, these enzymes are very caustic and TRUDEAU: OK.
ZAHN: And that they're typically only prescribed for people with pancreatic problems.
TRUDEAU: That's a doctor giving his opinion. Now, is that a fact or his opinion?
ZAHN: This is his opinion.
TRUDEAU: Does it say...
ZAHN: And what you write in your book is your opinion.
TRUDEAU: Correct, and that's the point.
Wrong – but that is the point. Zahn has allowed Trudeau to define the debate as being about opinions. Doctors and scientists have their opinions; Trudeau has his opinion. They’re all just opinions. And Trudeau’s opinion should have as much weight as that of the doctors and scientists. Wrong! The views expressed by David Johnson are not opinions, they are conclusions arrived at through examination of masses of independent peer-reviewed evidence. Trudeau’s claims however, are just opinions. Badly informed ones.
Zahn allowed Trudeau the smokescreen of this “opinions” argument for much of the rest of the interview. She also allowed Trudeau to claim that his book contains over 900 studies that support his position, without calling him on the fact that these are not published studies. She then fallaciously argued from anecdote by quoting a dissatisfied Trudeau customer. Naturally this played right into Trudeau’s hands: he was then free to argue from the hordes of testimonials he said he has. But testimonials are irrelevant to both sides.
This is a fairly clear-cut case. Trudeau’s claims are not backed by evidence and in many cases are actually directly contradicted by the evidence. If a senior news “anchor” like Zahn can’t understand this is not a question of “opinions”, how will she deal with more complex issues? Of course we know the answer – “badly”. Just look at much of the media coverage of the Intelligent Design debate – it’s all he said / she said debating talking heads. But all opinions are not equal: the Earth is not flat; humors do not cause sickness; Intelligent Design is not science; and Kevin Trudeau is a quack.
At the end, Zahn makes it fairly clear where her opinions lie:
ZAHN: And we want to stress again that Trudeau's book is based only on his opinions. He is not a doctor, a scientist or a medical expert. He is a salesman with no medical training to speak of. And tonight, under fire from a state board in New York.
It’s only a pity she couldn’t justify that claim in a direct debate with Trudeau.