Round Two: ABC News 2, Metabolife 0

Chatterbox completely forgot to watch 20/20 Friday night! He’d been meaning to watch it, or to tape it, so he could compare Arnold Diaz’s report on the herbal diet supplement Metabolife to the full transcript of Diaz’s interview with Metabolife chief Mike Ellis–which Metabolife had mischievously posted (along with a streaming video of the interview) on a special “kiss my butt, ABC News” Web site. (See “Metabolife: Read This! No, Wait, Don’t Read This!,” “Metabolife’s Lawyer Assures C’box He Won’t Sue,” and “Round One: ABC News 1, Metabolife 0.”) But when the hour arrived, Chatterbox, having spent a pleasant evening ‘round the hearth with Pappy and Mammy Chatterbox–who were visiting from California–was preoccupied, along with Mrs. Chatterbox, by the somewhat arduous task of tucking the Chatterkinder snugly into their beds. The potential dangers of diet pills, and the potential irresponsibility of any TV news coverage of same, slipped entirely from Chatterbox’s mind.

Fortunately, in this age of cyberjournalism, everything is retrievable. ABC News was kind enough not only to e-mail Chatterbox a transcript of the broadcast but also to post the transcript, along with a streaming video of the segment, on the 20/20 Web site, so that people who don’t work for the press can retrieve it, too.

Having now both watched and read Diaz’s report, Chatterbox pronounces it … quite fair. It begins with a favorable testimonial from one Monica Skeens, who says she lost 10 pounds by taking Metabolife. (Admittedly, the testimonial’s credibility is undermined somewhat by Skeens’ princessy claim that she isn’t willing to exercise and is “physically incapable of dieting.” On the other hand, Skeens is precisely the sort of person Metabolife markets its product to.) This is followed by an unfavorable review from Julie Cunningham-Potier, who claims that Metabolife caused her to suffer two seizures and slip into a coma (she is now suing the company). Cunningham-Potier’s claim is followed by Metabolife’s Ellis saying, on camera: “There’s nothing in the medical records that indicate that her condition was caused by Metabolife.”

Diaz then says that 20/20 conducted a “four-month” investigation (TV reporters like to brag about how long they spend on a story, a statistic that by itself means nothing) and was “surprised at what we found” (“surprised” is a TV-news euphemism for “appalled”). Diaz hits Metabolife for saying that its product was determined by two universities “to be safe.” Not true, says Dr. Harry Gwirtsman of Vanderbilt and Dr. Steven Heymsfield of St. Luke’s Roosevelt hospital, who helped conduct the tests. Gwirtsman says the study he worked on involved patients who took Metabolife for one day. Heymsfield says, “These products may be safe in some people, but not all people,” and that side effects such as heart palpitations and sleeplessness may be harbingers of “potentially more dangerous side effects, such as increases in blood pressure and pulse, that in turn may led to problems like heart attack and stroke.”

At this point, Diaz says Metabolife claims Gwirtsman and Heymsfield weren’t principal researchers in the studies, but Diaz goes on to say that their participation was confirmed by Vanderbilt and St. Luke’s (Chatterbox never really thought they were making it up) and that both institutions “requested that Metabolife stop using their studies to claim the product is safe.” Diaz saves for later in the segment Metabolife’s other significant counterattack, that Heymsfield is “a trustee of the Slim-Fast Nutrition Institute,” and that Slim-Fast is a Metabolife competitor. Diaz counters that with a quotation from a letter Heymsfield wrote to St. Luke’s general counsel that denies any bias (not that anyone would expect him to admit any) and asserts that Metabolife is “trying to suppress information regarding a potentially unsafe product.” (Incidentally, Chatterbox should confess here that in an earlier item, he said Ellis told Diaz that “some of the scientists” Diaz cited had economic ties to Metabolife competitors; on closer inspection of the raw transcript, Chatterbox now realizes that Ellis made that accusation only about Heymsfield. Metabolife’s repetition of the reference to Heymsfield’s Slim-Fast link, in notes interspersed throughout the manuscript, tricked Chatterbox into thinking, mistakenly, that there was more than one Metabolife critic who was receiving payment from a Metabolife rival.)

Diaz then juxtaposes Ellis’ assertion that a certain health claim for Metabolife is “not on the Metabolife Web–Web page,” with Ellis’ subsequent embarrassed admission, when presented with contrary evidence, that “I don’t know my company Web site. … I haven’t even looked at it.” (Chatterbox would have preferred Diaz to use this marginally more embarrassing Ellis quote, spotted in the unedited interview transcript: “You know, to be honestly fair with you, I do not know what our Web site looks like.”)

Diaz then trots off to interview Yale’s Dr. Robert Stark, whom Metabolife “insisted we interview.” Stark says that Metabolife is “safe as–as any other herb–or dietary product,” but that larger studies are needed to prove its safety. Diaz also gets Stark to say that Metabolife’s labeling “could be misleading” because it downplays the fact that it’s been tested on lab animals, not humans. “Remember,” Diaz gloats (who can blame him?), “he’s the doctor Metabolife referred us to.”

Diaz then says that the Food and Drug Administration wants to impose “strict limits on the daily dosage” of ephedrine, the key ingredient in Metabolife, though he concedes (as Ellis prodded him to do in the unedited interview transcript) that “another government agency” (he means the Government Accounting Office) has criticized the FDA’s scientific findings.

Diaz saves the nastiest part for next-to-last. “[W]hat do we know about the man behind Metabolife? Ellis is a former police officer and real estate agent [this last strikes Chatterbox as a cheap shot] who, it turns out, is also a convicted felon.” Diaz says that Ellis was arrested in 1988 in what the Drug Enforcement Administration called “the largest methamphetamine bust in history” (an interesting statistic that Diaz failed to drop in his interview with Ellis), and that Ellis “pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, using a telephone ‘to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.’ And got five years’ probation.”

Oddly, this part of the 20/20 segment isn’t quite as damaging to Ellis as the raw interview transcript was. Diaz points out that ephedrine is “also a main ingredient in Metabolife,” though he duly notes Ellis’ claim that this is mere coincidence (he fails, however, to repeat Ellis’ assertion, apparently backed up by DEA- and FDA-certified labs, that you can’t actually make methamphetamine out of Metabolife). Diaz does not quote, at full embarrassing length, Ellis’ explanation that he got mixed up with the wrong folk because one of them was “like a brother to me.” Diaz also doesn’t say, as he said in the raw interview transcript, that the lesser offense Ellis pleaded guilty to was a felony. And–this is Ellis’ biggest break in the 20/20 segment–Diaz doesn’t quote Ellis’ astonishing admission that until about a year ago the fellow who was “like a brother to me,” convicted with Ellis in his methamphetamine bust, was a partner in Metabolife. Chatterbox had felt certain this damning fact would make the cut, but it didn’t.

The segment wraps up with a review of Metabolife’s Web campaign against ABC News and gives the final word to the formerly comatose Cunningham-Potier: “I wouldn’t have taken it if I’d known the side effects, because I almost didn’t make it. I almost died.”

So who wins Round Two? It depends on how you score it. If the question is whether ABC News ran a fair-minded expose, then ABC News wins. If the question is whether Metabolife’s online intimidation campaign got ABC to pull a punch or two … well, you could argue that Metabolife wins. If the question is whether people who read Metabolife’s raw transcript will come away with a more favorable view of the company than if they just watch 20/20, Metabolife clearly loses. And if the question is whether Chatterbox (who could stand to lose a few pounds) will now ever be tempted to try Metabolife as a product, ABC News wins big.