Introduction: Through the Looking Glass
Medical Culture and the Media
lester d. friedman
The worlds of media and medicine exist in a unique symbiosis. News-
paper and magazine articles simultaneously report medical discoveries
and dispense health tips, the same alluring blend of scientific informa-
tion and comforting advice seen daily on local and network television:
every newscast and morning show has designated health care special
reports, in-house doctors, and medical advice segments. While radio
physicians dispense advice in two-minute sound capsules, glossy maga-
zines and sober journals feature stories about the latest cure for cancer,
the wonders of Viagra, the morality of stem cell research, and the
efficacy of alternative medical practices. Capitalizing on this public
obsession with health care issues, drug companies pour billions of
dollars into advertisements that promise better living through phar-
macology, bypassing doctors and speaking directly to potential cus-
tomers. The Internet—with its dizzying array of sites devoted to ethical
dilemmas, medical advice, health care news, and prescription pur-
chases—has become the newest, and most interactive, media source
for medical information, sales, and discussion.
This national fixation with medicine has not been lost on those who
create and package television, movies, and books for popular con-
sumption. For the last few years, ER has topped the ratings chart, the
most prominent among numerous blood-spattered medical dramas
beamed directly into our living rooms. In fact, entire cable networks
devote themselves almost exclusively to health care programming: re-
running medical shows from previous eras, providing health-oriented
cooking classes, and creating reality-based productions. Similarly,
movies spotlighting medical narratives and characters form a virtual
genre stretching from flickering one reelers to contemporary blockbus-
ters. Most major Hollywood performers have appeared in at least
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