It's been a bad 12 months for American journalism. Given fourth estate gullibility regarding Bush's WMD claims, plus fictioneering at The New York Times and USA Today, I'd been hoping (with the dulled, hopeless hope that people on Death Row clutch to their bosoms) that maybe this year the Pulitzer Board would give its prizes a pass, at least so far as the press is concerned.

            But the Pulitzer industry, eternally clubby and corrupt, is designed in part to reassure the citizens that, all available evidence notwithstanding, the press is a vigilant watchdog for our liberties and fully deserves those Constitutional protections that guarantee it a 20 percent rate of return on capital invested.

            People are dying in Fallujah and other towns across Iraq in part because the U.S. press didn't do its job and mostly swallowed, hook, line, sinker, reel and rod, the WMD claims of Bush, Powell, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the others. Right now, U.S. forces, either in uniform or disguised as civilian contractors, are hunting for Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, on the grounds his newspaper is telling lies. There's an idea! Send the troops into The New York Times newsroom and arrest Judith Miller! Then run across town and arrest the editor of The New Yorker for printing Jeffrey Goldberg's endless fictions about the Saddam-al Qaeda connection.

            The year after 9/11 they gave The New York Times seven Pulitzers, a ridiculous number. The Times' coverage was mostly maudlin tripe. The idea was to proclaim to the world that the Twin Towers may have fallen but New York City still could boast a titan to tell the tale. This year, The Los Angeles Times scoops five awards, which is still ridiculous. I guess the idea was to distract attention from The New York Times' fall from grace by whooping up a new titan from the other end of the country.

            You want another example of the press lumbering about a decade behind reality? Try the saga of anti-depressants. Six years after Kip Kinkel, dosed up with Prozac, killed his parents and two students at Thurston High, in Oregon; five years after Eric Harris, dosed with Luvox, embarked on his day of slaughter at Columbine; well over a decade after naysayers, including Dr. Peter Breggin, the Scientologists, and this columnist, raised the alarm about links between anti-depressants and violence, the FDA has issued a warning that 10 anti-depressants can cause deeper depression and, for gosh sakes, even AGITATION, MANIA, and other forms of VIOLENT behavior, even SUICIDE! Who says government doesn't work?

            Ten years ago, it was hard to get any editor to print a news story about the abundant evidence that anti-depressants carried serious, even lethal side effects.

            The FDA issued this ruling on March 21, and it applies to Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Luvox, Lexapro, Effexor, Wellbutrin, Serzone, Remeron and Celexa. Since the FDA cocks a nervous eye at such important constituencies as the pharmaceutical industry and that industry's political reps in the White House and Congress, it is cautious about over-hasty and tasteless prying into cause and effect. The FDA says it isn't yet clear whether antidepressants contributed to the emergence of suicidal tendencies, such as those that prompted Bill Forsyth, after several days on Prozac, to kill his wife, then himself.

            To move toward any conclusions in this issue, the FDA will be reanalyzing data compiled by analysts who conducted the original clinical trials for each of the products (technically, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) about which warnings have now been issued.

            So there'll be a pause, during which time the FDA can fend off concerns with comforting talk about "a thorough-going review," and the drug companies can continue to mine their usual extortionate mark-ups from the anti-depressants, for which 213 million prescriptions were issued in the United States in 2003. One estimate has 30 million Americans on anti-depressants, with Zoloft in the lead at 32.7 million dispensed prescriptions in 2003, and Prozac loping along in second place with 22.2 million.

            The actual review will probably end up with a ringing affirmation of the diligence of the FDA's procedures, as no newspaper has pointed out. In an excellent article in the magazine Insight (Feb 17-March 1), Kelly Patricia O'Meara quoted an attorney, Karen Barth Menzies, who has represented victims of SSRIs. According to Menzies, the FDA's planned methodology will be to go back and look at the number of "suicide events" recorded during the drug companies' clinical trials. "The only thing that can come from this panel's review of the data is that they get the same number or FEWER (my caps) incidents of suicide events which will now be based on the panel accepting that the researchers' evaluation was correct." You follow?

            The FDA only lifted its backside momentarily off the cushion of indifference because the British Committee on Safety of Medicines concluded last year that the "risks of treating depressive illness in under 18s with certain SSRIs outweighs the benefits of treatment."

            I don't see any way the pharmaceutical anti-depressants will take any serious long-term hit from the FDA warning and impending review. It's like going after the cement and highway lobby. There's just too much money involved. In the case of "depression," a vast new territory opened up for exploitation after the economy peaked in the mid-'60s and people stopped drinking dry-martinis. The money is strung out along a golden conveyor belt that stretches all the way from the American Psychiatric Association's definitions of neurotic and psychotic conditions in the periodically issued Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which end up sanctioning medical reimbursements for drug therapy.

            Now there's meat for lots of good investigative reporting. But I doubt we'll read much about it in the corporate mainstream press. Aside from anything else, the pharmaceutical industry spends a lot of money on advertising, and there's always that little matter of the constitutional guarantee of a 20 percent rate of return.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.