WASHINGTON (AP) – Opponents of the new Medicare prescription drug law have recruited Walter Cronkite for a campaign that highlights what they see as the law’s shortcomings.

Cronkite, the 87-year-old broadcasting legend, appears in and narrates an 11-minute video that the non-profit Families USA plans to send to 10,000 senior citizen centers and retirement communities to explain changes in Medicare.

“Instead of doing a tax-financed 30-second political ad that uses actors, we use one of the most respected journalists in America and provide detailed information about the new law,” executive director Ron Pollack said in an interview.

Families USA plans to spend $500,000 on the campaign, which also will include events in two dozen cities, Pollack said. The group worked closely with congressional Democrats who tried to defeat the Medicare legislation last year.

The Bush administration is spending more than $12 million on a television, radio, newspaper and Internet campaign in support of the law and an additional $10 million on a mailing to each of the nation’s 40 million older and disabled Americans.

Cronkite, who still has a contract with CBS, anchored the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981. He was paid an undisclosed sum for the video. He was traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment, said an aide in his office at CBS.

For the past year, he has been writing a syndicated newspaper column that tends to take a liberal viewpoint. Cronkite has said the column has changed his reputation “from the most trusted man in America to one of the most debated.”

Bob Steele, an analyst of journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said Cronkite’s presence in the video raises concerns. “It seems unwise for him to complicate his role by stepping into this paid advocate position on a public policy issues on which there is considerable contention,” said Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values.

The late David Brinkley, a one-time Cronkite competitor at NBC and later the Sunday host of ABC’s “This Week” program, also stirred controversy in the late 1990s with ads for agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland after his retirement.

Cronkite presents a generally critical view of the new Medicare law, which includes a prescription drug benefit that is to begin in 2006.

He points out that the Veterans Administration and some states bargain directly with pharmaceutical companies on drug prices. “But unlike veterans, seniors will not benefit from the Medicare program’s bargaining power,” Cronkite says. “That’s because the new law explicitly prohibits the government from negotiating with drug companies for lower prices.”

Cronkite praises the help the law gives seniors with low incomes and few assets. “But there are also some disappointing features, such as the failure to contain skyrocketing drug costs and the big gap in coverage, especially the doughnut hole,” he says.

The “doughnut hole” in the law describes the gap in which there is no government help for drug costs between $2,250 and $5,100.


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