The Savannah Morning News reported on Saturday that Montel Williams verbally threatened three of its reporters following a Partnership for Prescription Assistance event in Savannah, including a high school student intern:

Television talk-show host Montel Williams threatened to find and “blow up” the homes of three Savannah Morning News reporters Friday while he was in town promoting free prescriptions for poor people.

The incident took place at the Westin Savannah Harbor after an event in Johnson Square for the Partnership for Prescription Assistance’s “Help is Here Express.”

Before the event, Williams took exception to a question asked by Morning News high school intern Courtney Scott and abruptly ended a videotaped interview.

Later, Scott, web content producer Joseph Cosey and intern Phillip Moore went to the Westin for an unrelated assignment featuring gingerbread houses at the hotel.

Williams and his bodyguard were in the lobby, too.

“As we were preparing to film, Montel walked up with his bodyguard and got in Courtney Scott’s face pointing his finger telling her, ‘Don’t look at me like that. Do you know who I am? I’m a big star, and I can look you up, find where you live and blow you up,’ ” Cosey said. “At this time he was pointing randomly at all of us.”

The incident is a huge embarrassment for Montel Williams, for the Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA), and for PhrMA, the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, which created the PPA. What’s surprising about the whole incident is how innocuous the student reporter’s initial question was. Watch the video below to see the offending question.

The question was whether Montel thought that drugmakers would be discouraged from research and development if profits were restricted. This is not even a softball question. In fact, it’s practically an engraved invitation to regurgitate one of PhRMA’s most overused talking points. PhRMA responds to any attempt to do anything at all to reduce drug prices by saying that reducing drug industry profits will hurt R&D, and thus by implication, prevent lifesaving new blockbuster drugs from reaching the market. This answer, of course, is completely absurd and belied by numerous facts — such as the fact that the pharmaceutical industry still spends about twice as much on marketing and administration as it does on research and development, and earns on average as much as or more in profits than they spend on R&D.

So why was Montel so angered by this question, a question which arguably invited a stock answer that PhRMA reps repeat dozens of times a day? It’s not as if the reporter asked “Why doesn’t the pharmaceutical industry make its Guiding Principles on Drug Advertising mandatory and enforceable?” And it’s not as if the reporter asked some obscure question on some obtuse point of, say, patent law or the issue of follow-on biologic drugs. It’s surprising that the industry’s main spokesperson for its patient assistance program was so poorly prepared to answer such an easy question.

But perhaps all this is beside the point. Does it ultimately matter if Montel Williams answers questions about the industry’s priorities and policies, or any questions beyond the mechanics of this patient assistance program?

The answer is, yes, it does. Montel Williams has become one of the most visible spokespeople for the industry. He lends his name and his credibility to the cause of burnishing the image of America’s pharmaceutical companies, and is paid (presumably handsomely) to do so. So it’s entirely fair that he be asked questions about the industry. Although perhaps Ken Johnson, PhRMA’s Senior Vice President of Communications, is the better person to ask this kind of question, Montel is fair game as well — by accepting the industry’s money, and acting as his spokesperson, he has to take what comes with that — including fair questions about the industry’s misplaced priorities.

Hat tip: Pharmalot