This is where cancer gets cured: in a story above the fold, upper left corner, in the Sunday, May 3, edition of the New York Timesbig play on the most precious, credible real estate in journalism.
This is how it gets cured: “Within a year, if all goes well, the first cancer patient will be injected with two new drugs that can eradicate any type of cancer, with no obvious side effects and no drug resistancein mice,” wrote Gina Kolata.
This is the quote that sends cancer patients into a swoon and the market into a frenzy: “‘[Dr.] Judah [Folkman] is going to cure cancer in two years,’” said Dr. James Watson, a Nobel laureate who directs the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a cancer research center. Watson added, “‘Folkman would be remembered along with scientists like Charles Darwin as someone who permanently altered civilization.’”
In truth, cancer is being curedand not curedin small, painful increments, but that doesn’t suit the conventions of journalism. Reporters who cover health matters occasionally choose wish fulfillment over mitigated truth because it’s so much sexier. If Viagra has taught us anything, it’s that medical news of a certain sort trumps all. It’s a truism older than Ponce de León: People will always, always read a story about how they can liveor loveforever.
The Times knows how to present complicated science stories to nincompoops, which is why Kolata’s breathy, awe-filled announcementlarded with “remarkable”s, “exciting”s, and “electrifying”sovertook the national consciousness. In vivid, literary detail, Kolata explained how Folkman came up with two drugs that kill cancer by strangling the blood supply to tumors. Nice image. Kolata’s apparent scoop sent reporters all over the country scurrying for their keyboards.
Except at the Washington Post. The Post responded on Monday with absolutely nothing. Zero. The markets were more sanguine, boosting the stock of EntreMed, the Rockville-based company that was working on the drugs, by some 500 percent. Cancer patients all over the country began calling the company and trying to place orders for a pair of drugsangiostatin and endostatinthat haven’t even been manufactured. The Post covered EntreMed’s wild ride on the markets on Tuesday, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that Post science reporter Rick Weiss weighed in a with a cautionary, mitigated follow-up.
Institutional churlishness? Journalistic malaise? Nah, good old common sense, as it turned out. The wheels came flying off Kolata’s story throughout the week. Nobel laureate Watson wrote a letter to the Times saying: “In the May 3 New York Times article, Ms. Kolata reported that I predicted that Judah Folkman would cure cancer in two years. My recollection of the conversation to which she refers, however, is quite different.”
Other complications ensued. Turns out much of the material had already been published in the Times in a profile of Folkman last December by Nicholas Wade. Smelling something fishy in the repackage, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that the day after Kolata’s story ran, an agent named John Brockman sent e-mails around to New York publishing houses looking for a book deal based on the story. In an anonymous quote, the LA Times implied that the story was nothing more than a marketing brochure for a book Kolata hoped to write about Folkman’s lonely pursuit of the ultimate cure. But two sources close to the New York Times said that Kolata had sent a single e-mail to the agent after the piece ran on Sunday and that there was no grand plan to convert the momentum of the story into a book deal.
As a science reporter, Kolata covers people renowned for being cautious and methodicaltraits that she doesn’t always share, even though she works for a news organization whose conservative news judgment is legend. Back in December, she blithely suggested in another front-page Times story that the debate over whether humans should be cloned had been settled in the affirmative. William Powers, writing in the National Journal, not so blithely suggested that she was full of crap. Powers argued convincingly that she was guilty of case-building of the most facile sort, and that the debate over cloning, far from reaching an end point, was just beginning.
Post editor Len Downie says that the paper decided early on to stick to business in its coverage of the Times-sponsored frenzy, in part because he thought his competition had tarted up the story.
“I don’t like editing other people’s newspapers. I have enough trouble editing the one that I work at. But I think they use that upper left position on Sundays for gee-whiz stories, whether they are social or scientific. Quite often those stories are written by Gina Kolata,” says Downie.
“I don’t know her work well enough to comment directly, but all I can say is that the science reporters I have talked to say that there is controversy over her storiesthat they are hyped more than might be appropriate.”
Lisa Carparelli, spokesperson for the Times, says the paper is “entirely comfortable with the coverage and the placement. We are confident in the accuracy of the story that we ran.”
Rick Weiss of the Post says he decided to sit out what he called the “mayhem” kicked up by Kolata’s annunciatory piece. He still got his share of phone calls from people who are desperate for any sort of good news from the constantly shifting cancer beat.
“If you were foolish enough to forget for a moment that this affects real people and not just the stock market and investors, you are not going to forget for long, and hopefully you won’t forget again,” says Weiss.
Weiss adds that the real problem with the Kolata piece was positioning: “This is probably an instance where placement was as much or more of the problem than the story itself. This story, written pretty much as it was, would have been fine on C1 on Tuesday in the Science Times.”
Downie suggests that when it comes to science issues, he’s pretty careful about what gets a ride on Page One.
“We never put the man on Page One who claimed he could clone human beings, because we felt to put that story on the front page was to signal to our readers that the story is true. And we didn’t think the proof was there,” Downie says. “This story is an important one that we will cover in an ongoing way, but that’s all.”
The New (Republic) Journalism Speaking of stories that were too good to be true, I’ve always been a sucker for the New Republic’s Stephen Glass’ spins through the byways of American culture: the improbable beginning anecdotes, followed by zany, off-the-wall quotes and, quite often, some kind of quasi-religious shrine to provide visual support of the subject’s magnificent obsession. As journalism, it’s fabulous stuff. As fiction, well, an anecdote about a hacker kid screaming “Show me the money!” doesn’t really resonate, does it?
Of course, the news racket is suddenly full of rear-view knowingness, but I never thought for a minute that the kid was a bullshitter. His piece on the Psychic Phone Network in Harper’s was a thing of absolute, shimmering beauty. But now that the possibility hangs that he made it up, I feel so used, so…so damned dirty. It’s a little like waking up in the morning after a long, satisfying romp and finding a transvestite in your bed. You got what you wanted, but it wasn’t what you thought.
Mike Kinsleyin a conversation related by someone who was therewas the only one who raised the question back when Glass was making editors in New York and Washington look like they had a grip on the pulse of Gen-X genius. “I think Stephen Glass writes wonderful storiesand I think he makes them all up,” Kinsley, a former TNR editor, reportedly said some time ago.
TNR’s Charles Lane, who has had his share of whacks since becoming editor, handled this particular crisis forthrightly, releasing the information about Glass’ sacking to the Post’s Howard Kurtz and taking his share of the responsibility. (Further investigation will likely reveal that he’s not the only editor in town who got hornswoggled.) After Adam Penenberg, an editor for Forbes Digital Tool, called to raise questions about the fictional subjects in the hacker story, Lane reportedly hired a private investigator and did enough of his own inquiry to fire Glass. Glass’ efforts to set up a faux Web page, business cards, and voice mail service to cover his tracks made matters worse. (Lane did not oblige a request for an interview.)
“It was the cover-up that really infuriated Lane. He views this as an act of treason against the magazinethat there is something really hostile about what he didwhich is a little hard to reconcile with what we know about Stephen personally,” a staffer says. “Chuck has done a great job. In an odd way, this has had a galvanizing effect on his leadership.”
In one of the other bitter ironies of the story, Glass was actually brought in to TNR as a fact-checker to curb the borrowing tendencies of staffer Ruth Shalit. “He was very meticulous,” says one reporter who went through a fact check with Glass. Of course, Glass’ stories, often filled with first names, freaks, and fringe-y wackos, were a little tougher to nail down. That may be why he lasted three years and ended up doing stories for Rolling Stone, George, and Harper’s. “Of course, we didn’t get letters, because imaginary people and organizations don’t write letters complaining about coverage,” says a staffer. “He had such a need to please that I guess he felt the truth wasn’t good enough.”
The Untold Story Rising-star journalist, son of a prominent TV personality, kills himself after a run-in with cops. Radioactive rumors ensue, and the Beltway ties itself in knots trying to separate fact from fantasy. Sounds like vintage Post Style territory.
Don’t bet on it. Style editor David Von Drehle said that the section has no interest in pursuing Sandy Hume’s tragic end absent the family’s cooperation. It’s not a matter of manners but of practicality, Von Drehle says: “It’s a piece that we don’t think can be done without interviewing Britt and Kim, and so far, they are not prepared to talk about it.” If that sounds a bit chummy, it may be because Von Drehle’s wife, Karen Ball, is a friend of the Humes. Ball, a former political correspondent for the Associated Press and a White House correspondent for the New York Daily News, has talked to the family about doing a story and may end up doing something for the Post’s Sunday magazine. Von Drehle says that after his wife mentioned that she was interested in doing the Hume story, “I perceived there would be a conflict, and the decisions about whether and how to pursue the story were made by Bob Kaiser and [magazine editor] Steve Coll.” Post editor Downie doesn’t see it as any big deal. “We decided early on that if we were going to do this, we wanted to do something extensive that got to the bottom of the story. And whether it ends up in Style or the magazine is not an important issue.”
Depends on the Day In a massive Page One story on April 6, the Post’s Michael Shear and Brooke Masters suggested that Montgomery County was becoming a criminal playground. The authors compared the Maryland suburb with the more prosaic Fairfax, Va. “From 1977 to 1997, Fairfax’s rate of violent crime fell 36 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis. Meanwhile, Montgomerylike most area suburbsbecame statistically more dangerous. Its rate rose 43 percent.”
But lest you think that roaming gangs are overwhelming Bethesda, three days later, the Montgomery County Weekly portion of the Post pointed out, “The number of crimes reported to police in Maryland fell about 7 percent last year, with crime in the Washington suburbs falling faster than in any other region in the state, according to statistics recently released by the Maryland State Police.” The story specifically noted that overall crime fell 5.9 percent in Montgomery County.
Home Movies When the Preakness approaches the starting gate, all of D.C.’s news channels rush to capture stories about traffic, tailgating, and groping. The annual scene at Pimlico, after all, is a local story. But this year, WJLA, Channel 7, managed to find a local angle on the Kentucky Derby, sending burly sports reporter Rene Knott down to bluegrass country. In fact, he went live with a local owner of Chilito, one Joseph L. Allbrittonthe JLA of WJLA, it should be pointed out. “The only reason that we covered the race was because there was a local owner involved,” says WJLA general manager Terry Connelly. A local owner of a horseor a TV station? Chilito faded to 11th, according to Connelly. David Carr
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