CNN is reporting that one of its own is being considered for the Surgeon General post. I have nothing against Sanjay Gupta, and I don’t think he’s unqualified. In fact, someone with so much television and communication experience would probably help raise the profile of the office.
However, let’s not forget that he Gupta and CNN really made fools of themselves in an episode from 2002 that we should never forget–the Clonaid fiasco. As I reported back in 2004 in Columbia Journalism Review:
Consider the great 2002 cloning hoax. In the media lull following Christmas, one Brigitte Boisselier — the “scientific director” of Clonaid, a company linked to the UFO-obsessed Raelian sect, and already a semi-celebrity who had been profiled in The New York Times Magazine — announced the birth of the world’s first cloned baby. At her press conference, covered live by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, Boisselier could not even produce a picture of the alleged child — “Eve” — much less independent scientific verification of her claims. She instead promised proof within eight or nine days. Needless to say, the whole affair should have made the press wary.
Nevertheless, a media frenzy ensued, with journalists occasionally mocking and questioning the Raelians while allowing their claims to drive the coverage. CNN’s medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, provided a case in point. When he interviewed Boisselier following her press conference, Gupta called Clonaid a group with “the capacity to clone” and told Boisselier, credulously, “We are certainly going to be anxiously awaiting to see some of the proof from these independent scientists next week.”
Perhaps most outspoken in criticizing the press during the Clonaid fiasco was Arthur Caplan, the University of Pennsylvania biomedical ethicist. As one of the nation’s most quoted bioethicists, Caplan had the advantage of actual access to the media during the feeding frenzy. Yet that familiarity made little difference. As Caplan complained in an MSNBC.com column following the Raelians’ announcement, no one wanted to listen to his skepticism because that would have required dropping the story: “As soon as I heard about the Raelians’ cloning claim, I knew it was nonsense,” wrote Caplan. “The media have shown themselves incapable of covering the key social and intellectual phenomena of the 21st century, namely the revolution in genetics and biology.”
Caplan observed that Clonaid had no scientific peer-reviewed publications to prove its techniques were up to snuff, and that cloning had barely worked in live animal species, and then only after countless initial failures. Nevertheless, Clonaid had implausibly claimed a stunning success rate — five pregnancies in ten attempts — in its experiments.
The Clonaid fiasco shows the media at their absolute worst in covering scientific issues. Reviewing the coverage two years later is a painful exercise. As even Gupta later admitted, “I think if we had known . . . that there was going to be no proof at this press conference, I think that we probably would have pulled the plug.” Later on, even the Raelians themselves reportedly laughed at how easy it was to get free publicity.
I don’t know why Gupta and CNN gave the Raelians such stunning coverage–but they ought to be ashamed of it. It was terrible judgment, terrible journalism. Gupta has done many important things in his career, and being sent out to cover the Raelians may not have been his choice. Still, I would personally like to hear him explain this episode in more detail–how such a thing could happen, what went wrong, and what he has learned–if he’s going to become the nation’s doctor.