The Intersection

i-53c8962d6e13ce75081fea77b150f1c7-art.sanjay.gupta.cnn.jpgCNN 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Darlene
    January 7, 2009

    Ditto. He is a wonderful communicator of science and health although I’m not sure how he’s going to run a department of 6,000 people. I suspect Hillary lended support to the idea. From his online bio ” in 1997, he was chosen as a White House Fellow — one of only 15 fellows appointed. He served as special advisor to first lady Hillary Clinton.”
    I hear Donald Trump might be tapped to run the Commerce Department… :)

  2. #2 Rogue Medic
    January 7, 2009

    Thank you for writing this. at the time, I ignored this story. I was of the same opinion as Dr. Caplan. Why should we believe these quacks?

    He is just as credulous as the next guy.

    “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.”

    What does this have to do with anything. Journalists should be prepared for this. Part of the reason he was there was his role as a journalist/scientist.

    Approaching a claim of a scientific breakthrough is not something that should overwhelm someone with any scientific training. Part of the reason he was there was his role as a journalist/scientist.

    Maybe we need Randi as Surgeon General. He has some free time.

  3. #3 Jonathan
    January 7, 2009

    Between this and the embarassing performance he gave trying to defend US healthcare during the Sicko debate, I see very little to be positive about this pick.

  4. #4 Ashutosh
    January 7, 2009

    Overall I think Gupta is a pretty smart, driven and qualified guy. I am always amazed at his capacity to multitask, traverse the country and the planet and report on important stories. I admire his stamina and sincerity. As for the times when he has appeared less than satisfactory, I think it’s mostly because of the lazy buffoons at CNN who want their correspondents to often cover either sensational or unimportant stories. And it doesn’t hurt that he is a faculty member at my school!

  5. #5 Dark Tent
    January 7, 2009

    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.”

    That’s precisely it.

    He failed the most important test that any Surgeon general should be required to pass: independence.

    If Gupta can not say “No” to CNN when they ask him to cover some stupid tabloid story, then how is he ever going to say “no” to powerful lobbies (tobacco companies and others) or even to the President?

    Gupta’s “analysis” of Michael Moore’s “sicko” was just an embarrassment to him and to CNN. It showed that Gupta’s knowledge of the American medical system is overly rosy.

    Surgeon General should be a doctor first and PR man second.

    Gupta seems to have that exactly backwards.

  6. #6 Dark tent
    January 7, 2009

    Ashutosh says: “As for the times when he has appeared less than satisfactory, I think it’s mostly because of the lazy buffoons at CNN who want their correspondents to often cover either sensational or unimportant stories.”

    So, the “lazy buffoons at CNN” are responsible for what Gupta says on air?

    Give me a break.

    He’s a smart guy. Smart enough to know better.

    And Gupta alone is completely responsible for the stuff that he himself says on air.

    Paul Krugman agrees (NY Times)

    “You don’t have to like Moore or his film; but Gupta specifically claimed that Moore “fudged his facts”, when the truth was that on every one of the allegedly fudged facts, Moore was actually right and CNN was wrong.”

    What bothered me about the incident was that it was what Digby would call Village behavior: Moore is an outsider, he’s uncouth, so he gets smeared as unreliable even though he actually got it right. It’s sort of a minor-league version of the way people who pointed out in real time that Bush was misleading us into war are to this day considered less “serious” than people who waited until it was fashionable to reach that conclusion. And appointing Gupta now, although it’s a small thing, is just another example of the lack of accountability that always seems to be the rule when you get things wrong in a socially acceptable way.

    Krugman is right — and so was Moore.

    Gupta was simply wrong about his facts and wrong to handle his “critique” of Sicko the way he did (very unprofessionally, IMO.)

  7. #7 Dark tent
    January 7, 2009

    I messed up the blockquote above.

    The Krugman quote is two paragraphs, including

    “What bothered me about the incident … and appointing Gupta now, although it’s a small thing, is just another example of the lack of accountability that always seems to be the rule when you get things wrong in a socially acceptable way.” — Paul Krugman

  8. #8 Ashutosh
    January 8, 2009

    Although Krugman is a smart guy, this is pretty much what I expect him to say. I agree that Gupta did botch up the interview with Moore. At any rate, except for these one or two incidents, I don’t think Gupta has mostly demonstrated a willingness to know the facts. As for CNN, it is a corporation like other corporations. It’s goal is the bottom line. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect that it is going to encourage its correspondents to say and do certain things. I don’t think for example Larry King loves to interview some of the people he does. But CNN knows that they can get a bigger audience if Larry King interviews Paris Hilton. So I don’t think that the fact that Gupta played along with what you expected a corporation to say would necessarily translate into his servility to corporations or lobbies as a surgeon general, where it’s him and not the corporations who call the shots. Like I said before, that doesn’t mean that I think he is a slam dunk choice. But I do think he should be given the benefit of doubt in a different scenario and that we should at least hold his extensive knowledge of health issues in his favour.

  9. #9 Dark Tent
    January 8, 2009

    “I agree that Gupta did botch up the interview with Moore.”

    “Botched the interview with Moore.”?

    He accused Moore of “fudging the facts”, ie, of lying, deceit dishonesty.
    “no matter how much Moore fudged the facts — and he did fudge some facts — there’s one everyone agrees on.” — Dr.Gupta

    Maybe it’s OK in your book to accuse someone of fudging facts when the facts you allege they fudged were in fact correct, but some of us have higher standards for the Surgeon General of the United States.

    There are lots of smart doctors in this country. That should not be the only — or even primary — qualification for Surgeon General.

    It is really rather pathetic on Obama’s part that he apparently does not understand that.

  10. #10 Dark tent
    January 8, 2009

    By the way, Krugman is a smart guy (he’s got a Nobel in economics and a Princeton Professorship to prove it), but as i indicated above, that is a necessary though not sufficient condition — and should not be the primary qualification — for being US Surgeon General.

    Sadly, I’d have to say that Paul Krugman seems to be more knowledgeable about certain (eg, economic) aspects of the American health care system than Dr. Gupta. (based on a reading of Krugman’s extensive writing on the subject and the fact that Gupta got very basic facts wrong in his criticism of Moore.)

  11. #11 Ashutosh
    January 8, 2009

    To me the interview sounded like CNN definitely had a hand in Gupta’s learned enunciations, but that’s just me, and to be honest the whole spectacle sounded silly and unnecessary on the part of CNN which in my opinion is gradually sliding into irrelevance. I am not excusing Gupta for that incident. On the other hand, while I found Moore’s documentary spectacular and mostly bang on target, it’s not that everything in it was perfect and that the US is the very incarnation of Satan when it comes to healthcare issues. But that’s a different kettle of fish and let’s not go there for now…all I am saying is that in my opinion Gupta has a wide understanding of important issues gained through his reporting, and I believe it would be worth giving him the benefit of doubt without discounting him entirely based on an incident or two. Also when he is Surgeon General, there are going to be checks and balances based on what he says; hopefully the Obama administration unlike the Bush administration will not give its appointees carte blanche to run roughshod and toss out ideology-driven opinions. It’s a much more scrutinized position. To me the main job of the Surgeon General is to be aware of all the major issues, and this I believe is Gupta’s strength. On the field reporting often can impart knowledge that may not be accurately accessible otherwise. I think at this point we should call it a difference of opinion and agree to disagree.

  12. #12 Dark Tent
    January 8, 2009

    “when he is Surgeon General, there are going to be checks and balances based on what he says; hopefully the Obama administration unlike the Bush administration will not give its appointees carte blanche to run roughshod and toss out ideology-driven opinions.”

    I will accept at face value the implication that Bush appointees were somehow “running amok” (saying and doing things that were not in line with official policy)** and focus on the claim Obama will exert “checks and balances” on Gupta (like Bush did on Phil Cooney)

    You appreciate that this is a two edged sword, right?

    For example, what if Obama told Gupta to say something about stem cells (eg, how many viable lines there were for research) that was clearly false. Should Gupta repeat the official mantra or should he express his own informed opinion? (ie, not be afraid to differ from Obama.)

    Gupta’s behavior at CNN (in both the Moore case and the one Chris referred to) has direct relevance to that question.

    At best, Gupta was saying what his employer wanted him to say.

    I am sorry, but that does not say to me “Here is an independent thinker/adviser”.

    The primary reason that this country is in the deep doo-doo it finds itself in is that for too long, we have had government officials who were willing to agree with pretty much anything their boss (Bush, for the past 8 years) told them. The few who happened to disagree were quickly given their walking papers. The people who stayed on were largely a bunch of yes men (and women). These are the worst possible kind of “advisers”.

    I is my sincere desire that the people Obama appoints will truly independent and base their advice on facts, no ideology — and that Obama will listen to them even (particularly?) when his advisers disagree with something he says.

    We shall see.

    **fOOTNOTE: In perhaps one of the most carefully orchestrated political administrations in US history, [one that even had an official "conductor" -- Karl Rove] I simply don’t believe it for a second.

  13. #13 Ashutosh
    January 8, 2009

    One other thing I want to say is that if the Surgeon General had great influence on actual health policy then I would not be happy about this appointment. To my knowledge the post is largely a post that’s supposed to disseminate information about health issues and emerging threats, and to me Gupta with his journalistic background seems to be someone who knows the important issues and at least knows the right sources to tap regarding them. I do appreciate that it is a double-edged sword. All we really want is for all sides of the debate to be made public, something that often does not happen. If there are two diametrically opposite viewpoints in the administration, let’s hear about them and get all relevant information so that we can make up our own mind. That’s something that’s been manifestly absent from the past administration. I do feel confident that Obama seems to be the kind of guy who respects people who disagree with him and won’t be loathe to let people express their own opinions publicly. Let’s see.

  14. #14 nene
    January 8, 2009

    I just don’t see Gupta as having any relevant experience in public health issues like epidemics or pandemics. I hope he won’t turn out to be HeckuvaJob Brownie, should we experience a dangerous, rapid spread of some infectious disease. That will require real public health expertise, leadership, and honesty.

  15. #15 Efros
    January 13, 2009

    I don’t rate him at all and as a so called independent health reporter, he has shown his colors and they are those of the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. How anyone can publicly justify the activities of these two industries(?) and hold such a high public office is beyond me. Although to be honest he wouldn’t be the first. Obama would do far better to find someone who isn’t so media friendly or so patently pro status quo in terms of health-care provision.