I stirred some ire last week when I asserted that the Times (for — disclosure dept — whom I sometimes write) and similar mainstream papers offer a public good through their unique combination of a) access to information and 2) clout with the public and government. Several readers took me to task (see the comments section of the post linked above), arguing that these papers have failed their public mission by dropping the ball several times lately, most notably during the run-up to the Iraq War. “Let the dinosaur die,” is the argument. In a similar vein, some science bloggers (see this post and comments) been calling for — and cheering — the “extinction” of “dinosaur” science journalists and other MSMers.
I too have been disappointed in the MSM’s failings the last few years. Yet there are times when the papers’ sources and clout combine with the energy, quickness, and independence of BlogoMedia in a mutual amplification that serves the public well. Such was the case with a couple recent pharma and psychology scandals.
The Zyprexa Case
The first (which occurred second) is the uncovering of Lilly’s off-label marketing of Zyprexa, for which Lilly last week agreed to pay a $1.42 billion fine. The Times first broke the story on December 2006, when — the critical event — a bunch of Zyprexa marketing documents were given to a NY Times reporter by a lawyer representing mentally ill patients. Here’s the lede of the story that broke it:
DRUG FILES SHOW MAKER PROMOTED UNAPPROVED USE
By ALEX BERENSON
Published: December 18, 2006
Eli Lilly encouraged primary care physicians to use Zyprexa, a powerful drug for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, in patients who did not have either condition, according to internal Lilly marketing materials.
The marketing documents, given to The New York Times by a lawyer representing mentally ill patients, detail a multiyear promotional campaign that Lilly began in Orlando, Fla., in late 2000. In the campaign, called Viva Zyprexa, Lilly told its sales representatives to suggest that doctors prescribe Zyprexa to older patients with symptoms of dementia.
Such source access comes far more readily to an institution like the Times. The lawyer gives the documents to the Times because the Times can make a splash big enough to risk the leak. The Times stayed on the story, creating tremendous pressure, and so did several other papers.
However, unique and critical contributions came also from another front — the blogger Philip Dawdy, who at Furious Seasons has reported and written extensively on Lilly’s illegal marketing of this powerful antipsychotic. Dawdy, an independent one-man op working with low pay, no benefits, and minimal infrastructure, is an emblematic pajama journalist. A former journalist (he got laid off), he’s open about his interest rising from his experience as someone formerly treated for bipolar disorder with antipsychotic medication. (He’s off now, and seems to manage pretty well.) Though he’s often accused of being antipsychiatry, he’s not. He just feels, like many both outside and inside psychiatrty, that conflicts of interest within the field and hypermarketing on pharma’s part have harmed both patients and the discipline. He works hard to practice an impassioned but disciplined type of journalism.
Dawdy has pressed the Zyprexa story hard since early 2006 — it’s possible no one has read or written more about it — adding, synthesizing, and commenting on tons of information, and he pulled the sheets off in February 2007 by publishing, at what would seem to be frightening legal risk, the full set of court documents relating to Lilly’s Zyprexa marketing. Presumably these are the same documents that were sent to the Times a couple months earlier, but which were not easily obtainable publicly until Dawdy posted them.
How do you compare the contributions here? You can’t get the scale to hold still. Yet it’s clear that the combination of the Times expose and Dawdy’s reporting and outing of the documents created a dual pressure that was crucial to the growing attention the case received, and ultimately to Lilly’s extraordinary admission last week of criminal activity.
The Infinite Mind
In another case, Dawdy led the way, drawing attention to conflicts of interest in the radio show “Infinite Mind” with a story on April 14, 2008. That story inspired a May 6 Slate piece that in turn helped inspire a Nov 22 story Times piece. Shortly after the Times’ story ran, the show — a long-running, popular program — ceased production.
Again, how to weigh the contributions? Dawdy broke the story — but no change came till the Times ran its story 7 months later. Again we see how MSM and PJM can complement each other. Again we see how crucial the Times’ sources and clout were — sources in the Zyprexa case, clout in both, but the clout was especially crucial in the Infinite Mind case.
It’s hardly a comfortable collaboration. The very symbiosis creates a mutual unease. As Dawdy has noticed, the Times has never cited him in its Zyprexa, Infinite Mind, or any other coverage. He seems to be held outside “the sphere of legitimate debate,” as Jay Rosen frames such exclusion in a HuffPo piece about how the MSM excludes certain people and ideas from discourse. There’s something in what Dawdy does and represents — his attempt to mix openly declared passion and dismay with disciplined reporting — that makes the MSM uncomfortable. it’s the same stuff that makes him so invaluable.
As these two media streams erode the increasingly unstable terrain that separates them, they’re creating a lot of turbulence. Some in the online world hope to see the mainstream stream just dry up, leaving fossils in its bed. I have grave doubts — which I hope prove unconfirmed — about print newspapers surviving much longer. The optimist in me hopes and suspects that some new model, some rough hybri — something that combines the agility and energy of the new online press with the sourcing and clout of places like the Times — will emerge. This isn’t likely to happen if the online world ignores the most critical assets and contributions of papers like the Times.