Biotech and Business Journalism: It's the Business Model, Stupid

In the midst of all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the death and cooptation of business journalism inspired by John Stewart's skewering of Jim Cramer, it's important to remember one thing: that's the business model. Or to put it another way, the customer is always right.

If you ever read the biotech press, which is a subset of the larger business press, there is an obvious, inherent structural bias. The biotech press will never critique the fundamentals of the biotech industry as a whole. It will criticize individual approaches or companies. But it will almost never ask whether the biotech industry is a productive use of capital*. It can't. Who would buy a magazine or newspaper claiming, even if only rarely, that the way you make a living is stupid and fundamentally flawed?

Business sections and magazines have business in their titles for a reason. They are not economics journals. They are not public policy journals. They exist to serve business people. Ever since the days of the six-penny newspaper, there have been business sections targeted to the needs of businessmen (in the early 1800s, these consisted of stories about prices, as well as news stories that could affect speculators).

Business media didn't assail the housing bubble or the rise of Big Shitpile because their readers were making money from these things. If a news organization had been preaching gloom and doom about housing in 1999, it would have looked ridiculous, if for no other reason than if you got into the housing market in 1999 and got out in 2006, you could have made a killing. Yes, the long-term economic and policy fundamentals were bad, but that's not what these readers are concerned with. All of the navel-gazing concerns about being too close too sources, too profit-driven, and so forth miss the fundamental picture: a business section is geared towards business.

Likewise, claims that in the 'olden days of yore' reporters wrote critical exposées, such as Susan Faludi's 1990 story about the leveraged buyout of the Safeway grocery chain and its human toll (the story served as a brilliant exposé of the consequences of leveraged buyouts) also miss a key point--these stories were brilliant because they were the rare exception. Most stories were pedestrian.

Or to put this another way, suppose a newpaper had a Labor Section. What kinds of stories would be covered? How would those stories be covered? What would the biases be? A Labor section sounds laughable, particularly in the current political environment (and where would the ad revenue come from?), but it really is no less ridiculous in kind than a Business Section.

If I ever owned a newspaper, the first thing I would do is rename that section, the Economics section.

*The biotech industry has done two important things. First, it has provided increased need for improvement in 'helper' technologies that further basic research (e.g., genomic sequencing). Second, it has provided a much-needed safety valve for the surplus of biology Ph.D.'s. But a revolution in curing disease? Not so much. But that would be the subject of another post.

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Hm. Since I have a genetic condition which is treated by a biotech drug (Cerezyme), I'm not sure how you can argue that biotech doesn't yield medical benefits. I'm not saying that my case is common, genetic conditions like mine are rare. But on the other hand, this field is still in its infancy in many ways and a lot more conditions are either becoming treatable which were not otherwise (or for which the alternative treatment is a lot riskier for the patient, such as a bone marrow transplant instead of an enzyme infusion).

Sure, for every success story there are probably multiple failures to find benefit from some seemingly promising treatment. Isn't that how science works, though?

Mahakal,

I don't think the success rate for biotech has been any better than for Big Pharma. I'm not seeing the huge breakthrough in the number of cures, etc. It's really a hit-or-miss proposition; although any new treatment is a gain.

Mike,

I'm not sure why biotech should be better at discovering cures than Big Pharma, or why having a similar success rate would be a bad thing, if that's what you mean.