Whatís Wrong With the New York Timesís Science Reporting?
MARK DOWIE / The Nation 6jul98
When the world was engaged in a cold war and the most challenging issues of our time were overseas, the nationís newspaper of record, the New York Times, demonstrated an exemplary commitment to foreign coverage. The Times foreign desk, from which rose todayís executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, was as impressive as that of any media outlet in the world. If its foreign reportage could be faulted, it was for the reason the Times could always be faulted-its reflexive allegiance to the powers that be. The same assessment could be made over the years of the paperís performance in times of hot war, political scandal or domestic crisis. Although the paper was too often aligned with the establishment, and coverage of strife, civil discord or the gate-of-the-day could always be criticized for implied political positions or nitpicked on details, readers were as well informed by the Times as by any other single medium.
As America evolved into a technological culture, science became an increasingly important beat. Times editors came to see the paperís scientific role as central to its purpose, as sound science became central to sound policy. Thus, over the past three decades, coverage of health, environment, medicine, biology, even physics and mathematics, has expanded exponentially in the Timesís pages, where national giants of science writing-most notably Walter Sullivan, a Times legend who made science writing an art form-have made their mark.
But there is a problem at the Times that needs to be corrected if the paper is to attain the same status in science as it has in foreign and domestic coverage. In science, even more than foreign or domestic political coverage, the paper tends to side with power-in this case corporate power. And much of the problem is centered around the work of one very talented and controversial science reporter, Gina Kolata. Kolata is an ace. When it comes to developing sources, procuring documents, researching complex data and breaking a hot story in clear and dynamic prose, she has few peers. "She has all the equipment," says an admiring Times colleague. And as her May 26 Science Times article comparing the behavior of plague bacteria to HIV attests, she is capable of demystifying the most arcane matters of science. Even her detractors describe her as "brilliant," "talented," "insightful" and "gifted." Since 1987 Kolata, who holds a masterís degree in mathematics from the University of Maryland, has written more than 600 articles for the Times, many of them front-page blockbusters. Her stories routinely stir controversy and influence public policy, and upon occasion have had huge commercial impact. Few are the science conferences, journals or Web sites where her name is not heard or seen. On more than one occasion she has been mentioned as heir to the mantle of Sullivan. So why are so many of her associates at the paper, including her admiring colleague, so upset with her? And why is she held in such low esteem by so many scientists?
The answer, surprisingly enough, has very little to do with a recent episode that landed Kolata on everyone elseís front page-her floating of a book proposal within hours after releasing a hyped story on May 3 about a couple of promising cancer drugs. Although the story stimulated spicy e-mail among science writers across the country, in the context of her eleven-year career at the Times it is seen as a misdemeanor. Professional disrespect has in fact accumulated gradually as a consequence of her reporting on some already heated topics: AIDS research, silicone breast implants, breast cancer, food irradiation and environmental hormones (endocrine disrupters).
Deconstruct her stories, source by source, quote by quote, and a familiar pattern begins to emerge. Upon re-interviewing the people she cites, it becomes evident that she appears to have decided before making her first call what her story will say. Her questions are suggestive, her tone combative. In the interest of the appearance of balance, sources of all persuasions are interviewed. But their quotes are carefully selected, at times modified to substantiate the predetermined position. Those scientists who disagree with her are either ignored, dismissed or trumped by someone anointed with higher authority-which usually means a longer string of initials after their name. The sources who agree with the author generally outnumber those who donít by a factor of five or six. If Kolataís reporting faults were only a reflection of her own journalistic shortcomings, that would be bad enough. But to the extent that they reflect the attitudes of the Times as an institution, they suggest a Times policy toward coverage of controversial products of technology that is anti-environment, pro-corporate and fundamentalist in its approach to scientific inquiry.
It should be noted here that Kolata was offered ample opportunity, by phone and fax, to answer scores of specific questions related to this report. She provided a few minor facts in writing. But on the subject of this story her only spoken comment, made by phone from her desk at the Times, was "my reporting speaks for itself."
SECTION ON ENDOCRINE DISRUPTION
In early March of 1996 four New York Times editors convened by then-chief science editor Nicholas Wade met with Dr. Theo Colborn, Dr. John Peterson Myers and Dianne Dumanoski, co-authors of a forthcoming book about environmental hormones. The book, Our Stolen Future, documents the findings of wildlife biologists who have, over the past quarter-century, found strong evidence that endocrine disrupting chemicals, most of them organochlorines, have affected the health and fertility of hundreds of species of birds, amphibians, fish and the mammals that eat them. The purpose of the meeting was to update Times science editors on a subject they had to date given fairly balanced coverage. The authors presented their findings, which were based on more than 4,000 studies performed by research physicians, endocrinologists, toxicologists and cellular biologists. Dr. Colborn and her colleagues cautiously suggested, in the book and to the Times editors they met, that research should be conducted to determine whether human health and reproduction might in any way be affected by these chemicals. And they proposed a modest set of protective measures that industry and citizens could take in the meantime-things like advising pregnant women not to drink tap water in some parts of the country.
When they had completed the briefing, Nicholas Wade, who like Kolata has little patience with presumptive evidence or the precautionary principle, slammed their materials on the table and flew into a rage. "This is not real science.... You are creating an environmental scare without evidence.... You have no credibility," were phrases recalled by the authors. "Wade railed on for at least two minutes," recalls Dumanoski, an award-winning science writer from the Boston Globe. When he was finished with his comments Dumanoski asked him: "Nick, have you read the book?" "No," growled Wade, "I havenít had time." She then asked Philip Boffey, who would be the one to write an editorial if the paper decided to run one, if he had read the book. He hadnít. "This book is an inductive argument that really should be read from beginning to end," cautioned Dumanoski. But the meeting was over.
The authors were shaken by Wadeís outburst and a little concerned about whom he might assign to cover the issue. Their fears were well founded. On March 19, 1996, two long stories by Kolata appeared in the Science Times section. "Some environmentalists are asserting that humans and wildlife are facing a new and serious threat from synthetic chemicals," reads Kolataís lead, ignoring the fact that Colbornís hypothesis was drawn not from environmentalists but from the work of more than 400 scientists, all of whose names and numbers were provided to the Times. Throughout the main article she uses the "e" word repeatedly to describe Colborn and Myers, though both have doctorates in zoology. And she calls Myersís employer, The W. Alton Jones Foundation, "an environmental group." (The private foundation dedicates only part of its philanthropy to environmental issues.) Kolata invokes the expertise of Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Stephen Safe of Texas A&M, as she has often before, to counter Colborn and Myersís hypothesis. Ames is an active adviser to The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a corporate-supported "watchdog coalition that advocates the use of sound sciences in public policy." TASSC has about 900 members, 375 of whom are scientists. The rest are executives from the chemical, oil, dairy, timber, paper, mining, manufacturing and agribusiness industries seeking ways to defend their products in media and the courts. TASSCís Web site offers examples of "junk science," alongside a host of entries defending bovine growth hormone, genetically engineered foodstuffs, dioxin, electromagnetic fields and endocrine disrupting chemicals. On the site can also be found almost every article Gina Kolata has written defending a chemical or technology. In 1995 TASSC awarded Kolata its "Sound Science in Journalism Award." Neither she nor the Times lists it among her awards and citations. Stephen Safeís laboratory contracts with chemical manufacturers to assess the toxicity of their products. Kolata quotes him often to authenticate her conviction that itís time to quit doing research on the relationship between organochlorines and breast cancer. Both Safeís and Amesís names were on a list of "experts" circulated to the media by the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the American Crop Protection Association and the American Plastics Council in response to Our Stolen Future. Another name on the list is that of Michael Gallo, a professor of toxicology, whom Kolata quotes in the main piece describing Colbornís work as "hypothesis masked as fact"-a phrase used repeatedly throughout chemical industry briefing materials.
Nicholas Wade was given statements supporting Dr. Colbornís hypothesis and recommendations by the former scientific director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the immediate past chair of the Committee on Environmental Health of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the chair of the National Academy of Sciencesí 1993 study of the effects of pesticides on children. If she saw them, Kolata ignored them all. Instead she repeatedly misstated the authorsí conclusions in terms that echoed the twenty-two-page press advisory circulated by the Chemical Manufacturers Association. But even the CMA was more generous than Kolata. "We believe Dr. Colborn has raised a concern that deserves a full and complete scientific investigation," read that groupís press release. "She is not alone in her theory."
Scores of independent scientists wrote to the Times complaining about Kolataís coverage of environmental hormones. None of their letters were printed and not a single correction of Kolataís mistakes was run. In frustration, several scientists contacted media adviser Phil Clapp at the National Environmental Trust in Washington and asked him to prepare a quarter-page ad for the New York Times criticizing Kolataís coverage and quoting some of the people she had interviewed but ignored. Times editors refused to run the ad. What bothered them most was a sentence that read, "Times reporter Gina Kolata...dismisses the widespread worries about endocrine disruption as the concerns of Ďsome environmentalistsí and Ďseveral biologists.í" Negotiations ensued. Change "dismisses" to "reports" and the ad will run, Times advertising officials told Clapp, who reluctantly made the change that neutralized the scientistsí central indictment, and for the moment protected Kolataís journalistic reputation.
Inside the New York Times
The Times has a longstanding reputation for protecting its reporters. David Halberstam, whom President Kennedy tried unsuccessfully to get removed from his Vietnam post because of his critical reporting, says, "The Times has always backed its people until they commit a flagrant, hand-in-the-till offense. Itís like a natural instinct." Former Times reporter Gay Talese, who has written a history of the paper (The Kingdom and the Power) disagrees on one count, citing the demise of Robert Shelton and Peter Whitney, redbaited from their desks under the watchful eye of James Reston. But that was the McCarthy era. Times have changed. Halberstam and Talese both agree that the best way to assure institutional protection these days is to avoid persistent anti-corporate reportage, particularly if the subject is scientific or environmental. Recent lessons abound. Environmental reporter Phil Shabecoff learned his in 1990-91, when Washington bureau chief Howell Raines (now editorial page editor) told him, as Shabecoff recalls their conversations, "New York is complaining. Youíre too pro-environment and they say youíre ignoring the economic costs of environmental protection. They want you to cover the IRS." Shabecoff quit. After Shabecoff left, a young reporter named Keith Schneider assumed his beat, and went on to write articles on dioxin that enraged environmentalists nationwide, particularly those who believed that dioxin represents a serious health hazard. After Schneider and a team of reporters completed a series on Superfund sites that also distressed environmentalists, senior editors in New York called Washington to commend him for the series. It was the first time he had spoken to any of them in the five years he had been with the Times-this despite indignant mail from scientists and a protracted nationwide critique from fellow journalists and journalism reviews chastising Schneiderís shallow sourcing and questionable documentation on several stories.
As a contrast, award-winning science and environmental reporter Richard Severo, four times nominated by the Times for a Pulitzer Prize, was summarily reassigned to the metro desk after his series exposing Du Pontís selective genetic testing of African-American employees. Severo had already aggravated corporate sensibilities with articles on Agent Orange and General Electricís pollution of the Hudson River. Du Pont was the last straw. Severo chose to fight his reassignment, but after seven years in arbitration, he was unable to regain his desk in the science section. And more recently, science writer Philip Hilts, who has written about eighty stories on tobacco, twenty-five on the front page, was summarily removed from that beat three years ago after one particularly uncomplimentary story about Philip Morris. Hilts, who offered a voice of restraint on topics that Gina Kolata has not, is now at the Boston bureau of the Times. The word inside the Times is that executive editor Joe Lelyveld has an intense interest in science and badly wants the Times to improve its coverage of matters scientific. And I am told he believes that in a technological culture, science more than any subject needs skeptics-in mass media as well as in the scientific community-of all persuasions. But Gina Kolata is not a skeptic, at least not in the best sense of the word. She is instead a faithful apologist for corporate science. Even so, if it were only enviros and few disgruntled scientists criticizing Kolata, one could understand the equanimity of Times editors. But when reporters from Business Week, the Wall Street Journal and her alma mater Science magazine question her methods and conclusions, one might expect the paper of record to take notice. "She caused a panic at every cancer clinic in the country," says San Francisco medical journalist Michael Castleman, describing his experience after the cancer drug story broke. But worse for science reporters is the fact that "she has made scientists gun-shy," according to Castleman. "Iím having a hard time getting any of them to talk on the record," he says, adding, "Sheís a repeat offender. Every time she covers a controversy, scientists wonder whether we all treat sources as she does." By allowing Kolata to continue reporting as she has, unchallenged by strong counterpoints and a strong editor, the New York Times is compromising its reputation as a balanced and reliable source of science news and commentary. When topics addressed by Times science reporters are literally matters of life and death, readers expect that journalistic practices will be held to the highest standards. Unless priorities change at the Times, the mantle of Walter Sullivan will have to wait for a more worthy heir.
Mark Dowie is at MIT studying the relationship between science and philanthropy. Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.