Serious as Cancer

 The New York Times's May 3 front-page story on a potentially imminent cure for cancer has given the paper its worst publicity blitz since 1991, when the Times printed the name of the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape.

Gina Kolata's article on the research of Dr. Judah Folkman raised eyebrows--and then, almost immediately, serious questions about Kolata's reporting and motives. Here is a summary of seven stormy days in May:

The morning after the story's publication, Kolata's literary agent had a book proposal on editors' desks at major publishing houses, which incorporated the "news" that had just been published. The following day, after questions surfaced concerning the article and Kolata discussed the potential book project with her Times editors, the proposal was withdrawn.

Nobel laureate Dr. James D. Watson wrote a letter to the Times, declaring that he had been substantially misquoted over something said casually at a dinner party six weeks before. Watson's office told the Voice that he was never informed he was speaking for publication, and that no one from the Times called him prior to the article's publication to verify any aspect of what he'd said.

Kolata and the Times insist that the quote is "accurate." Thus, the Times is contradicting the public account that one of the world's most respected scientists has given of his own words, even while admitting that Kolata did not takes notes while Watson was speaking and never checked the quote's veracity with him. Kolata's Times story even got Watson's title wrong, as a Friday correction noted.

Richard Klausner, head of the National Cancer Institute, also had his words botched in the Times, prompting a correction about "an imprecise paraphrase."

On Friday, following two days of critical coverage in the Los Angeles Times and Newsday, the Times was forced to publish an exceptionally rare article about the conflict-of-interest accusations being leveled at its own reporter. On the same day, the Boston Globe published a front-page article saying the Timesstory's unbridled optimism on the sober topic of cancer "suggests the need for media moderation on the medical front." This marks the first time since the Times bought the Globe in 1993 that a page-one Globe story has directly tweaked the judgment of its corporate parent.

As this week began, a Newsweek cover article declared that the "Times story, whose front-page placement belied the fact that it contained little that had not been reported already, itself became the story." TheNew Yorker's May 18 Comment column noted that the fundamental facts of Kolata's story had already been reported in the Times last November on page A28. TheNew Yorker headline summed it up: "Forget cancer. Is there a cure for hype?"

Of all the charges leveled at the Times and Kolata, the notion that she hyped the cancer-cure story for a book advance is probably the most serious. In the middle of the week, Random House promised $1 million to Newsday reporter Robert Cooke for a book on the same topic, and Kolata's agent reportedly said he could get her $2 million for a two-page e-mail proposal, so the stakes are extremely high.

If Kolata's account is true, her agent acted largely on his own after the story was published. Since she and her editors concluded that a new book project--she is already under a separate contract--would interfere with her ability to report this story, it doesn't seem that Kolata bent any ethics rules for her own book purposes.

It's harder, though, to acquit Kolata on the charge that she misquoted Dr. Watson, one of the scientists credited with discovering the structure of DNA. In his letter to the Times, Watson said that "at a dinner party six weeks ago" he said to Kolata that the two drugs would be in clinical trials in a year, and that after another year, the scientific community would know whether or not they were effective. That's a far cry from saying "Judah is going to cure cancer in two years," which is how Kolata rendered his remark.

The Times is obviously concerned about implying--if not out-and-out saying--that this Nobel laureate is fibbing. "We don't wish to be in a position of quarrelling with him," Times publicist Nancy Nielsen said.But there's no middle ground--either Watson or Kolata is wrong.

Some at the Times and elsewhere have argued that Watson has his own interest in backpedaling, since a provocative comment might well earn him scorn from colleagues. As a general policy, the Times, like many other papers,says it's concerned that "when sources are confronted with their words, they often try to backtrack."

And Watson has in the past distanced himself from remarks in the papers. As the Long Island Voice noted last year, Watson wrote a similar letter disputing a British Daily Telegraph report attributing to him the view that women should be allowed to abort fetuses determined to be homosexual (assuming such screening was possible).

But even if Watson's letter to the Times was backpedaling--and it's very much in dispute--Kolata's reporting was astonishingly lax. Watson's office told the Voice that he was not informed at the dinner party he would be quoted in the Times, and there was no attempt to follow up the conversation.

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