Tough Love

Last week, editors at The New Republic found out they had dodged a bullet: Rolling Stone is getting sued by D.A.R.E., but they're not. In the complaint against Rolling Stone, lawyers for the drug education program explain why: in California, where the suit was filed, there is a one-year statute of limitations on libel suits, "or else The New Republic would also be a defendant in this lawsuit."

First The New Republic, and then Rolling Stone, ran critical stories about D.A.R.E. by Stephen Glass, the lovable rascal who turned out to be a total fabricator. But by the time he confessed last May, The New Republic story was a year old— which means the mag was saved by the bell.

Or was it? Sources familiar with the case say it didn't hurt that The New Republic's editor, Charles Lane, published humble retractions in the June 1 and June 29 issues. "We are not proud of the fact that Glass's falsehoods ever made it into our pages," he wrote, and later itemized Glass's fabrications about D.A.R.E. and repudiated the substance of his work.

Meanwhile, Rolling Stone stood by the story, repeating the claim that D.A.R.E. and its supporters used intimidation tactics to silence their critics, even though most of these allegations were based on fictitious sources. In the July 9­23 issue, the editors wrote, "To date . . . we have found nothing to contradict the essence of this piece." By then, D.A.R.E. had sued Glass, who later tattled to D.A.R.E. lawyers about both magazines' editorial processes, and wrote a craven apology letter of his own.

The only one who has yet to eat humble pie is Rolling Stone managing editor Robert Love, who released a defiant statement in response to the D.A.R.E. suit filed February 2, calling it "little more than an attempt to intimidate and discourage legitimate debate."

Rolling Stone is expected to fight the suit on First Amendment grounds.

Smart Pills

Obsessive readers of The New Yorker may have noticed a new genre lately. This hybrid is not quite fact or fiction, but rather a "dispatch" delivered from the cutting edge of science and industry.

Whether these stories appear under the label Medical Dispatch or Annals of Medicine or A Critic at Large, and whether the byline is Dr. Jerome Groopman, Dr. Atul Gawande, or Malcolm Gladwell (all-around spin doctor), one could argue the dispatches share a distinct narrative style.

Rather than cite authorities, the narrator is the authority, a priestlike figure addressing the reader from a vantage point so lofty and removed there is no room left for ambiguity or debate. (As if anyone would dare to question a soft-spoken gentleman who hurries by in a white coat.)

Indeed, dispatch writers are considered omniscient. And why not? With their elite education and inside connections at Harvard Medical School, they are uniquely qualified to schmooze the best experts and to vacuum up a vast library of scientific literature at a moment's notice.

A study of the dispatch genre reveals certain hypnotic techniques, such as delivering information without revealing its precise source. For example, see the February 8 dispatch by Gawande, titled "The Cancer- Cluster Myth." Gawande's obvious aim was to debunk the myth, that is, the notion that environmental agents might be the cause for cancer outbreaks in a residential community. (One such "myth," he implies, is the basis of the movie A Civil Action.)

It's true that few of these investigations have panned out. But in a sweeping generalization, Gawande writes that given the "exceedingly poor success rate of such investigations, epidemiologists tend to be skeptical of their worth." Thus, he claims the existence of a consensus on the proposition that cluster investigations have no value— while naming only a single epidemiologist as his source. The claim makes more sense if you know that Gawande works at the Harvard School of Public Health, where epidemiologists— and cluster skeptics— abound.

Gladwell pulled a similar move in a January 11 Comment, blaming A Civil Action for feeding the public's appetite for simplistic narratives. Moving to other popular misconceptions, he wrote, "There is little or no reason to believe that breast implants cause disease of any kind." But he obscured the source of this conclusion, referring first to some specific studies and then to an unnamed "independent scientific panel, appointed by a federal court," which reached the consensus.

Another piece in the anti-tort series is Gawande's February 1 "Medical Mistakes," which combined high-stakes emergency-room scenes with the argument that malpractice litigation doesn't prevent doctors from screwing up.

Taken together, these pieces seem designed to send a subliminal message to plaintiffs who want to sue over anything from chemical spills to incompetent doctors: the courts demand rigorous proof, and it usually isn't there, so don't bother.

The dispatch writers have every right to align themselves with defendants in civil actions. But they may have lost some objectivity in their zeal to pursue this agenda. In the January 11 Comment, Gladwell criticized the book A Civil Action for labeling trichloroethylene as a known carcinogen. In fact, the book called the cancer link inconclusive. Gladwell was forced to acknowledge this error in the January 25 letters section.

Next Page »