Spin Doctor


On January 24, New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata did the journalistic equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Under the front-page headline “A Panel Casts Doubt on Mammogram Use,” Kolata took a minor development in the statistical analysis of breast cancer mortality rates and hyped it into a full-blown scandal, trumpeting the news that mammograms are of uncertain benefit to women in their forties. Three days later, a Times editorial called on the National Cancer Institute to revise its guidelines for breast cancer screening.

But the story bombed in the medical community. Three catch-up stories, two Times editorials, a full-page protest ad, one op-ed, one Week in Review piece, and one Jane Brody column later, the Times has lavished attention on Kolata’s original thesis, maintaining the hype while cushioning the news with qualifiers. In a long news story on February 11, the Times covered its ass by restating the pre-Kolata consensus: Women over 40 should get regular mammograms, because the benefits outweigh the risks.

To be sure, cancer screening and treatment are sometimes more aggressive than breast cancer itself. And as Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote in Harper’s, there is too much happy talk about cures. But as a recent Times op-ed put it, Regular Mammograms Remain a Crucial Tool.

The revisions came quickly, but the damage had already been done. In the wake of Kolata’s January 24 story, women begged experts for advice, senators scheduled hearings, and TV and print reporters scrambled to clean up the mess. Journalists say that in private, some doctors wondered why the Times issued a call for revised guidelines before the profession reached a consensus, and others said the Times had given women an excuse not to get mammograms.

Few would criticize the Times publicly. But the diagnosis is grim. Rather than clarifying a public health issue, Kolata has created mass confusion by turning mammography into a yes-or-no proposition. Kolata feigns objectivity, but not everyone has forgotten an October 1998 Brill’s Content story that blasted her for a series of overhyped, one-sided, pro-business vendettas.

“Gina Kolata has a reputation for not being afraid to drive a story,” said a reporter who has been covering science for several years and whose company competes with the Times. “She doesn’t sit back and try real hard to be fair.” The diciest part of Kolata’s latest thesis is that “she acts as though it’s common knowledge that everybody agrees early detection of breast cancer may not be the best thing.” Plus, the studies Kolata pounced on were not news. “She makes breathtaking comments and puts a spin on it, and they put it on page one!”

As Kolata repeatedly told Brill’s Content, “I have no agenda.”

But Times big shots know that when they say, Jump, the medical establishment says, How high? And so Kolata’s thesis was transported out of the news hole into the agenda-setting opinion pages. An editorial on January 27 championed the mammogram skeptics and demanded that the National Cancer Institute fall in line.

The reaction was obviously not what the Times expected. On January 31, 10 groups including the American Cancer Society and American Medical Association took out a full-page ad in the Times, titled “An Open Letter to Women and Their Physicians.” The ad did not mention the Times, but the message could not have been clearer: Contrary to recent “coverage in the media and the resulting . . . discussion,” the ad said, mammograms are effective and a lifesaver.

Again, the response was swift. In a February 5 piece by Kolata, the Times made a show of fairness, even running head shots of experts on both sides. But the next day, a Times editorial accused the cancer establishment of circling the wagons and hanging on to a profitable status quo.

Meanwhile, Kolata continued giving the best play to Dr. Donald Berry, the skeptic whose views shaped her original story. On February 5, she reported that Berry is conducting a study to establish whether mammograms or cancer drugs are most responsible for declining mortality rates.

So what’s Berry’s agenda? In addition to running the biostatistics department at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, he chairs the National Cancer Institute panel whose findings Kolata reported as front-page news. In an interview with the Voice, Berry said the panel maintains a Web site for the NCI, but does not determine NCI policy.

Berry described his motives as noble, in the best interests of women at risk, adding, “What possibly could be in it for me?” Asked if he had relevant financial ties, he said, “I do consulting for drug companies, but none of them are relevant,” because manufacturers of cancer drugs would not benefit from less use of mammography.

According to his résumé, Berry began consulting for Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) in 1998. BMS makes Taxol, a drug used with chemotherapy as a treatment for ovarian cancer and advanced breast cancer. According to a January 2000 article in Texas Monthly, Berry participated in a study of Taxol as a possible treatment for primary breast cancer, and helped BMS with an FDA application that would allow Taxol to be marketed for that purpose.

In subsequent e-mails, Berry said it was “ridiculous” to connect his views on mammography with his work for a pharmaceutical company, pointing out that his criticisms of mammography trials had already been published “in 1998, before I consulted for BMS.”

But isn’t it possible that fewer mammograms would delay detection, and thus turn up more breast cancer patients who are ripe for drug treatment?

“To suggest that I would sacrifice women because I think less mammography would make for more profits for a company I consult for would be character assassination!” cried Berry via e-mail.

A spokesman for Bristol-Myers Squibb said, “As a company, we encourage prevention and early detection. To do otherwise would be unconscionable.”

Perhaps fewer mammograms will neither benefit drug companies nor reduce costs for insurance companies, as some have suggested. But the Times stories never ask “Cui bono?” or disclose any financial ties that might pose a conflict of interest for experts in the mammography debate.

Times spokesperson Toby Usnik had no comment on Berry’s financial ties. He called Kolata’s initial story “newsworthy” and denied that the Times had turned mammography into a yes-or-no proposition, saying, “We are merely presenting the arguments of reputable parties as fully as we can.” He questioned the value of a “polemic” focusing on Kolata as an individual, given that breast cancer reporting is an ongoing tradition that involves many staffers at the Times.

Finally, he said, “We don’t have an ulterior purpose. We report newsworthy events as they occur, and we will continue to do deeper reporting of our own over time.”

Kolata did not return calls for comment.

Also in this week’s Voice:

Protester Non Grata: ‘Nightline’ Spikes a Segment About Peaceful Protesters” by Cynthia Cotts