“Live by the sword, die by the sword” was the lesson for Rudy Giuliani last week. Just as the mayor made headlines by discussing previously confidential info about Patrick Dorismond, Donna Hanover made news May 11 when she told the media about a previously confidential ‘relationship’ between her husband and Cristyne Lategano.
Donna’s bombshell was ironic on many levels. It (1) surprised Rudy, who somehow forgot to inform her before trumpeting their likely separation, (2) egged on the tabloid festival he had hoped to shut down, (3) revived Jennet Conant’s 1997 Vanity Fair story on the Lategano affair, and (4) caused a turnabout at The New York Times.
On May 10, the Times had struggled with its privacy standard in an editorial called “Thoroughly Modern Marriages.” On the one hand, the Times claimed a bright-line distinction between tabloid and nontabloid press: The latter doesn’t report on politicians’ personal conduct “unless that information issue[s] from official sources” or is related to conduct in office. But on the other hand, there were the tabloids—and the mayor’s disclosure that Judith Nathan is a “very good friend.” According to Times logic, three words from an official source justified the Times‘ coverage of the Nathan affair. (Unlike the tabs, the Times had prudently buried its Nathan stories, and its editorial predicted the coverage would stop.)
That all changed on May 11, when Rudy’s zipper problem was A-1 news at the Times, complete with color photos of Rudy and Donna and Donna’s account of the Lategano affair hyped quite conspicuously before the jump. The rest of the paper was drenched with zipper news: two columns and three Metro stories. By Friday, the gimlet-eyed Gail Collins had weighed in, noting, “New York City is a pretty sophisticated place, but we have never before heard a mayoral wife accuse her husband of fooling around.”
So why did the Times turn sensational? Political bias? Getting scooped by the tabs? An editorial that ran May 11 offered a pat justification. After calling it “reasonable” to stay away from the mayor’s “marital and medical questions,” the Times played its trump card: official sources. Privacy? By all means. “But with the statements from Mr. Giuliani and his wife yesterday,” the editorial concluded, those issues “have become part of the civic discourse.”
A cynic would say the Times was trying to have it both ways. The coverage kept up, and by Sunday, a Metro story was wallowing in the scandal, quoting tabloid headlines on “Donna’s Dilemma” and Rudy’s “Marriage Mess.”
Genome de Plume
Last week, as experts in the rarefied field of genome sequencing gathered for their annual conference at Cold Spring Harbor, two rival factions were in a dead heat to publish the complete human genome sequence. That is, to explain how they identified some 3 billion pairs of chemicals that make up human DNA.
In one corner of the ring is the National Human Genome Research Institute, a consortium of academic researchers financed in part by the National Institutes of Health. In the other: Celera Genomics, a private company based in Rockville, Maryland.
On May 7, The New York Times‘ Nicholas Wade reported that the two teams are “negotiating with rival journals to publish their descriptions of the genome—the consortium with Nature of London and Celera with Science of Washington.” Sensing a war between the prestigious weekly journals, I started making calls, only to stumble into a fog of disinformation.
First to shoot down the Times report was Celera’s spokesperson, who called it “speculation on Nicholas Wade’s part,” adding, “Nothing’s been decided yet. We’re in negotiations with several journals.” (Seeing no contradiction, Wade declined to comment.) Science senior editor Barbara Jasny did not respond to an e-mail, though a Science receptionist said Jasny is in charge of an upcoming genome issue. The NIH directed my question to Nature, where after repeated calls, I finally found someone willing to talk.
Nature biology editor Richard Gallagher said that of course, “we and several other journals would be interested” in publishing the human genome sequence, but Nature puts all papers through a “rigorous peer review,” and 90 percent of submissions “end up being rejected.” Thus any discussion of publishing would be premature.
Why is it important to “publish” the sequence, when so much raw data is already available? The consortium claims to have mapped out 75 percent of the data, which it posts on a Web site called GenBank. By contrast, Celera deposits its “90 percent complete” data on a database that’s available only by subscription, and for which some drug companies are paying a reported $5 million a year.
This spring, there was a push for the rivals to post their data on the same database, but that fell apart when Celera demanded exclusive rights to market any such database for several years. In another parry, Celera announced its intention to publish conclusions based on both its proprietary data and GenBank data.
That struck some as unfair. According to Gallagher, Nature prefers that genome researchers make their data freely available before publishing papers in the magazine. Though he didn’t name the company, his implication was that Celera should share its data through GenBank, instead of trying to monopolize the archives.
Which brings us to the meaning of “publishing.” In the genome business, what makes “publication” significant is not the data, but the authors’ interpretations, which must undergo peer review before receiving the Science or Nature seal of approval.
Peer review is what gives “publication” more credibility than a press release. For example, Celera has issued some very sanguine press releases this year, predicting that the company is on the verge of completing all phases of human genome research and “intends to become the definitive source of genomic . . . information.” But these releases typically end with long disclaimers, pointing out that actual results might be at odds with the sunny predictions.
“One of the problems with publication by press release,” says Gallagher, “is that there’s no system of checks and balances.” He says peer review can enormously improve a paper by pointing out gaps and raising problems with interpretations.
Ever the idealist, Gallagher hopes the rivals will publish their conclusions in the same journal because their work is “largely complementary” and the scientific community should be a “model for international cooperation.” While financial and political pressures are inevitable, he says, “the scientific community has to make sure those issues don’t overshadow the incredible progress here. If this goes in an unfortunate direction, it could end up giving science a worse name than it deserves.”