CNN confirmed on March 5 that the network’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, previously thought destined to be our next Surgeon General, has withdrawn himself from consideration. There’s little doubt someone with Gupta’s media visibility and experience could have lent great prominence to the role. As the nation’s doctor, Gupta would have been able to get a serious health message across.
But perhaps it’s fortunate he won’t try to fill the shoes of C. Everett Koop and David Satcher. There are some strong overlaps in the attributes you want to see in a Surgeon General as well as in a medical journalist; and it’s not clear, based on his work at CNN, that Gupta has always exhibited them. So let’s survey what was wrong with his science and medical reporting, and perhaps also his nomination, in the first place.
In the medical arena, some of the most important topics–vaccine and drug safety, contraception and abstinence education, diet and obesity, health care reform–are exceedingly complex and contentious matters where a strong political ideology, or a strong financial interest, often contributes to a skewed perception of reality itself. Ultimately, of course, science only provides one right answer, and serious science and medical journalists won’t shy away from it. But a lot of funny things can happen when the media translate science for the public, especially when outlets like CNN depend on keeping eyeballs locked in.
That’s what always made Gupta’s nomination worrisome. There’s no denying his medical expertise–he’s a neurosurgeon and on the faculty at Emory University–or that he has had outstanding moments, such as his Emmy award winning reporting from New Orleans’s Charity Hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yet there have also been occasions when he has been found approaching medical coverage through “one the one hand, on the other hand” equivocation, the selling of medical entertainment, following the pack, or simply getting it wrong in, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it, a “socially acceptable way.”
Consider a few of Gupta’s journalistic missteps. In late December 2002–a slow news week after Christmas–an outfit named Clonaid, run by a member of a UFO-obsessed group called the Raelians, decided to hold a press conference announcing the first cloning of a human being. The media responded like a herd and ran off a cliff. Many outlets, including CNN, covered the group’s press conference live, even though numerous scientists and bioethicists could have told them the claim wasn’t credible. Yet there was Gupta, breathlessly interviewing Clonaid’s “clinical science director” about “the possibility, a big possibility, that a human clone was actually born.” Gupta and CNN contributed heavily to a media scare with little foundation; to this day, we’ve never seen proof of the existence of baby “Eve.”
Or take vaccines, an issue where one would hope the Surgeon General would state unequivocally the strong medical consensus: Despite a large volume of epidemiological research, there’s no evidence that a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosol has caused a so-called “epidemic” of autism. Has Gupta said as much? He clearly knows the state of the science, and yet on his blog shortly after a special government vaccines court came down strongly in its favor, Gupta wrote the following: “I hope you get the chance to click on the links above and read the rulings. You will find that not all the experts agreed with one another and the evidence is worth reading.” It’s the classic journalistic cop out–“just make up your own mind, because I, the media gatekeeper, am afraid of the nasty emails I’ll get if I strongly defend the state of scientific knowledge.”
And then there was the time Gupta really tried to take a stand–on very weak foundations. Purporting to do a “reality check” on Michael Moore’s 2007 film Sicko, a devastating expose of the failings of the American healthcare system, Gupta accused Moore of having “fudged the facts,” and yet Gupta was the only one who got anything unequivocally wrong. His report misattributed an incorrect statistic about the Cuban healthcare system to Sicko; in fact, the error was CNN’s and Moore had it right all along. In some ways still more disturbingly, when the two went head to head on Larry King Live it was clear Guptax largely agreed with Moore about the systemic problems with US healthcare–and yet he nevertheless put his credibility on the line with a weak hit job on Moore’s movie.
There’s no doubting that Gupta means well; but the foregoing failings are also hard to ignore. At base, they seem a portent of what medical journalism risks becoming when you ramp up the entertainment and minimize the critical spirit (save when it’s convenient or itself entertaining). Let’s close, then, with Gupta’s February 2007 coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, the biomedical equivalent of a runaway bride story, in which Gupta and Wolf Blitzer gabbed about whether she had heart problems, lung problems, “some sort of medication problem,” the flu, addiction to painkillers and much else. As medical journalism watchdog Gary Schwitzer of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication put it, “So there you have it: virtual autopsy from a distance via speculation, rumors, and no direct knowledge of anything.”
Arguably our greatest Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, stood up for medicine again and again against the Reagan administration, on extremely political issues like AIDS, condom usage and abortion. Now the Obama administration has another chance to get this appointment right, and it ought to look for a prominent doctor who not only knows how to communicate but also fights relentlessly on behalf of science and the facts.