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the network’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, previously thought destined to be our next Surgeon General, has withdrawn himself from consideration.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.”