Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Times fails reporter Alex Berenson

On the front page of this morning's New York Times is an article by Alex Berenson entitled "An Industry in Poor Health" ( It has resulted in forty-three e-mails to this site already.

Kara: "The most one sided presentation I've ever seen."

Erika: "Do we want to talk about Thimerosal? Do we want to talk about the damage so many of these drugs that have 'hurt' the profit margins of greedy companies have done? I guess we don't!"

[Erika provides two links to stories on Thimerosal and autism from In These Times: takes you to "Autism in a Needle?" by Annette Fuentes; takes you to Eli Lilly and Thimerosal also by Annette Fuentes.]

Brad and Carl both cite "Eli Lilly down 20 percent" and wonder why there's no mention of Thimerosal? "Cheerleading for big money pharm, are we?" asks Trina.

"What about the people hurt by these drugs that are cutting into the profit margin, huh!" wonders Bob.

What about those people?

Alex Berenson has written an article that's dubbed "News Analysis" by the Times and leads readers to expect that this is a complete picture that will discuss the external factors at play and not just how the markets are reading the drug companies.

The Times fails Alex Berenson by dubbing the piece "News Analysis." "Market Analysis" might work. Berenson's story is continues in the paper inside the business section.

As an analysis in the business section, questions might still arise over the story and the incomplete portrait that's painted. But of the forty-three who e-mailed, thirty-two responded that had this run in the business section, they would be less upset by it. It's the front page (of the main section) and the "News Analysis" that bothers them the most.

That's not to dismiss the issue of the consumers and the damage done to some by drugs. When the Times elected to move this piece to the front page (and dub it "News Analysis"), they should have asked that Berenson round out the piece by including other factors that have resulted in the "poor health" of the drug industry.

There's a legal issue that's not even touched on in the story.

Brandon: "We're told how expensive it is to pursue new drugs. But it's not pointed out that many of these drugs are 'lifestyle' drugs. This isn't about health. Male pattern baldness may be irritating but no one's dying because of it. Why do they pursue those drugs? Because they can make money and that's what's left out of this analysis: patents. Drug companies want patents to increase their profits. New patents leads to research for unneeded drugs and then to marketing these unneeded drugs. They're selling us 'better way of life' drugs, not 'save your life' drugs. The government should have stepped in a long time ago and said 'X amount of research each year will go to working for cures for cancer, AIDS, etc.' Instead, the markets have been allowed to focus on drugs that make us better looking, make us last longer at sex, help us drop those ten pounds or get to bed an hour earlier. This should not be the goal of the drug industry when people are dying and chronically ill. But when the government elects to abandon any oversight of this industry, that's what we're left with."

As a "Market Analysis," Berenson's piece would work fine on the business pages since it's limited focus is on the market, how the industry is thought to be doing and what this means to Wall Street. As a front page story dubbed "News Analysis," the Times sets Berenson up for ridicule because that's not what this story provides.

What's especially strange is that the Times has many strong articles inside the main section that are worthy of the front page. I won't fault them for choosing an article from the business section because that's often the most reliable section of the paper. True, it's not geared towards labor, it's not heavily interested in workers (sometimes it's not interested at all). But in terms of journalism, the stories within the business section are usually far more reliable and requiring far less corrections than most of what slips into the main section.

Berenson's includes this paragraph:

In less than 12 hours, Pfizer said that it had found increased risk of heart problems for people taking Celebrex, a painkiller that is one of the world's best-selling medicines. AstraZeneca reported that a trial of Iressa, a lung cancer drug approved in the United States last year, showed that the drug did not prolong lives. And Eli Lilly warned doctors that Strattera, its drug to treat attention deficit disorder, usually in children, had caused severe liver injury in at least two patients.

As a "Market Analysis" that might be suffient. As a "News Analysis" on the front page, that section cries to be further developed.

The outrage this story has resulted in, seems to me, is the fault of the editorial board and possibly the headline writer. Berenson's article is wrongly "marketed" as a general news analysis and it's moved to the front page of the main section which further confuses the issue.