Bananas= Tip Of The Iceberg

by Henry Norr on April 15, 2004

“The greatest story of our time” – written for the San Francisco Chronicle by an industry shill.

I wrote last week about an April 5 Chronicle column by David Ewing Duncan, the paper’s new, bi-weekly biotech columnist. Duncan had suggested that genetic engineering might be the only way to save the banana from extinction at the hands, so to speak, of killer fungi, which have already destroyed several varieties despite the industry’s massive use of chemical fungicides.

My beef was that Duncan gave short shrift – two paragraphs out of 41 – to efforts to develop fungi-resistant varieties via traditional cross-breeding techniques.

Since posting that piece, I’ve learned a little more about Duncan, and what I found raises some deeper questions – not so much about him, I think, as about the Chronicle’s decision to anoint him its sole biotech columnist.

The biographical blurb the paper prints at the end of his column originally identified Duncan simply as “a San Francisco writer.” Last month the paper added something else: he’s also “executive director of BioAgenda, an independent think tank that hosts forums and events on biotech and cutting-edge life sciences.”

No problem with the first part of that – his impressive credits, detailed at www.davidewingduncan,com, include five books and articles for Wired, Discover, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Outside, and The New York Times, among others, as well as documentaries for 20/20 and Nightline. He recently received the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Journalism Award for magazine writing. He even has an agent at the William Morris Agency.

All in all, an unusually bright feather in the Chron’s cap.

Whose agenda?

It’s when you get to BioAgenda’s Web site that the red flags pop up. After describing the organization as “an independent think-tank program of events, roundtables, and publications,” it explains that the content is “prepared by independent journalists and thinkers in consultation with the BioAgenda Board of Advisors.”

Just who is on that board? Of the 20 members, seven are executives at biotech companies, six are venture capitalists involved in biotech, five work at universities or non-profit research center, and the other two are a lawyer and PR executive, both specializing in life sciences.

And who pays for BioAgenda? Even though it’s just getting off the ground – its first event, a roundtable in Boston, is scheduled for later this month – it has already raised substantial amounts of money from a long list of major corporations. On its “”Underwriters” page, Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development is listed as a “Double Helix” sponsor, which means it contributed at least $100,000. IBM is a “Gold Patron” ($50,000). As “Silver Patrons,” Pillsbury Winthrop, a law firm, and Science Futures, a Woodside investment firm specializing in biotech, are down for $25,000 each. And Bristol Myers Squibb, Hewlett-Packard, Heller Ehrman (another law firm), and S.R. One Limited (a VC fund owned by GlaxoSmithKline) each kicked in at least $15,000 to be “Bronze Patrons.”
In other words, the organization Duncan directs is completely dependent on the biotech industry. And one of its selling points – the benefits sponsors can look forward to, according to the site, is “Media exposure in influential media publications and outlets.”

Not surprisingly, both Duncan and the Chronicle denied that there’s even the appearance of a conflict of interest here. Duncan, though reluctant to talk on the record, said he spends “only a tiny part of his time” on BioAgenda. He called it “a completely independent [clearly one of his favorite words!], non-industry group.” Its content, he insisted, is “completely and totally separate from the underwriters,” and its contracts with them make it “very clear that they have no influence.” Although it is currently organized as a limited-liability corporation, he hopes to make it a non-profit soon. And he’s talking to several universities about providing a home for it and to major foundations about future funding.

Robert Rosenthal, managing editor of the Chronicle, didn’t respond to my request for comments on the conflict of interest issues Duncan’s involvement with BioAgenda seems to raise, but he had Kenn [CQ] Altine, the paper’s deputy managing editor and unofficial hatchet man, call me back. Altine insisted that there’s no problem. With the addition of Duncan’s role in BioAgenda to the blurb at the end of his columns, he said, “we feel there’s full disclosure.” Duncan, he added, has “set up firewalls within his organization” to keep content separate from funding, “and we’ve created additional firewalls,” such as not allowing him to write about any of his donors or board members.

Now, I’m a trusting sort, and having talked to Duncan, I’m willing to believe that he is a man of integrity, and that his journalistic conscience, if necessary fortified by all those firewalls Altine talks about, are sufficient to prevent him from actively promoting companies or individuals involved with BioAgenda. But even if that kind of crass corruption isn’t a real threat, at least two problems remain:
First, the Chronicle, like most publications, claims to be concerned not only about actual conflicts of interest, but also about the appearance of such conflicts. To readers more cynical than I, I think that appearance is inevitable when a paper gives space in its pages to someone who, in at least one major part of his work, is financially dependent on the industry he writes about and acknowledges, in effect, that he’s selling his ability to shill for it in the media.

Second, preventing Duncan from writing about companies and individuals directly involved with BioAgenda misses what I think is a more real danger: that he’ll use the platform the Chronicle provides him to burnish the image and promote the interests of biotech in general, as an industry, a technology, and an existential project.

The reasonable center?
To be sure, Duncan has bent over backwards – not only in his conversation with me, but also in the five columns he’s written for the Chron – to deny that he’s an uncritical booster. In his debut column, on February 22, after noting that an accumulation of discoveries and an influx of new funding has put biotech on the brink of profound advances, he wrote, “The outcome of this explosive moment is anybody’s guess: a brilliant future or, if something goes terribly wrong, a nightmare. Or both.” Later he added “I am properly awed by the possibilities. I’m also uneasy — wondering if I should be afraid.”
He has struck a similar chord in his subsequent columns, with lots of talk about Faust’s temptations, Pandora’s box, and Oppenheimer’s anguish. And his reservations are not just abstract: in the recent banana column, for example, he advocated, “reasonable and very visible testing and regulation” of genetically modified organisms, banning those that prove dangerous, and clearly labeling those deemed safe. Those are all measures many of his friends in the industry adamantly oppose.

In general, he has staked our a position as a reasonable moderate, driven solely by the facts and caught – like the banana scientist he admiringly profiled in the last column – between “hardliners on both sides of the debate imposing their political and commercial imperatives on the scientific debate.”

Now, that’s all well and good – indeed, it’s a stance I have considerable sympathy for. But the fact remains that Duncan, as he put it in his introductory column, considers biotech “the greatest story of our time, perhaps of all time,” and for all his wariness, he consistently leans toward the arguments of its champions, at least of the more “reasonable” among them. Though he acknowledges the concerns of critics and sometimes – as in the banana column – makes passing mention of those trying to solve the same problems without genetic engineering, it’s clear that it’s the genetic engineers, not their opponents, who fascinate him, and it’s among the former that he finds his heroes.

Which is exactly what you’d expect from someone who has hitched his wagon, both intellectually and financially, to the industry.

Professional ethics
I asked Altine if they consulted with specialists in journalistic ethics before giving Duncan his column. No, he said, such experts “are like nostrils – everyone has two of them.” OK.

I took it upon myself, though, to check with a couple of distinguished local authorities on such issues first Peter Y. Sussman, an editor at the Chronicle for 29 years (until 1993), a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ national Ethics Committee, and co-author of SPJ’s Code of Ethics, and then John McManus, project director of Grade The News , a Stanford-based operation that plays watchdog on the Bay Area media.

Their answers, I think, are worth quoting at length. Here’s how Sussman replied to my e-mail message quoting from BioAgenda’s Web site:

The short answer to your question (does using a guy like that as a columnist meet your ethical standards?) is “No.”

I do not have time now to do independent research, but if the facts as you state them are accurate, use of Duncan’s essays as an authoritative regular column (not as an occasional op-ed offering, where its tendentiousness, if any, would be assumed) seems highly questionable ethically. In the relevant sections from the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code, journalists are urged to:
*Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
*Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
*Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
*Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
*Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
*Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.

In a quick look at the BioAgenda web site, I couldn’t find evidence that it is a “for-profit,” as you state, but that’s irrelevant in view of the troubling reliance of the organization on funders who are promised “media exposure in influential media publications and outlets.” The perception is unavoidable – despite the organization’s disavowal – that its self-proclaimed impartiality is compromised by its stated commitment to give media exposure to its high-rolling funders (and, the reader will inevitably ask, also to their views and agendas?).

I think at a minimum that the public should be told what the “Agenda” is in “BioAgenda” – not once, but every time the column runs. If there is a credible and important opposing viewpoint, even if it doesn’t have the kind of sponsors and marketing muscle that BioAgenda possesses, the reader is entitled to know what it is, preferably with an equivalent forum in the newspaper. I don’t believe it is possible to achieve the kind of “objectivity” that is implied by the mathematical balancing of “pros” and “cons” – such notions have done much to distort traditional news coverage – but at the same time, newspapers that pose as fair and impartial should seek out and air all important viewpoints and rigorously shun hidden conflicts or agendas.

Duncan’s column illustrates the perennial problem of farming out a newspaper’s editorial space to individuals with pre-existing, questionable or undefined links to the industries on which they comment. The reader is left to guess whether such “hired-gun” commentators are truly independent; it’s certainly not sufficient for the Chronicle to simply label the commentator’s employer as “independent” based on its self-evaluation.
The ultimate question for newspaper readers is whether a “columnist” is serving an unacknowledged master. Newspapers should do all they can to avoid either conflicts of interest or the perception of such conflicts, and it doesn’t seem to me that the Chronicle has done so here, based on the information I have so far. The readers are ill-served.


McManus voiced a similar perspective:

I’ve visited the BioAgenda web site and looked at David Ewing Duncan’s columns. I think when a columnist stands to profit from the success of a particular industry, it’s reasonable to fear it may affect his judgment when he writes about it.

Readers may legitimately wonder whether a particular column is motivated purely by journalistic merit or by self-interest. News media have an obligation to avoid such obvious financial conflicts of interest.

The presence of a conflict of interest does not necessarily mean Duncan has acted to boost the biotech industry or any of the companies that sponsor his company, BioAgenda. But because credibility is so important to journalism, ethical codes proscribe entering such conflicts.

The marketplace of ideas

To my mind, alternating Duncan (with proper disclosure of his financial ties to the industry) and a genuine alternative voice would serve Bay Area readers far better than printing Duncan alone, eliminating his column altogether, or even giving his slot to some supposedly “neutral” authority from inside or outside the Chronicle.

Unfortunately, I don’t imagine the Chronicle is about to take my advice – not just because it comes from me, but because the paper’s leadership lacks the necessary guts, imagination, and sensitivity to the real meaning of journalistic ethics.

Henry Norr
henry@norr.com

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