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Columbia Journalism School standards go over the cliff

CJR Daily student cheers Farber/Harper’s DAIDS critique, but is horrified by Duesberg mention

Gregg Gonsalves of GMHC and the Nation blog tipped her off

Technorati searchers on “Celia Farber Harpers” this morning were sent to the front page of the CJR Daily to read “AIDS – What AIDS? Harper’s Races Right Over the Edge of a Cliff.”

The article castigates Harpers for not meeting the author’s professional standards in printing a piece which “wanders off the deep end” in granting “legitimacy to an illegitimate and discredited idea” (that HIV?AIDS is not soundly based). This judgement is rendered on the authority of comment by Gregg Gonsalves, director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the Nation blog.

The piece night be viewed as just another example of shallow Web comment, one of the BB shots aimed at the dark shape of the Harpers/Farber stealth bomber as it flies overhead. But it is worth noting that it comes from a journalism school student (one assumes he/she is a student and not, God forbid, a professor) who should know better. What is worrying is that CJRDaily apparently has no higher standards than the ordinary blog flamer when it comes to armchair criticism. Is this good enough for a great institution which is turning out future New York Times reporters?

First the author, Gal Beckerman, approves of Celia for whacking DAIDS with her literary baseball bat for abandoning scientific purpose and standards:

It’s an engaging piece of investigative journalism that exposes deep problems with the standards of medical research when it comes to AIDS. As she writes, “the emergence of the syndrome in the 1980s sparked a medical state of emergency in which scientific controls, the rules that are supposed to bracket the emotions and desires of individual researchers, were frequently compromised or removed entirely.”

But then Gal grabs the bat and in her turn whacks Celia and Harpers for even mentioning Duesberg and his “crackpot theory”:

(She)rather approvingly points to UC Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg, who has taken much heat for questioning the causality between HIV and AIDS. Duesberg has gained a name as a “denialist” for asserting that AIDS is actually a “chemical syndrome, caused by accumulated toxins from heavy drug use,” or that “75 percent of AIDS cases in the West can be attributed to drug toxicity. If toxic AIDS therapies were discontinued … thousands of lives could be saved virtually overnight.” And, most bizarre to our ears: “AIDS in Africa is best understood as an umbrella term for a number of old diseases, formerly known by other names, that currently do not command high rates of international aid. The money spent on anti-retroviral drugs would be better spent on sanitation and improving access to safe drinking water.”

And why does Gal disapprove of this coverage, bizarre to her uninformed ears? Apparently without any reason or knowledge save that she has read Gregg Gonsalves comparing “AIDS denialists” to Intelligent Design advocates and Lyndon LaRouche, and seen the Nation blog adopting the same uninformed approach.

What’s most interesting in this latest dustup is that the Nation has decided to join the incensed scientists in shaming Harper’s for running the Farber piece.

All this is a poor specimen of what journalism students are learning at one of the great universities. Does Columbia really teach its students to indulge in uninformed and borrowed opinion when writing comment on the work of a magazine of long standing (156 years) reputation which by definition is careful where it places its bets? Only the greenest tyro would fail to understand that Harpers would not print a 15 page article on a contentious topic without knowing what it was doing. Gal seems to be confusing Harper’s highly edited and assiduously checked editorial pages with a blog comment thread.

Galloping Gal fails even to take the tip that Celia herself embedded in her piece, namely, that if Duesberg’s name comes “prestamped with wrongness,” as Celia wittily put it, caution is indicated, for this is evidently the work of self-interested scientists and fellow traveling, often drug company financed activists who have evaded Duesberg’s critique by playing very rough politics.

But then, given that the Harpers piece above all demonstrates to everyone who has read it thoroughly the power of strongly felt factual writing based on long experience and research, Gal evidently hasn’t had time to read it properly. This is a pity, since an unbiased reading would teach this student a great deal about good journalism, and we expect that “Out of Control” will in fact be used in journalism classes of the future as exhibit one in the history of this affair.

Gal’s effort, on the other hand, is in danger of being used as a classic example of ignorance generating confident opinion, and a failure to teach the art of researching your topic before writing on it.

Working journalists often wonder why journalism schools exist at all, given the fact that reporting and writing to deadline is a craft best learned on the job, and if expertise is needed, it is better to acquire a proper degree a topic rather than in how to research, write and network. Given that the annual fees are probably hitting $30,000 at Columbia now or soon (very rough guess, since they dont announce them very prominently on their site), and a job as an intern might pay $30,000, it would seem a sorry situation to be out $60,000 or so a year and not even learn the simple necessity of knowing what you are talking about.

But then, how many journalists and reporters today have the time or the incentive to do much more than repeat what they read in press releases and are told by the nearest phone source? Judging from their performance in science, very few in that field, and in HIV?AIDS, we know for sure that there are no more than can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

One thing Gal will have to learn is that what she (one assumes that the delightful name is female) thinks other journalists know may be less than meets the eye. Then she might restrain herself from joining them in dissing their betters.

In short: when the Nation, of all places, is criticizing you for your knee-jerk anti-establishmentarianism, it’s a pretty good bet that you have probably wandered off the deep end.

Next time, Harper’s should be more careful about giving so much legitimacy – 15 pages of it – to such an illegitimate and discredited idea.

We would like to make a humble but constructive suggestion. If only Gal would read our earlier posts here and reassess precisely which is the illegitimate and discredited idea in HIV?AIDS, she could jump bandwagons before it is too late. and write a distinguished thesis on The Media in AIDS: How Journalists Failed the American Public, which could then easily be turned into a best selling book which could make her name and even gain her a professorship at the Columbia School of Journalism.

(show)

Mar. 08, 2006 – 11:13 AM

AIDS – What AIDS?

Harper’s Races Right Over the Edge of a Cliff

Gal Beckerman

The essay on AIDS in this month’s Harper’s magazine by Celia Farber starts off like a scientific whodunit — as Farber herself puts it, the tale she tells sounds eerily like the “Constant Gardener,” the recent movie based on a John Le Carre novel about evil pharmaceutical companies engaged in unethical human testing.

In the first half of her article titled, “Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science,” Farber describes what led to the death of a pregnant HIV-positive woman who was taking an experimental drug, Nevirapine, to avoid transmitting the virus to her unborn child. The drug’s toxicity, which had never been properly tested, killed the woman, and Farber traces the negligence back to tests in Uganda that were improperly conducted on human subjects. She also tells the story of a whistleblower at the NIH who was attacked for exposing the faulty trials.

It’s an engaging piece of investigative journalism that exposes deep problems with the standards of medical research when it comes to AIDS. As she writes, “the emergence of the syndrome in the 1980s sparked a medical state of emergency in which scientific controls, the rules that are supposed to bracket the emotions and desires of individual researchers, were frequently compromised or removed entirely.”

Her argument is that AIDS has become an industry and a certain kind of sloppiness has entered the search for new anti-retroviral drugs. So far, so good, and if this were the only story Farber hoped to tell, we might well be tipping our hat to her.

But she goes on to use the Nevirapine trial as a launching pad for what she really wants to say — that big pharmaceutical companies have basically invented the concept of AIDS in order to sell their product, which, being extremely toxic, is what is actually killing people who are diagnosed HIV-positive.

She doesn’t take responsibility herself for this startling — some might say preposterous — thesis, but rather approvingly points to UC Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg, who has taken much heat for questioning the causality between HIV and AIDS. Duesberg has gained a name as a “denialist” for asserting that AIDS is actually a “chemical syndrome, caused by accumulated toxins from heavy drug use,” or that “75 percent of AIDS cases in the West can be attributed to drug toxicity. If toxic AIDS therapies were discontinued … thousands of lives could be saved virtually overnight.” And, most bizarre to our ears: “AIDS in Africa is best understood as an umbrella term for a number of old diseases, formerly known by other names, that currently do not command high rates of international aid. The money spent on anti-retroviral drugs would be better spent on sanitation and improving access to safe drinking water.”

Farber takes up that banner and complains that AIDS researchers “have spent many billions of dollars in the last twenty years on HIV research and practically nothing on alternative causes or co-factors.” Which, again, would be a legitimate complaint to make — were it not for the implication that HIV as the cause of AIDS has been invented for the sake of keeping certain scientists and pharmaceutical companies in business.

The article has inspired great anger among “so-called AIDS activists,” as Farber dismissively refers to them, who are seething at Harper’s decision to give Farber such a prominent soapbox. One example is a letter from Gregg Gonsalves, director of Gay Men’s Health Crisis: “Farber is a well-known AIDS denialist and publishing her work is akin to giving the folks at the Discovery Institute a place to expound upon the ‘science’ of intelligent design, Charles Davenport a venue to educate us about the racial inferiority of the Negro or Lyndon LaRouche a platform to warn us about aliens, bio-duplication, and nudity.”

The debate between the public health community and the “denialists” is an old one. What’s most interesting in this latest dustup is that the Nation has decided to join the incensed scientists in shaming Harper’s for running the Farber piece.

On the magazine’s blog, The Notion, Richard Kim claims that Farber does not do justice to the varying approaches taken by those researching AIDS, writing that “conspiracy theories like Duesberg’s warp and exploit some of the best political interventions made by AIDS activists: that patients should be engaged with their medical diagnosis and treatment, that clinical drug trials should be grounded in sound ethical practices, that the emphasis on virology has circumvented immunological approaches to AIDS and that attention to the effects of poverty, malnutrition and other diseases is vital to preventing and treating AIDS.”

Kim also writes that “it’s a shame that a magazine as well respected as Harper’s has shirked its duty to report on these issues and instead published Farber’s article.”

We have to agree. The if-it’s-conventional-wisdom-it-must-be-wrong ethos that Harper’s has come to embrace in the last days of the counterintuitive Lewis Lapham as editor has served the magazine poorly here, giving space to an idea that, as Kim points out, has been widely refuted for years — and one that, frankly, has been consigned to the dustbin of crackpot theories.

In short: when the Nation, of all places, is criticizing you for your knee-jerk anti-establishmentarianism, it’s a pretty good bet that you have probably wandered off the deep end.

Next time, Harper’s should be more careful about giving so much legitimacy — 15 pages of it — to such an illegitimate and discredited idea.

2 Responses to “Columbia Journalism School standards go over the cliff”

  1. Frank Lusardi Says:

    Beware, Truthseeker, little do you know what a snake pit you have ventured into. Control of the Columbia Journalism Review was recently acquired by one Victor Navasky. Indeed, the same individual who holds unchallenged sway at The Nation. This Liberal Overlord has gathered his minions to assault Harper’s magazine. How frequently Victor sups with his Overlords at the NIH-pharmaceutical complex I do not know, but that he stands eager to defend them I do not doubt.That “journalist” Gal Beckerman would lower herself to puffing her Chairman‘s other properties should surprise no one. As Celia Farber has time and again documented, the corruption of journalism is handmaiden to the corruption of science.Take care, Truthseeker. You’ve entered a nest crawling with vipers.

  2. Truthseeker Says:

    Thanks for that heads up, Frank, good one – Navasky and his groupie, doing his bidding, probably unasked. Like Mark pointing out that POZ lives on drug money, you convincingly suggest the key to the neglect of truth is group loyalty. Takes a wise head to see these politics, which are so much more influential in the discourse than the facts are, particularly scientific facts. Serge Lang showed us that the only way to see clearly is to refuse to include the politics, but it’s the politics which explain why people don’t see clearly. Human nature, as usual, is the problem. Gang loyalty is more powerful than truth, even if some other people suffer or even die. We all know this, but few acknowledge it.You have conjured up a nightmare vision of the landscape of US society as billions and billions of dollars swilling and sloshing around a big trough directed by no greater hand than the petty ideology of which gang you below to. Doesn’t matter which side you are on, right or left, Bush or Navasky. Here’s $15 billion for bringing HIV?AIDS enlightenment and drugs to Africa and Asia.

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