Last week, Bloomberg News stuffed a jarring quote from Bayer CEO Marijn Dekkers at the bottom of a piece on India bypassing patents for expensive drugs (emphasis mine):

Bayer Chief Executive Officer Marijn Dekkers called the compulsory license “essentially theft.”

“We did not develop this medicine for Indians,” Dekkers said Dec. 3. “We developed it for western patients who can afford it.”

That quote sounded a little too perfectly evil, and I couldn’t find the original anywhere online. So I asked Bayer whether Bloomberg had it wrong. They did.

Here’s what Dekkers actually said, at a Financial Times conference that day, on a panel called “Buffering the Pharma Brand: Restoring Reputation, Rebuilding Trust” (the above link leads to video of the panel and the relevant part starts at about 19:00 in):

“Is this going to have a big effect on our business model? No, because we did not develop this product for the Indian market, let’s be honest. We developed this product for Western patients who can afford this product, quite honestly. It is an expensive product, being an oncology product.

Now you might say this is a distinction without a difference, but obviously the first comes across quite a bit more callously than the second. The difference in tone is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.

The context of a quote is critical too, and Dekkers here was specifically responding to a question about whether India’s ruling would hurt Bayer’s business prospects. This is not to excuse the chairman’s Kinsley gaffe, or for that matter Big Pharma’s business practices, but the impact of what he said is diluted when you see the real quote. That’s one reason it didn’t catch fire last month when it was reported accurately and when Dekkers said that he regretted how he said it.

With Bloomberg’s punched-up quote it did catch fire. That great digital-newspaper success story, the Daily Mail, picked it up on Friday, didn’t source or link the quote, and misquoted the misquote in its headline, turning it into an even more more click-friendly, “We didn’t make this medicine for Indians…”

Think Progress picked it up yesterday, repeating the misquote and incorrectly attributing it to a “recently published interview in Bloomberg Businessweek.” Opposing Views did essentially the same, as did The Source, which apparently struggled to find an angle for its readers, ending up with the sub-headline, “Your favorite rapper’s bankroll has nothing on big pharma.”

The Reddit hivemind buzzed a lot but failed to crowdsource the truth, though MisterPenguin42 was more ambitious, asking, “Why don’t we crowd source that cancer wonder drug? Dichloroacetate I think it was?”

Agence France Presse, as far as I could find, was the only outlet that fact-checked the quote with Bayer, and even then the system broke down.

Bayer said the statements attributed to Dekkers were accurate and forwarded written comments made later by the German chief executive seeking to explain his remarks.

A Bayer spokesman tells me how that happened, “As you could see in the video, the quote was not correct. Unfortunately we did not have the tape immediately available.”

If quotes and context are the blocking and tackling of journalism, then Bloomberg got pancaked. Let’s face it: This happens more often than we’d like to think. All us hacks know the feeling of furiously trying to scribble a quote in your reporter’s notebook before it slips from your mind, while at the same time keeping an ear out for what else is being said. Then you have to go back and try to decipher your own chicken scratch—on deadline. The perils of going sans tape recorder.

I asked Bloomberg about how it got the quote wrong, and the wire quickly and prominently fixed it. “We reviewed the story and corrected it after concluding it warranted one,” a Bloomberg News spokesman says.


 

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.