A few weeks ago, Frank Rich wrote a sharp column on the Clinton campaign’s failure to see the danger of peddling her Bosnia bullet-ducking story. Rich argued that at a time when the new, million-headed media made a YouTube video contradiction of her tale almost inevitable, Clinton had failed to see that a politician could not get away with myth-making autobiographical fibs of the sort that would fly only four years earlier. “A new bottom-up culture,” he argued, “is challenging any candidate’s control of a message.”
Rich’s two-month-old column jumped to mind a couple of weeks ago when I came across “Stealth Marketers,” an article in Slate by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer about pharmaceutical industry influence on journalism. Acting on a tip from a long-time source (this exposé’s mechanisms were more Woodward & Bernstein than Web 2.0), Brownlee and Lenzer revealed that The Infinite Mind, a well-regarded and independently produced radio series distributed to over 300 public stations, had failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest during an hour-long show in March called “Prozac Nation: Revisited,” which portrayed media coverage of the risks of violence or suicide from antidepressant use as overblown. All four experts featured on the show have or have had financial ties to antidepressant makers and The Infinite Mind has itself taken funding from the Lilly Foundation, which is tied to pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, the maker of Prozac.
The show’s producer, Bill Lichtenstein, immediately went on the defensive. In posts on Slate and in several conversations with me, he explained that in consultation with National Public Radio (which airs The Infinite Mind on one of its Sirius satellite radio channels - and for an interesting trip down the rabbit hole of what qualifies as an “NPR Show” click here), he created guidelines in 1994 designed to limit any industry-related funding and influence of his production company, Lichtenstein Creative Media. His measures seem sensible enough for that time, and Lichtenstein appears to be a well-intentioned and highly capable producer. Yet his aggressive counterattack to the Slate article seems as tone deaf, or perhaps time deaf, as the Clinton campaign’s allegiance to the Bosnia airport story.
For starters, some of Lichtenstein’s counterpunches had a below-the-belt quality. In a response that Slate ran just below to the original article and in the magazine’s reader discussion forum, he suggested that Lenzer and Brownlee wrote their article after he had rejected a pitch from Lenzer to follow up the Infinite Mind show on Prozac with a report on pharma’s influence on journalism. The implication, obviously, is that their Slate piece amounted to revenge. In a retort also posted beneath the story and in the readers forum, Lenzer and Brownlee say, no, that actually it was Lichtenstein who raised the idea of a radio piece when Lenzer contacted him to ask about the undisclosed financial ties in “Prozac Nation: Revisited.”
Brownlee and Lenzer have copies of an email exchange consistent with (if not proving) their account, and it seems a stretch to imagine they needed a pitch rejection to motivate their criticism of The Infinite Mind. Besides, Lichtenstein doesn’t win much sympathy or credibility with another charge in his Slate reply, which is that the British Medical Journal had retracted a 2005 article by Lenzer in which she mistakenly wrote that documents from Eli Lilly had gone “missing” during a 1994 product liability suit. In fact, the BMJ retracted only that statement, not the whole article, as Lichenstein states (a very big difference). Furthermore, given that the journal has continued to publish Lenzer’s work, Lichenstein’s allegation seems even less relevant.
The biggest problem with his response, however, is that it all but ignores the well-documented effects that financial ties to pharmaceutical companies can have on medical opinion, and how central such influence has become to discussions of drug safety. The issue of whether antidepressants increase the risk of suicide is joined at the hip with the issue of whether the drug industry’s full-court “information” campaigns, along with the selectivity with which the industry has released study data, have made it impossible to fairly evaluate suicide and other risks and side effects associated with antidepressant use.