Friday, November 14, 2008

Times Takes On WSJ's AIDS Scoop -- And Loses.

Nine days ago, Wall Street Journal reporter Mark Schoofs broke the story of a 42-year-old American AIDS patient in Berlin whose unusual bone-marrow transplant therapy may have cured his disease.

That breakthrough got picked up by newspapers around the world, and the doctor -- a German hematologist named Gero Hutter -- was hailed as perhaps the first doctor to have discovered a true, curative therapy for AIDS. Nobel Prize-winning physician David Baltimore hailed the approach as "a very good sign."

The extensive reporting by Schoofs (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his AIDS coverage in The Village Voice) explained, in detail, the pros and cons of the gene-therapy approach used by Dr. Hutter, which is under study by other prominent American researchers.

The pros include the possibility that AIDS sufferers might one day not require dependence on costly daily doses of medication -- a development that would be hugely significant in places like Africa, where a pandemic of suffering has left millions without a cure.

It put the best kind of medical journalism on prominent display: a scoop accompanied by the necessary caveats and explainers to give a reader the proper perspective.

So why did nine days go by before Schoof's scoop turned up in this morning's Times, at the bottom of page A12?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the second and third paragraphs, in which reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. significantly discounted the value and meaning of the Journal's exclusive:

But while the case has novel medical implications, experts say it will be of little immediate use in treating AIDS. Top American researchers called the treatment unthinkable for the millions infected in Africa and impractical even for insured patients in top research hospitals.

“It’s very nice, and it’s not even surprising,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “But it’s just off the table of practicality.”

It's important to note that the Journal story clearly included David Baltimore's caution -- in the sixth paragraph -- that "the Berlin case could be a fluke." At the same time, the Journal's careful coverage balanced hope with realism in bringing the latest case to light.

But McNeil would have none of it. His story went on to quote Robert Gallo, a noted (if controversial) AIDS researcher, who emphatically stated his preference for prescriptive therapies. "Frankly, I'd rather take the medicine," Gallo told the Times.

The Journal story took pains to point out the scarcity of definitive data. However, it also went into some detail regarding the history of gene mutation and its startling effect on men, some of whom appeared to have an immunity to the virus as a result of inheriting a so-called CCR5 mutation from their parents. Hutter's treatment, in this case, involved performing a bone marrow transplant to an AIDS sufferer from a donor who had inherited the mutation from both parents.

McNeil was generous enough to have credited the Journal with the scoop in the seventh paragraph of his story. But wouldn't it have meant more if the credit hadn't followed a wholesale belittling of the story's reporting and thesis?

By burying the Journal's scoop inside the paper amid negative quotes and doubting prose, The Times revealed only that its desire to do battle with Rupert Murdoch's paper may mean more than its desire to inform its own readers.

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