Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Opposition to Gupta as Surgeon General

Opposition to the possible nomination of Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General is building.

"CNN journalist lacks independent voice to be surgeon general," says Peter Canellos today in the Boston Globe. Representative John Conyers of Michigan is pushing a different candidate, Dr. Herb Smitherman, a public health advocate from Detroit.

I still find it hard to believe Gupta will take the position. He will have a much smaller staff and much tinier budget than he is used to at CNN. Sanjay looks good on television because he is talented but he also has some very capable producers helping him.

If the Surgeon General were just a health educator, then Gupta, who I like very much (for one thing, he never gave me grief when I edited his columns at TIME), would be a surprising but logical step. But there are also policy issues. The SG is supposed to lead the 6,000-person U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. (Per comments on one of my earlier posts, morale there seems very low.) There is also talk Gupta will play a role in the Office of Health Reform (Washington Post), perhaps as salesman for whatever national health care reform the Obama Administration offers?

I would also like to know a lot more about Gupta's relationship to the pharmaceutical industry. This is a question I would ask of any doctor or health journalist who is being considered for government office--and Gupta is both.

We all know that advertising and corporate sponsorship make mainstream media possible. That is why you need to look at the firewalls between the sponsors/advertisers and editorial side in any specialized field, but especially in health, to make sure they are solid.

This is especially true when there is a single sponsor for a television program or print column. Anyone who cared to flip through the pages of TIME Magazine from a few years ago would see that Gupta's column always ran next to ads from Pfizer. The New Republic has written about the pharmaceutical industry's sponsorship of CNN's AccentHealth.

In addition, the practice of accepting speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies is very controversial, to say the least, among health journalists. I have written about why I do not do it. Just last November, we learned that psychiatrist Fred Goodwin, host of NPR's Infinite Mind, received more than a million dollars in consulting fees from drug companies (New York Times). That little conflict of interest left a huge black eye on NPR.

So, I would also like to know a lot more about the speaking fees that Gupta has received over the years from pharmaceutical companies.

This is more than I had planned to write about Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General. But this is something new for health journalism--a health journalist being tapped for a high government position.

The revolving door between government and politics is a lot more common for my colleagues in political journalism--where the potential conflicts there have been looked at in greater depth.

If Gupta and the Obama Administration are serious about the Surgeon General's position, then we need to examine this possible nomination more closely.

Related posts:
AIDS Docs, Gupta, Measles

Questions About Gupta for Surgeon General

Update: See also Gary Schwitzer's extensive critique of Gupta's journalism. Schwitzer used to be head of the medical news unit at CNN.

1 comment:

Monroe Anderson said...

Christine: Good opening shot on the closer examination.