By: Gene Johnson, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The Seattle Times publicly responded Friday to a Wall Street Journal column that, just weeks before the Pulitzer Prizes will be announced, attacked the Times‘ entry about patient deaths at a leading cancer center.
The opinion column by Laura Landro, an assistant managing editor at the Journal, charged that a series the Times published a year ago about clinical trials at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was “fundamentally false.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Landro — a cancer survivor who was treated at the center — acknowledged she wrote Tuesday’s column in an attempt to derail The Seattle Times‘ chances of winning any more prizes for the series.
The Seattle Times ran Landro’s piece Friday, along with a rebuttal from Executive Editor Michael Fancher, who argued that Landro “fails to offer a single factual inaccuracy” to support her claim.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Fancher said he was astonished by her column’s timing. “It’s highly unusual,” he said. “I was stunned The Wall Street Journal would publish such an attack without doing anything to verify it.”
Landro was on vacation and could not be reached for comment Friday, a co-worker said.
Journal spokesman Steven Goldstein said Landro’s critique is an op-ed piece, expressing her personal views. “People interested should read Laura’s op-ed and should read what The Seattle Times has written and draw their own conclusions,” Goldstein said. “The fact that it’s drawing discussion and debate is a good thing because that’s what op-eds do.”
The Times‘ five-story series, published in March 2001, already has won several journalism awards, including the George Polk award for medical reporting, the Associated Press Managing Editors’ public service award, first place in investigative reporting by the National Headliner Awards, and the Heywood Broun Award.
The series also has been considered for a Pulitzer, journalism’s highest honor. Those prizes are to be announced April 8.
In the series, the Times alleged that cancer patients died prematurely in two clinical trials at the Hutchinson center in the 1980s. Unbeknownst to the patients, the center and some of its doctors had a potential financial interest in those experiments, the Times reported.
The doctors running the experiments never told patients the trials in which they were involved were failing at an alarmingly high rate, the articles said. Nor were patients told that conventional treatments would give them a good chance of survival or at least a longer life, the newspaper reported.
The Hutchinson center has challenged the Times‘ findings and harshly criticized the series. Dr. Lee Hartwell, the center’s president and director, said Times reporters failed to understand that clinical trials are not standard treatments.
Following the series, an advisory committee formed by the center’s board of trustees recommended that the center overhaul its patient consent and conflict-of-interest rules. The families of several deceased patients have sued the center.
In her piece, Landro said she was upset the series has won so many awards.
“Rather than racking up prizes, it should be used as a textbook case on how the media can convey biased and misleading information about biomedical research,” she wrote. “It left out crucial facts, distorted others and ignored everything that didn’t fit its sensational thesis.”
For example, she said, the articles omitted that the Hutchinson center was the first of its kind to end the experimental bone marrow transplants in question when it became apparent they weren’t working.
In his response, Fancher said the series’ aim was to question what patients have a right to know about the clinical trials in which they’re involved. He said Landro was understandably attached to the center and urged an editor in an informal encounter not to do anything that would hurt the institution.
Landro, speaking through the Journal spokesman, denied she tried to influence the newspaper before the series’ publication. “As a matter of fact, she only became aware of the story at a memorial service,” Goldstein said. “Someone from the Times sat next to her and indicated they were running the story.”
Proceeds from Landro’s book, “Survivor: Taking Control of Your Fight Against Cancer,” benefit the Hutchinson center, Fancher noted. “Unfortunately, Ms. Landro is unable to separate her own experience as a patient from her duties as a journalist,” he wrote.
Fancher said the Times ran Landro’s piece alongside his own “in the spirit of complete openness about our coverage.” He said he has also submitted a rebuttal piece to the Journal.