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Unfit to Print: Case Study in Deceit at the New York Times
May 27, 2003
by Carey Roberts

The Jayson Blair scandal illustrates what happens when a newspaper fails to properly monitor and supervise its own reporters. According to the Times' May 11 exposé of its shoddy editorial practices, "Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth."

But in an interview published 10 days later in the New York Observer, Blair remained unrepentant. He referred to his former bosses as "idiot" editors and bragged, "I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism."

Sadly, the Blair fiasco is not an isolated incident. This is the account of a fact-finding study that was issued by a governmental agency, how the New York Times grossly misreported the study, and how the myth nurtured by the NYT story ultimately influenced the federal legislative process.

The GAO Report...

In 1999, three U.S. Senators requested the General Accounting Office (GAO) to gauge the status of women's health research at the National Institutes of Health.

After a lengthy investigation, the GAO concluded: "In the past decade, NIH has made significant progress in implementing a strengthened policy on including women in clinical research...More than 50% of the participants in clinical research studies that NIH funded in fiscal year 1997 were women."

But this conclusion only told half the story. A closer reading of the GAO report reveals that men's health had been shunted to the back burner at the NIH:

  • In 1997, men represented only 37% of all participants in extramural research studies (Figure 1).
  • In the same year, NIH funded 740 female-only studies, compared to only 244 male-only studies (Table 2).
  • In 1999, 15.5% of the total research budget was allocated to women's health, compared to only 6.4% for men (Table 3).

...As Reported in the New York Times...

NYT medical reporter Robert Pear wrote the scoop on the GAO report, which appeared in the April 30, 2000 edition. The article carried this provocative headline: "Research Neglects Women, Studies Find."

The headline and story reinforced the widespread belief that women were routinely excluded by medical research. But this feminist myth has been long discredited. For example, as early as 1979, 96% of NIH clinical trials included women, according to a 1993 analysis published in the Online Journal of Current Clinical Trials.

But nowhere did the Times article even hint at any of the facts from the GAO report that vividly documented the underrepresentation of men. If truth was the objective, then the headline would have read like this: "Research Neglects Men, GAO Report Finds."

...So Partisan Senators Could Capitalize on the Public Outcry

Responding to the public outcry over the fabricated "neglect" of women's health, the Women's Health Office Act, S. 2675, was introduced in the 106th Congress. The bill was read on June 6, 2000, just five weeks after the NYT article appeared.

The sponsors of the Act included Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland). By remarkable coincidence, these were the same three senators who had originally requested that the GAO conduct the NIH investigation.

Qualifies as Journalism?

The GAO report documented the governmental neglect of men's health. But the Times reporter simply ignored any evidence that challenged the prevailing paradigm of female disadvantage.

Webster's Dictionary defines propaganda as "information, rumors, etc. deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc." So when does a newspaper article become so distorted in its coverage of a fact-finding report that it qualifies more as propaganda than as journalism?

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