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American Medical News Bending to Doctors' Orders / New Sun-Times Columnist Arrives With Baggage

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By Michael Miner

American Medical News Bending to Doctors' Orders

The future of American Medical News makes me think of the past of Astor Street. The most coveted address in Chicago, Astor lacked nothing but enough front doors to meet the market demand. Clever developers knew how to get around that one; they began tearing down the old houses that made the street so attractive and building high-rises.

Like those developers, the heads of the American Medical Association have faced a problem--though in the AMA's case it was too little demand, not too great. For years the percentage of doctors who belong to the AMA has been slipping, and now only two in five belong. Health News Daily reported last week that "AMA suffered a $1.3 mil. shortfall in anticipated member dues revenues for 1996."

Respected for its independence and the quality of its reporting, the weekly American Medical News wasn't the culprit in the AMA's decline; on the contrary, it was a membership perk doctors welcomed. Stuffed with advertising, it earned the AMA a seven-figure annual profit. But in journalism as in real estate, why leave well enough alone? Managers of the ailing AMA concluded that the News should take a more active role in the healing process.

This would involve getting the News a little more on message--while of course not compromising its vaunted integrity one iota. Reporters there can be forgiven for feeling queasy. Early this year Harris Meyer, a first-rate reporter with an attitude, was dismissed for insubordination. Before editor Barbara Bolsen fired him she put him on probation, and the reason she gave him was his failure to warn her that an article he'd turned in on medicare was politically sensitive: he'd interviewed an AMA trustee who said he didn't like the direction Meyer seemed to be headed in.

But Bolsen didn't know there was a problem until she got a call from the AMA's general counsel. "As you know," she told Meyer in a memo, "the newspaper's relationship with members of the AMA Board of Trustees requires careful management, a task I am responsible for....I cannot carry out my responsibilities when information about staff members' interactions with trustees is withheld."

Meyer later had himself nominated for the Headline Club's first Ethics in Journalism Award, which he won--according to the citation--"for laying his job on the line." In a letter to the judges explaining why he'd make a deserving winner, Meyer stated that for more than a year "AMA leaders tried to suppress my articles and get rid of me because they believed my work undercut the AMA's political positions on issues before Congress, notably the AMA's opposition to health care reform."

It would be unfair to Bolsen to suggest she threw Meyer off the back of the wagon to save herself; various sources have told me that Meyer's behavior gave Bolsen cause to can him. But the changing politics of the News certainly affected his behavior. A more autonomous News probably would have offered working conditions that would have made it possible for Meyer to put up with the News and Bolsen to put up with Meyer.

At any rate, he's long gone. And this month Bolsen followed him out the door. After 5 years as editor and 23 at the AMA, she assembled her staff and tearfully told them she was quitting. The official reason for her resignation, she said, was irreconcilable differences with senior management. What this meant, she went on, was that P. John Seward, executive vice president of the AMA, and Kenneth Monroe, chief operating officer, had lost confidence in her as editor.

Members of her staff took this to mean they'd lost confidence in her ability to toe the line.

Last January the News published a revised mission statement that made the paper more explicitly the voice of the AMA. Its "critical objectives" would now include "report[ing] AMA activities and concerns in the context of the broader health care arena, while maintaining editorial integrity, fairness, objectivity and responsibility" and "advocat[ing] through its editorials the policies and positions of the AMA and to provide opportunities for AMA leaders to inform members and prospective members about the activities of the AMA."

The AMA has launched an "icon campaign" to carve out a new image for itself in the minds of doctors and the public as a champion of public health rather than a mere trade association. "We do want credit," said a spokesman. "A lot of physicians who have not chosen to become members might be more interested if they knew the good things we are doing."

The News hasn't escaped a role in this icon building. If there's a contradiction between a pledge of editorial integrity and a pledge to advocate the policies of the AMA, it's one the AMA's board of trustees doesn't seem to have noticed. But no journalist would miss it, and neither would many of the doctors who read the News.

The only AMA official willing to discuss the News with me was Lewis Crampton, vice president of communications. I asked him if the independence of the News was in jeopardy. "I think it's still a highly valued asset," he said. "It's just a matter of creating a little more balance for members, who have expressed in various surveys that they're not quite clear what the AMA is doing for them. Since the News is mailed to all members, it's quite an asset to educate members in what's going on."

Crampton said the AMA doesn't hold the News responsible for the organization's decline and certainly doesn't expect the paper to reverse it by itself. "But it was felt the American Medical News could do a better job of helping the entire AMA win back market share. One way to do that was to be more explicit about what the AMA is doing for members. The News has always been helpful, but it's expected to be more helpful with a somewhat different emphasis. But again, I don't want to give the impression there's going to be any attempt to get in the way of its traditional journalistic integrity. But inserts, features, other things can be done to make the American Medical News a more helpful soldier along with the rest of us in this membership effort we're making. And that is the number-one mission of all of us--to retain and recruit."

Helpful soldier? There's reason to worry. Enlist any newspaper in a cause greater than itself and it won't be much of a newspaper.

New Sun-Times Columnist Arrives With Baggage

Has the Sun-Times found a Linda Bowles of its own? A born columnist, Bowles writes for the sheer glee of evisceration; Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington is a turgid moralist by comparison. But then Huffington's only been at the game a few months. She has already shown she can inspire frenzy. Last Sunday's month-behind-the-curve rant against Jenny Jones prompted the highly Bowlesian headline "Culture dies a painful death--Daytime TV talk shows suck the very soul out of society by turning it into a freak show." That society's soul is easily sucked is an article of faith among right-wing hysterics.

Huffington's curriculum vitae is world-class. Born in Greece, educated at Cambridge, married to a fortune handed down by a Texas wildcatter, and the author of many books, in-cluding a biography that became the basis of the movie Surviving Picasso, Huffington was hailed this year in a memoir by political consultant Ed Rollins as "the most ruthless, un-scrupulous, and ambitious person I'd met in thirty years in national politics."

Rollins met her in 1994, when he was trying to elect her husband, Michael Huffington (whom Rollins also despised), to the U.S. Senate. Despite Rollins, despite his clever wife, who substituted for him in primary debates, despite the $28 million of his own money he spent on the campaign, Huffington lost a squeaker to incumbent Dianne Feinstein. He gallantly conceded defeat the following February, after a three-month sulk, and he'll be long remembered as the ultimate empty silk suit, who wouldn't have carried his own block except for his father's fortune. A major Republican fund-raiser named Barney Klinger met the Huffingtons for lunch, talked business with Arianna while his fiancee discussed household chores with Michael, told the New Yorker's Sidney Blumenthal that "Huffington would make a very, very good apprentice at a McDonald's. He's totally devoid of any intelligence," and raised $100,000 for Feinstein.

Arianna Huffington is widely believed to have one overriding goal in life, which is to elect her husband president--which may explain why her column so far has sounded more like Hillary Clinton than Linda Bowles. (All three women, by the way, are represented by the same Los Angeles syndicate.)

Yet despite herself, Arianna didn't make her husband's campaign any easier. Even in California voters were troubled by her identification with something called the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (the acronym is pronounced "messiah") and its guru, John-Roger, a former schoolteacher who claims a high consciousness entered him during a kidney-stone operation. A former colleague of John-Roger's wrote a book alleging some nasty sexual behavior involving the guru and teenage boys, and Arianna had to insist that she and MSIA had parted company years earlier. She didn't deny that her spiritual quest had led her to become an ordained "minister of light" in the movement and the confidant of John-Roger, who reportedly baptized her in the Jordan River.

Sun-Times readers should be aware that aside from stray political ambitions, spiritual values are what give her life its meaning. The cognitive dissonance can only be imagined when the Wall Street Journal reported during the '94 Senate race that her husband's company had once been fined by the Commerce Department for failing to acquire a license before shipping shock batons, handcuffs, and billy clubs to authorities in Singapore and Indonesia.

Her most recent book, The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul, appeared just before the election. Full of what a skeptic might dismiss as New Age twaddle, The Fourth Instinct cost the Huffingtons ground among fundamentalist voters, who sniffed a cult. But Arianna's innate spiritual drive is irrepressible; she and another senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation have established the Center for Effective Compassion, whose message, if reduced to four words, would be "Welfare out, charity in." A notable accomplishment of the CEC was to compose a "pledge to renew American compassion." The document's seven principles strike a libertarian ("Promote Freedom: The marketplace is not the cause of poverty; it is the source of wealth at every level") yet pious note ("Rely on Faith in God"). Ingeniously, CEC has put the pledge on-line for one and all to contemplate and E-mail sworn allegiance to. Surely, national renewal can only be achieved by a series of such small steps.

The Progress & Freedom Foundation, by the way, is a three-year-old think tank closely identified with Newt Gingrich. Its president, Jeff Eisenach, used to run Gingrich's political-action committee; and last year the Chicago Tribune reported that more than 80 percent of the foundation's first-year expenditures supported the distribution of Gingrich's videotaped college course "Renewing American Civilization" and a call-in show on the National Empowerment Television cable network that Gingrich helped host.

I'm told that readers had been moaning about the Sun-Times's dreary lineup of Sunday editorial columnists. Pundits baptized in the Jordan River don't come along often, but their track record is impressive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Carl Koch.

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