Which Paper Do You Read?
The papers don't always see eye-to-eye on how to play a story, but there's usually unanimity on whether a suspect is indicted or exonerated. But if you read what the local papers had to say about AIDS researcher Robert Gallo this month, you must have wondered if he'd retrieved his good name or was now in the deepest trouble of his life.
The Tribune story, written by John Crewdson and blazed across the top of page one, began like this:
"WASHINGTON--The National Institutes of Health Friday ordered a formal, full-scale investigation into several aspects of the award-winning scientific research of Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the government's most prominent--and most controversial--AIDS researcher."
The Sun-Times story, which ran inside, was lifted from the Washington Post wire. It began:
"The National Institutes of Health yesterday effectively cleared researcher Robert C. Gallo of the allegation that he stole the discovery of the AIDS virus from a fellow researcher."
Both stories were accurate. Gallo got good news from the NIH, although you wouldn't know it from Crewdson. But it could have been better news. As the reporter who sicced the NIH on Gallo in the first place, Crewdson predictably focused on the down side. But that was a defensible angle: the New York Times began its story with a virtually identical lead.
Last November, the Tribune published Crewdson's 50,000-word opus "The Great AIDS Quest," which placed Gallo squarely under suspicion of scientific theft. The virus Gallo, laboratory chief at the National Cancer Institute, presented to the world in 1984 as the cause of AIDS was "a virtual genetic twin of the virus that had really been discovered by his rivals in Paris [at the Pasteur Institute] and delivered to him months before," Crewdson reported. The French had sent Gallo their virus for study as a professional courtesy.
The question long unanswered was whether Gallo had then knowingly claimed the French virus as his own. After two years of research Crewdson had no answer to this question. He could only report, "The evidence is compelling that it was either an accident or a theft." Scientists already knew this.
Still, Crewdson's work was intriguing, and Democratic representative John Dingell of Michigan, whose House subcommittee oversees the NIH, was inspired to ask the NIH to look deeper. The NIH promptly launched an "inquiry," which was conducted by a team from its Office of Scientific Integrity and overseen by a panel of 11 outside consultants.
At 4 PM on the Friday before the long Columbus Day weekend, about the worst imaginable time for the media to have such a complicated story tossed in their laps, the acting director of the NIH saw fit to issue a progress report. Dr. William Raub's four-paragraph statement was so impenetrably vague that it is no wonder reporters didn't agree on what it meant.
"The inquiry has resolved certain of the publicized allegations and issues or shown them to be without substance," said Raub. "In particular, the inquiry team has concluded that Dr. Gallo had a substantial number of HIV detections and isolations from several different sources at the critical time that HTLLV-IIIB (the principal virus isolated by the Gallo laboratory) and LAV (the virus isolated by the Pasteur Institute) were being grown in Gallo's laboratory."
In other words--and other words are badly needed here--even if the viral strain Gallo was mass-producing when he announced that he'd found the cause of AIDS (he used this strain to make an AIDS blood test) was actually the one from France, it was not the only AIDS virus Gallo's lab had growing at the time.
So? So if Gallo already was growing other strains of the virus he had no motive to swipe the one sent him from France. Raub didn't come right out and say this. But it's what reporters seemed invited to infer.
Crewdson declined the invitation. In fact, in a follow-up article two days later, he insisted that the coming "formal investigation" gives the NIH the opportunity to answer this question: "Did the French virus accidentally contaminate Gallo's virus cultures, or was it simply appropriated by Gallo or his chief virologist . . . who is also a subject of this investigation?"
Hold on! Appropriation's the very issue that Raub just signaled was "without substance." Crewdson is out of the country, so we couldn't ask him why he didn't point this out, and none of his editors seemed to have a clue. "He's become more of a retrovirologist than anybody in the building," said managing editor Dick Ciccone. At the Tribune, they don't necessarily understand Crewdson's articles; they just print them.
Other reporters did point it out. The Washington Post talked to an unnamed NIH researcher who said, "All of the major questions relating to the conduct and integrity of the laboratory have been eliminated. This is a tremendous victory for Gallo."
A reporter for Science magazine, with days instead of hours to put together her story, got to Raub himself. "We have no reason to believe the virus was misappropriated," Raub said. And an unnamed member of the oversight panel told Science, "There was never any positive evidence of theft. And now, having seen his records, we know there was no motive. There was no conceivable reason to steal anything."
This is the language of exoneration, and a disinterested reporter would report it. Crewdson is not disinterested. It appears he tailored his reporting to what he thinks is really true. Last November he wrote that Gallo's own lab records raised "serious questions" as to whether the lab could grow any of its other AIDS viruses in serious quantities. If Raub now said the lab could--well, Raub could be wrong.
Fortunately, Raub's statement continued, "I have determined, however, that certain issues identified during the inquiry phase warrant a formal investigation." This investigation, he said, will focus on possible misstatements in a paper from Gallo's laboratory published in a May 1984 Science, and on trying to establish beyond any doubt if Gallo's virus came from France.
So Crewdson triumphally hung his hat on the phrase "formal investigation." His two articles--and a subsequent Tribune editorial that did acknowledge the hard kernel of exculpation in Raub's statement--took a stern, now-the-truth-shall-emerge tone that suggests the Tribune would much rather see its own research vindicated than Gallo's. But Barbara Culliton, the Science reporter, who has been covering the NIH for 20 years, is less impressed by the investigation Raub's decreed. "The main allegation has been resolved," she told us. "And if they do find things that are wrong with the paper--it's like the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor."
The "hands-on investigation"--Raub's phrase--will be conducted by a team of three outside scientists overseen by the same 11-member review panel. An investigation, according to NIH semantics, can lead to finding fault; an inquiry merely finds facts. But Culliton isn't sure what's left to uncover.
As she wrote, "The NIH inquiry team has conducted more than 20 interviews with Gallo during the past few months, each lasting several hours. . . . It has reviewed hundreds of pages of laboratory records and interviewed key members of the lab. If that isn't a 'hands-on' investigation, it will be interesting to see what 'hands-on' means as the new investigation takes shape."
She told us that among researchers, it's long been understood what Dr. Gallo has a right to take credit for and what he hasn't and that for years Gallo's own claims have been in line with reality. But in reaction to Congressman Dingell and the Tribune, the NIH has insisted on going back over everything, at whatever cost to AIDS research.
"One thing that's come out of this," Culliton told us, "is that the Gallo lab was almost paralyzed in terms of doing research. They've had to spend an enormous amount of time responding. They've had to respond to every allegation and innuendo in Crewdson's article, even to the ones that refer not to 'crimes' but to whether Gallo is a nice guy."
Kup, October 7: "Brian Dennehy, star of 'The Iceman Cometh,' cometh to Carlucci to spool spaghetti."
Sneed, October 9: "Actor Brian Dennehy was spotted perusing the menu at Old Town's hot new eatery, Trattoria Ginotto."
Sneed, October 10: "Actor Brian 'The Hunk' Dennehy, who is starring at the Goodman Theatre in 'The Iceman Cometh,' ate at Carlucci's restaurant with Kurt 'Humma Humma' Russell, Goldie Hawn's slice of life."
There's a high level of media interest in where you eat, we advised Brian Dennehy. So he understood. We want to help get the word out, we told him. Call us once a week with a list of the establishments you're favoring, and we'll make it a special feature.
Dennehy was intrigued, but he saw a problem. "The only time I actually go to restaurants is on Monday night, when we're dark," he said. "Maybe you can say Dennehy's very unhappy with the fact there are no restaurants in Chicago that serve past midnight and that makes it very difficult when you're in a play that comes down at 11:45."
We were surprised at Dennehy's lack of information about our world-class city. Actually, it is almost impossible to find a restaurant that serves past 10 PM.
"The place I probably eat more than any other place is Mitchell's at North and Clark," he went on. "The reason is because it's open odd hours. I eat veggies and turkey, whatever. I can sit down, read my book, and get the hell out of there."
We could not recollect a single published sighting of Dennehy at Mitchell's, either perusing the menu, spooling the spaghetti, or performing any of the other feats of celebrityhood that Chicago's crack newshounds manage to track down by picking up the phone when restaurateurs call to tout their joints. Don't they know who is in their midst? we asked.
"Yeah, they seem to know me. Vaguely," Dennehy said. "It's not that kind of place. It's a diner. You can only with the greatest flexibility of language call it a restaurant. But it's fine."
Having rebuffed our proposal, Dennehy brooded about letting Chicago journalism down. "The last time I was here and the time before I was drinking," he said. "Now I'm so boring. I'm not getting into fights at Kingston Mines anymore. It's frustrating when people straighten up and fly right and get boring, and God knows I'm boring."
Truth is, he makes riveting copy every time he lifts a fork. But there was no arguing with him.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP--World Wide Photos.