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Medical Muddle/12 Numbskulls


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Medical Muddle

Besides being a medical milestone, that historic liver transplant at the University of Chicago a few weeks ago made an interesting case study in news management.

In the surgeons' minds, the best publicity prior to this daring operation (in which two persons conceivably could die) was no publicity. It wasn't to be. A week before a piece of the liver of Teresa Smith, 29, was sewn into her 21-month-old daughter Alyssa, articles appeared in the Sun-Times and Arlington Heights Herald; there was a New York Times article the morning of the operation; and--most disconcerting to the university--Dr. Barry Kaufman of Channel Five broadcast a report the night before.

A few days later, a member of the surgical team, Dr. Peter Whitington, happened to speak at a conference on liver disease. Wasn't coverage of your transplant somewhat excessive? Whitington was asked.

Don't blame the University of Chicago, responded Whitington, director of pediatric transplant services at the University of Chicago Medical Center. We intended to keep the lid on until we'd finished the operation, and then issue a press release. But the Smith family saw fit to stir up publicity back home in San Antonio and the wires picked up the story.

We did give two journalists permission to be present at the operation, the doctor added. Two men with gleaming credentials: the Tribune's Jeff Lyon and Channel Five's Barry Kaufman. Lyon is a lay member of the medical center's Pediatric Ethics Committee, which examines the ethical dimensions of new clinical procedures. The living-donor transplant was one of those procedures, and Lyon wanted to write a Tribune magazine article about the medical and philosophical steps leading up to the actual operation. Kaufman has maintained a close relationship with the university's liver transplant team since it was established in 1984. A few years ago he helped two mourning parents establish the Johnny Genna Foundation, which helps underwrite the training of doctors in the treatment of liver disease. The foundation's medical director is Dr. Peter Whitington.

Whitington surely believed he was describing a sensible--even generous--accommodation with the media. But that's not how one member of his audience saw it--Charles-Gene McDaniel, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Roosevelt University. McDaniel was attending the conference on liver disease in his capacity as Chicago correspondent for the Medical Post of Toronto.

"I think it's terrible," McDaniel told us afterward. "It's an obvious conflict of interest. The University of Chicago is playing favorites. It's like insider trading, when business reporters get insider information. I worked for the AP for 20 years, and here we have two reporters in prestigious positions and whether they seek it or not are given special treatment. It sucks! Especially somebody on the ethics committee who violates what we consider the ethics of journalism."

McDaniel meant the ethic obliging journalists to keep a certain distance from the people they're covering. That ethic aside, Lyon was splendidly qualified for his committee: he'd won a Pulitzer in 1987 for his series "Altered Fates: The Promise of Gene Therapy" that was weighty with ethical concerns.

"I'm not going to apologize for getting an exclusive," Lyon told us. "That's my job." He'd known months before the actual operation that the medical center was preparing to do a living donor transplant.

University spokesman John Easton pointed out to us that Lyon and Kaufman got to attend the operation for one overarching reason: they were the first to ask. There was just so much room--the surgical team hadn't booked the Rosemont Horizon. Still, their expertise made them ideal. And the university liked the idea of having a TV crew on hand: WMAQ had promised to share its tape after the fact with any other station that wanted it.

The one thing these arrangements failed to take into account was the realities of journalism. A week or so before the operation, Easton received a call from Howard Wolinsky, medical writer at the Sun-Times. An excellent reporter, Wolinsky had actually written about the living-donor venture sooner than any other journalist in Chicago. Last summer, he'd heard of such a transplant being done in Brazil--under the guidance of a doctor from the University of Chicago, where a similar operation was being considered. "Reluctantly, the people at the university did an interview with me," says Wolinsky, who ran a story on the U. of C. project and then "from time to time" checked in to see if an operation had been scheduled yet. No, the medical center kept telling him.

Now the AP was reporting an operation finally at hand. Wolinsky asked to interview the family. And Easton said no! The Smiths had been interviewed by the Tribune and by Channel Five; enough was enough. But Easton assured Wolinsky he was at less of a disadvantage than it seemed: the Tribune and WMAQ had agreed to keep the story under wraps until the operation was over.

Wolinsky was furious. The letter he promptly composed to Dr. Samuel Hellman, dean of the U. of C.'s Pritzker Medical School, brought to Hellman's attention "a disturbing situation" involving "efforts . . . to manage the media on a major story."

Wolinsky said Easton had told him "a news embargo had been arranged so that only certain reporters and news organizations--selected by the physicians involved--would have access to the Smiths, donor-recipient family, and U. of C. physicians.

"It seems absurd that a story already widely reported in Texas could be blacked out in Chicago," Wolinsky argued with unassailable logic. He went on to denounce "secret deals with local news organizations. . . . For a breaking story, all news organizations ought to have equal access."

Sportingly, Wolinsky did not fault Lyon. He saluted him "for not taking advantage of his position to obtain stories. He certainly could have beat me initially with the live-donor transplant story." Instead, he accused the university of compromising Lyon, "placing him in a type of conflict of interest, the journalistic version of insider trading." (As Wolinsky talked to McDaniel before McDaniel talked to us, it may be no coincidence that McDaniel brandished the same metaphor.)

When Wolinsky called the dean's office to get his fax number he wound up speaking to Hellman, but he faxed the letter anyway. Wolinsky received some satisfaction. Easton offered him an interview with the Smith family ahead of time if he'd agree to respect the embargo; Wolinsky refused, instead borrowing quotes from a week-old AP story out of San Antonio for an article on the upcoming operation, but then Easton set up the interview anyway. Wolinsky raised a little more hell when he called radio and TV stations around town "and basically laid it out to them they were getting second-class treatment."

But Howard Wolinsky was less of an aggravation than Barry Kaufman.

The day before the operation, Kaufman called Easton. In light of the AP story, Wolinsky's piece a few days earlier, and the Arlington Heights Herald article, the embargo was meaningless, Kaufman reasoned. So he wanted to run his interview with the parents that night. Kaufman told us, "I indicated if I waited until Monday night [after the operation] it'd be pretty moot what I had.

"I knew John felt uncomfortable about my going Sunday night," Kaufman told us. Easton felt so uncomfortable that he briefly considered booting Channel Five out of the operating room altogether and inviting another station in. But "we wanted a crew that was experienced," Easton says. "At the last minute, I think it would have been too difficult to switch arrangements."

So Easton spent the rest of that Sunday afternoon calling up the other media and telling them the embargo had been lifted (he caught up with the New York Times reporter at Newark Airport, and she pushed her story up a day; Lyon, on the other hand, stood pat). "It certainly changed the way I wound up spending my Monday," Easton reflected. "Instead of preparing for a press conference on Tuesday to announce the surgery had been done, I had at one time 11 television cameras and who knows how many print and radio reporters camped out in a lobby."

In a last-minute attempt to make amends with the Sun-Times, Easton decided to allow a photographer from that paper into the operating area along with the Tribune's Charles Osgood.

But the surgeons put their feet down. The Sun-Times settled for a university handout.

12 Numbskulls

A patriotic search may soon be on for the 12 most ignorant people in America. This would be the numbskull jury of his peers trying Manuel Noriega on federal drug-trafficking charges in Miami. Eventually--if George Bush gets what he insists is his way--a dozen solid citizens must be found who have not a drop of prejudice against Noriega in their hearts despite:

Operation Just Cause, the famous military invasion that drove him from power at a cost of some 700 deaths;

President Bush's widely reported assertion that Noriega must "come to justice for poisoning children and people around the world."

Defense Secretary Cheney's widely reported assessment of Noriega as "a common criminal."

the U.S. military command's description of Noriega in a gratuitously written report as a "truly evil man."

the comment by the Joint Chiefs of Staff's director of operations that Noriega was "a crafty devil," and by the chiefs' intelligence adviser that he was "a corrupt, debauched thug."

the comment by David Runkel, spokesman for that citadel of due process, the Justice Department, that Noriega "is not a political refugee, he is a crook."

"I believe it's possible to pick a jury," Richard Gregorie, former lead prosecutor against Noriega in Miami, told the New York Times. "You're going to find a lot of people who don't pay a great deal of attention to the news."

Thank God for MTV!

We'd better hope Gregorie's right. If the charges against him get thrown out of court, Noriega will be a free man. And with no country to run anymore, he might have nothing better to do with his time than to file a rather interesting civil suit against the United States government on grounds of false arrest.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rich Hein--Chicago Sun-Times.

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