In recent years, experts (like Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel) have warned that press freedoms are under increasing threat from economic pressures. As advertising and readers flee to the Web, they say, news outlets are more likely to cave in to pressure from corporate and political interests. Here's a disturbing example of this trend.
A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a reporter for The Coast newspaper in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The reporter, Tim Bousquet, had discovered that the Liberal Party candidate in Halifax for the upcoming federal elections, Dr. Stan Kutcher, was one of the co-authors of Paxil study 329, a controversial clinical trial on the use of Paxil in treating depression in adolescent. When it was first published in 2001, study 329 purported to show that Paxil was safe and effective when in fact the actual data showed the opposite, as I reported in Side Effects and subsequent blogs. What New York prosecutors, several researchers and I found was that the study's authors manipulated and omitted data to make Paxil look safer and more effective in adolescents than it really was -- see background here. Given the study's serious flaws, researchers Jon Jureidini and Leemon McHenry recently called on the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to retract the 2001 paper, according to the British Medical Journal.
Last Thursday, five days before the Halifax elections, which are being held May 2, Bousquet posted this article about Kutcher's involvement in study 329. Bousquet quoted me as saying that the researchers "essentially distorted the outcome measures." He also quoted Kutcher as saying that he stood by study 329 and didn't think it had caused any particular controversy. I thought the article was accurate except for two facts the reporter got wrong: he said that a secretary at Brown had leaked the information to me in 2003, when in fact the person who first blew the whistle on study 329 was the assistant research director in the department of psychiatry at Brown, and she first made me aware of some of study 329's flaws in 1996. As I explain in Side Effects, I was unable to pin down those particular allegations until 2004, when the New York State Attorney General's office sued GlaxoSmithKline for defrauding consumers by not telling them or doctors the full story about Paxil. In their lawsuit, the New York prosecutors found numerous flaws in the study 329, including the fact that the researchers had changed the primary outcome measures for the trial without disclosing that fact in the published paper. They also found that GlaxoSmithKline knew that the study 329's results were negative -- i.e. -- that the clinical trial didn't find Paxil more effective than placebo in treating depression -- but according to an internal memo, company officials decided to publish the study as a positive result anyway and indeed had it ghost-written by a medical contractor and then signed off on by all the co-authors, including Kutcher.
Kutcher's lawyers immediate responded to Bousquet's April 28 article by threatening to sue the newspaper for libel unless it immediately issued a retraction. Even though Bousquet backed up his article's assertions with documentation, the Coast decided to issue an apology and retraction anyway; see here. And then the newspaper simply removed the original article from its website; see here. So now readers of The Coast can see the apology but not why it was issued in the first place. Fortunately, a website called Scribd saved Bousquet's original piece along with a follow-up article about Kutcher's threat to sue The Coast if it didn't retract the piece.
As you can see from Scribd's follow-up piece, a blog here, and some comments on the original article (all of which were removed), Kutcher's hatchetmen are trying to paint me as a Scientologist in an effort to discredit me and the original story. That's a tactic as old as dirt; as a mental health reporter for The Boston Globe in the '80s and '90s, I remember when the drug industry and the psychiatrists on its payroll used that ridiculous canard to attack anyone who questioned their wonder drugs; indeed, in Side Effects, I write about how Eli Lilly, among others, attacked Dr. Martin Teicher, a respected psychiatric researcher at McLean Hospital, as a Scientologist when he first raised questions about the safety of Prozac in the early '90s.
All of this makes me wonder: where have The Coast and its editors been all these years? And do they really want to go down in history as an example of the not-so-free press buckling under to craven threats?