Is a sea change taking place at the New York Times ?

The little kid started crying as I approached him with the syringe filled with yellow fluid. He knew that after he was held down and I injected him he would be violently sick and vomit repeatedly.

It was 1964 and this happened at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the kid had acute lymphatic leukemia, and the syringe was full of methotrexate, the antifolate drug in use at the time. I was a third year med student. Although Stanley Milgram had begun his “Obedience to Authority” experiments in 1961 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment, I was hardly a happy or willing participant in the proceedings. I had nightmares about it.

Like all the kids with leukemia at CHOP, the little boy was part of a ‘study’ run by an oncologist, with an accent right out of Boris Karloff. I thought he was a monster. He was so happy that the kids in his branch of the study survived a horrible 21 months, vs. the previous record of 18. I thought that the kids were being kept alive and suffering when they shouldn’t have been, in order to set a new survival record. The study randomized the kids between the new regimen and the current regimen showing the best survival.

Well, I was terribly wrong, and the oncologist was a hero not a monster. Presently the cure rate (not survival) of childhood leukemia is over 90%. We now worry about the long term side effects of the drugs (and radiation) used to cure it — cognitive problems, fertility problems. It was precisely because the new treatment was compared to the best previous treatment that we are where we are today.

What in the world does this have to do with the New York Times?

Simply this, on Monday 21 April the front page of the New York Times contained an article title “50 Years Later, Hardship Hits Back, Poorest Counties Are Still Losing in War on Want”. They don’t call it the “War on Poverty” until the 5th paragraph. Nonetheless, the article (without explicitly saying so) documents just what a failure it has been. Nowhere in the article, is there any mention of why it failed, but it’s clear that only more of the same has been tried — more food stamps, more medicaid, more free school lunches, etc. etc. It is claimed in the article that this lifted tens of thousands above a subsistence standard of living, yet 15% of the populace is still living in poverty and 47/300 million of us are on food stamps.

At least the Times is no longer pretending that the War on Poverty (started in 1964 when I was pushing methotrexate) is a success.

Another sign of a sea change at the Times appeared the day before on the Op-Ed page in an article titled “From Rags to Riches to Rags” in which the notion of a static top 1% in income was debunked. A study of 44 years of longitudinal data of people from 25 to 60 showed that 12% of all of them would be in the top 1% of income for at least one year, and that 39% will be in the top 5% of income for at least 1 year.

A third appeared on the 22nd in a front page article concerning a near lynching by Blacks in Detroit of a white man who hit a child with his car.

In recent years, I’ve thought that I’ve had to read the Times much as the Russians read Pravda during cold war I (and perhaps today). A friend has called it ‘advocacy driven journalism’. Perhaps there will be a shift in orientation from left to right, but, even so, I’m not a fan of having articles #1 and #3 any place other than Op – Ed page. Advocacy journalism is advocacy journalism whether it agrees with your political orientation or not. The 3 articles cited really aren’t news. That’s what the opinion page is for — opinion and background.

80+ years ago my future parents discovered that one of the first things they had in common was that they both read the Times. I grew up with it, and hopefully it will become a great newspaper again.

The failure to try anything new against poverty is a manifestation of the arrogance of the intelligent, about which there will be another post.

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