As Homer Simpson told us, the "Sturgeon General" must be a very wise fish indeed, what with helping chart a course in protecting the health of millions of Americans, issuing warnings on dangers (smoking is bad!), and disseminating important information. So it's fair to question whether CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta has what it takes.
According to news reports, Dr. Gupta has been approached by the Barack Obama transition team to serve as the new administration's Surgeon General. In fact, some sources have said Obama has already offered the role.
The word in the blogomill seems to be that Gupta is very interested, despite the fact that he would have to take a considerable pay cut, being a prominent TV talking head and all (he does have two kids and a pregnant wife to support). Obama has reportedly said that Gupta would be the highest-profile person to take the role in history (no surprise there), and that he could have an expanded role in health policy advice. The Michigan-born son of Indian parents had been a White House fellow in the late 1990s, writing speeches and crafting policy for Hillary Clinton.
Gupta is a skilled surgeon who even distinguished himself saving lives in Iraq, while embedded with a Navy unit. But not everyone is bully on the choice. A number of people, including prominent New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, are uncomfortable with the fact that Gupta harshly criticized Michael Moore for his muckraking Sicko, when most observers believe Moore's work holds up better than the "fudging" Gupta accused him of.
For his part, pundit Keith Olbermann had this quip about the possible nomination: "Isn't this like making Judge Judy the Attorney General?" Olbermann argued that Gupta is "transparently TV," and wonders if the media connection is an evolution of the Surgeon General's role. Others have wondered if Gupta has enough public health experience.
Gupta once told Wolf Blitzer, "We spend so much of our health care budget towards taking care of people after they've already become sick, instead of preventing some of those diseases in the first place. Medically and morally, it makes a lot of sense to keep people from getting sick in the first place, and I think that has got to be a big component of fixing the health care system overall."
That's a very commendable position, and one we at TDG absolutely support. However, we question whether Dr. Gupta's record while including many examples of commendable journalism really lives up to such ideals on balance. Now, we take a look back at Gupta's most disturbing positions:
TDG's own contributor, Chris Mooney, blasted Gupta in the Columbia Journalism Review for giving wide-eyed coverage of the Raelian cult's highly dubious claims of having cloned a human being back in 2002. Mooney faults Gupta for saying the Raelian-connected Clonaid group had "the capacity to clone," and, "We are certainly going to be anxiously awaiting to see some of the proof from these independent scientists next week." Despite the fact that Clonaid was providing no evidence of the purported "Eve" whatsoever, not even a photo.
UPDATE: Reddit user pinxox points out that Clonaid claims to be close to revealing its cloning successes over the past years. We find that highly dubious.
Here's some background on those wacky Raelians:
In a much lampooned segment pointing out that toxic phthalates have been found in Apple iPhones, the news gets obscured by distracting talk of needing to eat your electronics in order to receive any negative effects. Despite the widespread evidence of harm from phthalates, Gupta soft-pedals and downplays the risks:
"As we've been talking about, it's really hard to quantify just how much of a risk these phthalates are. Most of the studies have been done on animals. There's not human trials that actually show that they might be harmful, but a lot of people worried about it nonetheless."
UPDATE: Actually, a number of human studies have shown harm. For example, a recent study conducted by the University of Rochester Medical Center and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that exposure to phthalates not only causes reproductive problems in men (as suggested by a previous study) but is also linked to abdominal obesity and insulin resistance in adult males.
Later, Gupta does concede:
"So, you know, the likelihood of them being in combination possibly causing some detrimental effect is something that hasn't been studied as well."
If Dr. Gupta would stick more to this precautionary line, he'd be better able to protect the health of our sensitive populations.
In a strange article for Time, Gupta criticized supports of marijuana decriminalization for small possession, saying supporters of the law are just interested in getting stoned, not providing valuable medicine to those in pain. Gupta admits that marijuana can have benefits for some patients, but then he seems to fall on the favor of draconian control laws, instead of the rights of patients and doctors to best decide their own health care.
This is what he wrote: "But I'm here to tell you, as a doctor, that despite all the talk about the medical benefits of marijuana, smoking the stuff is not going to do your health any good." But what about those in pain and with glaucoma, whom he just wrote could be helped?
Here's Barack Obama arguing that going after those who use medical marijuana is "not a good use of our resources":
Counterpunch argues that Gupta oversold Merck's Gardasil vaccine for young girls, starting back in 2006, before the FDA had approved the drug, but after the manufacturer had started a PR and marketing blitz, including targeting of journos. According to Counterpunch, the clinical trials of Gardasil never tested for preventing cervical cancer, despite the fact that Gupta hyped the product for that use. The site argues that Gupta failed to mention that medical experts warn that the jury is still out on what impact this vaccine might actually have on cervical cancer rates. (Gupta also did not disclose that Gardasil was not tested on young girls before being approved, who may respond differently than adult subjects.)
Here's an excerpt from the Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees broadcast on June 29, 2006:
"GUPTA: 'Now there is a way to prevent the virus from ever taking hold in the first place. It's a vaccine. Typically, you think of vaccines for the measles or chicken pox. But Gardasil protects you against cancer. Trials showed the vaccine could lower cervical cancer rates by 70 percent.'
However, according to Counterpunch, "The clinical trials for Gardasil showed no such thing. Even Merck is not making this wild and unsupported claim." The site continued, "On May 17, 2007, CNN aired an interview between Dr. Gupta and First Lady Laura Bush. The First Lady endorses mass inoculations of children with Gardasil on the basis that it will protect them later in life against cervical cancer. Gupta does not challenge her on the fact that there is zero evidence that the vaccine provides such long-term protection. The vaccine's own researcher acknowledges this."
I couldn't determine the date of this clip, but in this report Gupta does not point out any of the potential downsides, or lack of long-term evidence, of Gardasil:
Then there's Vioxx, Merck's disgraced, canceled drug pulled off the market in 2004 after an increased risk of heart disease surfaced among users. There were thousands of lawsuits (settled for just under $5 billion), which faulted Merck for hiding dangers of the drug. But Gupta told Miles O'Brien on CNN's American Morning on October 30, 2003:
"Miles O'Brien: Let's talk about Vioxx. Some indication it might increase the risk of heart attack?
"Gupta: This stat has been around since August of 2001. They talked about the increase of heart attack with Vioxx. The numbers are very small. Perhaps a small percentage increase in the overall risk of heart attacks with Vioxx. They say 37 percent to 39 percent but that's of a very small number. After 90 days, no increased risk."
Bizarre words from Gupta, who later told reporters that he got that information from Merck, the drug's maker.
Counterpunch points out that Gupta benefited from a lucrative "integrated marketing" arrangement, whereby his work with AccentHealth (which makes TV programs for doctor waiting offices) received substantial support from Merck something Gupta did not disclose in his reports.
Here's some more damming reporting on Vioxx, and how Merck knew of serious risks back in 2001, which they did not disclose (including 8 deaths):
The most infamous report by Dr. Sanjay Gupta was his scathing attack of Sicko, in which he accused the filmmaker of "fudging" facts. However, a detailed review by Moore's team pokes massive trauma-sized holes in the doctor's attacks. For example, Gupta said Moore falsely claimed the U.S. spends $7,000 per person on health care when the Bush administration's own report from 2006 bore this out (Gupta based his charge on an outdated report, but did not disclose this to viewers). In contrast, Cuba spent $251 per person (not $25, as Gupta first claimed, then retracted), despite being ranked only two slots lower in overall coverage by the World Health Organization (something the movie points out, but which Gupta bizarrely implied Moore was trying to hide).
Gupta said Moore falsely claimed Cubans live longer than Americans, while the most current data available at that time demonstrated Sicko's accuracy. The 2006 United Nations Human Development Report put U.S. life expectancy at 77.5 years, while Cuba's was listed as 77.6 years by the United Nations Development Programme in that year.
Gupta also featured Moore critic Paul Keckley, whom he identified as affiliated only with Vanderbilt University, when in actuality Keckley has deep ties to the insurance industry and private sector. The list of other factual problems with Gupta's attack goes on and on. One would hope the Surgeon General would be more accurate on such an important issue. (To many viewers, the worst part of this wasn't so much the quibbling over facts, but Gupta's hostile, dismissive attitude, and his resorting to childish defense of the American system, which many Americans are very unhappy with especially the 45 million or so with no insurance whatsoever.)
Of course, it should be said that Gupta has also filed some pretty impressive stories, including this work with Anderson Cooper on toxic mining pollution in China, which couldn't be embedded. I've also heard from at least one journo who has worked with him that he is normally a very nice guy. He does seem more reasonable than a lot of other jerkoff talking heads on TV, that's true.
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