Back when I was in law school, our lecturer raised this hypothetical: A newspaper runs a story about Bill Smith seen entering a house of prostitution. Can Bill Smith sue the newspaper for defamation?
It turns out he can if Bill was simply a plumber there to fix a leaky faucet.
Defamation is not simply about facts. It's about innuendos.
"Radio Host Has Drug Company Ties," ran a story in the Nov 21 New York Times.
The article revealed that Frederick Goodwin MD, host of "The Infinite Mind," which aired on NPR earned at least $1.3 million from drug companies from 2000 to 2007, income that was not reported on the show.
Dr Goodwin, former head of the NIMH, is the leading authority on bipolar disorder.
According to the NY Times, on one show Dr Goodwin told his audience that “modern treatments — mood stabilizers in particular — have been proven both safe and effective in bipolar children.” That same year, Dr Goodwin received more than $300,000 from GSK "for promoting Lamictal."
On another show, according to the article, Dr Goodwin stated that "there is no credible evidence linking antidepressants to violence or to suicide." The NY Times pointed out at the same time that Dr Goodwin received funding from GSK, "which for years suppressed studies showing that its antidepressant, Paxil, increased suicidal behaviors."
According to the NY Times, the producer of "The Infinite Mind," Bill Lichtenstein, "asked [Dr Goodwin] point-blank if he was receiving funding from pharmaceutical companies, directly or indirectly, and the answer was, ‘No.’ ”
The article produced a flurry of commentary on the blogosphere, most of it from well-meaning individuals who assumed that because the story appeared in the NY Times, it had to be true. These individuals share my concern over the corrupting influence the drug industry has on psychiatry, much to the detriment of patients.
But was the NY Times correct about Dr Goodwin? Certainly, the "facts" have him at the scene of the crime. But was the story accurate in its innuendo? A week later, in an editorial entitled "Expert or Shill," the Times came to the conclusion that "appalling conflicts of interest ... throw into doubt the advice rendered and the research performed" by Dr Goodwin and another prominent psychiatrist.
Moreover, Dr Goodwin "potentially stood to benefit from the recommendations he made on the program."
Pretty strong innuendo, there.
Dr Goodwin tells a far different story. In a public statement he just released, Dr Goodwin reports that prior to the story, he talked for nearly an hour on the phone with NY Times reporter Gardiner Harris, and in an email exchange. According to Dr Goodwin, "most of the important information I provided was left out of the story."
According to Dr Goodwin: "The article implied that I asserted on the air that 'there is no credible scientific evidence linking antidepressants to violence and suicide' because of my ties to drug companies."
But Dr Goodwin points out that he never received income for promoting Paxil. Moreover, his comments were made in the context of the debate surrounding an FDA black box warning. Dr Goodwin and other experts took issue with the term, "suicidality," which they felt embraced a range of behaviors far too wide to show a credible link. Dr Goodwin was in favor of a less-loaded term.
Dr Goodwin's long-standing - and highly public - track record reveals he is anything but a pusher of antidepressants. In his definitive book, "Manic-Depressive Illness," and in his talks to psychiatrists, Dr Goodwin has come through loud and clear on "the overuse of antidepressants, especially in children."
Dr Goodwin took pains to point all this out to Mr Harris, but this was left out of the story. Instead, according to Dr Goodwin, "a casual reader will be left with the impression that I was somehow involved in suppressing data on Paxil."
The charge that Dr Goodwin was somehow trying to push the diagnosis of bipolar in kids so GSK could sell more Lamictal is equally absurd: "The show in question," according to Dr Goodwin, "did discuss mood stabilizers that have been studied in kids, especially lithium and divalproex, both now generic drugs and no longer 'promoted' by anyone."
Ironically, Dr Goodwin has been a long time champion of lithium, which drug companies do not promote.
As to the charge that Dr Goodwin failed to disclose his drug industry ties to the producer of "The Infinite Mind": "There is ample evidence in the public record disclosing my work with drug companies; it's never been a secret."
According to Dr Goodwin: "I also explained that 'The Infinite Mind' producers were aware of my connections to pharmaceutical companies." In fact:
"Mr. Lichtenstein recruited another psychiatrist without any ties to industry to be the host starting in 2005, and serving through January 2008. This action was taken to deal with Mr. Lichtenstein's concern that my industry ties could become a problem for the program."
Instead, for three years, Dr Goodwin filled in as "guest host" for shows unrelated to meds treatment issues.
Dr Goodwin concludes:
"Given this fact, Mr. Harris’ report that Mr. Lichtenstein knew nothing of my activities on behalf of drug companies is clearly not accurate. It is true that Mr. Lichtenstein may not have known all the details, but he was generally aware of my activities."
So how could the NY Times be so egregiously wrong? That is the topic for another blog.
Disclosure: Dr Goodwin authored the front cover blurb to my book, "Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder" (HarperCollins, 2006).
Further disclosure: I will be asking Dr Goodwin to provide a blurb to any second edition of "Living Well."