Medical Examiner

Big Pharma’s Attempt to Ghostwrite for Stat Ended Badly—but Not Badly Enough

Stat retracted the story, but for the wrong reasons and without addressing the real problem.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Pinkypills/Thinkstock.
“Independent” experts have been drafted into becoming sock puppets for Big Pharma.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Pinkypills/Thinkstock.

The ghosts struck again last week. This time it was in Boston.

There’s no question that it was them. Once you’ve seen enough of these shadowy figures, you can spot them from a distance. You learn to smell the faint aroma of tobacco that always surrounds them—after all, tobacco companies were the first to conjure them.

Industrial ghostwriters started appearing in the 1960s, when people were figuring out that cigarettes cause cancer, and later, in the 1980s and 1990s, when scientists began to probe the effects of secondhand smoke. In response, tobacco executives started to summon legions of ghostwriters, called by the ritual sacrifice of stacks of little green pieces of paper. In return, they tried to sway public opinion by putting soothing, tobacco-friendly words in the mouths of seemingly unaffiliated scientists.

Since then, ghostwriters employed by parts of the pharmaceutical industry have been busily tobacconizing the scientific literature. Gaze into the depths of PubMed for long enough, and they will materialize before your eyes, promoting Wyeth’s Prempro, Merck’s Vioxx, and Pfizer’s Neurontin, just to name a few. (It’s not only Big Pharma that’s been dabbling in the dark arts; recently, for example, ghosts were spotted defending Monsanto’s Roundup.)

But the haunting in Boston was something different.

Last week, Stat, the health and science website affiliated with the Boston Globe, was the subject of a particularly embarrassing haunting. It came in the form of an editorial defending the much-maligned pharmaceutical industry representative, purportedly written by a North Carolina neurologist but later revealed to have been written by a public-relations firm—a firm that is apparently linked to a set of shady nonprofit organizations that churn out relentlessly pharma-friendly messages.

There’s been a lot of work done to expose ghostwriting in the peer-reviewed literature, but few have spent any effort trying to find it lurking in the popular press. Nevertheless, it’s endemic. Since the heyday of Big Tobacco, “independent” experts have been drafted into becoming sock puppets—cheerfully putting their names on ghostwritten op-eds and letters to the editor, typically in return for nice checks from their corporate masters. They’re so prevalent that even an outlet as reputable as Stat can wind up being possessed by ghosts—without them, or anybody else, even noticing.

It was only after readers of the column (including yours truly) spotted inconsistencies in the editorial that Stat initially posted a correction and then retracted the article. Rather than reassuring readers, though, the retraction should disturb them. For the article was retracted not because the article was ghostwritten, but because the ghostwriter happened to fabricate a key anecdote.

Stat was likely aware that the article had been ghostwritten; at the very least, the editor of the opinion section, Pat Skerrett, let slip that he knew that a PR agency was involved in the shaping of the piece. In fact, many opinion sections have a grudging acceptance of some degree of ghostwriting in their pages; after all, high officials and A-list celebrities have entire staffs hired to meticulously shape each public utterance. But even if you accept that kind of ghostwriting, the industrial version of ghosting is an entirely different beast. Instead of putting the words of an unknown in the mouths of the powerful, it does just the opposite—it disseminates the words of the powerful by putting them in the mouth of the unknown. Indeed, in this case, it used the trusted institution of a friendly doctor to spread the gospel of the pharmaceutical industry. It’s not the sheep in wolf’s clothing that’s to be feared, but the reverse.

That Stat found a big fat lie in its opinion section is a graphic demonstration that ghosting of articles by industry is not just a problem of the peer-reviewed journals, but of the media as well—and not just outlets devoted to covering health and medicine. Just as medical journals started tightening rules about conflicts of interest, forcing more disclosure of the hidden motives behind certain research articles, media outlets have to have a reckoning as well. They must learn to stop amplifying the messages of front groups and winking at practices like ghostwriting in their editorial pages. In short, the media must realize that every time they repeat a sock puppet’s message, it directly undermines to the outlet’s credibility. And they must take such tobacco-scented challenges to their authenticity seriously, lest they begin to earn the cries of “fake news” that enemies of the press like to fling at them.

It may be a losing battle; the wealthy industries using these tactics are adept at harnessing the forces of capitalism to defeat any attempt at transparency. After all, it’s nigh impossible to see who’s really pulling the strings when the invisible hand gets involved.