Mar 1 2008

Barbara Seaman, 1935-2008

Editor's Note

The New York Times doesn’t forgive and it doesn’t forget. We saw this when one of its most eloquent critics, John Hess, died and was given an error-filled obituary (1/22/05) that called him “cranky,” “curmudgeonly” and “grudging.” (See Extra!, 3-4/05). Now another of FAIR’s journalistic heroes has died, another groundbreaking investigative journalist who also had the temerity to challenge the Times’ sense of self-righteousness—and she too got a posthumous smear from the paper.

Barbara Seaman revolutionized the field of health reporting, treating the medical establishment as an object of skepticism and focusing on the need to inform patients of their health choices. The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill, which she published in 1969, was a landmark work that led directly to improving the safety of contraception.

She was also a pioneering media critic, pointing out that as pharmaceutical advertising becomes a bigger and bigger part of news outlets’ cash flow, they become less and less interested in puncturing the hype and exposing the risks of the latest miracle drug. While that may seem like common sense, to the Times this is an affront to the dignity of establishment media, which is why her obit there (3/1/08) includes as its only sustained evaluation of her work a dismissive quote from a book review (Washington Post, 10/5/03):

Seaman is a conspiracy theorist by temperament and training. In her presentation, every drug company is working against the interests of its patients, and every journalist who fails to question this or that bad study has probably been bought off.

That her actually very measured and specific critique provoked such hyperbole really shows how close to home she hit. The New York Times clearly wants this to be the judgment of history on her work, but surely history will instead remember her being a lonely voice pointing out the dangers of hormone replacement therapy—at a time when the Times, among others, was happily promoting it as a wonder cure. (See Barbara’s piece for Extra!, “The Media and the Menopause Industry,” 3-4/97).

Being right when they were wrong—that’s unforgivable.