Investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald was a star for years at The New York Times, and he won new acclaim in December 2005 with his front-page article exposing a sordid new online front in child pornography.
Eichenwald's reporting stemmed from his efforts to aid Justin Berry, who was both a victim and perpetrator of a Web pornography ring, and who was in league with several older men.
The ensuing story about Berry's world was a far cry from the coverage of corporate fraud that won Eichenwald journalism prizes and landed him on best-seller lists. He helped Berry get legal representation and arranged medical care, counseling and housing with some of the youth's relatives in Texas. Some media critics questioned the degree of Eichenwald's involvement in the life of the subject of his big story.
Eichenwald left the Times last fall for another job. Over the past seven months, during the prosecutions of two men involved in Berry's ring on related child-pornography charges, revelations have surfaced that have raised more profound questions about Eichenwald's own actions. Most notable was his failure to inform editors at the Times that he and his wife had made a series of payments worth at least $3,100 to Berry and his business partners.
Eichenwald said the payments were part of the effort he and his wife, Theresa, made to extract Berry from the child-porn business — and that he simply forgot to tell editors.
...In a story airing Friday on NPR's All Things Considered, Eichenwald reveals a secret that he had carefully guarded for more than two decades: His epilepsy had triggered so many and such severe seizures that, according to his neurologist, he suffers from "significant memory disruptions."
Via The Ugly Civil War in American Medicine by Eichenwald, published last month by Newsweek on March 10:
Are physicians in the United States getting dumber? That is what one of the most powerful medical boards is suggesting, according to its critics.
...On one side is the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), which certifies that doctors have met nationally recognized standards, and has been advocating for more testing of physicians. On the other side are tens of thousands of internists, cardiologists, kidney specialists and the like who say the ABIM has forced them to do busywork that serves no purpose other than to fatten the board’s bloated coffers.
...The value to a doctor of being certified can scarcely be overstated. Many organizations will not hire uncertified doctors. And, without that stamp of approval, even doctors who open their own practices rarely receive permission from hospital boards to treat their patients in hospitals.
...So physicians shelled out money to the ABIM to take the tests, and then ponied up more cash to attend conferences and other programs for continuing medical education.
...But then ABIM decided that rather than just having doctors take one certification test, maybe they should take two. Or three. Or more...This was not cheap -- doctors spend thousands of dollars not only for the tests, but for review sessions, for time away from their practices.
...Then, something strange happened, doctors say. The tests started including questions about problems that had nothing to do with how doctors did their jobs.
...The result? According to the ABIM’S figures, the percentage of doctors passing the recertification test started dropping steadily. In 2010, some 88 percent of internists taking the maintenance of certification exams passed; by 2014, that had fallen to 80 percent.
(The) author failed to disclose that his wife is an internist.Next, via the March 25 Medscape Medical News :
Eichenwald disagrees that he had a conflict to disclose. "The argument is akin to saying that I can't write about politics because I voted," he said, adding, "Shouldn't being married to an internist make me pro-ABIM?" He asked that his wife not be identified.
Of all the criticisms of his article, Eichenwald said, the one that got under his skin was the one involving his wife and making her part of the story.
"It was despicable," he said, "[and] a sign of people who had nothing to say in response to the substance of the article.
"I don't react to bullies well. When they're bullying my family, I hit back."
It seemed to me that determining whether Eichenwald had an obligation to disclose any information about his wife -- Theresa F. Eichenwald MD, who practices in Dallas -- depended on whether or not she had a professional relationship with ABIM and, if so, did it present a concern?
When I tried to find out, I didn't get very far.
I couldn't get answers from ABIM and when I asked Eichenwald, he threw a fit.
First, here's a screenshot from Dr. Eichenwald's license look-up via the website of the Texas Medical Board:
2003's a long time ago, so I asked Gaby Laredo at the Texas Medical Board for the most recent date Dr. Eichenwald informed the board that she was certified by ABIM. She replied:
We do not verify if any physician is or is not specialty board certified. However, she last reported to the Board that she was certified in 2003.Is Dr. Eichenwald still an ABIM diplomate?
No, according to this screen shot I took yesterday from ABIM's website:
So what years was she certified by ABIM? Per her husband's article, "The value to a doctor of being certified can scarcely be overstated," so why isn't she currently certified by ABIM? Did she choose not to re-certify with ABIM? Is she now certified by another board?
In an attempt to answer those questions, I sent multiple e-mail inquiries to Dr. Johnson (who claimed Eichenwald had a conflict of interest) and to Lorie Slass, ABIM's Senior Vice President of Communication.
In my e-mail, I shared the information from the websites of the Texas Medical Board and ABIM, and submitted these questions:
1) What years was your wife certified by ABIM?
2) Is she still certified by ABIM? If not, is she currently certified by any other board(s) and if so which one(s)?
Here's his unedited March 31 reply:
Anyone obtuse enough to believe that my wife being a doctor is a story is not worth talking to and is merely someone too lazy to do actual reporting on real issues.
But I'll make the easy for you: My brother is a doctor, and so was my father. My mother was a nurse. My best friend is a doctor. My sister-in-law is a nurse. I have a doctor. I also like her very much. So I guess medicine is off the table.And in the event I ever write about the judicial system: A friend of mine who saved my life is a judge. Law's out too, I guess.My son is a wildlife biologist who studies the effects of climate change on species - so, guess that's out too.And on and on and on...My point is - you're making a fool out off yourself. Find a conflict, not just a correlation. Every doctor who is contacting me is talking about how outrageous it is that ABIM dragged my wife into this. Those that don't end up being people who make money off of this system. That speaks for the wisdom of your piece.
Here's his same-day response, also unedited:
I am not participating in a story written by someone who believes that dragging the reporter's wife into it is ethical. If my wife were, say, on the board of a competing credentialing organization, that would be a conflict. But - unless you are saying that the ABIM is in conflict with doctors - it is irrelevant and obscene, particularly since you don't even know if she played any role in it. She did not: My wife never knows what I am writing nor does she make any contribution to anything I write - ever. This is in the event of litigation to be sure she doesn't get dragged into it. The totality of her connection to this is that she receives journals in the mail and I saw a story about the ongoing dispute in Medical News (I think that is the name of the newspaper-isn magazine.) I did not discuss that with her and began researching the story and was shocked what I saw in ABIM's 990s and then started calling people involved in this dispute. She made no contribution and had no knowledge this was coming until it hit the internet. By your light, I can't research something already being *widely* reported (NEJM, Medical News, JAMA, etc) because my wife is a doctor? That's ridiculous. And show me once when a mass media journalist started dragged his family into a story simply because there was a correlation, rather than a causal connection.
But I can already tell...the fact that there is no connection and no rational explanation why this is a conflict ain't stopping this story. The illogic here is so obvious, and the fact that you are just operating off a series of false assumptions - one of which leads to such an obvious question you have never asked me, the answer to which undermines the entire thesis of your piece - that I recognize there is nothing that will give you pause. If I ever decide to reveal that answer -- which I will only do if ABIM manages to trick enough fools into continuing to drag my wife into this -- I will be sure to mention you never asked so people can all have a good laugh.By the way...have you even LOOKED at the 990s? Have u even tried to understand why what's in there is a story that can't be ignored?
|James Impoco (source)|
I didn't receive a reply, so I phoned Newsweek and was connected to Editor-In-Chief James Impoco, to whom I explained that I was reporting about this for my blog.
He cordially offered to take a look, so I e-mailed him the above information, my complete correspondence with Mr. Eichenwald, and this request:
Would you please ask Mr. Eichenwald these questions and let me know his responses?
1) What years was your wife certified by ABIM?
2) Is she still certified by ABIM? If not, is she currently certified by any other board(s) and if so which one(s)?He promptly replied, but instead of responding to my question, he provided this on the record statement:
We disagree with your concept of what constitutes a conflict in journalism. I urge you to read some of the voluminous handbooks that exist on journalistic ethics rules regarding the definitions of a conflict.Contrary to his assumption, in reporting this story I've never expressed an opinion about any potential conflict. Since I have no expertise in journalism ethics, my opinion has no standing. I've simply attempted to obtain related facts based on Dr. Johnson's allegation.
|David H. Johnson MD (source)|
By the way, since Dr. Johnson threw the first stone, doesn't it behoove him to explain specifically why he thinks Mr. Eichenwald should have disclosed the information about his wife?
I'd also be curious to know Dr. Johnson's explanation why ABIM fails to provide the public with any information about diplomates other than whether or not they're currently certified.
Perhaps Mr. Eichenwald or another reporter will ask him.
Finally, in the interests of accurately representing Newsweek's position, I sent Mr. Impoco this follow-up :
Based on your statement, my understanding is that, re: the article in question, even if Dr. Eichenwald is currently an ABIM diplomate, Newsweek does not consider that to be information which should be disclosed to readers. If my understanding is incorrect, please clarify.
Based on his suggestion that I consult journalism handbooks, I contacted the authors of three journalism ethics textbooks and asked for their opinions.Hi Peter. You are correct. Jim
I'll be reporting their responses in Part II.
Part II: Three journalism ethics experts weigh in on Kurt Eichenwald's failure to disclose his wife's relationship to an organization he skewered in a Newsweek story, May 27, 2015.
This item has been slightly revised.