As I pointed out in a recent post, Time magazine's April 1 cover story, "How to Cure Cancer," is sure to raise false hopes among people grappling with cancer. It must also be devastating to those who have just lost someone to cancer, and who might now think that their lost loved one just missed being cured.
In a second post, I wrote that Time violated industry guidelines by running a full-page ad for M.D. Anderson in the middle of the story -- a story that extravagantly praises the work of M.D. Anderson. The guidelines, devised by the American Society of Magazine Editors, specify that an ad should not run next to editorial copy that touts the same things touted in the ad. More importantly, I wrote, Time's ad placement created the impression that it wrote the story to sell the ad, not to enlighten readers. The story was eight pages long, and the M.D. Anderson ad was the only ad in the story.
Did Time promise M.D. Anderson favorable coverage in return for buying the ad? Both Time and M.D. Anderson told me that did not happen. But there are reasons to be suspicious.
Time's spokesman, Daniel Kile, told me that Time follows industry guidelines, although it clearly did not in this case. I asked Time's science editor, Jeffrey Kluger, about the placement of the ad. Kluger said in an email, "I honestly have nothing to add to Daniel's statement. We do honor ASME guidelines."
Kile also made a point of noting that "this ad was sold well before the story was written." The implication was that Time did not praise M.D. Anderson in order to sell the ad. (As an aside, I'm willing to bet that the author of this piece is a cancer survivor or had a family member who recently survived cancer. The story has that ring to it. Could he have received his treatment at M.D. Anderson?)
What Kile did not say was that M.D. Anderson's public relations office knew that Time was working on the story before the cancer center's marketing people purchased the ad.
Laura Sussman of M.D. Anderson's external communications office said that her office worked with Time on the story "as far back as October." Cheryl Chin, M.D. Anderson's marketing manager, told me the ad was purchased "several months ago." She said this was M.D. Anderson's first ad in Time.
"It is a new publication for us, and one we are hoping to use going further," Chin said in a telephone interview. She said M.D. Anderson was told that its ad would appear in an issue of Time that contained a story on health. Months ahead of time, Chin knew that the April 1 issue of Time would contain health content. M.D. Anderson wanted a "right-hand read," meaning the ad would appear on a right-hand page. "Most people are right-handed, and when they flip they see the right-hand pages," Chin said. (M.D. Anderson got the right-hand read.)
Bill Saporito and Alice Park, who reported and wrote the Time story, were likely unaware of the ad. But as the April 1 issue came together in late March, the managing editor would surely have spotted the connection between the ad and the story. Why did Time not move the ad elsewhere in the magazine?
Advertising people will say I'm making too much of all of this, and I confess that I was naive about the amount of coordination that apparently goes on between advertisers and publications. In the absence of anyone admitting that the placement of the M.D. Anderson ad was more than a coincidence, it's impossible to say whether Time and M.D. Anderson worked together to produce this public-relations triumph for M.D. Anderson.
It comes at a good time for M.D. Anderson, which, Chin said, has "transitioned" its spending to national publications. "M.D. Anderson is not very well known nationally, so we are trying to put more of our placement in national publications," she said.
M.D. Anderson apparently also badly needs a morale boost. The Cancer Letter, an independent Washington-based newsletter, obtained the results of a recent internal survey of M.D. Anderson faculty in which many faculty members "pour out concern -- even sadness -- about continuing departures of faculty stars," and describe M.D. Anderson President Ronald DePinho as "disengaged," "imperious," and "dictatorial," according to a story by The Cancer Letter's editor, Paul Goldberg.
One important reason for the sagging morale was a controversy over the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which awarded a large grant to Lynda Chin, DePinho's wife, without peer review, a story that has been covered in the Houston Chronicle, but has not received much coverage elsewhere, as I wrote in a post last October. (Lynda Chin and Cheryl Chin are not related.)
Lynda Chin, incidentally, was one of the first scientists quoted in the Time article.
I ended that October post with a question: What else, we might ask, is going on at M.D. Anderson?
I'm still asking.
This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.