Michael Miner’s excellent discussion of the JAMA-JFK affair [March 5] left much unsaid, not the least of which was that, whereas the journalists at the Chicago Headline Club honored Dennis Breo’s JFK articles in JAMA with the prestigious Lisagor award, the same articles earned a rebuke by Johns Hopkins’s Wayne Smith in one of journalism’s premier peer-reviewed periodicals, the Columbia Journalism Review. How could two groups of respected journalists have reached such opposing conclusions? Perhaps the best explanation–that the Chicago journalists, unwisely, relied on JAMA’s estimable scientific reputation to take Breo’s JFK assertions in JAMA at face value–is one that raises new questions about the wisdom of awarding Breo the Lisagor in the first place.
As I wondered in a published letter to CJR’s editor, why was no journalist surprised that JFK’s military pathologists gave “exclusive” interviews to another former military pathologist, JAMA editor George D. Lundberg, MD, and his delegate, Dennis Breo? Why would seasoned journalists credit pathologists–even JFK’s–who refused to appear with Lundberg before the press to answer questions, and who refused to answer even one question of the many (including mine) put forward in the editor-selected letters JAMA published from physician colleagues?
What kind of background research could Breo have conducted when he omitted any mention of the myriad, grievous errors in JFK’s autopsy that were identified by the forensic consultants of House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in 1978? The HSCA, for only one of many possible examples, found that the pathologists missed the correct location of JFK’s fatal skull wound by placing it ten centimeters too low in their original autopsy report. While evidence beyond the space constraints of this letter suggests that JFK’s pathologists were unlikely to have missed–by ten centimeters out of the twelve centimeters possible between the top and bottom of the rear of JFK’s skull–the correct location of JFK’s skull wound, why did JAMA dodge this central question, one which formed the centerpiece of the HSCA’s critique of JFK’s autopsy? Had the effort been one of JAMA’s trademark scientifically scrupulous endeavors, the pathologists would have been asked to address this question, as well as the scathing observation of New York coroner and chief HSCA forensics consultant Michael Baden, MD, who wrote that, “Where bungled autopsies are concerned, President Kennedy’s is the exemplar.”
Most journalists would be right to believe JAMA’s editors would not let so flawed a series as Breo’s into print. But in this extraordinary case, the responsible editor, who was also identified in Charles Crenshaw’s successful lawsuit as one of Breo’s “peer-reviewers,” was the powerful JAMA editor himself, George Lundberg, MD, who, as it turned out, happened to be a personal friend of JFK’s pathologists! And so Breo’s “historic” interview articles consisted of little more than gushing praise for the self-serving, and unchallenged, statements from the very pathologists whose legitimate peers–excluded from the questioning and stonewalled in JAMA’s letters section–believe bungled the autopsy of the century.
There were more reasons than Lundberg’s unfair treatment of Charles Crenshaw, MD, to withhold the Lisagor award from Dennis Breo. One might have hoped that the normally cautious members of the Chicago Headline Club would have seen through what amounted to a scientific charade directed to deflect Oliver Stone’s unflattering depiction of John F. Kennedy’s abysmal autopsy in his film JFK.
Gary L. Aguilar, MD
Saint Francis Memorial