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Letter to the Editor:

Michael Miner’s article on the editorial demise of American Medical News [Hot Type, March 10] was astoundingly idiotic, given all the reporting he’s done on AM News since 1996. Dr. George Lundberg is a quisling who threw AM News to the wolves five years ago to protect his precious AMA medical science journal. For Miner to swallow Lundberg’s line–that AM News fought the good fight against AMA political interference as long as he was in charge–once again demonstrates your media critic’s remarkable laziness and gullibility.

Most of what Lundberg says is transparently self-serving. Miner did not bother to quote anyone who could have pointed out that Lundberg consistently allowed AMA honchos to dictate editorial content, including suppressing articles they didn’t like. One example is an investigative report I wrote about the Newt Gingrich-allied Golden Rule Insurance Co. in October of 1995 (a story that subsequently was reported by the CBS Evening News and the Indianapolis Star). Miner knew about that at the time but seems to have conveniently forgotten. He also quotes Lundberg effusively praising editor Kathy Trombatore–a Texas Medical Association PR flack whom he brought in to replace a relatively more principled journalist-editor because the latter wasn’t pliable enough. Miner could easily have found current and former staffers who say Trombatore has been a disaster.

The truth is that AM News fared far better under the nonphysician publishers who preceded Lundberg, such as Steven Seekins and Larry Joyce. But a larger truth is that the identity of the publisher (or editor in chief, as Lundberg arrogantly describes his former position) was largely irrelevant to the paper’s independence. When Gingrich and the congressional Republicans, in league with AMA right-wingers, forced a staff purge in the association’s leadership in mid-1994, AM News was effectively dead, no matter who served as publisher. The new junta wanted a conservative mouthpiece, not an independent newspaper.

The one arguably brave moment Miner cites in AM News’s recent history was its coverage of the AMA’s Sunbeam endorsement fiasco. Of course, every other newspaper and magazine was writing about it, so how could AM News not have done so? But that was four years ago. What brave thing has the paper done since then?

Miner’s assertion that the newspaper’s editorial independence mattered more to the staff than to the physician-readers blindly ignores the facts. AMA officials themselves often said that the paper was profitable and widely read–up until 1996–because it was seen as credible. It published tough stories about health care politics, policy, and business trends. No doctors, politicians, health care companies, or medical associations were off limits, including the AMA itself. The readers knew they were pretty much getting the straight stuff that AMA leaders and other medical groups didn’t necessarily want them to read. But since it became a house organ under Lundberg, the paper’s favorable readership survey numbers have plummeted.

If Miner thinks that only journalists care about a newspaper’s independence–and that readers are satisfied with brief on-line news items as a replacement for in-depth coverage of the political and economic forces shaping their lives–he’s a moron who doesn’t deserve the title media critic.

Harris Meyer

Hollywood, Florida

Michael Miner replies:

Harris Meyer writes with his usual vigor. He’s right about Dr. Lundberg not being a disinterested witness to the decline of AM News. Of course, neither is Meyer a distinterested critic of Dr. Lundberg. It was on Lundberg’s watch that Meyer was fired from AM News four years ago. Meyer then had friends nominate him for the Headline Club’s first Ethics in Journalism Award, and he campaigned aggressively for it. Meyer won the award, which confirmed his view of himself as a martyr to fearlessly independent reporting. I suggested at the time that it might have been more than his unyielding integrity that brought him down–“It’s not only possible to be a tireless truth teller while being intolerably insubordinate, it’s easy,” I wrote–and things between us have not been the same since. The “relatively more principled” editor he alludes to in his letter was unhappy enough about Meyer’s award to resign from the Headline Club in protest.