The Tribune’s AIDS Opus

A voice is ringing in our ears. It’s not John Crewdson’s voice, unfortunately; Crewdson isn’t giving interviews. But the day after the Tribune published his “Great AIDS Quest,” the paper’s latest exercise in conspicuous presumption, a Sun-Times reporter called, and he was furious.

Fifty thousand words of rehashed history that no one will ever read! he shouted. Printed at God knows what cost! Of all the AIDS stories a paper can do, he moaned, Crewdson spends 20 months on the one that matters least: namely, which laboratory six years ago discovered the virus first. Who cares?

A Sun-Times reporter can only dream of the kind of time and money that the Tribune threw Crewdson’s way. From our caller’s point of view, “The Great AIDS Quest” was a vanity project, written for Pulitzer judges (and maybe Nobel judges) and of no use to the average reader, who was not likely to begin Crewdson’s dense, 16-page opus and was dead certain never to finish it. For the same money, the caller said, the Tribune could have hired ten new reporters.

We did not utter the heresies we thought: that sometimes a newspaper has better things to do with its money than hire more reporters; and that when a newspaper can afford to, it ought to spend some of its money arrogantly, average reader be damned. But we responded sincerely. If nothing else, we said, the Tribune has demonstrated again why Chicago needs two daily papers.

But we couldn’t be angry. At this point, Crewdson’s work sat on our desk unread, looking suspiciously like a glorious folly. The Tribune had run the whole thing in one day–mightn’t this be an elegant way of kissing it off? We recalled what we’d heard about Crewdson’s AIDS project four months earlier when he turned in his copy–in the form of a book-length manuscript that no one knew what to do with. Crewdson–“one of the higher-paid reporters around the country,” says his editor, and his colleagues know it–had been gone so many days on his mysterious AIDS quest that malicious elements in the newsroom started posting a running count on the wall. Day 270 (since the last Crewdson byline). Day 271. Yet his massive booty, we were told when he toted it in, contained surprisingly little of what newspaper people think of as news.

Now that we have worked our way through “The Quest for AIDS”–which was a daunting read but not a grim one–we can say the rumors were right. By a newspaperman’s narrow lights, the piece is a failure. A noble failure, we’d add, but Crewdson ultimately didn’t get what he was after. (We’re told that Crewdson concedes this.) As Paul Raeburn, science editor of the Associated Press, reported, “The 50,000-word story . . . revives but does not resolve an oft-repeated charge that the American credited as codiscoverer of the virus accidentally or deliberately misappropriated a sample of the virus discovered earlier by his French counterpart.”

The American was Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute, the Frenchman Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute, whose research Gallo denigrated relentlessly. What follows, says Crewdson in the introduction to his account, “is the story of an influential and intimidating scientist [Gallo] who chased the wrong virus for more than a year, only to reverse course and emerge with a virtual genetic twin of the virus that had really been discovered by his rivals in Paris and delivered to him months before.”

It’s a story, Crewdson might have gone on, that is conspicuously marginal to the AIDS menace as it confronts us all today. But such a story! National honor was at stake, and glittering prizes, and millions of dollars in patent royalties from the sale of AIDS tests that isolation of the virus now made possible. Two governments stepped in, a 1987 settlement improbably named Montagnier and Gallo as the virus’s codiscoverers, and in the end the two scientists cynically collaborated on a sanitized “scientific history” of their research calculated to bury Gallo’s dubious acts forever.

So Crewdson dug them up. You might wish you were reading a story this length as the New Yorker would have written it, but Crewdson doesn’t do so badly by the telling, and his research cannot be faulted. But there is no smoking gun. Surely Crewdson wanted to prove that Gallo ripped off Montagnier–offering as his own a virus he knew had been sent to him from France. And despite lavish amounts of circumstantial evidence, Crewdson couldn’t do it.

We’d been dimly aware of the wrangling between Americans and French over who deserved credit for discovering the AIDS virus. But Crewdson’s details were all new to us. They’d have been less new if we’d already read Randy Shilts’s 1987 book And the Band Played On, which lacks Crewdson’s minutiae but tells the same story (placing it in a much larger context), and takes the same measure of Gallo. Shilts is like Montagnier in that he got there first. And being a more impassioned writer with more room to work in, he told the story better.

“First of all,” Tribune editor Jim Squires informed us, “there’s a lot of difference between Randy Shilts’s perspective and the perspective of the Chicago Tribune. . . . Randy Shilts can be dismissed [not that Squires personally dismisses him] as an author with a particular point of view who was upset by the devastation of his [gay] community. . . . He’s certainly not the reporter John Crewdson is and he did not have access to the kinds of information John Crewdson did.

“This [article] cannot be dismissed as emotionalism, it cannot be dismissed as the work of “my enemies’ [according to Squires, Gallo called and hinted that Crewdson was being paid by Gallo’s enemies to destroy him], it cannot be dismissed as scientifically inept. All these things distinguish it from previous work anyplace. There’s never been, anyplace, the documentation of the genetic similarity between those two viruses that we did. . . . I don’t think Randy Shilts interviewed 150 scientists.”

Gallantly defending his own guy, Squires is selling Shilts short. Shilts may not have interviewed all those scientists, but his book was meticulously reported (“a painstakingly detailed history,” according to the Tribune’s own review) and scientifically literate. Unfortunately, what Crewdson’s genetic documentation so tellingly documents, virologists already accepted anyway (Crewdson doesn’t pretend otherwise), and Shilts reported two years earlier.

Shilts: “In the world of virology, it was inconceivable that there could be a genetic variation of less than one percent between two different isolates of this virus. That would be like finding two identical snowflakes. It simply didn’t happen. . . . The only way to account for the identical properties of the two prototypes was if they were the same virus taken from the same person.”

If scientists in the field already knew where credit belongs, for whom was Crewdson writing?

“I think that first of all, anybody interested in the disease and anybody interested in science and anybody interested in human nature are all potential audiences,” Jim Squires said. “I think the potential audience for this is very broad.”

True enough. Given the task at hand, the self-interested human nature on display in Crewdson’s chronicle is frequently appalling.

“We significantly reduced the size of that audience,” Squires went on, “by the length and exhaustive nature of our report. But there’s no shortcut way to explore medical science. We could have cut this story to 20,000 words, and we’d have had half the scientific community writing to say, this is a very simplistic work; you’ve proved again newspapers are inept at covering science.”

The manuscript Crewdson turned in was up around 77,000 words. A lot of editing went on; they didn’t just dump his yarn into the paper one slow Sunday. The reason the Tribune finally ran it all at once, Squires told us, is that the paper couldn’t think of any better way to do it.

Squires explained, “We tested it in here to see if we could break it up into pieces and sustain any interest in it. We tested it on different editors. Some read it all at once; some read it piecemeal; some read it in fourths–we were thinking of four different Sundays, four different magazine articles.

“Basically, the editors concluded they found it easier reading if they could start in on it, stop, go back, check the glossary . . .

“There was no easy way to do it, I’ll tell you that.”

Sons Shines in San Francisco

Damn! Here we are, mad at Ray Sons at just the wrong moment. Sons wrote the silliest column Monday morning, pondering those allegations out of Dallas that Buddy Ryan has been posting bounties on members of teams the Philadelphia Eagles play.

If it’s true, wrote Sons, “Buddy should get the bounce for a long time.” OK so far. But Sons pressed on. “I must quickly add the intent to put the opposition’s key players out of a game is as old as the NFL. . . . But it is one thing for a coach to wink at cheap shots or even encourage them. It is quite another to put prices on heads as part of your game plan. There is a line to be drawn here between sport and barbarism . . .”

Sure, draw the line right there, with old-fashioned cheap shots on one side, bounty hunting on the other. Sons must think it’s sport if it isn’t flat-out done for money.

Trouble is, what we’d originally meant to tell you about Sons, and will anyway, is that he became a hero around the Sun-Times this autumn. He was out on the coast for the World Series, and when Candlestick Park started to shake beneath his feet he took up a role his paper can’t always afford these days, its man on the scene of a disaster.

For the next few days Sons covered the story so gracefully that an editor at the Sun-Times–where it’s no secret that a news columnist is a top priority–told us reporters were now saying the paper should simply give the job to Ray.

Dennis Britton, the paper’s new editor, also noticed him. Coming from the Los Angeles Times, which flooded the Bay Area with 45 reporters, Britton must have been thankful to see the sort of work that one of his new people could do alone.

“That sure was good stuff,” Britton said about Sons’s stories. “Just like ABC came through in the Munich Olympics, he did a terrific job on the earthquake.”