Trib Reporter vs. AIDS Researcher: The Feud Goes On

The Chicago Tribune made an interesting decision last month on how to handle Virus Hunting, the new book by America’s most prominent AIDS researcher, Dr. Robert Gallo.

A few scientists were asked to review the book, and they all said no. So the Sunday Books section–after discussions that even included editor Jack Fuller–reprinted the review from the previous week’s New York Times.

Tribune reporter John Crewdson was not considered–even though he probably understands Gallo’s work better than any other reporter in the country. Crewdson’s flaw was a lack of detachment. Two years ago he published a 50,000-word article attacking Gallo’s claim to have codiscovered the AIDS virus, and he’s had his teeth in Gallo’s side ever since. If Crewdson hadn’t picked up Gallo’s scent, Gallo wouldn’t now be the subject of a federal investigation, and Virus Hunting probably wouldn’t have been written.

As science writer Natalie Angier said in the Times review: “Gallo only sparingly mentions Crewdson by name, referring to him as an ‘obsessive reporter.’ Yet the book is so nearly a point-by-point rebuttal of [Crewdson’s] original Tribune article that it is hard to see how anybody not familiar with all the charges could follow the ins and outs of Gallo’s defenses. . . . Gallo’s narrative is driven not by its own internal logic but in response to his journalistic nemesis. And the tone is unfailingly defensive . . .”

Defensive and persecuted. On page 85 Gallo laments “one journalist’s bizarre and obsessively defamatory article.” On page 138 he complains that “the suggestion would be made (and at times mindlessly repeated, until responsible people who should have known better would demand an investigation of me because of it) that the Pasteur Institute in Paris had done all the work.” On page 325 he declares that “I had become the target of a reporter with a mission, a reporter who somehow turned from exposition to expose, from analysis to assassination.”

In conversation Gallo gets specific. “It’s a lot, lot worse than you can imagine,” he told us by phone a few months ago. “He’s going on his fifth year with me. If you hear the whole story, it’s almost impossible to believe. I’ve documented what I can.”

He told us that a former student of his now working in London had found Crewdson going through the papers in her desk. “He’d lied to the guards to get in. He knew when she went on [duty], who her boyfriend was.” He told us that last August someone had broken into his home in Bethesda, Maryland, ignored his wife’s diamond ring that she’d left sitting out, but rifled through the papers in a plastic bag marked “Daniel Zagury.” Zagury is a scientist in Paris who’d been collaborating with Gallo in an attempt to create an AIDS vaccine.

He told us that a few days before a Maryland virologist working with Gallo and Zagury reported that correspondence with Zagury had disappeared from his laboratory.

Gallo wasn’t calling Crewdson a burglar. He did say his house was entered “two weeks after Crewdson moved to Bethesda.”

Natalie Angier is a fine science writer (last week she won a Pulitzer Prize) whose evenhanded review helped the Tribune out of a spot. But frankly, we’d much rather have read what Crewdson has to say about Gallo’s book, even if his imprint is all over it. Instead, Crewdson will go on covering the hard news about AIDS research; his lack of disinterest is less of a problem to the Tribune on page one than back in a section that’s devoted to argument.

But that’s a cheap irony. Crewdson deserves to stay on the AIDS beat for the same reasons David Halberstam still belonged in Vietnam after he’d started to drive John Kennedy nuts. “There’s been not one suggestion anywhere that had any force that he has been wrong about anything,” Fuller told us. “He’s been scrupulously accurate. And he knows the story better than anyone in the world. And it’s a story not easy to know.”

Angier ended her review with a sentiment that used to impress us more than it does now: “After 50,000 words from Crewdson and another 100,000 or so from Gallo, maybe we have heard quite enough about who discovered the cause of AIDS. We all would much rather read the story of who discovered its cure.”

When we first wrote about Crewdson after his opus appeared in 1989, we wondered if he’d spent way too much time belaboring an academic point. Last October we wondered if he’d done worse. The acting director of the National Institutes of Health, for whom Gallo works, announced that the NIH inquiry inspired by Crewdson’s ’89 article had “resolved certain of the publicized allegations and issues or shown them to be without substance.” Yet other issues remained in doubt and a “formal investigation” would be launched to settle them.

Malcolm Gladwell, the Washington Post’s man on the scene, said in his lead that NIH had “effectively cleared . . . Gallo of the allegation that he stole the discovery of the AIDS virus from a fellow researcher.” Crewdson’s lead said that NIH had “ordered a formal, full-scale investigation into several aspects” of Gallo’s research. Our search for someone neutral to tell us whether the news Gallo got was good or bad led us to Barbara Culliton, who was then covering Gallo for Science magazine. She told us that the news, by and large, was good, and she added, disturbingly:

“One thing that’s come out of this is that the Gallo lab was almost paralyzed in terms of doing research. They’ve had to spend an enormous amount of time responding. They’ve had to respond to every allegation and innuendo in Crewdson’s article . . .”

Was the price we were all paying for Crewdson’s ax grinding the stifling of AIDS research in America? The other day we asked Fuller that, and he gave us a prickly response. “Our inquiries are usually inconvenient. Your inquiries of me are inconvenient. I do not believe the scientific world considered it irrelevant [whether Gallo or the Pasteur Institute first discovered the AIDS virus]. I’m not sure the establishment of who discovered it is the essence of the story. The essence of the story is how science, in at least one highly controversial instance, was done in a large government-supported laboratory. And this story has just gotten more and more interesting.”

So it has. Last Sunday Crewdson published a story that made Gallo look terrible. Crewdson reported that three AIDS patients died in Paris last year after being innoculated with a vaccinelike preparation derived from the cowpox virus. Apparently the virus had remained infectious. This was the project Gallo had been working on with Daniel Zagury–until the NIH decided in February that it was too risky to support. Crewdson reported that last July, after two of the volunteers had died, Gallo coauthored an article in Lancet on the project that reported “no deaths” and “no complications.” NIH officials told Crewdson that they had never been notified of the deaths.

Two months ago Crewdson and Malcolm Gladwell were again poles apart on Dr. Gallo, but this time we didn’t need a referee. Gladwell again had good news; he wrote in the Post that Gallo “may be vindicated by dramatic new findings that he and nine other researchers have published in the British journal Nature.” It seemed Gallo had discovered that the virus he claimed in 1983 to have isolated was “markedly different” from the French virus he’s suspected of appropriating. (Up to then he’d conceded the point that his own isolate was virtually identical to a virus isolated in France and lent to Gallo’s lab). In fact, wrote Gladwell, the truth might actually be that the French got their virus from Gallo!

Crewdson took the Nature article much less seriously. But then he’d already gone over the same ground a month earlier. He’d pointed out gaping holes in Gallo’s argument before Gallo formally made it.

Fuller refuses to discuss Crewdson’s motivations (we couldn’t ask Crewdson because he’s impossible to get hold of) other than to say “It’s not a personal matter.” But it’s obviously personal to Gallo. Crewdson can’t challenge Gallo’s science the way he has without challenging Gallo’s character. As Paul Varnell put it last autumn in a fine column in Windy City Times, “In Praise of John Crewdson”:

“The question ultimately is, What kind of person is Robert Gallo, how much integrity does he have, and do you want whatever kind of person he is to have the prestige he currently has and to call so many of the shots in the AIDS research program?”

That, we think, is what all this comes down to. Because of what’s at stake, we guess we’d rather see Gallo vindicated tomorrow than Crewdson. But the fact is Crewdson’s reporting looks stronger with each story he writes.

Gallo hasn’t lacked for sympathetic journalists. Gladwell seems to be one. Another’s the writer we turned to last year as arbiter–Barbara Culliton, who’s now the deputy editor of Nature.

After we talked last fall, Culliton asked for copies of our articles on Gallo–and we were happy to send them to her. To our surprise, we got back a note saying she’d passed them along to Gallo.

That was an oddly chummy thing for her to do. (She’s told us since that she and Gallo aren’t friends but they’re friendly.) We were more puzzled than annoyed; actually we were more grateful than annoyed, because Gallo called us a few days later.

Gallo favored us with a line about Crewdson that was going in his book: “He’s a master at what Cervantes calls the worst slander you can do to a human being–the half truth.”

Unfortunately for Gallo, if half of Crewdson’s reporting isn’t true that half remains visible mostly to Gallo himself.

Name It, It’s Yours

An excellent idea came in from Jack Bronis of the “Bill Veeck Stadium Committee”: “I propose that true baseball fans in the city of Chicago band together to call our new ballpark Bill Veeck Stadium, regardless of what the owners want us to call it.”

We’d prefer Veeck Field but the basic notion is sound. “New Comiskey Park” is a thing in search of a name. It’s a public building–the public can call it whatever they please.