Pharmaceutical companies spend millions on marketing. Some of those dollars end up in the hands of doctors, researchers and in one case, a public radio host from "The Infinite Mind." An article in Slate back in May led to an investigation by Sen. Charles Grassley, whose findings ended up in a New York Times piece last week. We spoke with NPR's David Folkenflik and Sen. Grassley about the controversy.
Correction: Brooke and Bob make a correction to this story.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Generally, journalists pay dearly for failing to disclose a conflict of interest. And the leading interest that always poses a conflict is money. So, $1.3 million poses a lot of conflict. That’s how much Dr. Fred Goodwin, host of the now-defunct public radio show The Infinite Mind, has received in speaking fees from drug companies since the year 2000. That’s a heap of change not to disclose. BOB GARFIELD: The New York Times broke this story last week, but this is not the first time Dr. Goodwin’s financial ties have been questioned. This past May, a piece in Slate took serious issue with one particular episode of the show. [CLIP]: DR. FRED GOODWIN: Today on The Infinite Mind, “Prozac Nation: Revisited.” In the wake of some recent highly-publicized acts of violence and in the wake of an FDA warning about antidepressants and their link to so-called suicidality, a warning that may have backfired, we want to take a look at the science underlying the connection between antidepressants and out-of-control behavior. Is there one? We’ll hear from the - [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: The answer to that question, whether there’s a link between antidepressants and an increased risk of suicide, turned out to be, no. Dr. Goodwin and his three guests agreed that the risks had been exaggerated, especially by the media. In fact, they said, the real danger lay in not prescribing antidepressants. [CLIP]: PHYSICIAN: It’s something that can be overblown, and physicians will sometimes hesitate to utilize these medications where they can be helpful to people. ANNOUNCER: That’s “Prozac Nation, Revisited,” coming up today on The Infinite Mind. BOB GARFIELD: As it happened, all three guests had some financial entanglements with the pharmaceutical industry and, of course, so did Dr. Goodwin. One guest was even paid directly by a major P.R. company for drug manufacturers. And the listeners never knew.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: It’s not a fair fight for listeners. BOB GARFIELD: David Folkenflik is NPR’s media correspondent. DAVID FOLKENFLIK: If you’re listening to a host and to guests, all of whom are being compensated by the very drug manufacturers whose products they are discussing, if you don't know that there’s no way really to critically sift through what they're saying to say I can trust that or not. BOB GARFIELD: Meanwhile, Goodwin and his former executive producer Bill Lichtenstein irreconcilably differ on exactly who knew what, when. Goodwin says Lichtenstein knew about the money, just not how much. And Goodwin’s account is confirmed by another of the show’s former producers. But Lichtenstein has maintained that Goodwin did not disclose his conflicts of interest. Now, obviously, Dr. Goodwin was a doctor before he was on the radio, and NPR’s Folkenflik told us that Goodwin sees himself, first and foremost, as a medical professional, not a journalist. DAVID FOLKENFLIK: He says, look, you know, it is useful for researchers to be well aware of what’s happening in the field, in the corporate practice. It’s useful for them to be able to give input back into the corporate side and for them to understand where the corporate folks are going. The only place that he feels they fell down was in perhaps not disclosing to listeners that he had had some ties and payments. BOB GARFIELD: We should say that Folkenflik spoke to us as a media reporter and in no way as an NPR spokesman. NPR didn't even produce The Infinite Mind, nor distribute it the way it distributes this show, but did air it on its Sirius Satellite Network channel, along with other public radio programming, until this story broke last week. The NPR affiliation was overstated in the coverage, as was The Infinite Mind’s audience, which seems to be nowhere near the million listeners cited in The Times. DAVID FOLKENFLIK: If you go based on the most recent audience surveys from last spring that were done by Arbitron you'd find that it was on 91 stations and reached 137,000 people each week. BOB GARFIELD: But despite the small audience, the story has made a big splash. In 2009, Senator Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, plans to reintroduce the Physician’s Payment Sunshine Act, requiring drugmakers to report to the Department of Health and Human Services how much money they've paid doctors. Those payments then would be posted online.
Grassley has also led investigations into the undisclosed ties between drugmakers and university faculty, and his findings forced Harvard, Stanford and Emory University to look into their faculties’ potential conflicts.
In fact, Grassley is the reason The Times and everyone else learned of the precise amount, that hefty $1.3 million that The Infinite Mind’s Goodwin received from drugmakers. When Grassley read about the case in Slate this past May, he wrote a letter to GlaxoSmithKline asking the company to disclose its payments to Goodwin, and Glaxo did. We asked Senator Grassley if The Infinite Mind’s limited audience lessened his concern. SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: No. We have certain things that we have to do to protect the consumer. If there’s potential conflicts of interest it ought to come out, whether one person might be misled or a million people misled. BOB GARFIELD: I must say I was utterly jealous of your ability to write a letter to GlaxoSmithKline and immediately be informed of its payment records with respect to Dr. Goodwin. We mere mortals can't really get that kind of [LAUGHS] responsiveness from corporations. That’s a handy tool to have, eh? SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, it sure is, but don't forget we've spent a lot of taxpayers’ money on Glaxo’s products. They have a relationship to a lot of federal programs. They want to maintain that. BOB GARFIELD: Senator, the pharmaceutical industry spends millions of dollars every year cultivating so-called “opinion leaders” to spread positive messages about various drugs. What makes this episode, I think, particularly horrifying is that they got onto public radio, which is supposed to be as free of conflict of interest as any medium out there. Is it the fact that The Infinite Mind has a connection to public radio that made it so compelling for you? SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: Not - I wouldn't say compelling, more than any other possible conflict of interest. But I can say this, that with public radio, besides the reputation, public funds being involved just adds a little extra concern on my part. But I don't want NPR to think that I hold them responsible, because you get back to what we're trying to do through some of my basic legislation. One of the bills we have would affect Dr. Goodwin in the sense that his outside income needs to be reported.
With a lot of university researchers we've been working with, we found that, for instance, a researcher would report, but incomplete; the university accepted it without question. And the National Institute of Health has a responsibility of making sure the university collects that information to be made public, and let the public decide whether or not there’s a conflict of interest. BOB GARFIELD: Senator, thank you so much for joining us. SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: Thank you too, goodbye.
BOB GARFIELD: Senator Charles Grassley is a Republican senator from Iowa and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.
Correction: Brooke and Bob make a correction to this story.