Andrew Sullivan’s latest controversy began Tuesday, when the New York Times published an article on the recent phenomenon of online “me-zines” — scrappy, self-produced, sometimes stream-of-consciousness commentaries by celebrity intellectuals. But Sullivan’s attempt to achieve what has eluded most online journalism ventures — make his Web site self-sustaining, maybe even make a profit — landed him in new trouble with his critics this week, after the story matter-of-factly reported that Sullivan had signed up his first corporate sponsor: the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
PhRMA is the association that looks out for the interests of industry giants like Pfizer and Merck on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. What the Times failed to report is that Sullivan has used his own Web site, as well as his posts at the New York Times Magazine and the New Republic to repeatedly — and controversially – defend the pharmaceutical industry against criticism over its role in the global AIDS pandemic.
The controversy over Sullivan’s site sponsor was short-lived: After reporters from Salon and other news organizations made calls to Sullivan’s editors, as well as to journalism experts, about the ethics of a journalist being personally sponsored by an industry he frequently defends, Sullivan announced he would return the $7,500 annual sponsorship. But the larger question raised by the flap isn’t likely to go away: How can a one-person “me-zine” develop ethical standards that allow it to accept the kind of advertising and sponsorships that go to corporate media monoliths, without the conflict of interest taint that naturally goes along with a journalist getting the personal backing of a controversial patron?
Loren Ghiglione, the newly installed dean at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, told Salon: ” If there is an appearance of a conflict of interest, then Sullivan — and the media that run him — ought to be concerned. They can choose to find someone else to write on pharmaceutical topics, identify whatever relationship he has with pharmaceuticals (including recipient of major advertising) to put readers on notice, etc.”
And that’s precisely the approach his editors at the New Republic and the New York Times Wednesday said they would adopt.
In an e-mail message, Peter Beinart, editor of the the New Republic, where Sullivan writes the prestigious and widely read TRB column, wrote: “Andrew did not consult with me before making this decision. And should he write about the pharmaceutical industry for TNR, he will disclose the relationship.”
New York Times spokesman Toby Usnik also issued a statement to Salon on behalf of the New York Times Magazine (editor Adam Moss helped craft the statement) and the newspaper. “We would expect that if Mr. Sullivan were undertaking an article about the pharmaceutical industry for The Times that he would be obliged to disclose such a relationship with his sponsors to the editors and discuss the potential ramifications,” the statement read. “Ramifications could include passing on the assignment or, depending on the then current circumstances, disclosing the information to the readers. This is because Mr. Sullivan, like other New York Times freelancers, is required by contract to “avoid conflicts of interests or the appearance of conflict” in accepting assignments for The Times.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, Sullivan (who has also written for Salon) e-mailed to inform Salon he had decided to return the money and pull the plug on the sponsorship.
Sullivan had initially moved quickly to spin the issue after the Times story originally appeared, making shrewd use of his own Web site to respond before any media critics had a chance to. “The usual suspects from the far left have emailed me outraged that this website has accepted a small sponsorship from PHRMA,” Sullivan wrote Wednesday morning. “It behooves me to say I see absolutely no problems with it. In fact, I am extremely proud to get some support from a great industry that has saved my and countless other people’s lives, despite a massive attempt to penalize them for their work.” He then went on to describe criticism from his readers as “paranoid hooey” and to claim that “the real worry of those who want to attack the free market in pharmaceuticals is that I might have been a teensy bit effective in my arguments — and that these arguments might even have some merit. The usual suspects want to silence the opposition.”
But by late Wednesday, Sullivan had added an entry, again attacking potential critics (including Salon) while also, eventually, confirming that he would drop the sponsorship. Sullivan conceded: “[I]nevitably, it’s andrewsullivan.com, which makes the appearance of a conflict of interest almost unavoidable.” He continued, “It doesn’t help matters that my first sponsors are the target of leftist hatred and demonization, and that they are embroiled in a public controversy I intend to keep writing about. … But I don’t want to have every argument I make about the importance of pharmaceutical research to be undermined by the lie that I have been bought and paid for.”
Sullivan then explained that his site is maintained and managed by fantascope.com, the parent company for andrewsullivan.com, and that there is a strict wall between the editorial and financial arms of the business. But given that the primary property of andrewsullivan.com is Andrew Sullivan, that’s akin to Martha Stewart disavowing herself from a business decision made by Martha Stewart Living or the line of K-Mart housewares named after her. In a later e-mail, Sullivan dismissed the characterization. “As to the Martha Stewart point, I don’t think she thinks that every ad contract her magazine gets is a personal pay-off. It’s a business. Does Mort Zuckerman [publisher of U.S. News and World Report and the New York Daily News] or Marty Peretz [owner of the New Republic] treat advertising in their magazines as personal remuneration? I doubt it. Loads of people own media outlets. But those media outlets are not synonymous with them.
“This is a completely new issue because this is a completely new phenomenon: me-zines. They’re both a magazine and a person. In some ways, andrewsullivan.com is a broadcast company. I own it but it isn’t me. Yet its brand is me. … I wish I were Martha Stewart. But then I guess many gay men feel that way,” he quipped.
Still, Sullivan goes further in distancing himself from the PhRMA deal by pointing out that his webmaster negotiates all business deals — and that webmaster Robert Cameron disclosed the deal to the New York Times “before it was even completed.” He also told Salon that the money would only have gone toward the maintenance of the site. “A salary is a long way off,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Sullivan, who is HIV positive, is undergoing treatment with the anti-retroviral cocktail drugs that have been at the core of the access-to-drugs controversy in Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions. He has long praised the pharmaceutical industry in print, but had he not dropped the PhRMA sponsorship, and had he continued to rally behind the industry on his Web site, it would have been increasingly difficult for him to argue that he wasn’t, in fact, a paid pharma flack.
This isn’t the first time Sullivan has been criticized for his writings about AIDS and gay issues. Sullivan became the subject of the chattering classes in May after a New York gay publication accused Sullivan of soliciting unprotected gay sex on the Internet, and argued that his sexual proclivities seemed to contradict the preachiness of his widely respected writings on gay themes. To his critics, Sullivan had crossed the line and committed hypocrisy at a time when, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control reports, HIV infection rates are on the rise among young gay men in the U.S. To their critics, it was an egregious violation of Sullivan’s privacy.
But it’s Sullivan’s writing on the global AIDS crisis and his open bias in favor of the pharmaceutical industry that has been a lightning rod for criticism. The New York Times Magazine published an essay by Sullivan last October in which he wrote: “Here’s an unfashionable romance: I love America’s pharmaceutical companies,” he wrote. “I asked my pharmacist the other day to tote up my annual bill (which my insurance mercifully pays): $15,600, easily more than I pay separately for housing, food, travel or clothes,” he wrote. “Whether we like it or not, these private entities have our lives in their hands. And we can either be grown-ups and acknowledge this or be infantile and scapegoat them. They’re not ‘powerful forces,’ penalizing America’s ‘working families.’ They’re entrepreneurs trying to make money by saving lives. By and large, they succeed in both. Every morning I wake up and feel fine, I’m thankful that they do.”
The piece prompted the Village Voice’s Cynthia Cotts to write, “Shilling for the drug industry in the Times is the equivalent of giving a blow job in Macy’s window, and Sullivan left nothing to the imagination,” and pointed out an unfortunate juxtaposition in the magazine. “Given the synergy between his viewpoint and the industry’s, could it have been a coincidence that Sullivan’s essay appeared in the same issue of the Times Magazine as a 17-page ad supplement from PhRMA?” Moss, however, told Cotts that Sullivan’s “Pro Pharma” column, and the PhRMA ad were “totally unrelated.”
In March, Sullivan wrote on his Web site: “If you listen to some activists, the answer to the world’s AIDS crisis is simple. Just break international patent laws, rip off the drug companies, shower the Third World with protease inhibitors and all will be well. I wish it were that simple.”
Of course, the pharmaceutical companies have been at the center of the campaign to stop compulsory licensing of patented drugs in developing nations. A case in point is the recent lawsuit mounted by the pharmaceutical industry in South Africa, where a law had been passed that would have permitted the generic manufacture of patented drugs in a health crisis and the importation of branded drugs from countries where they are sold at cheaper prices. The pharmaceutical companies dropped the suit after the South African government pledged to inform the industry before issuing any licenses or conducting so-called parallel imports. There’s little wonder that activists from the “far left” — or journalists, for that matter — would question how a journalist could accept a sponsorship from an industry in a global controversy that he regularly champions and maintain credibility.
Still, Sullivan doesn’t see any inherent conflict of interest in the sponsorship — nor, he said, was he persuaded by the statements of his New York Times and New Republic editors to terminate the relationship. “The statements … were not the basis of my decision,” he wrote. “I intended to add such a disclosure if I were to write anything on the subject in the future. The basis of my decision is as I said on the site. I didn’t want to have to deal with people dismissing my views as bought and paid for. It’s important for me to address this issue in the future without that kind of ammunition from my critics. It would get in the way of work.”
He added: “It’s not a conflict of interest in any meaningful sense. My views on this subject have been quite clear and well-known for years. The idea that I’d changed my views on financial grounds is simply nuts. I’ve criticized and praised these companies before. I think even my worst enemies would concede I’m sincere on this. By far a bigger conflict of interest is the fact that these companies have saved my life. But under the rules of journalism, that is irrelevant. But a few bucks to pay expenses is regarded as horrifying.”
His solution? Continue the hunt for sponsors, but maybe with slightly higher standards. “If you know of any company that would be willing to sponsor this site, with a minimum sponsorship of $10,000 … We need financial support,” he wrote in a post on his site last night, before adding, “and we’d prefer it from companies which are not directly involved in major controversy.”