Newsweek Writer Hits Medical Group With Opinion Labeled As News

Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald publicized what he called an “ugly civil war” between doctors and one of America’s largest medical organizations in a series of lopsided attacks on the group some of which remain labeled as "Tech & Science" rather than opinion.

Eichenwald, a liberal who once asked if conservatives were “ever right,” is an award-winning former Time magazine investigative reporter. Beginning in March, he wrote multiple pieces for Newsweek about alleged problems with the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) and a fight brewing with doctors. While ABIM responded by saying the group was making some needed changes, it accused Eichenwald and Newsweek of misrepresenting opinion as news.

ABIM further complained that Eichenwald’s piece contained “numerous and serious misstatements” as well as other problems. The group also complained he failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest.

In his first attack piece, Eichenwald heavily criticized ABIM’s certification procedures and financial practices claiming, “ABIM has forced [doctors] them to do busywork that serves no purpose other than to fatten the board’s bloated coffers.” According to ABIM’s website, the group certifies approximately 200,000 doctors, or “one out of every four physicians in the United States.”

Medscape Medical News said on March 25, that 23,000 physicians had signed a petition asking ABIM to modify its certification process. But the Medscape article also gave extensive room for ABIM to address Eichenwald’s accusations, something he had not done in Newsweek March 10. That piece quoted multiple sources critical of the group but barely present ABIM’s side, giving just 57 words out of 1699 words to ABIM spokespeople (3.4 percent).

ABIM’s board chair Dr. David H. Johnson acknowledged in a statement on March 11, ABIM had already begun implementing “immediate changes” to its certification process and the organization’s inner workings. But he also said Eichenwald’s story contained “numerous and serious misstatements, selective omissions, inaccurate information and erroneous reporting.”

ABIM President and CEO Richard Baron objected to the story in an email they made public on May 22. Baron said Eichenwald initially characterized his story as an “article” and only later “clarified that his column was an ‘opinion piece.’”

As of June 4, Eichenwald’s March 10 and May 21 stories were still not clearly labeled as opinion pieces. The stories simply appeared under Newsweek’s “Tech & Science” heading. His April 7 column was labeled as an opinion, and that was restated in the column itself.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the largest journalism organization in the U.S., tells journalists its Code of Ethics to “[l]abel advocacy and commentary.”

Eichenwald countered in tweets May 22 that ABIM should have known that his story had “been an opinion column for a year.” He also tweeted at Baron that “u are blaming me for ur organization's failure.”

Baron complained that Eichenwald failed to give ABIM sufficient time to answer his questions. He said that ABIM staff responded to Eichenwald about the organization’s “programs,” but had “asked for more time” to assemble the financial information Eichenwald had requested.

Eichenwald allegedly failed to respond, and Newsweek ran the initial March 10 piece just “days later with considerable inaccurate information,” Baron said.

After that, Baron said “we decided not to work with him” because he “became increasingly shrill” in his communications. Based on Eichenwald’s first story and his “tone and demeanor,” Baron said ABIM staff believed the writer had already arrived at his conclusions.

Eichenwald repeatedly tweeted at Baron May 21 about conducting an interview. In one tweet, Eichenwald said that “ur position is no represented in my pieces because u will not tell me one. Give me an interview.” [typos are his own]

If Baron did not agree to an interview, Eichenwald continued in another tweet that “u need to stop complaining that I am not presenting the viewpoints of ABIM.” 

According to Baron, he granted interviews to other outlets which had acted in “good faith,” even though some ran stories “critical of ABIM.” He said the list included The New York Times, Politico, Medscape, Medical Economics and Marketplace.

In his statement March 11, Johnson raised another objection to the initial Newsweek story. He had Eichenwald had “failed to disclose that his wife is an internist,” Johnson said. Eichenwald’s wife was first certified by ABIM in 1993, according to a search on ABIM’s website and as initially reported by blogger Peter Heimlich on April 30.

Medscape Medical News quoted Baron who told them, “As physicians, we get used to disclosing the perception of any potential conflict. I have no idea what her views are. The issue isn't about her. It's about whether he disclosed something that might have been relevant to readers.”

SPJ said journalists should, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”

Eichenwald began his April 7 column, which further attacked ABIM, with what he called an “unnecessary first paragraph.” He disclosed that his “wife is an internist” and various other connections he had to physicians, then stated that “this article is an opinion column.” But he said these disclosures failed to change that ABIM had “a lot to hide.”

He also called out Baron in a story May 21. “Sorry, Rich: I’m disclosing your full pay here. And it’s obscene,” Eichenwald wrote.

He tweeted the article May 21, saying that he kept digging because ABIM had “dragged in my wife.” He defended his reporting in numerous other tweets at Baron on May 21 and May 22.

Eichenwald liberalism has been displayed in print before. He began a Nov. 6, 2014, Vanity Fair piece bashing conservative policies by asking, “Are conservatives ever right?” And in a New York Times op-ed Sept. 11, 2012, he claimed that President George W. Bush demonstrated “more negligence than has been disclosed” prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He said some to this “inescapable conclusion” were “still not public” but classified.