BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Harper's Magazine is not known for shunning controversy, but an article in the March issue ignited a blaze of condemnation. In it, Celia Farber writes about a cover-up within the National Institutes of Health regarding AIDS medication trials, and she goes on to approvingly quote a few scientists, chief among them Peter Duesberg, who argued that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. Instead, the skeptics contend that drugs, both illegal and doctor-prescribed, cause many cases of what's called AIDS, and that in Africa, AIDS has become the umbrella diagnosis for a host of other longstanding illnesses that on their own receive too little funding. AIDS researchers issued a flurry of rebuttals, some of which are briefly excerpted in this month's letters column, raising questions about how journalists should proceed when discrediting a hard-won body of scientific research. Roger Hodge was the editor of that article for Harper's and the new editor of the magazine. He says he expected a strong reaction to the article that Harper's originally commissioned, a profile of the controversial Duesberg. But -
ROGER HODGE: Shortly after the original piece came in, another story began to break � the HIVNET scandal. Jonathan Fishbein, regulator at the National Institutes of Health, was beginning to go public with some very disturbing allegations about a clinical trial in Uganda. And we made a decision to shift the assignment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you summarize what that part of the story was, the HIVNET trial?
ROGER HODGE: In essence, it involved a clinical trial of an AIDS drug called Nevirapine for treatment of maternal-to-child transmission of HIV, in Uganda under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. And everything that could go wrong went wrong. Records were lost. People died. The primary investigators had little contact with the subjects. All of this was covered up by people in the NIH, the very highest levels of the Division of AIDS. It was whitewashed, published and was the launching pad for the distribution of this drug throughout the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this article does a number of things. It's the story of a pregnant woman killed in an experimental drug trial, it's the story of a whistleblower within the National Institutes of Health and it's a discussion of a few within the scientific community who doubt the evidence that HIV causes AIDS. You edited the piece. Was there any discussion of excluding the material about HIV skepticism?
ROGER HODGE: Yes. Celia and I talked about it at some length. Ultimately, we decided that leaving the controversy about the larger questions concerning HIV and AIDS out would be a serious omission, because what we were getting at in the piece was the way politics and the way money can distort the scientific process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, almost immediately, this piece drew responses from the scientists and physicians who contested its factual claims. Eight of them, on behalf of a South African treatment advocacy organization, issued a 35-page fact-by-fact rebuttal of the scientific material in the piece. And so I wonder, in a case where the author's thesis depends so much on medical specifics, how do you reassure yourself that the factchecking is good enough?
ROGER HODGE: It's a good question. We worked on this piece over the course of a year, and it was in formal factchecking for at least three months. We talked to a lot of people. We looked at a lot of studies. We really pressed very hard to make sure, especially in the HIVNET section of the piece, that we were on very firm ground. But the larger question is really about the smaller part of the piece, the question about the summary of Peter Duesberg's theories, and it's a very accurate summary of what Peter Duesberg argues. There's a larger question, which is whether Peter Duesberg's critique is reasonable. That's something that can't be determined in a magazine article.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But do you think that it was appropriate to make those assertions, Duesberg's assertions, without offering any of the consensus of the scientific community against it? As a matter of fact, mostly the scientific community was discredited simply as being in the pocket of the pharmaceutical companies.
ROGER HODGE: We made it very clear that Duesberg's theories were rejected by the AIDS establishment. You couldn't be clearer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You couldn't be clearer, but you never said why, except for the fact that he was a renegade that ran in the face of a pharmaceutical consensus.
ROGER HODGE: What we said was what happened. Duesberg published a paper in 1987 that began a controversy which has continued to this day. The point of the piece is not to enter into that debate directly. What I do think is interesting is when you have a causality debate about a disease, when someone � and it's not just one person, it's a whole group of researchers � questions, they are shouted down, called murderers and essentially persecuted. What Duesberg underwent is extraordinary, and we talk about it in the piece. It's not the place of a magazine article to adjudicate a scientific controversy at that level. What we did was present, accurately, Duesberg's critique.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Accurately and, essentially, uncritically. In the early days there was quite an attempt, an extensive attempt to look for other causes of this disease.
ROGER HODGE: That's true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they just didn't find one. And based on their hypothesis, they found drugs that have worked. Do you think you � [OVERTALK]
ROGER HODGE: Well, here's what I would suggest. If you want to talk about this subject, you should have Peter Duesberg or Celia Farber on here, because they are experts. I'm not an expert on that subject.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about the thing you are an expert in, which is editing magazines.
ROGER HODGE: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you take away anything from this whole experience?
ROGER HODGE: I think the experience has been pretty much what I expected, an inordinate amount of attention spent discussing the Duesberg section of the piece. I would have hoped that we would have a little bit more outrage, from people who consider themselves to be patient advocates, at the callous disregard of human life, the fact that the NIH has engaged in a major cover-up of a major clinical trial. If this is normal, if this is okay, then we're in a [LAUGHS] lot of trouble.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about your process, though, given what you've experienced here? Would you have constructed this differently? Would you have dealt with the science of the Duesberg piece differently? Would you have left it out?
ROGER HODGE: I don't think so. In fact, I think, if anything, the controversy over the Duesberg section helped the piece reach more readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Roger Hodge, thank you very much.
ROGER HODGE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roger Hodge is the new editor of Harper's magazine.