This is the paper of record?

The other day, in criticizing a frivolous and annoying but otherwise harmless article in the New York Times, I wrote this:

I really like the New York Times.  Really, I do.  It’s generally the second or third site I visit when I sit down for breakfast every morning (after my own wee blog and the LoOG main page, natch), and it’s an invaluable source of high-quality news and opinions.  Not for nothing is it the paper of record.

But, man.  They sure do manage to publish some dreck, too.

I am beginning to revise my opinion of the Gray Lady.  The more of its medical reporting I read, the more obvious its editorial biases become.  It was blatant in the article I discussed about Ina May Gaskin, in which not a single obstetrician was quoted offering a contrary take on her controversial home birthing practices.  In fairness, I thought I saw it in their article about the tragic death of Rory Staunton, but much of that impression was my own error in overlooking lab data they had provided but that I had missed the first time I read it.

What’s set me off again this morning is this article about the similarly-tragic death of Sabrina Seelig, in this case after having been treated at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center.  (I have no past or present affiliation with that hospital.)  As with the death of Rory Staunton, the article certainly raises one’s concerns about the care that Ms. Seelig received and whether negligence contributed to her death despite there being no verdict to that effect after the family sued for malpractice.  However, so evident are the author’s biases to me that it makes me question how fairly she is reporting the facts.  In my opinion, she actually does the dead young woman and her family a disservice by giving a reader reason to question her objectivity, and thus undermining what may otherwise be a pretty damning case against the hospital and members of its staff.

I want to state up front that, as far as I am able to create a coherent picture in my mind of the treatment delivered to Ms. Seelig, it really does seem to me that she was given shoddy and negligent care.  I have no interest in trying to defend Wyckhoff Heights Medical Center or the medical providers there.  My beef is entirely related to how the case was reported.

My problems begin here:

About 10:45 a.m., she called 911.

“I, I, I think I’m poisoned,” she says on the recording of the call, which was provided to her parents after her death.

“I think after taking Ephedra, I looked online but I took Valerian, which is maybe poison, but I am having a hard time,” she went on. Valerian is an herbal sleep remedy, which some toxicologists believe is a kind of placebo, with no medicinal qualities.

To my reading, the author’s inclusion of that last detail is meant to dissuade readers from thinking that Ms. Seelig’s death could be attributable to something she ingested before she arrived at the emergency department, and thus was more likely to have been the fault of the providers there.  She would just as easily have noted that herbal supplements are not subject to FDA regulation, and can be adulterated with ingredients other than what is on the label.  The one fact is no less relevant than the other.

However, that’s nothing compared to how I feel about this:

Ms. Seelig was an organ donor, so by the time of the autopsy, her body had already been carved up. The medical examiner concluded that she had died of “water intoxication,” which usually means becoming overloaded with water without enough salt. [emphasis added here and in later quotes]

“Carved up”?  There wasn’t a less ghoulish, non-inflammatory way that the author could have phrased that?  If Ms. Seelig wanted her organs to be donated, there was nothing at all wrong with abiding by those generous wishes.  Way to make organ donation, a life-saving gift to the desperately ill, look as barbaric as possible, New York Times.

In 2007, when Ms. Seelig was a patient, the state ordered Wyckoff to hire a management consultant to improve its governance and finances. Five years later, it is still struggling. The Brooklyn district attorney has been investigating allegations of mismanagement. A three-month investigation by The New York Times, the results of which were published in March, found a history of insider dealing and positions being given to people with political ties. The hospital officials involved denied any wrongdoing. The hospital does not carry malpractice insurance.

Fascinating details, I suppose.  None of it has anything to do with Ms. Seelig’s care, however, at least insofar as the author bothers to connect them.  As far as I can tell, their inclusion in the article serves only to make Wyckhoff look shady.

The details that follow in the article certainly make me concerned that Ms. Seelig was given very poor care.  She was given sedating medication, restrained and poorly monitored.  Again, as far as I can gather from this article, I wouldn’t want my loved ones getting care like that.  If the author had stuck to those facts, I would have no trouble with this piece.

But this next is appalling:

The plaintiffs’ expert, Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, argued that Ms. Seelig had been ignored while she suffered an agonizing death of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, which if she were awake would have led to a feeling of being “suffocated,” from the combined effects of the sedative drugs she had been given.


Dr. Johnson-Arbor stood alone against three defense experts, one for Dr. Mardach, one for the nurse and one for the hospital and its intern, Dr. Kaul. She was hugely pregnant; they were all middle-aged men in suits.

Well, then I guess the only possible explanation for the jury siding with the defense is that they were nothing but sexist assholes who think pregnant women are stupid.  Surely all right-thinking readers will come to the same obvious conclusion, and the notion that the defense simply presented a stronger case can be dismissed out of hand as male chauvinist claptrap.

After a day and a half of deliberations, the jury of four men and two women returned its verdict: Wyckoff and the individuals working there had not been negligent.

The jury did not seem to identify with Ms. Seelig.

One juror, Marat Leychik, 23, an unemployed graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice who lives with his parents in Coney Island, said he had never had to use any stimulants, not even caffeine, to write a paper. “She, in my opinion, overexerted herself,” he said.

Another juror, Irene Katzos, 39, a homemaker turned breadwinner from Bay Ridge, said that unlike Ms. Seelig she was “not artsy.” When the Poison Control call was played, Ms. Katzos saw tears streaming down the face of Ms. Seelig’s father, who was hearing the recording for the first time. “I swore I would never look over there again,” she said.

By this point, I’m pretty skeptical about those cherry-picked quotes from two jurors, which further emphasize the author’s unsubtle implication that Ms. Seelig was obviously the victim of malpractice.  The jury was just too stupid and unsympathetic to see it.  Why else include unflattering details like that one juror is unemployed (clearly his fault, given the robust job market these days) and that the other describes herself in different terms than how the victim is depicted in the piece?  Again, only a heartless fool could possibly think that their verdict was actually based on the evidence of the case as presented at trial.

I’ll just go ahead and say one more time that I’m not at all convinced that Ms. Seelig’s death was not related to negligence on the part of the medical staff that took care of her at Wyckhoff.  (Unlike in the article about the Staunton case, however, it does not appear that the Times has provided Ms. Seelig’s lab data, so I have no way of knowing to what degree they were abnormal and warranted closer attention.)  My complaints are entirely related to how the case is presented by the paper.  But the piece is rife with bias, clearly against the hospital and its staff.  If the case against them was as strong as the author seems to think it is, then intelligent readers should be able to come to that conclusion without her heavy-handed coaxing.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. My areas of expertise are much more trivial than your own, Doc… but you see the same things when it comes to articles about video games, or Dungeons and Dragons, or even “pajama-clad bloggers”. Not only do they indicate that they’ve got opinions about those pimply geeks pretending to be Elves, they get a lot wrong in their articles on things that could have been easily fact-checked by someone even tangentially interested in the topic. Stuff like “first level fireball spells” (IT’S A THIRD LEVEL SPELL, PEOPLE!) or throwing in adjectives that indicate that the writer is editorializing rather than accurately describing anything that’s going on (“basement-dwelling” is a personal favorite).

    It’s very easy to just say “well, it’s a silly thing like video games… I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that they got some trivial things wrong or that their journalism degree looks down on Computer Science to this day…” and go back to reading their coverage of a conflict in Southern Europe or East Asia and assume that they’re getting it right this time because it’s so much more important than silly stuff like vidya games.

    • Science reporting makes me frothy-ranty.

      The reporting on the public schools here in Pasadena is laughably bad in the local paper. It’s like reading some snotty teenager’s diary about how horrible her parents are for grounding her for stealing the car and rolling it into a ditch with the consequence that she misses prom.

    • I worked for NASA for a time. It soured me on papers. I’d watch a press conference, listen to the questions and answers, then read the reporting the next day. Which was utterly wrong. Not based on ‘inside knowledge’, but entirely based on ‘I saw that QA and you totally failed to grasp the answer, then reported your misunderstanding’.

      Boils down to bringing in subject experts who are also journalists — they tend to do better reporting. The papers and publications that had subject matter experts reported better, simply because they understood the subject.

      of course, they were also prone to having strong opinions on the subject.

    • I remember people talking about how “The da Vinci Code” was such a totally amazing book because they never knew how secretive the Catholic Church was and how all that stuff was totally plausible and could totally have happened.

      The same people read “Digital Fortress” and were offended at the childish cyber-hype foolishness going on, at how unrealistic the portrayals of information technology (and IT workers) were.

      They never made the connection. Not once.

      • I know people who dismissed Lord of the Files because Golding thought you could start a fire with a nearsighted person’s glasses. Which is silly, because their are far more relevant reasons to dismiss it.

        But I’m surprised there are computer-professional people who thought TDVC was anything other than foolishness. I’ve never met any.

        • I thought you could start a fire using any piece of glass + sunlight. Can you elaborate on why that wouldn’t work with certain glasses?

          • Farsighted glasses (like mine) are convex; they focus light to a single point to correct for the fact that the focal point in my eye is off. I can start fires with my glasses.

            Nearsighted glasses (like my mother’s) are concave; they don’t focus light to a single point, instead correcting for how the light passes through the lens of the eye.


  2. Having observed some of the trial (I’m a friend of Sabrina), I thought this article did a decent job of telling both sides of the story, and it sounds like what you are looking for is actually a much more one-sided, biased narrative than the story gives. Instead of ending the inquiry at the fact that the jury returned a verdict for the defendants, the journalist explored the narratives put forward by both the plaintiff and the defendants and provided details to give psychological and social insights into the black box of a jury decision.

    When there is strong circumstantial evidence of negligence as you acknowledge, it is natural to explore other inferences and influences that led to a not-guilty verdict. It’s no secret that every plaintiff wants the jury to like and identify with them, and their lawyers will tell you it’s a problem if they don’t. I completely disagree that it would be better journalism to let the verdict speak for itself and infer that the three men in suits must simply have had superior facts and reasoning than the hugely pregnant woman, etc.

    Also, while “carved up” is a strong image and is not a neutral description, first of all, it isn’t used to insinuate any wrongdoing on the part of Wyckoff because it immediately follows the paragraph about her having been transferred to Cornell Weill. It is also arguably a valid stylistic choice to use over something more neutral like “harvested” because it further implies obstacles to the autopsy.

    I have issues with many of the Times’ editorial policies too, but their “bias” against failed institutions like Wyckoff isn’t one of them.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment, Robin. Though it was several years ago, I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.

      Obviously, your reading and mine are quite different. What you read as balanced strikes me a patently and woefully one-sided. As I tried to make pains to point out, I have no desire whatsoever to defend Wyckhoff or the providers there. When I lived in New York, my impression was that it was indeed a poor quality hospital, and if anything my bias would conform to that which I perceive in this article. But I’m not a journalist, and it’s not my job to present information in as neutral a manner possible.

      To my reading, noting the gender and pregnant status of the expert witness is a none-too-subtle way of explaining a verdict the author clearly views as erroneous. So, too, her description of two jurors, whose conclusions we are meant to dismiss as simply a failure to relate to the victim.

      And to my reading, the “carved up” line simply played into the overall sense that the patient had been butchered by the medical establishment. I think there’s enough evidence of a credible failure on the part of the staff at Wyckhoff that such tactics are not just unnecessary, but counterproductive.

      That said, you read the piece differently, so it’s obvious the bias may not be as clear to others as it seems to me.

      [Edited to add: I don’t think it would have simply been for the best to let the verdict have spoken for itself. I think the article would have been much stronger if the outside expert the Times article quotes at the end had been given much more space to go through the available record in detail. I think the subjective, (to my mind) biased descriptors weaken what seems like a pretty solid case, which is given shorter shrift as a result.]

  3. I thought the article was well-written, and described not only American medical care at its worst but also the pathetic state of the malpractice system in this country.

    Wycoff wouldn’t be tolerated in a third world country, nor would the doctors in the case. There are many fine graduates of foreign medical schools, but I doubt they are in that neighborhood.

    I disagree with your assessment of the reporting. The article wasn’t, after all, written for The New England Jpurnal of Medicine. If you are so concerned about the Times, why don’t you do better, and re-write the story as you think it should have been written?

    • Well, first of all, I haven’t access to any of the people involved, the medical record, or the resources of a venerable publication like the Times. So “recreating” the story out of whole cloth seems rather without particular value. Also, it’s not my job, is it? I’m not a reporter for what is widely regarded as the finest paper in the nation, so my obligations are different than those of one who is.

      And having actually delivered medical care to people living in a third world country, I have a somewhat different take on what is “tolerated” there. Most of the people who queued up all day for treatment from visiting American doctors would be delighted to have even the substandard care delivered at a place like Wyckhoff. One needn’t resort to preposterous hyperbole to make perfectly legitimate points about the lack of quality of failing hospitals in the US.

  4. …she suffered an agonizing death of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, which if she were awake would have led to a feeling of being “suffocated”…

    This is really bad. A careless reader would likely infer from this that she was suffering when she was in fact unconscious. It looks an awful lot like the author is deliberately trying to foster that misunderstanding. What she would have felt if she had been awake is wholly irrelevant.

    In terms of sheer chutzpah, this reminds me of the story in the NYT several years back about a sorority that kicked out about 2/3 of its membership, allegedly for not being pretty enough. The author was trying to give the story a racial angle, and wrote that every single black, Korean, and Vietnamese member had been kicked out. The specificity struck me as suspicious, and I hypothesized that there must have been a Chinese member who had not been kicked out.

    Sure enough, I did some digging around and found that that was exactly what had happened. Prior to the purge, there had been four non-white members (of 30-something in total), one black, one Korean, one Vietnamese, and one Chinese.

    Moral of the story: Assuming sleaze on the part of NYT reporters yields remarkably accurate predictions.

    • So, 3/4 of the women of color were deemed “too ugly” to be in the sorority, while only half of the white women were? That’s a pretty big discrepancy.

      • Lindsay, there were only 4 non-white members to begin with. That itself may be good cause for concern, but when we’re working with small numbers, statistical measures are non-meaningful.

        • there were only 4 non-white members to begin with.

          And after the purge there was only one. Hardly evidence of good faith.

          • Good faith isn’t what I was arguing. I was only arguing that you can’t learn much of anything from a statistic of 75% when your n is 4.

        • there were only 4 non-white members to begin with. That itself may be good cause for concern,

          Maybe. My brother said that minority recruits were often hard to find because they’d often join their own fraternities and groups. Social networking (self-segregation) in some places can make it hard, too.

          A sorority that kicks out two-thirds of its membership deserves a lot of hell over it, regardless of the racism or lack of racism. Fraternities use the word “brothers” and sororities “sisters” for a reason: Ain’t supposed to be temporary.

  5. NY Times as anti physician, this is my shocked face. I started reading the article when it was printed, but it was written in such a breathless manner, I decided that no matter how incompetent the hospital was, the Times’ account couldn’t be trusted. One point that bothers me; I have trouble picturing organs being accepted from the body of a victim of poisoning. The organ donation people are very picky. That makes me wonder if the hospital even haas the correct diagnosis listed.

    Also, when you have a patient who called poison control admitted to you, poison control keeps calling you to follow up on the patient. They can be very persistent. Something does not add up.

      • Patient complains of accidental therapeutic misadventure, not monitored, dies, and then organ donation even after poisoning; sounds much more like multiple breakdowns at multiple points. I wonder how the subsequent transplants went? And to top it all off low grade dementia regarding the quality of reporting at the Little ‘ ol Grey Lady.kind if a perfect storm of why I don’t really norther with the Times and only accept anything read there with large blocks of salt.

  6. I realise this is way off topic but I’m uncomfortable with two members of the jury being identified and giving quotes. I assume this was after the trial when being interviewed wouldn’t influence their verdict but what about the effect on other potential jurors? Are they going into court knowing that sooner or later their names will be available to anyone who might disagree with the verdict? That seems to carry a high risk, if not here then certainly in criminal cases.

    • The sense I get is that these two agreed to be interviewed and identified. A charitable reading would be that the remainder declined, and that’s why the author only included quotes from/impressions of two of the jurors, instead of all of them. (A less charitable reading would be that she didn’t include them because they did not fit into the narrative arc she was constructing.)

  7. I didn’t read the article. The NYT is notoriously bad at medical reporting. Perhaps the worst example was about 15 years ago when Gina Kolata (sp?) reported that the cure for cancer had been found. (Some accused her of writing the article to generate sales of her then soon to be released book on the 1918 flu pandemic.) Then there was the testimonial by Jane Brody, I think, about her curing her dog’s arthritis with a supplement.

    I stopped reading the Times about 15 years ago when they published an “I-had-breast-cancer” story by a young woman in their Sunday supplement in which the woman said that she had been a very busy beaver researching all her allopathic treatment options and then also went to an acupuncturist who treated her with Chinese botanical drugs.

    I sent a letter to the editor saying that I thought it was ironic that the author had researched well studied treatments while it had never even occurred to her to investigate the alternative ones, which, if she had done so, she would have discovered had never been studied. My letter was never published and I never saw another either making the same point. The author did send me a thank-you form letter on which she had handwritten “good point!”.

    I was also annoyed that the NYT was publishing what I thought had become a new literary genre – the I-had-bresat-cancer genre.

    I too had breast cancer. I know it is a terrible disease, but it is one of many terrible diseases. Because it mostly affects women doesn’t make it worse than the others. Unless we are killed in an accident or die suddenly from something like a heart attack, we will all sooner or later suffer from a terrible disease. Some will be treatable, others terminal.

    While inaccurate and culturally biased reporting is the norm in many publications, the fact that the NYT, which is so terribly influential, would let it happen and not even correct the impression that botanical drugs are just fine and dandy when that isn’t true and when it was pointed out is inexcusable.

    • And the same level on incompetence you cite, we all go to enjoy in the lead up to the second Gulf War. If a paper can’t be trusted to get the little things right, how can they be trusted to get the important things right. ( It took Night Ridder reporters 40 minutes reviewing publicly available documents on the Web to debunk the the notion of Iraq and WMDs.) The American press is severely broken, and has no capability of self reflection to even be self-aware of the situation.

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