Eric Rosenthal Reports

Thoughts and observations about issues, trends, and controversies in the cancer community.

Friday, March 29, 2013

TIME’s Hyped ‘Cure’ Cover Distracts from Real Story of Progress in Cancer Research


Eight days after reporting the backstory of how Time magazine’s April 1 cover story on Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) by Bill Saporito was developed, I’m writing about how its cover headline -- “How to Cure Cancer: Yes, It’s Now Possible -- Thanks to New Cancer Dream Teams that are Delivering Better Results Faster” -- has become a distraction from the content of an otherwise balanced, credible article.


Yesterday, Seth Mnookin posted a blog on Slate provocatively entitled: “The Worst Magazine Cover of the Year? Time’s coverline is wrong, grandiose, and cruel,” in which he went on to write that the coverline didn’t even accurately reflect the contents of the 4,000-word article it touted. That post was then followed by a flurry of tweets commenting negatively about Time’s word choice on its cover.

Mnookin also quoted Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which was optioned by SU2C for a future multipart television documentary.


“Historically someone then comes and says, ‘Didn’t you promise this then and aren’t we now being duped?’ It creates a cycle of problems down the road,” said Mukherjee, according to Mnookin, who then wrote: “Instead of jump-starting a conversation about the most effective approach to cancer research, Time distorted it beyond recognition. It’s certainly not the first time that’s happened.”


Mnookin then adds the Time cover to the infamous litany of false-hope hyped stories and promises about cancer cures in the past including: President Nixon’s “War on Cancer” in 1971; the New York Times’ front page story by Gina Kolata in 1998 quoting James Watson as saying that Judah Folkman would “cure cancer in two years”; and former NCI Director Andrew von Eschenbach’s 2003 claim that suffering and death from cancer would be eliminated by 2015 – Mnookin calls that a “risible boast.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I also think that Time’s marketing sense trumped its sense of accuracy and good journalism with its choice of using “cure” in its headline.

And I can say that in nearly five years of covering SU2C I never heard one of its cofounders refer to “cure” in its mission, but I do hope that the public will pay less attention to the cover’s sizzle and more to the content within.

And when I asked Stand Up for a comment about the cover, a spokesperson replied via email: “In our view, the substance of the article about team science and its role in the fight against this disease is spot on.  We appreciate TIME’s willingness to take a deep dive into what is a complex, technical topic and translate it into language the average reader can understand.”