We all witnessed “Sicko” film director Michael Moore verbally body slam a flatfooted Wolf Blitzer on Monday.
We know what set Moore off: CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s factually challenged “reality check," to which Moore had alerted Gupta in an email sent to his staff before it first ran on June 29, 10 days before Blitzer played again prior to his interview with Moore. Nevertheless, Gupta ignored it, changing nothing. Moore's “Sicko” truth squad then posted a reality check, eviscerating Gupta’s claims. Last night, Gupta joined Moore on Larry King Live, where, in one of the most revealing moments, he responded to Moore’s point that the “one expert” in his report has deep ties to big pharma and conservative allies in government. Gupta replied, “His only affiliation is with Vanderbilt University. We checked it, Michael.” That, too, turns out to be utterly false.
On Monday, Wolf Blitzer had defended Gupta, saying he "is not only a doctor and neurosurgeon, but he's also an excellent, excellent journalist." To borrow Gupta’s John Stossel rhetoric, “but hold on.”
First, we also realize that Gupta is a rising star at CNN and that CNN, of course, is sponsored in part by the ad dollars of big pharma, which is aligned with big government to ensure the widest profit margins rather than exceptional and available healthcare access.
But what else would compel Gupta to pick this spat with Moore? To thrust himself so visibly into this story that he's become part of the story.
It’s as if he bent over backwards to contrive this fight. What reason might he have for ignoring Moore’s email? In addition to Gupta’s only admission of fault, which he dubiously blames on an “error of transcription,” how could he have gotten so many things wrong, either through misquoting, omitting necessary context or presenting false equivalences (yes, America has the highest rate of patient satisfaction among those with the opportunity to be patients, but not the 47 million without insurance)? Why would Gupta knowingly lean on a big pharma player for his facts and then lie about it? (If he’s not lying he’s an almost inconceivably incompetent journalist.) And finally, why would he continue to be so unrelenting after failing to justify even one viable instance where Moore had “fudged the facts”? Especially when, in the end, Gupta’s most vehement criticism of Moore is he used more than one source for his facts (perfectly sound as long as each source is accurate, which Gupta couldn’t prove otherwise); then Gupta admits to liking the film and applauding its importance.
Well, Dr. Gupta, who’s been steadily shaping a lucrative brand name for himself, wanting desperately to attain a one-man media empire akin to his pal Deepak Chopra, published a book this spring. The thing is, even with CNN simultaneously airing a complementary two-day documentary to coincide with the book’s release, it’s currently ranked an impressive 3,725 on Amazon’s list and 1,940 on Barnes and Noble’s. Regardless of his burgeoning brand name and ubiquitous face on CNN and part-time spots with Katie Couric over at CBS as well, Gupta’s book, to put it mildly, is not exactly flying off the shelves.
You don't need to be a neurosurgeon to do the marketing math.
Moore’s film is one of the most popular in the country and it’s about the healthcare system and it’s highly controversial. What better opportunity for Gupta to nurse his ailing book sales to health than to pick a fight with Moore? Don’t be surprised to see Gupta’s Chasing Life: New Discoveries in the Search for Immortality to Help You Age Less Today (good grief, he doesn’t disguise his desire to follow in Deepak Chopra’s footsteps, does he?) begin to climb out of the basement.
And then there’s the matter of the good doctor’s journalistic integrity, of which Blitzer defended with the blind loyalty a father might show a son.
But Gupta, “America’s Doctor,” is largely what you would expect. A bright man? Sure. A capable neurosurgeon? Apparently, yes. But, most assuredly, a company man. And an exceedingly opportunistic climber at that.
As an embedded reporter for CNN with the U.S. Navy’s medical unit, the "Devil Docs," Gupta was supposed to report the story but became the story. Sound familiar? As his CNN bio boasts, he “performed brain surgery five times” during that assignment.
As Frank Rich noted at the time, in the op-ed "The Spoils of War Coverage":
At CNN, a noble effort by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, an embedded medical reporter, to rescue an injured 2-year-old Iraqi boy by performing on-the-scene brain surgery was milked for live reports. Lest anyone not grasp the most important moral of this incident, Dr. Gupta himself declared that ''it was a heroic attempt to try to save the child's life'' after the child had died.
One year later, in a 2004 interview in Emory Magazine, this is revealed:
He has written a pilot for a television series about his experiences in Iraq that he just sold to ABC. The series, he says, is “M.A.S.H. on speed.”
Ironic, isn’t it? How many episodes of M.A.S.H. were there where Hawkeye exposes a character for being a grandstanding self-interested phony?
Oh, by the way, the interview also relates how much Gupta “enjoys driving his Jaguar XK8.” Of course. And my point isn't that he drives this car, but rather the mentality of someone who feels the need to mention this in an interview without any awareness, or care, of its elitist overtones - especially when he owes much of his fame to those experiences in Iraq, a place from which he seems to have blithely moved on with his life while leaving our soldiers behind. So, you see, when Michael Moore also blamed Dr. Gupta for helping to sell the war in Iraq, he was on the money. Literally and figuratively. It would be unseemly enough if Gupta mentioned such a thing in an interview today, but, remember, he said this back in 2004, just a year after his stint there.
The spoils of war, indeed.
To give you a better idea of Gupta’s style as a journalist, check out these embarrassing reports (some, again, reminiscent of ABC hack John Stossel, the “myth-busting” journalist who also built a brand name on disingenuous and inane reporting):
Blinded by Science (Columbia Journalism Review, December 2004):
Nevertheless, a media frenzy ensued, with journalists occasionally mocking and questioning the Raelians while allowing their claims to drive the coverage. CNN’s medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, provided a case in point. When he interviewed Boisselier following her press conference, Gupta called Clonaid a group with “the capacity to clone” and told Boisselier, credulously, “We are certainly going to be anxiously awaiting to see some of the proof from these independent scientists next week.”
Childhood Obesity – Blame It on Mom (CNN report, July 2005):
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, good morning, Kiran. I was a little -- talk about blaming women. I have to be a little careful here.
Women have been blamed for everything going back to the Garden of Eden for sure. But we're taking a look at some -- some people believe that working mothers may actually be contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic. We decided to take a look at this controversial theory.
SINGER: Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin' --
GUPTA (voice over): Working 9 to 5 was a movie and a mantra in the 1980s, as American women entered the workforce en masse. That's about the same time that American kids started packing on the pounds.
GUPTA: So, did working women lead to chubbier children? Well, 16 percent of children six and older are overweight. That is triple the number from 1980.
Women Like Sex! Jobs Are Hard Work! Menopause Is No Fun! (Columbia Journalism Review, April 2006):
Yesterday, in a groundbreaking report on CNN's American Morning, senior medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta delivered some startling news: women like sex. They like love. And -- brace yourself -- they want intimacy.
In his report, "Sex and love starting at 30" -- part of CNN's series on life in the 30s, 40s and 50s -- the good doctor found a knowledgeable psychologist who helped him greatly in rehashing a number of surprising truths about adult women.
Anchor Soledad O'Brien got viewers warmed up with some self-evident generalities. [...] After O'Brien declared "All right, let's talk about sex" to the tune of the 1991 Salt 'N Pepa classic, Dr. Gupta took charge, relying heavily on the practiced observations of one Linda Klaitz.
"Popular TV shows like Sex & The City suggest women in their 30s are open to talking about sex," Gupta said. "But Dr. Linda Klaitz says a lot of women in their 30s are also interested in falling in love and settling down." Cue Klaitz: "In their 30s, I think there's a huge focus on procreation and finding a partner and having children." (People having kids in their 30s? Who knew?)
Making long-distance video diagnoses (NY Times blog Screens, February 2007):
Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s dashing doctor, talked to Screens about whether playing doctor on your laptop is ethical or, failing that, even possible.
It’s not ethical. As Dr. Gupta said, “One of the basic tenets of medicine is that we can’t make a diagnosis without physically laying hands on a patient.”
I asked about how Anna Nicole often looked a little out of it.
“You can’t say, ‘She was slurring her words with Entertainment Tonight a week ago; that’s why she died,’” Dr. Gupta replied. “I will say I saw the video where she was getting her picture taken with Hulk Hogan and Don King. She didn’t look ill and she doesn’t look like someone who suffered from a long-lasting illness.”
“An excellent, excellent journalist”? Talk about fudging the facts.
UPDATE: On July 9, the day Gupta's "reality check" set up Moore's interview with Blitzer, his book sat at #3,725 on Amazon's sales list. On July 11, following that initial setup and then Gupta and Moore's debate on Larry King Live, the book jumped to #1,399. Today, it's dipped back a bit to #1,982. Though that's still mountains above its previous plateau. Maybe Moore should request a royalty check from the good doctor.