publication date: Sep. 27, 2019
Jerry D. Boyd, founding editor of The Cancer Letter, pioneer of cancer journalism, dies at 91
By Katie Goldberg
Nearly half a century ago, Jerry Dock Boyd started covering the opening shots of the War on Cancer.
Richard Nixon was in the White House, ink was drying on the National Cancer Act, money was pouring into the National Cancer Institute, and the cure was said to be around the corner—promises were made that the enemy would be vanquished before the bicentennial.
Boyd, a California sports writer turned Washington reporter, recognized that the community of scientists and administrators that was quickly assembling around cancer research needed a community newspaper.
Jerry D. Boyd at the wheel of his prized “booze barge,” in his favorite Hawaiian shirt.
This is the photo he requested run along side his obituary.
He created that publication and he called it The Cancer Letter.
“I was struck by the fact that he was always extremely accurate. I don’t know if he recorded the board meetings or he took very careful notes, but he never, in my memory, made a mistake,” said Vincent DeVita, NCI director from 1980 to 1988. “He always published things just exactly as they happened, so much so that when I retired, I took a microfiche made of all of The Cancer Letter issues. It’s like a personal diary of a board meeting.”
Boyd died in his sleep Sept. 24, at his home in Reston, VA. He was 91 and had pulmonary fibrosis.
As his granddaughter, and now operations manager of The Cancer Letter, I knew the time would come when this would have to be written. With two generations of journalists on both sides of the family, “who will write the obit” is a dinner-table topic.
Boyd’s era in oncology began at a time when giants walked the earth.
Working late one evening, he realized that he needed information about a new chemotherapy drug. To get straight answers, he leafed through the White Pages, found the home phone number of C. Gordon Zubrod, NCI scientific director and a pioneer of platinum chemotherapy. Boyd dialed the number.
“He cut off my apology for calling him at night, at home, and insisted that I should call him any time I have any questions at all about cancer treatment,” Boyd recalled later. “Many of my questions were elementary, and I thought perhaps stupid. But Gordon very kindly and without any patronizing explained and answered in ways I could understand.”
Boyd regarded people like DeVita and Zubrod as Allied commanders in the War on Cancer. This was a time when group photos of NCI leadership featured white men with box cuts and pocket protectors, and when decisions were being made in smoke-filled rooms.
In his Southern California pastels and conservative in his appearance, Boyd fit in seamlessly. While Boyd himself never smoked, he was a lifelong aficionado of the classic gin martini—Beefeaters, with an olive. He could consume them in increments of four over lunch with Frank J. Rauscher, Jr., NCI director from 1972 to 1976, at O’Donnell’s Seafood, across the street from NIH.
Boyd founded The Cancer Letter during the heyday of newsletters. Hundreds of newsletters, covering all industries, were repackaging Washington policy news, providing funding tips, phone numbers of program officers, information from meetings of advisory committees. The Cancer Letter, like most of these publications, was typeset on an IBM Selectric typewriter and pieced together in waxed galleys on a composing table.
Most of these newsletters have gone extinct, and for many years The Cancer Letter has been a newsletter in name only—an homage to our history.
“Prior to the wide-scale availability of the internet and other electronic forms of communication, he provided the gold standard of information flow for scientists and laypeople alike related to cancer research and important funding initiatives and related topics,” said Samuel Broder, NCI director from 1989 to 1995. “He was essentially unique in being able to do so. He was brilliant, innately brilliant. So, it was pretty clear that he could pick up complex topics and essentially make them understandable for a wide audience. I think that was a very special skill.”
As a sports writer, Boyd knew how to keep the score. As a local journalist, he had a nuanced understanding of how governments function, meticulously tracking the bureaucratic structures and their bureaucrats. Boyd covered cancer like he covered City Hall—and it worked.
“I think he had a very good understanding of it, and how could you not? I mean, he sat through so many of these meetings, it was like going to medical school,” DeVita said.
He had swagger, too. As scientists were sorting through miniscule advantages of treatment regimens, he was known to express impatience. “Chuck, don’t give this statistical significance crap, just tell me whether it works,” he once said to Charles Moertel, the Mayo Clinic expert in colorectal cancer, a proponent of rigorous clinical trials, and a member and chairman of the FDA Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee.
“He was able to navigate through the topography between the Moertels and the Wolmarks who were barely a whisper at the time. And perhaps we’ve reverted to that now,” said Norman Wolmark, chairman of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project.
Born in San Bernardino, CA in 1928 to Dock Henry Boyd, an electric lineman for the Edison Company, and Loreen Ansley Boyd, a homemaker who worked odd jobs to make ends meet, Boyd was the first member of his family to graduate from high school and the first to graduate from college.
His middle name is the result of a puzzling family story. It began as a family nickname for his grandfather, who, as a child on a farm in Oklahoma was found one day holding a hatchet surrounded by decapitated chickens. He was said to have announced, “I doctored those chickens!” He was henceforth known as “Doc.” Then “Doc” became “Dock” to make it look like a real name. His son was named Dock Jr., his grandson Jerry Dock.
A high school student in Ontario, CA, during World War II, he took advantage of a loophole that allowed him to get his driver’s license at age 14 and got a job as a school bus driver, driving himself and his classmates to school. He attended Chaffey College, a community college in Cucamonga, for two years before transferring to the University of Southern California, where he received a BA in journalism in 1951.
Boyd worked briefly at the San Bernardino Sun prior to being drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He didn’t mind serving his country, but he wasn’t eager to die for it. He performed meticulous research into his options as a draftee, plotting the safest path through the Army. He went so far as to leverage his newspaper connections to get in touch with his Congressman, and interviewed veterans and Marine Corps recruiters.
He had a list, and at the top was the Signal Corps. He bombed the Signal Corps exam, getting tripped up in the Morse code, but he managed to translate his exceptional typing skills into a clerical position. He achieved the rank of sergeant without leaving Ft. Benning, GA.
His war stories are about resourcefulness. While serving as a supply sergeant, he received a letter from a cousin serving in Korea, complaining about the lack of basic supplies, including toilet paper. Boyd, an expert at reading the fine print, discovered that there was no accounting in the Army supply chain for items like toilet paper, so, in a massive overreach, he shipped an entire case to his cousin’s unit.
When asked if his time as a supply sergeant helped him with The Cancer Letter, Boyd said, “I probably should have used more that I learned in the Army. That might have been more profitable for The Cancer Letter. I didn’t do any market research amounting to anything. The only marketing that I really did for The Cancer Letter is to take the first issue to one of the NCAB meetings.”
In 1953, Boyd returned to work at the San Bernardino Sun, where he was a sports reporter and eventually sports editor. He met Jewel (Julie) Purkiss, then a society pages writer and sophomore at UCLA, and proposed on their second or third date—this is a topic of some debate, and an issue of nomenclature. “Another office romance,” read the headline on the story about their wedding on the front page of the society section. (Julie still hates that headline.)
Later, the Boyds started a printing business in Highland, CA, and purchased the Highland Messenger, a free weekly community newspaper. He then founded the San Bernardino Free Press in 1964 with local investors—including William Robert “Bob” Holcomb, who later became mayor of San Bernardino—to offer an opposing editorial opinion to the San Bernardino Sun, which had come out in favor of relinquishing San Bernardino’s water rights to Los Angeles. Boyd served as the editor.
In 1968, a dispute with Holcomb over journalistic ethics drove him away from journalism. Boyd had seen what he perceived to be a conflict of interest story with deep political reverberations. After Holcomb, who was implicated, refused to run the story, Boyd resigned in protest and brought the story to their competitors. It got ugly.
Boyd, a lifelong Democrat, took a job as an aide for Rep. Jerry Pettis, a Republican, and moved his family, which now included their daughter, Kirsten, to Reston, VA. in 1969.
He eventually transitioned back into journalism, landing at the Blue Sheet, a policy newsletter focused on health care then published by F.D.C. Reports, in 1970, shortly before the National Cancer Act of 1971.
It was in his time at the Blue Sheet that Boyd began to see the need for a newsletter like The Cancer Letter.
The story of the century
“To me, a journalist, the progress in cancer survival and in understanding human biology during the last 20 years has seemed to be the story of the century,” Boyd wrote in an editorial commemorating the 20th anniversary of the National Cancer Act.
“The ravages of two world wars, the rise of powerful dictatorships and their subsequent demise, space exploration and landing on the moon, were events that dominated the news media in the 20th Century. But as long as mankind exists, the biomedical research progress of the last 20 years should be remembered as the most important news of the era, because millions will continue to owe their lives to it.”
At the Blue Sheet, Boyd was increasingly writing about cancer research, watching the magnificence of creation that was unfolding before him. Politics, science, and government were developing structures capable of churning out basic and clinical research on an unprecedented scale. A discipline was emerging, crying out for a chronicler. Boyd saw the biggest story of his life.
“I talked to the publisher and said that I think we ought to devote a section of the Blue Sheet just to NCI and play down some of these other institutes that aren’t getting much money. They aren’t doing much. Not as much as the cancer people are doing,” Boyd said to me when I interviewed him in July. “And he thought about it and he said, ‘I don’t think we will. I don’t think there’s enough money in there to support, or potential money in subscriptions, to support that kind of a dedication which would be the space plus at least one salary.’
“I said that I thought that maybe I might try it myself.”
Learning from their experience with the Highland Messenger and San Bernardino Free Press, the Boyds founded what became The Cancer Letter.
Boyd (center) with his daughter Kirsten and his wife Julie in 2008.
The entire operation fit into a spare bedroom in their home in Reston. Jerry did the writing, and Julie did everything else. The logo that hearkens to countercultural comic strips was designed by an art student down the street who was paid $60. It has since been updated, but it’s basically the same (The Cancer Letter, Jan. 6, 2017).
Over the years, the Boyds tried other ventures—covering AIDS and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute—but these publications never took off. Oncology was a different culture altogether.
“People forget how young the field is,” said Robert C. Young, a former NCI clinician-scientist and a former president and CEO of Fox Chase Cancer Center. “In 1960, there wasn’t any oncology field. This was a sort of an offshoot of hematology, and most of the medical fields had been in place for a hundred years. But that was not the case with oncology. There was no sort of communication. The field was so young and developed so rapidly that there was this huge expansion. In the early days there were two or three or four cancer centers. Now there are 60 and the whole field has changed. The magnitude of the field has changed.”
Paul Goldberg, editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, and Jerry Boyd drinking martinis at the Boyd Christmas party in 2018.
With a stack of printed up sample issues dated Dec. 21, 1973, and the working name “The Cancer Newsletter,” Boyd waltzed into a January 1974 National Cancer Advisory Board meeting, most likely taking what would become his preferred seat in the back row to the left of the conference room door, next to the table where he could quickly grab precious copies of printed materials, and waltzed out with his first check.
The check—for $100—was from John Ultmann, then director of the University of Chicago Cancer Research Center.
The lead story in the first issue of The Cancer Letter gave Ultmann his money’s worth: “NCI’s Independence To Be Challenged By Edwards When Cancer Act Comes Up For Renewal Next Year.”
It’s political. It’s about money. It’s about control. It’s about the schism between NCI and NIH leadership—and, in classic Boyd fashion, it includes a quippy pull-quote: “‘We wanted to avoid the $1 billion barrier for psychological reasons,’ said Sol Spiegelman, NCAB member who headed the subcommittee that made up the recommendations.”
The first issue is available here.
The first issue of The Cancer Letter, Dec. 21, 1973.
“Nobody realized how rapidly the field would grow, how rapidly it would change, and how the information about who was going where and who was doing what and what trials were working early on and so forth—this is the kind of thing that was needed. And there wasn’t any mechanism to do that until The Cancer Letter came along,” Young said.
As the editor of The Cancer Letter, Boyd made a name for himself as an honest, intelligent, and deeply ethical journalist.
“I was struck by the fact that even as a young investigator, which I was when I first interacted with Jerry, that he would take me seriously,” Wolmark said. “He was able to cut through to the crux of the issue with an analytic precision, ask pivotal questions, and really be able to assess the situation with remarkable perspective. There was also an integrity that existed where one would never worry about being misinterpreted or having one’s statements distorted. He engendered a sense of trust, which I think was uncommon.
“I certainly ended up liking Jerry a great deal. When Jerry retired, I remember I was walking by the booth at ASCO and saw Paul [Goldberg] and asked him, ‘Where is Jerry? I’m not going to talk to you. I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know whether to trust you or not.’”
Goldberg and Wolmark have overcome this barrier.
His middle name notwithstanding, Boyd had no medical or scientific training. He grasped the science he needed to grasp at the time he was covering it. His understanding of large swaths of science was remarkable.
“Most science writers—and I got in trouble once by saying this at a science writers meeting—most science writers get it wrong because science is very complex and very few of them, even the good ones, very rarely get it right when they do it. Jerry was the exception,” DeVita said. “He actually got it right, so I always did admire that in him.”
Knowing that Boyd was there, rapidly taking notes, made DeVita rethink the way he spoke at meetings.
“When I became director of the treatment division in 1974, he covered all the board meetings, and I had a tendency to make quick, attention-getting comments, and he would publish them,” DeVita said. “And I’d say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ because it really annoyed me. I thought about not saying anything at board meetings, because he was right there. But he said to me, ‘Well, look, first of all you said it.’ And then he said, ‘And also, it’s accurate. I mean, I reproduced it, and people like those kinds of comments.’
“So, I thought about it, and I said, ‘Well, if this turns out to be a good way to get my message across…’ So, forevermore, we became symbiotic. I mean, I would make a casual comment that was attention-getting, he would publish it, and I could get a message out, and he was getting something that sold newsletters.”
Despite circulation numbers greater than 500 within the first year, Boyd never stopped hand-stuffing the newsletters into the envelopes.
If you received a copy of The Cancer Letter between 1973 and 1989, Boyd had personally taken it to the printing plant, picked it up in a box, and folded it precisely while watching a football game—sometimes one he’d seen before if he liked the outcome.
He took great pride in his product, and would never allow an improperly folded issue, or an envelope with a crooked label, out the door.
This was his Tuesday routine, 46 Tuesdays a year.
Boyd never learned formal shorthand, and instead devised his own. He could transcribe an entire meeting in his shorthand with pinpoint accuracy. Sometimes, on the hunt for a scoop, he’d use his personable nature to evade an embargo by calling every prospective PI for an RFP and deduce who won the contract based on their demeanor. “The guy that wins it, happy as a clam. How do you think all the other contracts that lost the bid on that, how do you think they feel? Unhappy as hell,” Boyd said. “One time I did that and, oh damn, it really burned up DeVita, because he hadn’t actually made the award yet.”
When Boyd retired in 1990, designating his daughter Kirsten as the editor and publisher, he joked that there would be no job at The Cancer Letter for his grandchildren, because cancer would be cured by then.
“We needed cheerleaders,” Young said. “We needed people who believed that this could be better. And I think he, even in times when he was critical about something that was going on, he was critical in the sense that he was proposing or advocating for things that would make it better. He recognized that this was something that was going to be big, at a time when a lot of people, including a lot of people in medicine and in science, didn’t think so.”
In their retirement, the Boyds traveled extensively. Jerry was an avid reader, enjoying every World War II history he could find, and adding to his pile of Washington Post recipe clippings. He also undertook personal projects documenting his family history. His book, “Chester Seth Husted: Letters from a World War I Marine,” was self-published in July 2019.
Days before he died, he was contacted by the Corona Historical Society, asking if he would be available for a book signing.
“Jerry’s legacy is his uncanny ability to put the data into perspective, to do it with a sense of integrity that engendered trust, and it may perhaps seem simplistic, but I think that’s a profound tribute,” Wolmark said. “I wish somebody would say that about me when the time comes.”
Boyd is survived by his wife of 63 years, Julie Boyd, daughter Kirsten Boyd Goldberg, who served as editor and publisher 1990 to 2010, and granddaughters Katie Goldberg and Sarah Goldberg, as well as the growing extended family.
In July, while he was in home hospice, I sat down with him to document the history of The Cancer Letter. What follows is an excerpt from our three-hour conversation, which spanned everything from the history of oncology to what we were having for dinner.
When did you get the idea for The Cancer Letter?
When I was working for the Blue Sheet, and they passed the National Cancer Act in 1971. I talked to our publisher of the Blue Sheet and Pink Sheet. They weren’t making much money on the Blue Sheet, and only part of the time covered the hearings that they had on the bill in Congress. That was the summer of ‘71 and it was getting close to the time when they finished the hearings.
NIH opposed it. The whole Department of Health, Education, and Welfare opposed it. Only one government agency wanted it and that was the Cancer Institute folks. So, there was some controversy there.
Somebody got word to Ann Landers—I think it was that gal [Mary Lasker], who was a friend of Katharine Graham and had been on one of the breast cancer or other cancer volunteer advisory committees. She got to know some of the people at the Institute, and Ann Landers ordered a call about “horrible cancer,” and all the things it does, and how it looks like we’re having some breakthroughs come along, all it needs is a few hundred million more dollars to make some progress.
And suddenly, all the trains in the U.S., the freight trains, converged on Washington. All of them filled—and you may think I’m exaggerating but only a little bit—with letters from Ann Landers readers. She was very popular and she urged people to write to Congress, and boy did they ever. I had people up there tell me that they had never seen any response so great.
It passed the House 435 to nothing in favor, and there was only one vote in the Senate against it. That sent all of Congress a message and Richard Nixon the message.
Nixon hoped that it would calm down. His first response was the administration will add $100 million in the current budget to the Cancer Institute’s budget that was already submitted, and that was done. But then, later in the year, when they worked on the next year’s budget, he didn’t put that $100 million in again.
Nixon was determined to try to not have a deficit in the budget, so he resisted putting that back in. Next year, he said, “I thought that was just one year.”
Oh no, it’s not. We’re going to ask for another $100 million next year and so on…
The entire budget was cut way back, so we went down to the deadline where they had to have a continuing resolution. But there were regulations governing how the continuing resolution was to be spread around, and they said the limit could be no higher than the previous year’s limit, except if it was already contracted.
For the most part, all the departments had to go by last year’s previous resolution. But a lot of the cancer folks said, “Well, you got that extra $100 million and you got it on last year’s budget, so you gotta give us that this year.” And Nixon said, “No I don’t.”
I read the rules over very carefully. This was before we started The Cancer Letter. The rules said that if one element, if one major whatever division of the department’s budget gets something higher than last year’s budget, then everybody has to get it. So I called the Assistant Secretary of Health and asked him, “What about this?”
And he said, “I’ve never heard of that.” And I said, “Well, read the rules.” And he said, “Well, let me talk to the Secretary, and he can take it up to Nixon if he thinks they need to do something about it.” And about that time, Ted Kennedy filed a lawsuit pointing out somewhat the same thing.
Well, this guy that I talked to in the Assistant Secretary’s department called me at the Blue Sheet the next day and said, “You should write your story now. You’re going to get the whole $100 million for next year, and it’s in there and it’ll be the starting point for all the budgets. Not guaranteed there won’t be a cut, but that’s the starting point.”
Was that a scoop for you? Did the Blue Sheet break that story?
Yes. The Blue Sheet broke that story, and it amazed me the power of that little thing, that a little 16-page newsletter can have that impact. Well, the subscription, the number of Blue Sheets was about 1,200. That’s a very small amount compared to the multi-billion dollar U.S. budget back in ‘71, ‘72.
So, I took some credit for that. Not really much to get any prizes, although if we had taken more credit, we would have. We didn’t do that.
When did you realize that you needed to start your own newsletter?
Okay, after that display, and then I was constantly going to cancer meetings, where people would say, “Why don’t you put more of this news about the new money coming in and who’s going to get it, and we don’t know anybody at the Cancer Institute to know who to talk to, and we don’t know what’s coming up or really what’s going on…”
I said sometimes I didn’t think that anybody at NCI knew what to do with that money. They said, “You and Blue Sheet ought to do more about it.” So, I talked to the publisher and said that I think we ought to devote a section of the Blue Sheet just to NCI and play down some of these other institutes that aren’t getting much money. They aren’t doing much. Not as much as the cancer people are doing.
And he thought about it and he said, “I don’t think we will. I don’t think there’s enough money in there to support, or potential money in subscriptions, to support that kind of a dedication which would be the space plus at least one salary.”
I said that I thought that maybe I might try it myself.
So you wrote it up and got some samples printed?
Of The Cancer Newsletter. And that was the one that was premiered in 1973, with the sample issue.
In December 1973.
In December, yeah. It had 1973 on the date. I took an arm load I guess up to one of the meetings of the NCI in January.
The National Cancer Advisory Board?
Those guys said, “Okay, this is more like it. We got a newsletter with some news about what’s going on here.”
The very first story was that the Secretary of Health under Nixon was still a little burnt up about being overridden on that $100 million extra money. He told me that he was going to oppose renewing that National Cancer Act of 1971.
It only had one year authorization, and he was going to oppose renewing it, so I put that as the lead story in that sample issue. (The Cancer Letter, Dec. 21, 1973)
Now, I wouldn’t swear to it, it was that issue or the real first issue, but it was right in there, and people got excited about that. All this stuff had just gotten started, and they’re going to lose their support for it. No way.
Here comes a load of mail again. It wasn’t nearly as many as Ann Landers would produce, but we didn’t need to bring her out on it again, because just our subscriber list… Well, they weren’t subscribers yet, but our mailing list got back and responded enough to it that they convinced the secretary to back off, and Ted Kennedy got into it and started haggling away and the National Cancer Act had no problem getting renewed.
Now, that’s when we realized we had enough subscriptions to begin with.
Did you get some subscribers from that first issue?
We got, I don’t know how many. The figure two or three hundred comes to mind off that first issue, and then we made an immediate second one, same prospect list. It was the AACR membership list—they gave me their list, even printed the labels for us. That really generated a lot and from those two mailings, we wound up with about five hundred.
Well, that’s how much at that time, was $100.
Five hundred subscribers times-
A hundred dollars, that’s $50,000 that you got right away?
Well, we needed more.
Was that more than you made in a year at the Blue Sheet?
Yeah, that was just in January. But by the start of the new year, after we billed for renewal, we got a very high renewal rate. They started coming in pretty good numbers, too. It wasn’t long until we had over a thousand.
What would you say is your favorite story that you’ve broken in The Cancer Letter?
So, to be an exclusive scoop, it’s got to be something that I know that nobody else in the news field knows or will use.
There were a lot of them, all the time. But real big ones… I guess… Oh, I’ll tell you. It might be one of my favorites. I don’t know if we would really count this as a scoop, because it’s not the kind of story that my only real competitor, the Blue Sheet, would use unless I gave it to him.
It was a story about a division of NCI that was handling the cancer centers grants. They had a meeting of their advisory committee just for their division, and someone on the subcommittee of that advisory committee came up to me while I was there for some other reason and said, “I hope you’re not coming to that meeting that my committee is having tomorrow. There’s no news. It’s just a nothing meeting.”
And I said, “You didn’t advertise it as a closed meeting.”
The government publishes it. And they got to add that in there, notice of the meeting, and what part of it is closed, the topic of what’s being discussed and the time. It can only be that part of the meeting can be closed, for only certain reasons.
And so there was this one meeting, she said, “It’s just going to be no news, no nothing.” And I said, “What are you going to do during that meeting? If it’s no news, why did you close it?”
“Well, it’s going to be about those requirements we have to get a Cancer Center Support Grant.” That’s the most important thing that person has to do, and I’d deserve to get knocked out of businesses for not covering that!
And I said, “You just made sure that I was going to be there.” C’mon!
It turned out to be about a six month-long hassle, big fight, because it would’ve kicked three or four sizable cancer centers off the list.
So they wanted it brushed under the rug?
Yeah. That just wouldn’t do for me not to be there, not report that.
Right. Especially with your readership.
Yeah. That particular reason is why I’m there.
And to close a meeting and not honestly present what it was that’s going to be revealed or discussed… So, I showed up for sure the next day, and they didn’t make a thing about it at all. I never had to follow through and fight with them about it.
You don’t have to go to court, there’s a legal officer in each of the departments who handles it. And I’ve always been able to get them to back down on that. But I preferred to get to the director, and I was always on good terms with the director.
There were only two of them there that I thought were any good, and a couple that were not very good. And one that was just so-so, but boring as hell.
Do you have any other favorite stories?
Maybe not one but a series of meetings when they were putting together the requirements for the Community Clinical Oncology Program. CCOPs was the acronym.
The idea was that they were having trouble getting enough cancer patients, because the majority were not being treated at the major cancer centers, but by the smaller ones in their own communities.
The big hassle was always the requirements. Every requirement would freeze out somebody and open the door for others. They are guaranteed to be very rambunctious, argumentative, knock-down, drag-out fights.
They frequently would ask me, “Oh, I said something I shouldn’t have. Jerry don’t print that.” Which is a guarantee that I would print it.
Well yeah, it’s part of the public record. That’s funny. What about that series of meetings made it your favorite story?
Well, one of them had to do with me making a mistake on one of these programs, a CCOP. It was the one in West Virginia, I believe. I was told by a source that they were going to lose their grant for that CCOP. It was a source that I had used previously quite a bit. They’d never been wrong.
And so, I assumed, which you should never do, that it was correct. So, I used it in the main story on the front page that such and such center is not going to get their grant renewed. And turns out, the NCI had approved it.
I called both as soon as I realized it was wrong. I called people in West Virginia and told them that it’s in the mail. I can’t stop it, it’s too late, it’ll be in, so you might want to advise your people out there that see this, or call right now. Tell them that it’s coming. Be ready to deny it. And I’m admitting that I made a mistake.
The head of the NCI group that handled that program and approved it, the head of the program that handled all of those particular cancer center grants, I talked to him.
And he said, “I know that the policy at NCI and throughout the government is that we the staff people don’t reveal anything until we give the congressman a chance to make the announcement or other people to do something about it or whatever. But in your case, if you call me before you do a story like that again, where there’s some information in there that we don’t want out until a certain time, and possibly it could be right or wrong, I’ll tell you, if you don’t reveal the source.” And I said “Okay that’s a reasonable deal. It’s all I ever asked anyway.”
So making a mistake got you a really valuable source.
So it did. It got me a valuable source that I may use. And it was always right.
People always assume, oh Vince DeVita, he’s a good buddy of Jerry’s, they get all this from him. I never got a word from DeVita that he didn’t want to get out there, or that he thought he shouldn’t get out.
He was good about telling me things that were okay, but on the stuff that was denied to all the news outlets who were interested until a certain date, he was especially determined to keep that quiet. When I broke a story, I made a point of telling him that it did not come from an NCI staff person. I got it from other people.
Any other good ones?
I guess this is good: there was a big contract, came up every five years, in Frederick, Maryland. They took over part of what used to be the biological warfare operation up there. When the government decided to get out of that, they turned over to NIH a major part of that facility. Most of it went to NCI and they put a lot of their programs up there because they ran out of space at NIH.
Every five years, they needed to have a couple of contracts, three or four contracts. The main one, to oversee the basic research that was being done up there. That contract would be pretty sizable, from like $5 million to $10 million a year. That was just one. Each of those other contracts would go to the other companies that were smaller, doing specific types of research, including a lot of them, virology stuff.
They’d put out an RFP, request for proposal, and it would list all of what they had to do.
The laws governing that prohibited NCI employees involved in this from refusing to tell the media the names of the contractors of people that were bidding on these contracts.
They had to tell if they were asked. So, it was easy enough to get that list, of course. So, at the start of one of these renewal times, I would call and get that list, getting the name of the principal investigator on each one and his phone number.
And then I would call each of those guys and just tell them that I’m following this, and I plan to use the news whenever those contracts are awarded.
Award time comes. They are not required to tell the media anything. So, the institute, they’re just going to keep things quiet. The individual people don’t want the news out unless it’s the one guy who wins each contract. The guy that wins it, happy as a clam. How do you think all the other contracts that lost the bid on that, how do you think they feel?
Unhappy as hell. And we’re going to call the guy up and I’d say, “Well how’d you do?” On one hand, I’d hear “That whole thing was rigged. It was rigged.” Or “That was set up from the start. They’re a bunch of damn liars up there.” All this nagging, including all a bunch of four letter words.
Then I’d get one guy and he’d say, “Oh, they did terrific. I can’t tell you about it, but we’re happy about it.”
I would put the names of each one of those, if there were more than one, there usually was. The names of each of the happy guys. He’s going to win, he’s going to win.
One time I did that and, oh damn, it really burned up DeVita, because he hadn’t actually made the award yet.
I said, “Vince, I happen to know from my search that you might want to announce the award yourself that you decided to. So, that’s making the award, isn’t it?” And he said, “No, it’s not making the award until I say it they get it.” I don’t believe in that.
I have an oversight record on that. I was talking to one of the NCI guys who was always burnt up and went out of his way to really try to keep me from finding out. So I decided to tell him how I did it, just like I told you. I said “It’s just being a good reporter.”
They gave you all the tools. Process of elimination!
He said, “Ah, that’s just rumors. Rumors.”
I think that one made me the happiest. And the fact that I could do that with one after another, any contract, where there were multiple applicants, and just one award to be given.
It always worked. But I didn’t let them know about it until one guy that I talked to. We got along very well, so I decided, “I’m going to tell you how I get my scoop every year on you guys.” And he grumbled “rumors.”
You don’t know what rumors mean if you think that’s a rumor!
I like how simple a solution that is, too. It’s very minimal and elegant.
Yeah. I didn’t feel delaying something so the congressman could make an announcement was worthwhile.
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In lieu of flowers, have a martini.