Slap: Pressure From Politically-Connected Stem Cell Firm Celltex Leads To Slate Retraction

Published on
March 1, 2012

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of a post originally published on March 1.      

When the publishing industry was making double-digit profits every year, the adage about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel held true.

That may be changing.

Today, Slate retracted a critical commentary by Dr. Carl Elliott about the ethical controversy surrounding Celltex Therapeutics, a company marketing unlicensed stem cell injections, and the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB). Celltex CEO David Eller had sent Slate a retraction demand.

Celltex recently hired the editor of AJOB, Glenn McGee, and other bioethicists have charged that McGee has been running the journal while working for Celltex. Following the criticism, McGee announced today that he has quit Celltex.

The company works in a medical and ethical gray area, harvesting adult stem cells from fat and injecting them into other parts of the body without solid evidence that the procedures work. Bioethicist Leigh Turner at the University of Minnesota has suggested that the company's work looks exactly like something that would prompt action by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. And on Wednesday, David Cyranoski at Nature wrote that "there is evidence that the company is involved in the clinical use of the cells on U.S. soil, which the FDA has viewed as illegal in other cases." Celltex’s CEO, David Eller, is very politically connected. He is a major donor to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Perry is Celltex's most famous patient.

Subsequent to the original publication of this post, the FDA issued a scathing inspection report that found major deficiencies in the company’s manufacturing processes. The April 2012 inspection report was released in June after a Freedom of Information Request from the Houston Chronicle and Turner.

The FDA found that Celltex Therapeutics “cannot guarantee the sterility, uniformity and integrity of stem cells it takes from people and then stores and grows for eventual therapeutic reinjection, said the Chronicle, quoting from a section of the FDA report that finds that “the company cannot verify the cells are alive."

Given everything that has been written about McGee, AJOB and Celltex, the move by Slate to retract the article is frightening for writers everywhere. A retraction demand is the first step in a libel suit, and it gives media outlets a choice. They often will print a clarification to fix any minor errors of fact in the piece, especially if those errors occurred through no fault of the reporter or outlet. They also will print corrections, which usually place the blame squarely on the outlet but are far short of an apology. Or they will print a retraction and an apology, which is what Slate has done. In doing so, it has effectively inoculated itself against a libel suit. But it also has created an incredibly bad precedent.

It's worth noting that McGee is, by any definition, a public figure and would have to prove actual malice to win a libel suit, a very high bar that is rarely achieved.

I have received a handful of retraction demands over the years. Never has a newspaper or website where I worked looked at a letter like the one Slate received and pulled the piece. I have had to write clarifications and corrections over the years. That's part of the process. But when an outlet as respected as Slate caves in to pressure from a politically connected company it will undoubtedly make other writers pull back when considering a commentary on or investigation of a difficult subject – especially freelance writers who could be left to hang while the lawyers gather.

I asked David Plotz, Slate's editor, to expand on the reasons for pulling the article, but I did not receive a response. Plotz provided a one-sentence explanation for the retraction. 

"I spent two hours on the phone trying to persuade them not to give in to a bully, but it did no good," Elliott wrote me. "I think one of the reasons that Slate could be bullied so easily is that they didn't know enough about stem cell tourism or bioethics or McGee's history to know how much of his threat was bluster and how much had a basis in fact."

Let's look at both of those issues. First the facts. Like most commentaries, Elliott's Slate piece was based on public records and previously published accounts. There indeed is some imprecise wording in the piece, but all of it could have been handled with a clarification. (Here at Center for Health Journalism Digital, we make revisions post publication, to provide clarification, correct errors or to share comments that warrant inclusion in the interest of a more robust discussion). When it came to the Slate retraction, Elliott wrote his own post about it for Brainstorm at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and commentators there argued over problems with the story. For example, the company has laboratories in Sugar Land, which is a Houston suburb, but its corporate headquarters are in Houston proper. Elliott said that the company was based in Sugar Land.

Now the fairness issue. I don't know if Elliott attempted to contact McGee. I did contact McGee before my pieces ran last week, and he did not respond. He also has declined to talk with Nature about any of the controversy surrounding Celltex. If making sure a writer talked with the subject of a commentary is the new standard for publication, 80% of the content on the web would disappear.

Ron Rosenbaum recently wrote in Slate that Billy Joel was the The Worst Pop Singer Ever. Did Rosenbaum contact Billy Joel? In Slate, Timothy Lee wrote about a controversial patent lawsuit by Prometheus Laboratories, "a firm that sells a product for testing the level of thiopurine metabolites." No one from Prometheus apparently was contacted. Pick nearly any subject, and you will find an article in Slate and outlets all over the world that you could argue "unfairly" portrayed a person or company.

Because Slate's move in this case is so unusual and so scary for writers, patients, and whistleblowers, I have posted the entire retraction demand from Eller and a separate but similar letter from McGee's attorney to Plotz and Elliott. I also have posted Elliott's point-by-point response. Read them for yourself and let me know what you think should have been done.