Controversy Follows Science Host's industry Ties The host of the radio show The Infinite Mind has been criticized recently for failing to disclose payments from drug companies.
NPR logo Controversy Follows Science Host's industry Ties

Controversy Follows Science Host's industry Ties

Dr. Frederick Goodwin is the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health and is considered an authority on bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. He is the host of the radio show The Infinite Mind. Courtesy of George Washington University Medical Center hide caption

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Courtesy of George Washington University Medical Center

Dr. Frederick Goodwin is the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health and is considered an authority on bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. He is the host of the radio show The Infinite Mind.

Courtesy of George Washington University Medical Center

Dr. Frederick K. Goodwin is the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health and is considered an authority on bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. As a result, he was considered a weighty figure to host the public radio show The Infinite Mind, which he has, with some interruptions, since 1998.

But last week's revelation by Sen. Charles Grassley that Goodwin had received about $1.3 million in speaking fees from major drug manufacturers from 2000-2007 has led to widespread recriminations. Those payments were never disclosed on the air, even though some of the programs touched on the efficacy of drug treatments for mental ailments.

Grassley has been pushing for greater transparency about corporate ties that could color the findings of federally funded medical researchers. In one instance, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline paid Goodwin to give a series of talks last March about the beneficial effect the company's Lamictal drug had on bipolar disorder. That same week, participants appearing on Infinite Mind seemed to discount links between antidepressants and suicide.

The show's executive producer, Bill Lichtenstein of the independent production company Lichtenstein Creative Media, said he would have fired Goodwin for breach of contract — had he not already decided to shut down the program at the end of this year for lack of funds.

"What is so outrageous is that since 2000 — and since then we've produced almost 300 shows — that he was taking large amounts of money from the pharmaceutical industry out of marketing budgets, and we were unaware of that," Lichtenstein said in an interview. "This is an eight-year problem."

In an interview with NPR News, Goodwin acknowledged the payments but said his actions are being mischaracterized and misconstrued at a time when ethical standards are shifting.

"I think that in today's climate it's very important to disclose [possible conflicts of interest], and I think we fell down on that on that original show," Goodwin said.

But Goodwin otherwise defended his actions. He said it was appropriate for him to be involved with leading drug producers so that he kept current on developments in the field. He also said Lichtenstein knew he was receiving some fees from pharmaceutical companies.

Indeed, Goodwin said, Lichtenstein repeatedly solicited his help to introduce him to drug company officials to help find funding for the show. In addition, the psychiatrist said he never shaped his beliefs or statements to favor his clients' products — and sometimes spoke dismissively of them on the air — as he has elsewhere publicly.

"If [Lichtenstein] felt surprised or blindsided by something, it might have been the amount of money, but he couldn't have failed to know that I was consulting for companies — we talked about it," Goodwin said. "We used that to raise money for the program."

Lichtenstein said he knew of Goodwin's work on continuing medical education courses and past research as a university professor funded by drug manufacturers. But he rejected the assertion that he knew of any consulting work for the companies' marketing divisions. And he said any contacts Goodwin made with drug company officials were analogous to those made by other public radio hosts who speak about their shows to major donors or underwriters.

On the Senate floor, Grassley charged that NPR had failed to make an important conflict-of-interest disclosure.

"When a show runs on National Public Radio, NPR, doesn't the public have a right to know where the show's host gets his money?" Grassley asked, according to the Congressional Record.

Infinite Mind's Place In Radio

Infinite Mind is not actually an NPR show. It does, however, have two links: It appeared on one of the two channels that NPR programs for Sirius Satellite Radio, and while the program is not distributed by NPR, dozens of NPR member stations independently made the decision to air the program.

NPR's vice president for programming, Margaret Low Smith, has announced the show would be dropped from NPR's Sirius channel and Internet feed, effective this week.

"You can't be talking about the efficacy of certain drugs and at the same time be in the business of making money off those drugs. It is stark, and it is clear," Smith said. "I think there are times when revealing your involvement on a certain front is an acceptable form of disclosure. In this case, it is decidedly not."

The show's status was tenuous even before this flap. Although Infinite Mind is a weekly show, Lichtenstein concedes that only seven or eight fresh episodes were taped this year. Goodwin appeared in a handful of them, and Lichtenstein served as the host on the rest. Dozens of other shows sent to stations were repeats.

But Goodwin and Infinite Mind first came under critical scrutiny back in May. pointed out that Goodwin and his guests had each failed to disclose past payments from the manufacturers of antidepressants during the March 26 program in which they discounted links between antidepressants and teen suicides.

Last week, Grassley's revelations inspired a major article in The New York Times.

The Times generated a lot of coverage from other news organizations and blogs — many of which relied on the Times' own phrasing that said Infinite Mind was "a popular NPR program." Neither claim turns out to be quite true.

The New York Times reported that the show commanded a weekly audience of 1 million people and was broadcast in 300 markets. Lichtenstein now claims it is broadcast on 226 stations and draws an audience of more than 1.15 million, though he acknowledges the latter figure is an extrapolation of figures based on audience size for other public radio shows.

In fact, according to the most recent Arbitron ratings estimates, from last spring, the show actually appears in only 91 markets and is heard by just 137,000 listeners.

Additionally, Infinite Mind is neither created nor produced by NPR staffers, as are shows like Morning Edition and Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me. Nor is it acquired and distributed to member stations by NPR, such as Car Talk or Fresh Air. Instead, it runs on one of two Sirius Satellite Channels that NPR programs, along with other, non-NPR fare, such as Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion and Network Europe from Radio Netherlands.

But NPR's Smith acknowledged that the size of the audience and the status of the show shouldn't matter to listeners concerned about its credibility.

"That doesn't mean the journalistic values don't have to be the gold standard," Smith said.