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Commentary :: Environment & Food : Globalization & Capitalism : Health & Drugs

San Francisco Chronicle Columnist's Biotech Side Job

Chronicle columnist's biotech side job

By Michael Stoll
Posted April 14, 2004

David Ewing Duncan is off to an auspicious start with his erudite and witty biweekly San Francisco Chronicle column on the biotechnology revolution. Less compelling are his efforts to dispel the notion that the biotech industry-sponsored company he runs represents a conflict of interest.

The Chronicle has run Mr. Duncan's "Biotech: On Creativity" column stripped across the top of the business page every other Monday since February. In his lengthy and literate essays, the award-winning science writer, author, and commentator calls for moderation in debates over the promise and peril of biological experimentation.

He also has recently founded an organization called BioAgenda, which the Chronicle's biography of him describes as "an independent think tank that hosts forums and events on biotech and cutting-edge life sciences." But some journalists have questioned how independent Mr. Duncan can be if he receives a salary from the industry he is writing about.

Serving two masters

"I am very troubled by a columnist who is serving two masters," said Peter Sussman, who worked for the Chronicle for nearly 30 years and is now a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' national ethics committee. "If you want commentary on cutting-edge issues in biology, then hire someone who is an independent expert in that, and who isn't also the executive director of an organization with something to promote."

BioAgenda, whose corporate name is MindBend Communications LLC, is applying for non-profit status. It has raised more than $250,000 from companies including Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development L.L.C., IBM, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Hewlett-Packard and S.R. One, Limited (a venture capital fund that is a wholly owned subsidiary of drug maker GlaxoSmithKline). BioAgenda's Web site promised sponsors "media exposure in influential media publications and outlets."

Mr. Duncan, who holds the title of executive director and draws a salary from BioAgenda, backed off that offer in a telephone interview. A day after the interview, the BioAgenda Web site offering benefits to sponsoring corporations was altered, the promise deleted. Sponsors were still offered "special placement in program literature, events, and publications, reports, and web pages."

BioAgenda has informed sponsors, Mr. Duncan said, that they will have no editorial influence over the subject matter, tone or content of any of the forums or publications the group produces. Rather, he said, the organization springs from the best tradition of journalists sparking discussions on controversial issues of the day. No one, he said, has yet paid adequate attention to biotechnology.

"I think having an independent voice in biotech policy issues is crucial as we move into a new phase of development as humans," Mr. Duncan said. "If readers think I'm a patsy for the industry, then they can call me on it."

He added that he has fully disclosed his company's financial ties to the Chronicle and to other outlets to which he has contributed as a free-lance writer and producer, including National Public Radio, Wired magazine and ABC News. He argued that conflict-of-interest rules should be strictest for a newspaper's reporters, but different for columnists, who are allowed to express an opinion.

Chronicle OK's column

Kenn Altine, the Chronicle's associate managing editor, said the newspaper did have discussions over the propriety of having Mr. Duncan write his column, and editors decided that it was that it was OK, as long as his other employment was identified. The identification accompanying Mr. Duncan's column, however, makes no mention of BioAgenda's affiliation with the industry.

"It's dicey territory to have those divided loyalties," said Bob Steele, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education center in Florida. "Disclosure alerts people, but it doesn't erase the conflict. You can have the best of intentions on both the part of the writer and newspaper, but you're going to have to be exceptionally vigilant at multiple levels to make sure there's not an ethical breach. It's territory most editors would not go into, but if the Chronicle is going there they have to make sure the integrity of the paper is fully protected."

The Chronicle's ethics policy goes into some detail about outside financial entanglements, saying "staffers should be wary of working for individuals or organizations likely to be among the paper’s news sources and whose employment of a staffer could appear to create a conflict of interest."

Others cited for conflicts

The policy has been invoked several times in the last two years. Technology writer Henry Norr was fired after he was arrested for participating in an anti-war protest. Writer Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf were reassigned from the gay-marriage beat when they married each other. In each case, editors cited the "appearance" of a conflict of interest. But in neither case was there a question of financial gain.

Mr. Altine said it is important to disclose to readers that Mr. Duncan is not on staff, but rather a free-lancer. The Chronicle is satisfied that Mr. Duncan had created "internal firewalls" within BioAgenda that would prevent sponsors from influencing his writing. In addition, Mr. Altine said, there are additional firewalls within the Chronicle. Mr. Duncan is prohibited from writing about any of his group's sponsors.

In his five columns so far, Mr. Duncan has wrestled with roundworms' promise of immortality, geneticists' struggle to save the sexless banana and the promise of embryonic stem cells to cure diabetes. All the while he summons the specters of Frankenstein's monster and Dr. Faustus as timeless literary cautions against the conceits of science and bargains with the devil.

Mr. Duncan has already gotten in trouble with the Chronicle once, for crossing the line between taking sides and collaborating. In his fourth column, on March 22, Mr. Duncan revealed that he was so impressed with the work of one University of California, San Francisco, molecular geneticist studying aging that he had invited her onto the board of BioAgenda. The Chronicle's Mr. Altine said that would not happen again.

Pro-industry bias charged

Mr. Duncan's column on the future of banana cultivation also drew criticism from Mr. Norr in an article for Beyond Chron, for over-emphasizing a biotech solution to the problem of disease resistance and underestimating traditional breeding methods. Mr. Norr wrote that most of the article was "an extended plea for a genetically engineered fix."

A member of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, Mr Duncan is the winner of last year's journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for an article he wrote on genetics for Wired. He is also the author of four books, including the best-selling Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.

He said it had never occurred to him that there could be any conflict of interest in starting BioAgenda. It is described on the Web site as "strictly independent, designed to be a feisty voice of analysis and critique without influence from underwriters, industries, political parties, or other groups and individuals." Furthermore, Mr. Duncan explained, underwriters are asked to sign the group's "policy of independence." He added that his journalistic reputation was more important to him than the organization, and that he would end it if he thought his integrity would be compromised.

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News :: Alternative Media

Independent Media Launching Web Site




A Web site promoting social, economic and environmental justice debuts Friday in
Santa Barbara, part of a growing worldwide effort to provide independent media

The Santa Barbara Independent Media Center -- a year in the making -- will kick
off its Web site,, from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at La Casa de la
Raza, 601 E. Montecito St.

The site lists daily progressive events and has links to articles about
politics, social justice and the environment.

The center is part of a growing group of more than 100 independent media
centers, including sites in far-flung places such as Nigeria and Croatia, and
in states across the country. A larger central site, at,
contains the work of media groups and individuals offering "grass-roots,
noncorporate" news coverage. The concept started about five years ago.

In Santa Barbara, about a dozen people have spent the past year getting the
concept moving, spurred in part by the war in Iraq.

"It was very much the war that made us realize what a pressing need there is for
people to have some kind of transparent form of communication, to report on the
stuff affecting them in their daily lives in the community," said Ginny Browne,
an outreach coordinator for the new site.

Using "media teams" with audio, video and technological expertise, the
organizers hope they'll be able to report on events in the community, but they
also want others to post stories, testimonials, photos and announcements on the

"This is open publishing," said Ms. Browne, a recent UCSB graduate in sociology.
"It's not us reporting on the community but the community reporting on the
community. It's definitely giving an opportunity for activists and residents to
report on work they're doing and issues affecting them in their daily lives, in
their own words. We want to help create a forum for getting some of these ideas
out there that are not necessarily reported or made prominent by other local

During the kickoff, organizers will give hands-on training in audio and video
equipment, along with tutorials on loading news and media files onto the
independent media site. These will be the first of many such free sessions, Ms.
Browne said.

The group is hoping to teach people how to put video and audio spots on a Web
site, how to do digital editing and how to create Web sites.

The center's organizers also want to reach people without computers. They'll
eventually hold film screenings of their work and create photo exhibits, Ms.
Browne said.

The center is partially funded by a small grant from the Fund for Santa Barbara.
The group also has a radio show on KCSB, 91.9 FM, from 6 to 7 p.m. on the first
and third Tuesdays of each month.

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News :: Police State

Police Agencies Join Forces To Fight Gang Violence

Agencies Join Forces To Fight Gang Violence

Joint Task Force Established

April 14, 2004

Story by

SALINAS, Calif. -- The Monterey County Sheriff's Department is joining forces with the Salinas Police Department to fight gang violence.

The two agencies are setting up a joint task force to put the power of several law agencies behind the battle against gangs.

The task force held its first meeting Tuesday afternoon at police headquarters. And while officials say that most of the gang violence may be centered in Salinas, they also say it's a regional problem.

Task force officials said they would go after state and federal government dollars to back up their effort.

"I have a proposal that's out there," said Monterey County Sheriff Mike Kanalakis. "The chief has a proposal that's out there, and we're going to try to meld that together into one proposal, and take that to (Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel), who hopefully will be able to get some federal money to make this a reality."


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News :: Civil & Human Rights

Senator Feinstein Makes 68 year old woman homeless in Santa Ana.

No one has called me on this news,I wonder why? Should it not be of public interest to read about with the elections coming in November.
Lee Murphy (835-8716

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Announcement :: Alternative Media : Health & Drugs : Police State

Were you damaged by Schering Plough's interferon treatment?

Class action lawsuit forming over the severe damage caused by use of Schering Plough's interferons on Hepatitis C sufferers. Ed Masry, Erin Brockovich's lawyer is on board to fight for you. Fill out this form and make them pay.

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News :: Environment & Food : Government & Elections

GM giant abandons bid to grow crops in Britain

31 March 2004

In a huge blow to the genetically modified food lobby, Bayer Cropscience has given up attempts to grow commercial GM maize in Britain.

The decision, blamed by the company on government restrictions, means no GM crop will be grown commercially in the UK in 2005 and raises questions about the future of GM in this country.

The German biotechnology company will announce today that its maize variety Chardon LL, which was to be developed as cattle feed, had been left "economically non-viable" because of conditions set by the Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett when she gave limited approval to the growing of the crop this month.

A spokesman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said last night: "We do not apologise for the fact there is a tough EU-wide regulatory regime on GMs. This is a commercial decision made by Bayer and they have decided to withdraw their application, [which means] there will not be any commercial cultivation of GM crops in 2005 in the UK.

"In the current climate in the EU, with member states' strong views on these matters, there's little prospect of any GM crops coming forward for consideration in the near future. We always said it would be for the market to decide [the future of GM]."

There were suggestions last night that GM crops were unlikely to be grown in the UK until 2008, when GM oil seed rape may be approved for cultivation.

Bayer's decision will be seen as a huge win for the former environment minister Michael Meacher and green groups.

Chardon LL, which Bayer had wanted to commercially grow, was developed for approval in 1999. It is already grown in the Netherlands.

A Bayer spokesman confirmed the imminent withdrawal of its application to grow in the UK last night. The company told The Financial Times the UK's tough GM regulatory regime could jeopardise the industry. It said: "New regulations should enable GM crops to be grown in the UK - not disable future attempts to grow them."

Chardon LL gained approval after trials showed it caused less damage to wildlife than its conventional equivalent, but ministers have not yet decided rules for mixing GM and non-GM crops and what compensation might be paid for contamination by GM pollen.

Bayer said: "These uncertainties and undefined timelines will make this five-year-old variety economically unviable."

Only three weeks ago in parliament, Ms Beckett controversially announced her decision to allow Bayer to go ahead with its maize project. The decision came after 15 years of field trials and four years of farm-scale evaluations.

Ms Beckett told the Commons the GM maize could be grown as soon as next year and said non-GM farmers who suffered financial losses because of crop contamination would be compensated by the industry, not the taxpayer.

At the time, Mr Meacher said: "This is the wrong decision. It is driven by the commercial interests of the big biotech companies and, no doubt, pressure from the White House."

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News :: Police State

Supporters rally around reputed gang member

Supporters rally around reputed gang member

Mar 20 2004 12:00AM


Teen facing possible return to state youth authority

For Loreto Arizpe, the memories of 15 months he spent in the California Youth Authority are strikingly similar to the stories that have recently surfaced around the state as the CYA system has come under fire.

"There were at least 10 fights a day; it's incredibly violent and everything happens at night in the dorms where three and four bunk beds are stacked on top of each other," said Arizpe's former Renaissance High School teacher, Jennifer Laskin. "He also talks about getting tear gassed by the guards and being put in lockdown in a cage for 23 hours a day. The thing about the cage is that he actually felt safer in there."

Due to a recent conviction for an attempted homicide that occurred in November 2002, the 18-year-old Watsonville resident could be looking at another multi-year sentence in the CYA system.

That possibility has mobilized Laskin and others around Santa Cruz County into action. They're urging the District Attorney's Office and the sentencing judge to explore facility alternatives. The group is calling on the public to show its opposition to the CYA - the place they say is largely to blame for Arizpe's sordid history - by writing letters, sending faxes and phoning the courts and the District Attorney's Office.

"What we want for Loreto is a facility where he can receive an education - a place where he can finish high school, receive his diploma and maybe even start on college work," Laskin said. "We also want him to be somewhere where he can receive adequate counseling to deal with his past. More importantly, we want him to be at a place where he doesn't feel threatened. That is the No. 1 issue."

When asked earlier this week about where he feels Arizpe should serve out his time, Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee said he'd yet to make any decisions.

"My job is to do two things: one, to protect the public and, two, to try and find a place for this individual where he will receive the rehabilitation he needs so he doesn't end up back in the court system again down the road in his adult years," Lee said.

Lee said his decision would be influenced by a tour he's expected to take of several CYA facilities this weekend. Several weeks ago, he issued a moratorium on sending any youth offenders to CYA until the investigation into the system was completed and changes had been made.

"We hope to interview some of the youth from our area who are in those facilities to see how they are doing and get a better idea of what the conditions are," Lee said.

"I recognize that the CYA has problems, and it's likely at this point that this sentencing may be waived until we can find another place for him that will protect the public," he added.

Prosecutor Christine McGuire said she, too, had yet to come up with a sentencing answer.

"Loreto has to take some responsibility for what he's done," McGuire said, pointing out that he was charged with a misdemeanor just last week for a gang-related fight he was involved in while in custody in Santa Cruz County Jail. "He's an adult now, not a juvenile, and has demonstrated that he's still making bad decisions. He still has been affiliating with gangs. He needs to be in a locked-down facility."

McGuire said the attempted murder conviction stems from an incident in November 2002 in which Arizpe stabbed a man who was in Watsonville visiting family as he was walking to the store on East Beach Street on a Sunday.

"It happened so fast," McGuire said. "Arizpe just missed the victim's major artery by a couple centimeters. He was fortunate to have survived."

Regardless of what happens, both Lee and McGuire said they were encouraged by the support Arizpe was receiving.

"Do you know how many times in my 20 years of doing this that I've looked over to see the defendant's side of the room and seen it completely empty?" McGuire asked. "It's such a bad sign when you see that no one is there to support you or cares enough about you to be there. I hope (Arizpe) appreciates the people he has supporting him."

Laskin said she has seen a different side of Arizpe, a side that makes him a "born leader, an articulate young man and someone who can help other young people caught up in the system."

"He wants to help other people and to make changes in his life," Laskin said. "I don't know much about his case, but I do know that it would be a crime to send him back into this system that failed him so miserably for the first time."

At this point, Laskin said, Arizpe has already resigned himself to the fact that he'll probably end up back in the CYA.

"He told me that he's starting to mentally prepare himself," Laskin said. "He said you have to stay really strong or you'll die (in CYA). He said you have to harden yourself and that you can't give a (expletive). I know he's afraid, though."

Arizpe is scheduled to appear in court for sentencing on Thursday.

©Register-Pajaronian 2004

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News :: Peace & War

How closing bases can be good for our communities

How closing bases can be good for our communities

March 21, 2004

MONTEREY - With the federal government poised to begin another round of military base closures, California politicians from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on down are moving into position to argue against shutting any of the state's 62 remaining military installations.

To do otherwise would be considered political suicide. Nobody ever got elected by agreeing to move jobs, even low-paying government jobs, out of their community.

But closing a military base and converting it to civilian use doesn't have to be something to fear. True, in remote areas with little else going for them, a base closure can be a local economic disaster that creates a ghost town. In areas with more economic diversity, however, the transformation, while still difficult, can be a good thing.

I recently toured the former Fort Ord Army base near here, which was closed in 1994. What I saw showed both the pitfalls and the potential of closing a major base and reshaping it for other uses. While the transition has been tough on two small towns adjacent to the base, the greater region is surviving, and the future looks bright.

Fort Ord covers 45 square miles, roughly the size of the city and county of San Francisco. It began as a training base for the cavalry and artillery around 1914 and blossomed during World War II, peaking with about 50,000 soldiers at one point. By the time Congress voted to close it, 15,000 soldiers and 17,000 dependents were living on the base. About 3,800 civilian employees also worked there.

That's a lot of jobs and people to move quickly from a community, and it wasn't easy. The two small towns near the base, Marina and Seaside, lost 18,000 people in four years, and unemployment soared. Monterey also suffered, and the county's jobless rate remains one of the highest in the state.

Driving along former Fort Ord roads still named for famous generals - Sherman Street, Abrams Drive - your first impression is of how little seems to have changed in the ten years since the Army left this place. About 12,000 barrack units stand vacant, windows boarded and paint peeling from their clapboard siding. An entire neighborhood of more than 1,000 single family homes are abandoned, even as the region cries out for more affordable housing. Most of the housing that remains here has been condemned and will be torn down.

My guide, planner Steve Endsley, explains the slow pace of the transformation. More than 50 federal, state and local regulatory agencies have a hand in the process, and disputes over environmental, water and housing issues have stalled progress.

Contaminants and unexploded ordnance left behind by the Army have also been a hindrance. The base's future is guided by voluminous plan drafted by a board that includes representatives from eight cities and Monterey County.

"It's a grand compromise," Endsley says.

There are signs of vitality. The biggest is the new California State University campus, which is housed in a collection of former Army buildings and new structures built for the school. The campus has an enrollment of more than 3,000 students and eventually plans more than 10,000 here. With its prime coastal location, it's not hard to imagine CSU Monterey Bay becoming one of the more popular CSU campuses within a decade.

Other educational institutions are also moving in. The University of California, Santa Cruz has a center that will focus on incubating high-tech small business. Golden Gate University is here. And a local community college plans a regional police training facility on the grounds.

New single-family housing priced at more than $500,000 is going up in Seaside, and Marina plans a major senior citizen housing complex. A mixed-use community of commercial and housing envisioned as a showcase for the latest methods in environmentally friendly "sustainable" design and construction is on the drawing boards. And the historic core of the base, known as the East Garrison, is slated to be restored into a new community with an artist's colony at its center. Elsewhere, resort hotels, condominiums and golf courses will soon be under construction. Across Highway 1, sand dunes once used as a firing range will become a new state beach.

Eventually, the former base is expected to have 6,100 new housing units and a total population of more than 35,000. That's just a few more than were here before, but the new mix of public and private uses promises to be far more vibrant and dynamic than a walled-off military base ever could be.

If there's a lesson here for today's politicians, it might be that losing a military base doesn't have to be a disaster. Time and money spent fighting closures might be better directed at figuring out which communities could benefit most from a conversion, then embracing their fate and making sure the transition happens as quickly as possible.

About the Writer

Reach Daniel Weintraub at (916) 321-1914 or


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