Cancer Institute to Drop Newsletter

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The National Cancer Institute said yesterday that it will cancel its online subscription to a widely read weekly newsletter that has been publishing unflattering articles about the institute and its director, Andrew C. von Eschenbach.

Officials at the $4.8 billion institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, said the action was a cost-cutting move. By not renewing the electronic site license that makes the Cancer Letter and a sister publication freely available to all NCI employees online, the institute will save $48,083.

But others interpreted the decision as an attempt at information control.

"The Cancer Letter shines the light of day on the politicization of cancer issues. I don't know anyone in the cancer world who does not read it," said Ellen L. Stovall, president and chief executive of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship in Silver Spring.

Von Eschenbach "clearly did not care for the Cancer Letter," said one senior NCI investigator who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

NCI spokeswoman Peggy Rhoades said the decision to cancel was "strictly a budget issue" made by "budget folks." She added that the institute also dropped an FDA-related newsletter, for a total of about $80,000.

Well known among insiders, the Cancer Letter has been publishing tough stories on the inner workings of the cancer industry for three decades, with emphasis on the NCI and Congress. It has long been a thorn in the side of von Eschenbach -- a Bush family friend -- criticizing, among other things, his highly touted plan to "eliminate the suffering and death due to cancer" by 2015, a goal widely viewed as unrealistic.

Most recently the newsletter has been critical of the Bush administration's decision to give von Eschenbach the additional responsibility of acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration after Lester M. Crawford's abrupt resignation -- focusing on the inherent conflict of interest in those dual roles (the NCI depends on FDA permission for many of its clinical trials, for example).

The Cancer Letter has proved popular among NCI employees. In 2002, to cut the total cost of individual subscriptions for employees, the NCI entered into a site-license agreement that allowed all NCI employees to read an electronic version of the weekly.

Currently, more than 600 employees are registered with the NCI electronic library to have the newsletter forwarded to them upon publication each week -- that is more than for any other publication available in the NCI's electronic library, said Kirsten Boyd Goldberg, the Cancer Letter's editor and publisher, who received formal news of the cancellation in a letter yesterday from NCI contracting officer Caren Rasmussen.

The Cancer Letter's site license fee -- 0.00001 of 1 percent of the NCI budget -- amounts to "chump change," Goldberg said yesterday.

The newsletter's attorney, D.C.-based media lawyer Steven Lieberman, said he is looking into whether the NCI followed proper procedures in its decision to cancel the subscriptions.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company