I’m not normally a big fan of April Fools jokes, since most seem to be about the pointless taunting of individuals for being “gullible”. For this one, though, I’m making an exception. Because I love a delicious defamation-allegation hijinks story, don’t you?
On April First, Dr Jay Gordon released a fake press release “from” the American Academy of Pediatrics, “announcing” that they were severing ties with the infant formula industry. In on the joke, a few people contacted the AAP, po-faced, to ask them if it was true. The AAP was Not Amused at Gordon’s political satire. They have issued a legal threat alleging defamation, and claiming that the satire caused “confusion and alarm”.
Part of the AAP’s webpage outlining some of their sponsors
Dr Jay Gordon is well known on Lactnet, as a passionate and knowledgeable breastfeeding advocate, and as a critic of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)’s policy of accepting infant formula company funding.
The AAP accepts sponsorship from McDonald’s, the National Dairy Council, Abbott, Gerber, Mead Johnson, Nestle, Pepsi, Playtex, the Corn Products Association, and a variety of pharmaceutical and chemical companies. A lot of people find this funding approach to be unethical, since the AAP is, as they claim, “Dedicated to the health of all children”. (There seems to be an asterisk at the end of that statement on their website, but I can’t see a footnote anywhere.)
The AAP’s history of accepting formula and pharmaceutical funding for conferences, undermining the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign at the behest of formula companies, and allowing infant formula logos to be placed on A New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding are well documented. When the AAP was contacted by a group of their own pediatricians about the formula logo, they were uninterested, citing financial issues. The AAP also put out “Nestlé Nutrition Centre” advertisements in the header of Table of Contents emails for their flagship journal, Pediatrics.
These facts are not contested, to the best of my knowledge, by the organisation. Nor do they contest the fact that the feeding of breastmilk substitutes has harmed millions of children; again, this is very well documented. Every day, more than 4,000 babies die because they’re not breastfed. (Yes, some of these dead babies are even in America.)
The tide is turning – very slowly. Gradually, even doctors themselves are starting to realise that industry sponsorship is often unethical and inappropriate, and it has been shown over and over that it influences practice – though most doctors like to think they are mysteriously immune. Two weeks ago the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published “Professional Medical Associations and Their Relationships With Industry: A Proposal for Controlling Conflict of Interest“, co-signed by a large number of different doctors, including a past president of the AAP. The article identified areas of conflict of interest, and asserted that sacrifice is required by professional medical associations in order to maintain integrity. [JAMA. 2009;301(13):1367-1372]
The First Email
On April First, this post appeared on Lactnet, clearly marked as coming from Dr Jay Gordon.
American Academy of Pediatrics—For Immediate Release
Dr. David T. Tayloe, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics which represents 60,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists has announced that it is severing all ties with the infant formula industry.
“This method of feeding substitution has harmed millions of children both in America and throughout the world and we pediatricians can no longer continue our relationship with the manufacturers of infant formula.” said Dr. Tayloe, who assumed the post of AAP President in October of 2008.
“Our alliance with the pharmaceutical industry is unethical. Our accepting millions of dollars and continuing to allow these business people to influence our policies while sponsoring our speakers, conferences and conventions is an ongoing embarrassment and we will end this ethical problem right now.”
“Further, I would like to apologize for our past mistakes involving the breastfeeding advertisement campaign and allowing the maker of Similac infant formula to print its corporate logo on the cover of a special edition of the academy’s book on breastfeeding.”
“Again, I can cannot express enough regret and can assure you that the AAP will immediately seek compliance with the WHO Code and will promote the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative.”
David T. Tayloe, MD, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics
April 1, 2009
A poster immediately responded, calling it the April Fools joke it obviously was.
The Second Email
Three hours later, this post appeared, also marked as coming from Jay Gordon. Excerpted:
We had all been warned about the April First Virus. [...]
My sincere apologies to Dr. Tayloe and the AAP for implying that there could possibly be a shred of truth to my “severing ties with the formula industry” fantasy.
Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP, FABM, IBCLC Emeritus
The revised possible/fantasy but not real press release appears below and has nothing to do with the AAP or Dr. Tayloe.
American Academy of Pediatrics—For Immediate Release on April Fool’s Day
Dr. David T. Tayloe, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics which represents 60,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists has announced that it is continuing ties with the infant formula industry.
“This method of feeding substitution is alleged and proven to have harmed millions of children both in America and throughout the world and, in spite of that proof pediatricians will continue our relationship with the manufacturers of infant formula.” said Dr. Tayloe, who assumed the post of AAP President in October of 2008..
“Our alliance with the pharmaceutical industry is deemed unethical by breastfeeding experts all over the world even by our own Committee on Breastfeeding. Our accepting millions of dollars and continuing to allow these business people to influence our policies while sponsoring our speakers, conferences and conventions is an ongoing embarrassment but we will not end this ethical problem because they support too many of our endeavors and doughnuts.”
“Further, I cannot apologize for our past mistakes involving the breastfeeding advertisement campaign and allowing the maker of Similac infant formula to print its corporate logo on the cover of a special edition of the academy’s book on breastfeeding.”
“Again, I will not express enough regret and can assure you that the AAP will continue to ignore the WHO Code and the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative.”
(NOT!) David T. Tayloe, MD, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics
April 1, 2009
[Note: Dr Gordon included a sexist "joke" in this email. He has since apologised for this: see comments 15 and 17. I have redacted it here, partly because of the apology, and to keep the post on topic. See also comment 19.]
The Community Response
I have done searches for the text of the first email, and it is debunked everywhere it is posted. No-one who’s paying attention believes that it’s real. A critical mass of folks knows damn well that powerful medical organisations aren’t about to clean up their acts any time soon, when it comes to raking in handouts from multinationals dedicated to making money at the expense of children and families.
Quite a few WHO Code advocates and critics of unethical sponsorship arrangements thought Gordon’s spoof was rather scathingly effective political satire. Some people decided to pretend to take it seriously, and take the piss out of the AAP by contacting them and asking about their “press release”, pressing them for information on their formula company funding plans. This plan was hatched on forums, and others joined in.
But wait. It gets better. Much, much better.
The AAP’s Response
Yesterday, a Lactnet listmum posted this [emphasis is mine].
The following letter has been received by the listmothers. We are publishing it to the list so there can be no doubt about what the AAP’s position is on Jay Gordon’s April Fool’s day joke published on this list. In addition, we are offering to post a statement on behalf of the AAP if they wish to further illuminate for Lactnet’s readers their stance on financial relationships with industry.
“Ladies and Gentlemen:
Our firm serves as legal counsel to the American Academy of Pediatrics (the “AAP”). We understand that one or more of you, as a founder, owner, facilitator or host of the Lactnet e-mail LISTSERV (R) have the ability to remove postings in that list.
On behalf of the AAP, we must insist that you immediately remove two items posted by Dr. Jay Gordon on April 1, 2009, copies of which are attached hereto for your reference. In the first posting, Dr. Gordon, without the knowledge or permission of the AAP, issued a fake press release purportedly sent on behalf of the AAP by Dr. David Tayloe, the AAP’s president. This posting contains patent misstatements of fact and misrepresents the AAP’s position, and it is defamatory. In addition, it misappropriates the AAP’s name and Dr. Tayloe’s name and has already caused confusion and alarm among your members, many of whom have contacted the AAP to inquire about the fake press release they believed to have been issued by the AAP. The second posting is a purported apology, which itself has caused further confusion and is wholly undercut by its obvious malicious tenor and unprofessional introductory comments.
As you may know, the AAP is among the largest and most prominent of the organizations that share its mission to attain optimal physical, mental and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents and young adults. The AAP has a long standing policy promoting breastfeeding and providing support for nursing mothers. Its views regarding breastfeeding and other topics related to the well-being of children and adolescents are widely consulted, both the U.S., and internationally. While the AAP considers the open exchange of competing viewpoints and constructive criticism to be essential to the process of developing knowledge and advancing its mission, needless to say, the manner in which Dr. Gordon has chosen to express his views is legally unacceptable. Unfortunately, while Dr. Gordon’s posting may have been generated by a misguided sense of humor, its satirical nature was not readily apparent tot many readers who contacted the AAP to inquire about the press release purportedly issued by the AAP. Accordingly, to avoid further damage to the AAP and Dr. Tayloe, it will be essential for the original items and all copies on your server, wherever located, to be immediately taken out of circulation.
Please contact me if you have any questions.
Schiff Hardin LLP”
The lawyers are claiming the first email was defamatory, not the second one. The FIRST. The one saying that the AAP was planning to start respecting United Nations/World Health Organisation minimum acceptable practice with regards to infant health promotion.
I do believe this is the very first time I’ve seen someone accused by a lawyer of defamation for claiming that an organisation was more ethical than it actually is.
And those people who didn’t comprehend that it was satire? AAP, it’s not the folks who contacted you who didn’t get it. Here, I have something for you:
[post title refers to this.]
Followup: Check out what happened next, in this post: Political speech and PR cleanup: the AAP squirms at the DigitalNow conference