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March 18, 2020, 2:18 p.m.

The L.A. Times uses its physician owner to help explain the science behind the coronavirus

But Patrick Soon-Shiong’s outside business dealings show the importance of disclosure — especially in an era when more important news organizations are owned by billionaires with business interests in the topics journalists cover.

It’s not unusual for newspaper owners to have, well, other interests. In the old days of family ownership, it was common for the publisher’s kid to go off to have a different career for a few years before Pops handed him the reins. More recently, the 2010s wave of billionaires buying important dailies brought a new kind of skill diversity — running a global online retail empire, for example, or trading Mookie Betts for a bag of moldy peanuts and an old stick of gum.

But the L.A. Times may have reached a new high in combining its editorial products with its owner’s side gig: Last night, it released an eight-part video series on the science behind the novel coronavirus, starring its owner, Patrick Soon-Shiong. Soon-Shiong, who bought the Times in 2018, is a transplant surgeon, medical researcher (“more than 230 issued patents worldwide”), and owner of numerous medical companies and startups. In other words, you’d probably want his opinion on COVID-19 ahead of, say, A.G. Sulzberger’s or Sam Zell’s.

The videos, which add up to about 33 minutes in total, cover a pretty conventional set of topics (what is the coronavirus, how deadly is it, how contagious is it, how long will this last, and so on). Soon-Shiong sounds like the UCLA med school professor he once was more than a polished TV presenter; he’s the sole star here rather than someone being interviewed by a moderator or journalist. You can watch all the parts starting here; I’ve also embedded the video that combines them all into one piece below.

The Times sent out an email blast to readers last night under Soon-Shiong’s name:

Dear Readers,

I’m writing this letter to you not just as the executive chairman of the Los Angeles Times, but as a clinical scientist and surgeon. I hope to provide you with a scientific understanding of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and allay the fear this outbreak has caused.

This virus is certainly the pathogen of our times. It is precisely because it is a new virus, never before experienced by a human being, that it has become a pandemic — and has elicited the misinformation that spreads confusion and fear.

It is indeed a deadly virus and must be taken seriously. But we, as a society, have the power to mitigate the spread. More importantly, I am confident that the world’s community of scientists have the skills and supercomputing tools to win this war. And it is a war. Every day matters. Every hour matters.

Through a series of short videos, I explain how we can all do our part.

Interestingly, though the videos are hosted on YouTube, they’re unlisted there and don’t appear in its regular stream of uploads. (They are promoted in a playlist.) Instead, Soon-Shiong’s email and other Times promotion directs readers to go to the paper’s mobile app to watch them — an interesting way to push downloads. (They are also on latimes.com, but I don’t see them actively promoted on the site.)

The videos were produced as part of a special episode of L.A. Times Today, the paper’s local cable show on Spectrum 1 News, which included some additional conversation with host Lisa McRee.

Having watched it, I think this is an interesting video summary of some of the scientific details behind the coronavirus and potential paths to fighting it. There’s nothing in here to suggest anything other than a civic-minded intent. Indeed, as McKee puts it at one point in the Spectrum episode:

McKee: You had a very specific reason for wanting to produce this hour.

Soon-Shiong: Well, what we wanted to do is accomplish peace of mind, positive action, based on the informed science, to win this war against this coronavirus.

All that said…

I don’t need to point out all the potential conflicts that could arise whenever a newspaper owner decides to use its brand to broadcast his own views, no matter how well intended. (Thank heavens we were spared the 19-part Chicago Tribune series, “Michael Ferro: How I’d Fix the Bears’ Offense.”) And Soon-Shiong isn’t just a doctor — he’s also an entrepreneur and investor, and coronavirus is both a news story and a business opportunity.

For instance, just eight days ago, one of Soon-Shiong’s companies, ImmunityBio, included this in a press release:

In the field of infectious disease, ImmunityBio’s goal is to develop therapies, including vaccines, for the prevention and treatment of HIV, influenza, and the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

Soon-Shiong is ImmunityBio’s chairman and CEO.

It’s entirely possible I missed it — please let me know if I did — but I didn’t see any sort of disclosure or disclaimer of this potential conflict of interest, either in the TV show or the videos. It’s the sort of thing that a good L.A. Times reporter would be sure to mention in a story that looked at a local physician/businessman’s views on the pandemic — that the expert being interviewed also owns a company that is actively working on a treatment.

(Then again, if Soon-Shiong was just a local expert on infection disease, it’s highly unlikely he’d be given a blank-check hour of TV airtime. Or a special eight-part video series in the L.A. Times app.)

The closest I saw to the issue being raised was this question from Spectrum’s McRee:

McRee: And finally, Dr. Patrick: Private industry, there’s lots of money to be made globally by this. But you think that there is something greater happening.

Soon-Shiong: I don’t think anybody — everybody who we’ve been interacting with as both the private and the public level — considers the financial return on this in any way whatsoever. This is a pandemic that’s how affecting humanity. And what I’m proud to say is that everybody we’ve spoken to — whether it be Fortune 5 companies that are working to supply supercomputing support, such as Microsoft, or even Nvidia, we’re using these supercomputers, GPU clouds for eSports gaming — are completely opened to allow this. The scientists themselves are publishing their work on a daily basis. So I’m pleased to say that the global community, both public and private are really coming together to try and solve this problem.

As far as I can tell, the L.A. Times hasn’t written about ImmunityBio, regarding its coronavirus work or anything else.

Soon-Shiong’s efforts in health care have been controversial before. In particular, investigations by Stat and Politico have criticized him for making grand civic pronouncements about his philanthropy that ended up funneling money back into his own businesses. For instance, a $12 million gift to the University of Utah that required $10 million be sent right back to one of his companies. Or his foundation, where “the majority of its expenditures flow to businesses and not-for-profits controlled by Soon-Shiong himself, and the majority of its grants have gone to entities that have business deals with his for-profit firms.” One Stat story described his reputation as “a self-promoting showman flaunting more hype than substance.”

Perhaps that’s a completely unfair reputation — I don’t know! It’s important to note that Soon-Shiong has strongly disputed many of these criticisms, complaining about “all this false reporting.” And I claim no particular expertise in evaluating the claims of his critics or of the investigative reporters who’ve written about him.

But I do claim some expertise in how a news organization should act in a situation where its owner has outside business interests that come into conflict — or even just contact — with its editorial mission. And I think it requires a bit more editorial distance than this series seems to provide. At a minimum, these videos should note that Soon-Shiong is CEO and owner of a private company that is actively working on creating a coronavirus treatment. That’s true even though I don’t think there’s anything objectionable in the videos’ content, and even though I don’t think there’s any particular reason to think Soon-Shiong is anything other than sincere in his desire to fight the coronavirus.

Imagine if Jeff Bezos decided tomorrow that he wanted to do an eight-part video series for his Washington Post about “The Challenge of 21st-Century Retail.” I bet it would be absolutely fascinating! But even if every word Bezos said in it was accurate and civic-minded, the Post would still obviously feel obliged to note that Bezos runs Amazon and is a very interested party here. (And that’s if Post editors decided to run it under the paper’s banner at all. I would imagine you’d see some very public resignations from the masthead if it ever came down to that.)

Or say Sheldon Adelson decided he wanted his Las Vegas Review-Journal to run a 30-minute video of him opining on the topic “Why Sports Gambling Should Only Be Legal in Nevada.” One would hope someone would make sure to mention that Adelson owns Las Vegas Sands and The Venetian.

This coronavirus series isn’t quite that. As I said, the content seems unobjectionable. But there’s a reason people have raised concerns over the past decade about “what happens when billionaires buy up all the news organizations.”

For the most part (Adelson being a very big exception), I think the billionaire buyers have generally done okay at recognizing their civic duty and not abusing their new toys as tools for their other interests. But the concern is a legitimate one. I hope the Times will think disclosure of your owner’s conflicts is important even when it’s about a subject as universally agreeable as “we should find a cure for the coronavirus.”

POSTED     March 18, 2020, 2:18 p.m.
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