By Bob Cullen
2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the year in which humanity finally cured cancer. Readers of today’s obituary pages may doubt this. But I know about the anniversary because I broke the cancer cure story for the Associated Press. Forty years later, alas, my story remains unmatched. The experience taught me a valuable lesson about journalism.
I was a 23-year-old reporter working for the AP in Charlotte, alone in the office on an autumn Saturday evening. The job on Saturday nights consisted primarily of preparing an hourly rip-and-read newscast for Carolina radio subscribers. Once in a while I’d field a call from a stringer with a report on a small college football game. Sometimes on weekends there’d be a call from Mrs. Buck Baker, wife of a legendary NASCAR driver and carouser. She’d want to know how Buck had done in the stock car race that day. Quite often I’d check and report that Buck actually hadn’t raced that day. She’d sadly thank me and hang up, and I would spend a moment wondering if I should have covered for him by telling her he’d raced but finished out of the money. Much of the rest of the time I sat among the clattering teletype machines, wondering how my peers were spending their Saturday night, and how long it would take for me to move my career beyond the night desk.
These reveries were interrupted by a call from a North Carolina radio station, an AP client. “One of our competitors is a UPI station,” the guy told me. UPI was not just one of AP’s competitors. It was the Brand X, the competition against which AP was judged. “They’re running with a story out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that says a cure for cancer has been discovered at the Oak Ridge Institute. When is AP going to have the story?”
I blurted out my first reaction. “If someone in Oak Ridge discovered a cure for cancer, Nixon would announce it on the South Lawn of the White House,” I said. I’d been watching the president stage PR triumph after PR triumph that election year, including his visit to China. The candidacy of George McGovern, by that point in 1972, was a dead man walking.
But still, if UPI had it….AP lore was littered with the names of journalists who had either made or broken their careers by beating or losing to UPI in the race to be first with a big story—sometimes by as little as a minute. I called a friend on the night desk of the Charlotte Observer across the street. Yes, he said, UPI had the story and the Observer was going to run it in Sunday’s edition. He gave me a few details, including the name of the scientist who had made the discovery.
Oak Ridge, in eastern Tennessee, was not the responsibility of the Charlotte bureau. It was closest to Knoxville. But I knew that the AP office in Knoxville was a one-man operation, and that one man wasn’t likely to be working on Saturday night. I called to make sure. No answer.
A mixture of ambition and fear began to bubble in my brain. I knew that up and down the Eastern seaboard, editors were getting ready to close their Sunday papers. I started to see myself as the kid who saved the AP from missing an enormous story. Or the kid who might have saved the AP from disgrace but sat on his hands and did nothing. I called directory assistance in Oak Ridge and got the number of the scientist named in the UPI story. I dialed it. Busy signal. A few minutes later, I dialed again. Busy. On the third try, a boy picked up. No, he said, his dad was out. Due back soon, maybe in 15 minutes.
“Will you take a message?” I asked. “Sure,” the boy said. “I’ll put it with the others.”
“What others?” I asked.
“The New York Times, CBS News…”
A sudden inspiration. “So, you like football?” I asked the kid. He did.
“Like the Vols?” I asked him, referring to the University of Tennessee team.
“Yeah!” the kid said. And so I kept him on the line for 15 minutes, talking about football. It was mildly devious, but I didn’t want to risk letting mine be the last call the scientist returned. Finally, the boy said he heard his father’s car coming in the driveway. A minute after that, the man of the hour was on the line.
Time has mercifully removed from my memory the name of the scientist and the details of his cancer cure. There had been a press release. His research involved animal trials. He was voluble and enthused and he had no doubts: This was the breakthrough.
I had no background on the subject beyond a C in Biology 101. But I took notes, asked all the questions I could think of, and double-checked all the spellings. When I hung up, I stared at my notes and then opened a file on the primitive computer that AP reporters called a CRT. I began writing up the story, still not sure whether I’d put it on the wire.
I wrote carefully. My boss in Charlotte, Carl Bell, had given me one rule: Report only what you know to be facts. This rule sometimes led AP, with a deadline every minute, to distort reality. It was all right, for instance, to use the telephone to check out a story on a distant civil rights march gone violent and report that “Three black men were shot Tuesday after they began rioting in rural East Jebib, N.C., according to Jebib County Sheriff A.C. Mix.” In reality, it might have been that Sheriff Mix and his deputies just liked taking pot shots at black people. But if Sheriff Mix was the only source available and you had to get a story out on the wire, you could report what Sheriff Mix said had happened. That was a fact. He’d said it.
So, in my story, I attributed everything except the day of the week to the scientist in Oak Ridge. Every sentence contained some variant of “he said.”
Just as I was finishing the story, a messenger delivered a copy of the first edition of the Charlotte Observer. UPI’s cancer cure story led the paper under an eight-column headline. I sent my AP story.
Fortunately, a stubborn remnant of prudence kept me from sending it directly to AP clients. If I had done that, I might now be working on a memoir about how, after being expelled from journalism, I went back to New Jersey and ran my father’s insurance agency into the ground.
But I protected my posterior. I sent it to a regional editor in Atlanta, who put it out to newspapers and broadcasters in the Southeast, giving me a by-line. He also sent it to New York, where the AP’s A-wire was edited. The A-wire was AP’s premier wire, the one that carried major national and international news. The editor in New York had the sense to hold the story until he contacted an AP science writer at home. The science writer shot a big hole in the report, noting that there was a long history of research along the same lines pursued by the scientist in Oak Ridge and that little or none of it had ever panned out.
My big story started to collapse like a balloon pierced by a needle. It was, I would later learn, the product of a poorly written press release, an overzealous UPI man in Tennessee, and an optimistic scientist who had no idea how what he said would look in print. By the time the final edition of that Sunday’s Charlotte Observer came out, the cancer cure story had disappeared. I later heard that the editor responsible for putting it there got fired.
I thought I’d be fired, too. But I wasn’t. I was mildly commended. It seemed that in the AP’s eyes, I’d done the right thing. I’d pursued the story. I’d protected both my posterior and the AP’s by sourcing it carefully. And I’d passed the responsibility for publishing it up the ladder. A few months later, I got a promotion.
I learned something from all this about skepticism and cynicism, not least a little cynicism about what “facts” are. Sometimes I hear people lament the prevalence of cynicism in the press corps. It may be lamentable when cynicism dominates a reporter’s outlook on all phases of life, but it’s a close cousin of skepticism, and skepticism is as important to a journalist as his laptop. The only moment I remember with pleasure from my cancer cure experience was the cynical one when I said Richard Nixon would take the credit for a cancer cure if one had indeed been discovered. I should have listened to my skeptical self more respectfully. After that, I did. There’s a lot of bunk floating around out there. A reporter’s got to protect himself.
Bob Cullen has been a journalist, author, and teacher in a 40-year career. He reported for the Associated Press and Newsweek. He contributed to magazines ranging from the New Yorker to Travel & Leisure Golf. He has written or co-authored 17 books. But he is most proud of his second career, teaching English at Central High School in Maryland’s Prince George’s County from 2006 to 2011.