Advancements in Journalism

Gay Talese: I mean here we are in 2008 and the war in Iraq is still going on and that’s like the big story of the last five years, the big bad story. What do journalists do? Nothing. They became embedded. That’s a further explanation of what I talked about being linear and being goal-oriented and being sucked into a narrow space, a personnel carrier or a tank. When Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld invited the press in and the great Washington Press Corps, the great newspapers of our country let reporters travel with troops and what did that do? That made the press like a mascot to the military. They were traveling with the American military and what do you think they were getting? They didn’t get anything. They got maybe propaganda purposes for Rumsfeld and others, Condoleezza Rice and Wolfowitz and all those people that were promoting the war. The journalists became sucked into that war. There was no great David Halberstam or the others who in Vietnam were confronting the government, challenging the President. Nobody challenged President Bush. Nobody challenged any of these people in charge since the war began and the invasion began in 2003. It was really awful. So you say what did they get? Well, they certainly didn’t do any great work. They should have, you know, alerted the American public, they should have been critical of the government, they should have been extremely skeptical at least. Oh, we have to worry about being patriotic. Journalists shouldn’t be patriotic. They go to jail, that’s fine. Let me go to jail, but tell the truth and don’t report what’s not the truth and don’t listen to the flax in Washington. You know, as I speak to you now, I’ll probably be old before we get to the audience, but there’s a guy that used to be President Bush’s PR man, his spokesperson and press attaché and now he’s disavowing his connection but he was another merchandiser of mythology out of the White House. A lot of people jumping ship now of course and selling books as well, but the journalists were very lacking in great courage ‘cause they got sucked into that war and- well, enough of that. What else? Well, I can’t think of- I think newspapers are well written because the journalists today are very well educated, but that doesn’t mean they have a particular point of view or a vantage point or a way of seeing the world or a way of writing. The writing, because they’re educated, is filled with language that is the language of the campus, of the well educated. I think we become as a society very class centered because those who are educated and use the laptop are very much in a kind of a world of more privileged people. But the journalists when I was a young man in the 1950s and ‘60s, we were more of the underclass. There were people like me from the Italians and there were people- there were Jewish, a lot of Jewish people and some Irish. And we were the grandchildren or the children of newcomers and we had a sense, we as journalists, of being on the outside looking in, looking in at power or looking in at privilege or looking in at something that was different from what we thought we were and what we probably really were ‘cause we were probably the first in our family to get a college education. And not many of us went to elite schools either.


This is in the ‘50s and ‘60s I’m talking about. And so we did have a sense of being newcomers to America and being very- with a sense of wonderment and curiosity and a sense of not being a member. You see the journalists of today who are 25, 35 years old or a little older, probably went to Harvard, Yale, you know, or the better- Princeton and like schools, Stanford and in New York or in Washington probably belong to the same clubs as the people they’re writing about. In my day, we journalists weren’t- we weren’t that socially acceptable. I’m not saying that we were unacceptable; I mean we were just outsiders and reveled in it to a degree. We really reveled in it. And we had a sense of a skepticism, which I know I’m repeating myself, but what an absence of skepticism of these journalists of the 21st century I mean ‘cause they all- they go to Washington. There must be six, seven thousand journalists in Washington. They all know everyone else, they go to the Washington Press Club and they hang around with members of government and they all want to be on Air Force One and they want access. Who wants access to these lies? I mean the sources, I mean they cover up all the sources. I mean I am not at all unaware of the First Amendment. I am an absolutist on the First Amendment. But I also believe that the American public deserves to have those who are being quoted identified. And I don’t believe in most cases those people who are allowed to be anonymous should be allowed to be anonymous in print or on television. But that’s the rantings of a senior citizen I’m afraid, but that’s the way I feel.

Question: Are journalists lazy?

Gay Talese: I didn’t say lazy, but I mean I’m not gonna quarrel with it. They’re not lazy, they got conditioned into it. They became embedded. You understand? Not lazy. I mean I don’t think they know any better. It’s not that they willfully are not making that extra step, but they grew up with the technology beginning with the tape recorder-- this goes back 40 years-- and now with this whole technology where it’s easy, and it shouldn’t be easy. It’s easy to go- well, you can write stories and you get it and people, the bloggers they’re all making it up and there’s no fundamental first source that is so authoritative that it holds up. There’s not this great sense of inquiry or demand to know or I want to see it before I believe it, that idea of looking in the faces of the people, not getting it third and fourth hand or getting it from the internet. I mean that is a kind of a recycling of triviality and meaninglessness and too often misinformation.

Not much has changed, except journalists are now just as elite as those they cover.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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