Are the muckrakers moving more slowly than their subjects in the medical field when it comes to pharmaceutical conflicts of interest? That’s one way to look at two recent stories that indicate that the press establishment may be increasingly confronted with the same questions that it’s been pressing physician and medical groups to answer for years.

Eyebrows were raised recently over the news that Pfizer endowed $80,000 worth of fellowships through the National Press Foundation for 15 journalists to attend a four-day conference on cancer in October. According to Pharmalot, this is the second year of the conference.

On her blog at Politics Daily, Alison Fairbrother asks: Just how big a conflict is this?

Well, plenty of people (journalists included) readily answered: Big. Pfizer makes a handful of incredibly expensive cancer drugs. (Probably not on the conference program is Forbes columnist Robert Langreth’s “Why Pfizer can’t cure cancer.”) There is now wide consensus that industry-backed education for doctors (CME) creates the potential for bias, and many medical schools, specialty societies and physicians groups have moved accordingly, restricting ways that industry can support CME or banning such support entirely, as the University of Michigan did earlier this year.

This week, in fact, a Harvard neurologist launched an industry-free CME company that will draw on expertise of non-conflicted Harvard physicians to create the curriculum modules. It’s encouraging to see the move toward industry-free continuing medical education move beyond regulation and back into the private market.

And as for the journalists? A Pfizer spokesman told Pharmalot this:  “With the 24/7 news cycle now, my concern continues to be the ability of journalists to have enough time to understand the material and have the knowledge to do the analytic work they need to do. I can complain or be part of the solution. We believe we’re doing this the right way.”

That’s not surprising. And it sounds a whole lot like the pharma industry’s pitch for detailing and CME sponsorship: How else, they say, are busy doctors going to get this information?

Well, there are beginning to be more alternatives for doctors. And we would posit that that’s precisely journalists’ job: to figure out the right unbiased way to get the information, also known as reporting. That’s what they are: professional information-getters.

But as newsrooms cut and cut further, they will be scanning ever-wider circles for someone willing to foot the bill, as Gary Schwitzer of Health News Review told Pharmalot and Fairbrother.  And pharmaceutical companies are great at footing the bill, especially when the ROI looks good.

And when you have the President of the National Press Foundation saying things like this—“I evolved a way of using a strict set of guidelines which basically say we’ll take money from anybody as long as they follow certain rules”—how could pharmaceutical companies not see an open door? They have whole divisions devoted to following rules.

Arguably, awareness of the potentially problematic financial ties between physicians and industry has never been higher, and the new federal Physician Payments Sunshine law will further illuminate the scope and prevalence of those ties. It’s perhaps ironic, then, that the industry that played such a big role in raising that awareness may be next to confront its own vulnerability to Rx influence.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger