A decade ago, when I was on the national desk at Newsweek, a handful of us would spend slow nights competing to see who could come closest to writing the Platonic ideal of a perfect coverline.Â
The game only had one real guideline: The headlines had to be vaguely rooted in reality.
Thatâ€™s a journalistic precept that Time feels free to ignore. Witness the headline emblazoned in all-caps on the cover of the magazineâ€™s April 1 issue: â€œHOW TO CURE CANCER.â€ Itâ€™s followed by an asterisk that directs you to a subtitle, just to make sure you get the point: â€œYes, itâ€™s now possible, thanks to new cancer dream teams that are delivering better results faster.â€
Which, of course, is completely, utterly, inarguably false. The roughly 580,000 Americans who will die this year from cancer know the reality all too well. For some context, thatâ€™s more people than will die from chronic lower respiratory diseases, strokes, accidents, Alzheimerâ€™s disease, and diabetes combined.
They go on.
Whatâ€™s particularly egregious about Timeâ€™s cover is that it doesnâ€™t even accurately reflect the contents of the magazineâ€™s 4,000-word story, which highlights a 5-year-old organization â€œstarted by entertainment-industry figures unhappy with the progress being made against Americaâ€™s most deadly disease.â€ The groupâ€™s main innovation, as it were, is to give out tens of millions of dollars to research groups willing to work collaboratively and produce results in three yearsâ€”an â€œaggressively short timeâ€ in the research world.
This is not an insignificant development: The torrents of information being made available through next-generation genetic sequencing require nimble team efforts that are a rarity in medical research. (Itâ€™s also not a new idea: Nine years ago, a 9,900-word piece in Fortune titled â€œWhy Weâ€™re Losing The War On Cancerâ€ advocated this same approach.)
But I havenâ€™t found a single cancer researcher who believes this means weâ€™re on the verge of curing cancer. â€œThereâ€™s the potential for a real impact [on developing new cancer treatments] if thereâ€™s organizational momentum to pick up scientific strands, political strands, and epidemiological strands and weave them together,â€ says Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Columbia University hematologist and oncologist and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. â€œBut to what extent were organizational barriers keeping us from having more successful solutions against various cancers? This is not just an organizational problem.â€
Instead of jump-starting a conversation about the most effective approach to cancer research, Time distorted it beyond recognition. Itâ€™s certainly not the first time thatâ€™s happened. Itâ€™s been more than four decades since President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971, promising cancer sufferers that their â€œhopes will not be disappointed.â€ In 1998, mortality rates for all types of cancer had actually increased slightly, from 200.73 to 200.82 deaths per 100,000 people. That didnâ€™t stop the New York Times from running Gina Kolataâ€™s embarrassing front-page â€œspecial report,â€ which quoted James Watson as saying a researcher at Childrenâ€™s Hospital in Boston would â€œcure cancer in two years.â€ Watson claimed he said no such thingâ€”â€œWhen I read her article, I was horrified,â€ he told a reporter at the time. Regardless, the prediction, the underpinning of Kolataâ€™s piece, was obviously incorrect.