Jonathan LaPook is a popular Upper West Side gastroenterologist who specializes in CBS.
Over his quarter-century in medicine, he has consulted with some of that network’s most important figures: former news division president Howard Stringer; Andrew Lack, the creator of the newsmagazine West 57th and a former senior executive producer of CBS Reports; and new evening-news anchor Katie Couric, for whom he helped arrange an on-camera colonoscopy in 2000. His father-in-law is Norman Lear, the television legend and creator of CBS hits All in the Family and Maude.
In August, Dr. LaPook officially joined the payroll. Still a practicing physician and a member of the faculty at Columbia University Medical Center, he is now also the medical correspondent for Ms. Couric’s CBS Evening News. That evening-news job was previously held by Elizabeth Kaledin, a practicing journalist who has covered the medical beat for the network since 1996.
Ms. Kaledin was still under contract when Dr. LaPook replaced her, and the contract will not be renewed when it expires at the end of this year, according to three network sources. Between now and then, she will contribute to CBS News Sunday Morning.
Dr. LaPook declined an interview request because he was “seeing patients and crashing a story,” said a CBS News spokesperson. Ms. Kaledin declined to speak at length because of the sensitivity of her position at the network.
“The thing I’d feel most comfortable saying, which is the truth, is that I am heartbroken by the loss of my job and have spent 20 years working to get to this point, only to be replaced by someone with no journalistic experience only because he’s a doctor,” she said. “I have worked incredibly hard from the smallest markets in TV to get to this point. I have never pissed anybody off. My reporting career is unblemished. I’m well-liked. I work hard. I’ve been loyal to CBS.”
While Ms. Kaledin finds her place in an army of English majors looking for journalism jobs, Dr. LaPook joins an elite squad of doctor-reporter hybrids, including CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, the Fox News Channel’s Manny Alvarez, NBC News’ Nancy Snyderman, The Washington Post’s David Brown, The New York Times’ Lawrence K. Altman and The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande. They are a neurosurgeon, an OB-GYN, an otorhinolaryngologist, two specialists in internal medicine and a surgeon, respectively. All, except The Times’ Dr. Altman, continue to practice.
“I did practice, but it gets to the point where you can’t serve two masters at the same time,” said Dr. Altman.
Aside from the sheer endurance it takes to do both jobs, those two masters can make complicated demands. There is, after all, a reason that active members of the military don’t report for mainstream media outlets on the Pentagon. What happens, for example, if Dr. LaPook gets a great tip about malfeasance in the digestive- and liver-diseases department of Columbia Presbyterian?
“Might there be circumstances where maybe he is involved in a study or he has a particular patient that he wouldn’t feel comfortable about?” said Rome Hartman, the executive producer of the CBS Evening News. “That’s something he and I will discuss. We’ve already talked about it on theoretical terms. But I don’t expect it to come up much.”
And besides, it is not an arrangement without precedent. Journalists report on journalists, for example.
The specialized knowledge that Dr. LaPook brings to the post outweighs any possible conflicts of interest, Mr. Hartman said.
“I do think that if you have a doctor who’s seeing patients, and who is keeping up on the research and keeping up on the clinical trials as well as the cares and concerns and issues faced by patients, that’s a pretty appealing thing,” he said. “Especially if you’re trying to have your medical coverage be, one, up to date; two, authoritative; and three, relevant to your viewers.”
For these reasons, when Sean McManus took over as president of CBS News in October 2005, he made it clear that he wanted a practicing physician to report on medicine, in the model of CNN’s Dr. Gupta, who was tied up in a CNN contract and therefore unpoachable, CBS sources said. Dr. LaPook is close with Ms. Couric, whose husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer and who founded the Jay Monahan Cancer Center, which is affiliated with Dr. LaPook’s department at Columbia.
“His insights and his ability to clearly explain and inform will resonate very well with our viewers and will help us set the standard for reporting on this important subject,” Mr. McManus said in announcing his decision to hire Dr. LaPook.
“That’s not to say you can’t have a terrific medical reporter who’s not a doctor,” Mr. Hartman said. As for the journalist he is replacing, “I really don’t want to comment on that, other than to say that I’ve had nothing but really positive dealings with Elizabeth.”
“It doesn’t matter if they’re a physician as long as they’re a physician-journalist,” said Joanne Nicholas, the media-relations manager for a major New York hospital, who works frequently with medical reporters and was a source for Ms. Kaledin. “And it doesn’t matter if they’re not a physician, as long as they’re a journalist with a knowledge of medicine who knows what they’re doing.”
Asked about Ms. Kaledin’s fate at CBS, Ms. Nicholas said: “Do you have to be an ex-governor to write about politics now? Do you have to be a TV producer or someone who was laid off at CNN to write your articles? In some ways, does it undercut what a journalist does? What you need is a marriage of the two disciplines to do a good job.”
“You certainly don’t need to be a doctor to be a perfectly good medical reporter,” said The Post’s Dr. Brown—but it does help. “You constantly have to deal with the fact that you’re in a very uncertain business with lots and lots of variables. A lot of people who are outside of medicine don’t really appreciate that about medicine.”
Dr. Brown works one day a week at the University of Maryland college hospital, teaching third-year medical students what he called “non-coercive interview techniques”—ways of extracting information from their patients as a journalist would from a source.
“I think it is absolutely imperative that when you are doing your journalistic work and talking to patients, that you make it abundantly clear to them that you’re working as a journalist, and all of the anxiety and guardedness that should obtain when people are dealing with journalists needs to obtain when they’re dealing with me,” he said. “It’s very easy, I think, to slide into a trade on the incredible trust that patients put in physicians—even not their own physicians, just people who are part of the priesthood. They’re very trusting.”
Like Dr. LaPook, Dr. Snyderman and Fox’s “Dr. Manny,” Dr. Gawande’s other job prevented him from giving an interview. “[T]oday I’m a doctor,” he wrote in an e-mail, “and will not have enough time between operations.”
Dr. LaPook graduated in 1975 from Yale University, where he was a member of the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, an a cappella group that calls themselves “the S.O.B.’s.” Generally revered by his patients, and increasingly revered by his new colleagues at CBS, Dr. LaPook has a reputation for being gregarious, and has been making rounds in the CBS newsroom introducing himself, according to two network sources. Aside from a number of interviews with Ms. Couric on the Today show—and setting up that on-screen colonoscopy that contributed to Ms. Couric’s winning a 2001 Peabody—Dr. LaPook has no significant media experience. Since joining CBS, according to those sources, he has received extensive script-writing advice and teleprompter training.
“That happens with everybody,” said Mr. Hartman. Dr. LaPook has been paired “with experienced producers, who are trying to make sure his pieces are up to the standards we set for all our correspondents.”
Among Dr. LaPook’s contributions to the medical field is one of the first electronic medical textbooks, which he developed in the 1980’s, and a theory about how intestinal trauma could cause some people to develop a lot of intestinal gas. He and his wife, Kate Lear, have two children and live on Central Park West. They occasionally attend Ms. Couric’s philanthropic benefits, have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and support independent theater.
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