One reporter's story: an interview with Jean Heller

One reporter's story: an interview with Jean Heller

by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor | July 25, 2011
As reporter Jean Heller recalls, the initial information about the Tuskegee experiment was handed off to her by friend and fellow reporter Edie Lederer. Lederer was heading to Europe to cover a story and stopped off in Florida to meet up with Heller to deliver the information given to her by Peter Buxton, a venereal disease investigator working for the PHS.

Heller showed the letter Buxton received from his superiors to her boss on the flight home from Florida. "He was very excited about it. He said, 'they're basically admitting that they're doing it,'" she told DOTmed News.

With that, the young reporter, just a couple of years out of graduate school, dug into the story. The story wasn't that hard to break. "It fell into place fairly quickly, I think in part because no one involved felt they had anything to hide. The study was old enough that none of the current officials at CDC had anything to do with initiating it," she said.

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Heller uncovered what essentially proved to be a conspiracy by the U.S. government to keep the men infected. "A couple of the men who found out what they had went over to a clinic in Montgomery," she said. "They were asked to leave the clinic and the clinic was told to never treat anyone who didn't get government approval, which of course they never got."

As for the impact of the story, public outcry forced the cessation of the study. Before that happened, a riot by the employees at the Department of Health Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) broke out in front of the office of the Secretary. The doctor at Tuskegee Institute quit and Ted Kennedy announced a hearing which led to the rules we live under today for human and animal experimentation.

For Heller, a young woman who often said she would retire if she ever had a byline on the front page of The New York Times, the moment wasn't necessarily a high point. "When I was putting the story together, I really wanted to break the story and I didn't even consider what it would do to the victims," she said. "It never occurred to me and I was ashamed of that."

After the story was front page news, she returned to Tuskegee. She met with one of the victims and they sat down on a park bench to talk. He told her it used to be a friendly town that life had gone on the same way for so long. But now, the city was overrun with the press. People crossed the street to avoid shaking his hand. Friends and neighbors responded with adverse, cold or even amused attitudes . . . everything had changed.

"I remember breaking down in tears when I spoke with him," Heller said.

Even with the mixed emotions experienced during her big break, she did go on to enjoy a spectacular career that spanned decades, receiving numerous awards and being nominated for a Pulitzer on eight separate occasions. (Her Tuskegee story finished second to a story about Senator McGovern's running mate being treated with shock therapy.)

Heller is no longer a reporter, but instead is the co-owner of a marketing and public relations firm. But as someone who often said she would retire from journalism if she ever received a byline on the front page of The New York Times, she more than lived up to that promise.

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