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Henry Heimlich’s New Book Deserves Informed Reviews

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 5th, 2014 · On Second Thought
ost 2014-03-05

Every reporter has undertaken some assignment without a chance for adequate preparation. It comes with daily journalism.

If the gods are good, people we interview lead us through the topics with good will and honesty.

Sometimes, even that doesn’t work.

I was sent to Xavier University to interview Fritjof Capra, author of the then-hot book, Tao of Physics. Our primary resource in those pre-Google days — newspaper clippings — was no help. 

I didn’t know how to pronounce Tao. I was equally clueless of physics. I’d never heard of Capra or his book. 

Capra tried to help me understand what his book was about. I told him I didn’t get it and would ask my editors to scrap the idea of the interview. He took no offense. Editors agreed. 

Lucky readers.

Reporters tend to be generalists and move among various beats they learn on the job. That’s typical of many assignments in the news media.

My luck turned for the better when I started covering federal courts and prosecutors. As I told a federal judge on my first day, introducing myself, my previous experience was “native courts” in Central Africa. Fortunately, he took me seriously and became a marvelous teacher.

Lucky readers.

Near the end of my career, a UC classics scholar patiently explained what an epigram was when we talked about her new book. It was a great interview and given that some of the Greek epigrams were cleverly ribald, I had a good time writing about her and her latest work. 

Lucky readers.

So I have some sympathy for reporters who must interview a public figure or official about his or her new book. We rarely have the expertise to tease out exaggerations, misstatements and dubious, contested claims or unwarranted claims to virtue or achievement. 

Resulting Q&A interviews — often with soft questions and unchallenged answers — reflect a lack of reporter expertise or preparation. 

Science, medicine and the environment are subjects that commonly suffer. But in the absence of veteran beat reporters, researching the subject online can help if there is time.

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Autobiographies are always problematic because they’re written to shape a legacy, to refight old battles, to correct perceived injustices and to cudgel victims of dearly held grudges. 

These interviews are even messier when the author is famous and editors, ignorant of promotional book tours, think it’s a coup to get an interview.   

Unlucky readers.  

Increasingly, depleted newsrooms depend on publishers to fact-check the authors’ assertions. 

Unlucky reporters and readers. 

Some of those issues surround Cincinnati physician Henry Heimlich’s new autobiography, Heimlich’s Maneuvers. It’s his version of his life, even when it doesn’t comport with well-known controversies surrounding his claims to fame. 

He’s taken credit for developing the Heimlich Maneuver and a surgical procedure meant to improve a patient’s ability to eat. In both cases, credible challenges should find a place in otherwise stenographic interviews and reviews.  

Heimlich has two sons. Phil is local and highly protective of his father. Peter, who lives out of state, is an indefatigable critic of what he says are his father’s unjustified and sometimes dangerous medical claims and practices. Some of his language is stronger than that. 

Peter isn’t alone in this task. 

• Experts on resuscitation have long pooh-poohed the elder Heimlich’s claim that his maneuver should be first response when a victim is pulled from the water and is not breathing. 

• American Red Cross and American Heart Association no longer call that choking-relief maneuver the “Heimlich.” Rather, they again call it “abdominal thrusts.” 

• Then ARC and AHA quietly abandoned abdominal thrusts as the first response to choking; they’ve again recommend blows on the back.  

• Many critics dislike Heimlich’s use of induced malaria to cure AIDS in patients overseas. That “malariotherapy” is damned as unethical human experimentation and dubious science. 

As interviews and reviews of the autobiographical Heimlich’s Maneuvers accumulate, Peter’s scrapbook of corrections and clarifications is getting fatter. So is his collection of refusals to correct or clarify what he says were egregious errors or credulous repetition of his father’s contradictory statements. 

Among Peter Heimlich’s proudest achievement are corrections in influential national pre-publication reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review and Booklist. All three initially ignored Romanian* surgeon Dan Gavriliu and credited Heimlich alone with inventing the Heimlich-Gavriliu esophagus replacement procedure. 

Meanwhile, Peter Heimlich is chasing news media that repeated his father’s claim that editors of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) renamed abdominal thrusts the “Heimlich Maneuver” years ago.

There’s a related ethical issue that troubles me. With myriad resources available on the Internet, can any reporter credibly claim ignorance of controversies when facing a famous author?  

For instance, when you enter “Henry Heimlich” in Google, you get controversies as well as pages of sympathetic and frequently incurious mentions and anecdotes. But enter “Heimlich maneuver controversy” and you get stories that could alert any reporter that the book and man offer a richer story than the traditional hagiography.

So when reporters claim ignorance, are they inadvertently admitting they were willfully blind?

Skepticism should propel reporters and reviewers. It’s the foundation of what used to be called the “watchdog” function of American journalism. Henry Heimlich and his book deserve smart, informed interviews and reviews. He should be able to handle it. It’s his life. 

*corrected from previous version that read "Roman" instead of "Romanian."


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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